Originally I'd thought there would be a delay in posting this, but fortunately we just got a lot of rain. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens were struck by a tornado, though, so I hope that all readers in New York are safe and sound.
Now, on to the diary....
My first real crush was on Batman.
Not that I understood it was a crush, mind; I was only five when the glorious silliness that was the Adam West Batman series premiered and, pace Freud, sex was not exactly on my radar until considerably later. All I knew was that I loved the show, loved the characters, watched it twice a week, and started tying Mum's silk scarves to the necks of my stuffed toys so they, too, could be superheroes.
I even made my elegant, fussy aunt Betty get down on her hands and knees and play Batman to my Robin. She was a good sport about it, much to everyone's surprise but mine, and it wasn't until I was a teenager that she confessed to being somewhat annoyed because Adam West, unlike modern actors who play superheroes, didn't bother to lift weights to achieve the perfect superhero body and was thus a bit, um, "fluffy."
This was scarcely my only encounter with comic books or superheroes as a child; I also adored the short-lived Van Johnson/Bruce Lee Green Hornet series and admired superspy Emma Peel to the point that I'm still somewhat obsessed with black leather boots nearly fifty years later. Dad, ever helpful, attempted to encourage this by obtaining several issues of Green Lantern and possibly another superhero comic, but Mum preferred more uplifting, serious books so it only happened a couple of times.
By the time I hit my teens I'd started to read Betty's copies of The New Yorker, which meant I saw plenty of the single panel humor comics that have been The New Yorker's pride since the first issue proclaimed that it was not for the old lady from Dubuque. I also all but memorized James Thurber's oeuvre, including his comic panels, and I started following some of the newspaper strips like Prince Valiant.
That's not to say that lowerbrow cartoons weren't fun, though. I thoroughly enjoyed reruns of a Marvel superhero cartoon series that recycled original Jack Kirby art into some of the crudest animation imaginabile in an attempt to retell the origin stories for the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Iron Man on a budget of approximately $.03 per episode. That these episodes were actually watchable, let alone a lot of fun, is almost certainly because of Stan Lee's writing, not animation that showed characters leaving a room by sliding a drawing to one side out of the frame.
I didn't really get hooked on comics until college, though. A friend who helped me found my campus science fiction club was a comic book collector, and she was more than happy to share her issues of X-Men, Iron Fist, The Avengers, and pretty much everything else that Marvel Comics produced. I don't recall her owning any titles put out by the other big superhero house, DC, possibly because the late 70s/early 80s was sort of a dry spell for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, et al. Even better, my friend was a fanatic for Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels and comic strips, which centered on a female spy/rogue/adventurer who could and did make most of the boys look like idiots.
I soaked it all up like a sponge, and by the time I was out of college I was regularly reading several Marvel titles, a couple of DC books (most notably Wonder Woman), and had cautiously begun reading Wendy and Richard Pini's non-superhero book Elfquest. I'd even read a couple of issues of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers though I'd never taken drugs and missed most of the jokes.
Between this, my obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, and a couple of incredibly bad Star Trek fanfictions I wrote in what I laughingly called my spare time, it's a wonder I graduated from college at all.
My enthusiasm for comic books has waxed and waned over the years, usually because of financial issues; I don't have the funds to shell out $4 a month per title, especially since a lot of the issues are later collected into graphic novels or digests that are on better paper and more durable. The last time I actually bought a monthly book was probably Neil Gaiman's amazing run on Sandman, which is every bit as good as one might expect. I do read webcomics like Questionable Content, Girl Genius, Hannibal Tesla Adventures, and a few others, and of course I know about classic strips and graphic novels ranging from Dykes to Watch Out For to Maus to Watchmen. And I am determined to assemble a complete run of Modesty Blaise strips before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
Of course most comics are mediocre at best; there are almost too many heroes, with too many specialized powers and abilities. Periodically both Marvel and DC have to clean house by rebooting their universes, killing off/retiring a lot of the lesser characters, and retelling the origin stories of the the icons. One writer said that the conceit at Marvel is that the origin stories for the major characters are assumed to have taken place 10-15 years ago regardless of the calendar year. Only a handful of characters have actually had real-world time pass (most notably Captain America and his old sidekick Bucky/Winter Soldier, and that solely because it's all but impossible to retcon Cap to exclude the years he spent as a soldier in World War II).
There's also the question of crossovers. It would seem logical that, say, filthy rich playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne of Gotham City would have a more than casual acquaintance with filthy rich playboy philanthropist Tony Stark of New York, but because Batman and Iron Man belong to two different comics companies, the two have never actually met (and likely never will, at least outside of fan fiction). There have been a handful of official crossovers (Spider-Man meeting Superman) and quite a few unofficial ones (see below), but it's doubtful that anyone will greenlight an epic along the lines of Superman and Captain America Go Out For Burgers...and before anyone thinks this is too silly for words, there was a long running series of Halloween parodies about a costume parade in Rutland, Vermont, where certain Marvel and DC superheroes appeared dressed as each other in each other's titles.
And then there are the crossovers that are So Bad They're Good.
Tonight I bring you two books. One is a anti-comic book screed that, despite burying its good points in a heap of unsourced hyperbole, irrevocably changed the face of American comics industry. The other, a novel starring one of the most popular superhero teams, was startlingly close to some of the loonier prompts in a fanfiction holiday exchange:
The Seduction of the Innocent, by Frederick Wertham - back in the late 1940s/early 1950s, comic books were very different from what we see today. Just like the rapidly fading pulp magazines, comics ranged from Disney tie-ins like Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck to romance titles to true crime to horror to Westerns to science fiction to superheroes. Many were aimed squarely at children and teenagers, but others were bought and read by the working class men and women who'd devoured the pulps twenty years earlier, and dime novels a generation before that, and penny dreadfuls in the 19th century, and broadsides/murder ballads in the young Republic. The plots were simple, the art was often crude and lurid to the point of giving offense, and entertainment staples like sex, violence, violent sex, sexy violence, murder, and assorted mayhem were every bit as prevalent as they would later be in television shows, movies, video games, and popular music.
Needless to say, this did not go unnoticed. In particular, a man named Frederick Wertham read the comic books, noticed how many of them were bought and read by children and teenagers, and decided that something had to be done.
Wertham, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, was a Freudian psychiatrist who devoted his life to combating violence and racism. His work on the deleterious effects of segregation was used as evidence in Brown v. Board of Education, and his 1960s book A Sign for Cain was one of the first to expose the involvement of medical professionals in the hideous "experiments" in the Nazi death camps during World War II.
Unfortunately for comic books, Wertham was just as merciless when it came to the violence and unwholesome elements in this seemingly innocuous art form. Backed by his own clinical studies of disturbed children who seemingly were using violent comic books as a guide to proper behavior, Wertham declared that comic books were guilty of the following sins that were polluting the minds and hearts of American youth:
- Extreme violence, much of it racist. In particular Wertham noticed a trend toward stabbing hapless victims in the eye with a sharp object such as a needle, to the point that the reader might wonder just how and why Wertham was noticing this particular plot point in the midst of plenty of other fictional mayhem.
- Female violence perpetrated by the likes of Wonder Woman, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and the Phantom Lady that went against the natural role of woman as soft, nurturing, and gentle.
- Homosexuality presented as normal, most notably in the relationship of Robin, a teenage boy, living happily with the much older Batman, and Wonder Woman being such good pals with the girls of Holliday College. Wertham seemed especially disturbed by a breakfast scene in one comic that lacks the "domesticity" of a mother cooking breakfast for a husband and kiddies even though it takes place in someone's apartment and includes homely details like a checkered tablecloth and dishes in the sink.
- Subliminal drawings of genitalia, such a man's shoulder reproduced in such extreme closeup that the cross hatching defining one muscle group resembles a woman's crotch.
- Advertisements for bust developing creams designed to produce what he termed "the super-breast" (even though similar ads appeared in Seventeen).
- Advertisements for self-defense systems that showed the vulnerable parts of the human body ("how to hurt people"), air rifles, and other weapons
but no sea monkeys damn it sea monkeys are COOL even though they're only brine shrimp.
- Comics where women killed their husbands, which is horrible and unnatural even if the husband turns out to be a different species (which is what happens in the example he cites).
Add in that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency, Superman as the exemplar of the Nazi superman even though his creators were both Jewish, the unnatural fierceness and strength of so many women, comic books contributing to schizophrenia and illiteracy, and the comic book industry leaning on store owners to stock the ultra-violent horror and crime comics if they wished to sell juvenile titles, superhero books, or romance comics, and it's little wonder that Seduction of the Innocent led to Wertham being called as an expert witness by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
Wertham took full advantage of his moment in the spotlight to call for national legislation prohibiting the sale and marketing of comics to children under the age of fifteen. Horror comic publisher William Gaines was the next witness, and though he defended his books well enough that the committee recommended only voluntary restrictions on comics, the damage had been done. Gaines' company EC scrapped its horror and war lines, gangster comics disappeared, and no comic could be published without the seal of the newly formed Comics Code Authority certifying that the contents were free of anything approaching realistic violence, that criminals and villains would always be punished, and that horror staples like zombies would never, ever appear.
If this sounds very much like the fuss over 2 Live Crew and gangster rap a few years ago…or the outcry over shooter games like Grand Theft Auto…or the Hays Office censoring movies back in the Depression…or the call for an end to dime novels at the turn of the last century…give yourself a pat on the back and a copy of Action Comics #1! Virtually every type of comic except for funny animal books, sanitized teen titles like Archie, and squeaky clean to the point of insanity superhero monthlies. It was a good ten years before Marvel actually dared to give superheroes personalities that went beyond brave and bold and pure, and another ten before mainstream publishers printed anything without that all important seal.
Wertham had won, or so it seemed…except that, just as the outcry against rap lyrics didn't stop the music's popularity…or the Hays Office only made movies look ridiculous by fining MGM for "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" in Gone With The Wind…or any of the other crusades against vulgar popular entertainment failed to make more than a momentary impact…juvenile delinquency didn't end after the institution of the Comics Code. Some of the worst violence ended, but it's all but certain that this is more due to improved living standards, slum control, child psychiatry clinics, and social safety net programs that foreshadowed the Great Society than the censoring of comic books.
It's even questionable whether comic books were to blame at all; Wertham gave copious examples of children ascribing their bad behavior to what they read, but there are no sources, no bibliography, and not one single citation in the entire book for any quotation, assertion, or anecdote. Not only that, Wertham quotes his young subjects as saying things like "I want to be a sex maniac!" even though it's doubtful that the child in question knew what a sex maniac was - if he even used those exact words, which of course we don't.
Ironically enough, Wertham was so convinced that comic books were worthless that he made the following statement:
I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult or adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping of these 'books' for any sentimental or other reason.One wonders what he would have made of Maus winning a Pulitzer Prize, Wonder Woman becoming a feminist icon, Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) selling for over $2 million recently, or the box office success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises….
Planet X, by Michael Jan Friedman - one of the great traditions of fanfiction is the holiday exchange. These festive little events are intended to brighten the holidays of fan writers and artists by giving them stories, art, videos, or other gifts about their favorites characters n accordance with their expressed wishes. Prompts can range from the simple ("Harry and Ginny's first Christmas after the defeat of Lord Voldemort") to the complex ("Napoleon Solo joins the Impossible Missions Force, bonus if there's a cameo by James Bond") to the ridiculous ("Mr. Fantastic attends Burning Man and becomes famous as a conceptual artist"), but the point isn't necessarily plausibility. It's making someone's Festivus happy and bright, and if the results are sometimes silly or awkward or just plain dumb, well, it's Festivus so this can be added to the list of grievances to be aired 'round the aluminum pole.
One of the more popular prompts is the crossover, where two (or more) separate original properties are combined in allegedly plausible ways. Sometimes this works very well (James Bond meets Modesty Blaise, the Avengers team up with the Justice League, Doctor Who encounters the USS Enterprise), while other times one wonders just what the requester had smoked/snorted/drunk/eaten (Guy Noir investigates dark and dirty deals at the Ministry of Magic under the tutelage of the Equalizer, Captain America has an affair with John Carter of Mars and ends up a pole dancer on Babylon 5, Alvin and the Chipmunks bedevil Sherlock Holmes). I've sometimes wondered if prompters deliberately ask for the most implausible thing they can think of simply to see if anyone is crazy enough to try it.
Even professionals get into the act. There have been several "Sherlock Holmes meets Dracula" novels over the years, some actually readable, while clever writers sometimes have slipped cameos by recognizable but unnamed characters from other books into their works. Rival comic companies Marvel and DC have been doing this for several decades, which is why a reporter who looks suspiciously like Clark Kent has witnessed a lot of Spider-Man and Avengers-induced mayhem over the years, or why the Teen Titans destroyed a country mansion that looked an awful lot like Professional Xavier's school for mutants about a decade ago. There was even a joint DC/Marvel comics line called "Amalgam" that started from the premise that DC and Marvel had always been one company and combined their best known characters and storylines to create a single unified timeline and universe. Some of these combined characters actually made sense (Super-Soldier, who was a mashup of Superman and Captain America) while others were more questionable (Dark Claw, aka Wolverine and Batman), but the result was never less than interesting, and occasionally was quite good.
The same cannot be said for Planet X. A product of the Pocket Books line of Star Trek novels, it attempts to cash in on the popularity of one of the most popular superhero teams by having Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the starship Enterprise meet…
…please tell me you're sitting down…
…no really, I mean it…
That's right. Somehow, some way, someone at Paramount got permission from someone at Marvel to let Storm, Cyclops, Professor X, Wolverine, and all the rest visit the United Federation of Planets' finest military/exploratory vessel in response to an outbreak of superhero-style mutants cropping up on the planet Xhaldia in the 23rd century. How this came about, what sort of cash payments/bribery/favors were involved to make it so, and why anyone thought this would be a good idea is unknown, but evidently an X-Men/TNG crossover comic had sold well enough that the two companies decided to go for broke and actually turn this high concept absurdity into an actual, genuine novel.
And what a novel it is! The inherent incompatibility of the two franchises is neatly glossed over by having the X-Men be in a good universe next door to the TNG universe, so having people show up who blatantly violate the laws of physics because of genetic mutation is just fine and dandy. Even better, an entire planet in the TNG universe is suddenly producing people who are super-powered mutants, and when they're quarantined and interned and shoved into concentration camps
the Nazi metaphors, they burn us, precious!, well, isn't it great that the X-Men are there to help out?
Help out they do, as merry mutants Wolverine, Archangel, Storm, Professor Xavier, etc., prove instrumental to Captain Picard investigating the appearance on Xhaldia
the cheesy name, it burns us, precious! of the mutants. Unlike Earth, though, these mutants are genetic constructions produced by yet another race as living weapons who have come to collect their property. Along the way Storm and Picard flirt with each other, a couple of characters point out that Xavier and Picard could have been separated at birth (a whole two years before the first X-Men movie came out, so take that, unbelievers!), and Worf ends up on a strike team with Banshee and Archangel (not Wolverine THANK GOD).
As absurd as this is, the last pages of the book reach some sort of pinnacle of crossover insanity when it's revealed that Picard's nemesis Q and Marvel super-voyeur the Watcher had manipulated their respective universes to cause the whole mess in the first place.
It's the sort of resolution that would warm the cockles of any fic writer's heart.
And so, good people - what books about comic books have driven you to sob over your plastic-encased TMNT #1? Have you read a crossover that had you ready to take a swan dive off the Baxter Building? Did your parents confiscate your comics on the grounds that they were trash? Tonight's diary is a comic-friendly zone, so come share!
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (hiatus)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (third each month, beginning 9/20)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||4:00 PM||Daily Kos Political Book Club||Freshly Squeezed Cynic|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|