History of Artist Expression in Comic Books
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Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018
Comic books, like many art forms, have been co-opted by a hungry consumer capitalist economy which makes a Faustian bargain with its artistic meals: give me your subversive art forms and ideas, this economy says, and I will communicate them to a mass audience beyond your wildest dreams; however, in exchange, your art forms and ideas will often simultaneously be stripped of their dignity and uniqueness by becoming products of no less ubiquity and no more value than toothpaste – mere tools to sell, sell, sell, and make more, more, more money for gigantic multinational corporations. This phenomenology is the ultimate in postmodern recontextualization, the stripping of an object’s original meaning and significance, and its endowment with a new purpose either heretofore considered or deemed ethically, morally, or artistically acceptable.
We shall explore the unique nature and popularity of comic books, and the themes presented in their narratives and characters, as a quasi-underground phenomenon whose ever-increasing popularity from the 1940s to the 1980s left them perfectly positioned to be gobbled and turned into movies and merchandise by giant corporations eager to both exploit the devotees of comic books and expand their numbers.
What has been the big deal, historically, about comic books? Though they are primarily a postmodern phenomenon localized in the latter half of the 20th century through to the present, their roots go as far back as the 17th century, when the English mass-produced woodcuts depicting ghastly public executions. Comics first reached mass popularity in the United States in the 1930s in the form of newspaper comics; then, the comic book as a separate, thriving, and sophisticated art form began to evolve from there. “…The comic book has been one of our most familiar, yet least appreciated, popular art forms. As vehemently criticized as it is passionately defended… [it is] a graphically sophisticated and culturally revealing medium.” (Sabin, 1996, p.1).
After roughly a decade of occupying a comfortable place in the American pop culture mainstream, comics, and then comic books, began to take to reflect a less sanguine view of American society. Violent crime comics began to appear, and the more squeaky-clean comics of the 1930s and during World War II absorbed some of these same themes. In the so-called Silver Age of Comic Books, the 1950s through the 1970s, most characters and narratives began to take on a darker and more complex tone, mostly in response to plummeting sales after World War II that reflected an unsettled cultural undercurrent brewing in America.
In this initial countercultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, comic books were sometimes dismissed, much like rock-and-roll music, as the juvenile, unsophisticated, and pulpy fantasies of hormone-addled adolescents. Sometimes, however, comic books were labeled as cultural filth that was an ongoing threat, destructive to teenage minds. In 1954, right-wing American psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which was an all-out assault on the ostensible delinquency-inducing content of comic books, and which singled out Batman for special criticism, claiming “a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism.” (Wertham, 1954, p. 189). Wertham’s criticism of comic book content led to the establishment of a censor organization known as the Comic Code Authority that same year, whose heavy-handed influence forced comic book writers and artists to go somewhat underground with their subversive themes.
However, Batman (and Robin, whatever his relationship with Batman may or may not have been) has far outlived both Dr. Wertham and the chilling effect of his book, and in fact, the longevity and deceptively complex content of comic books have proven them to be much more powerful than anyone ever dreamed. They have for decades embodied striking artistic expressions of artists and authors, who collectively spoke for countless millions of young people who did not quite fit in to the mainstream of society.
These millions were given voice by comic books such as The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, from the Marvel Comics Company, and Batman and Superman from the DC Comics Company. Each of the aforementioned titles tells an extended set of stories about a character or characters who are misfits of some kind, whether it be physical, psychological, or emotional, and who take on a variety of preternatural and/or superhuman characteristics which allow them to not only address their own personal struggles with their differences from others in society, but to aid society itself in coming to better accept those who are different; or, alternately, the characters are either born with or afflicted by a condition which makes them a misfit and therefore different from others in society, and must adapt to life as such.
These comic book stories generally involve a variety of morality plays, ranging from simple good vs. evil, to the exploration of antiheros, that enable the characters to attempt to effect positive change in the world, and provide both catharsis and inspiration for the readers.
The X-Men, for example, were created by legendary comic book author Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1963. They were /are a group of teenagers born with genetic mutations that have endowed them with a variety of superhuman characteristics, not all of which are necessarily constructive. In the Lee/Kirby universe, the X-Men are widely ostracized and discriminated against not only because they are different, but because non-mutant humans fear the X-Men are the next logical, superior step in human evolution and therefore could render ‘normal’ humans obsolete.
The teenagers’ stories often involved them attempting to come to terms with their powers and how to fit into the so-called normal human society. The X-Men were comprised of such characters as Iceman, a young man who could freeze objects at will; Wolverine, a foul-tempered young man whose skeleton is laced with a nearly indestructible metal alloy, including metal knives which he could extend and retract from his hands at will, albeit with considerable pain; Storm, a young black female who could control the weather, including the ability to summon storms at will; Nightcrawler, a young male born with blue fur who could become virtually invisible at night and teleport short distances; Cyclops, who could shoot beams of pure solar energy from his eyes, but not always control this power; Rogue, a young female possessing the hyper-empathic ability the feelings, memories, and abilities of other beings she touches —unfortunately, however, prolonged contact with others can weaken or kill them; Magneto, an older male survivor of the Nazi death camps who can manipulate magnetic forces, but whose psyche was so twisted by his experience at the hands of the Nazis that he has become an arch-nemesis of the X-Men; and Professor Xavier, an older male paraplegic with amazing telepathic abilities and a world-class intellect, who has dedicated his life to mentoring other mutants and defending them from themselves, unsympathetic humans, and the perennial machinations of Magneto.
The X-Men and their stories were unabashedly allegorical and subversive in nature, content, and theme. Professor Xavier was modeled after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sir Francis Xavier, Catholic missionary and founder of the Jesuit order. The sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by Rogue was a reflection of the near-universal teenage experience. The bigotry and intolerance of homosexuals is another allegorical component featured with the X-Men narratives, particularly in the film adaptations directed by openly gay Bryan Singer. In X-Men 2, the character of Bobby Drake characters ‘comes out’ of the closet as a mutant to his parents, prompting them to ask if he has tried not being a mutant, parodying the oft-heard question of parents directed their gay children.
Anti-Semitism, personal alienation, anti-Communist paranoia, and racism are also allegorical themes that X-Men comic narratives have explored in detail. And like The X-Men, Batman, Spiderman (also a Stan Lee creation), The Incredible Hulk and Superman all were dependent upon and explored the themes of what it meant for a person to be forced to hide or to be ashamed of a component of his or her true self, or to lead a dual existence – one private and personal, one public. Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), known by millions as a mild-mannered reporter, socially maladroit nerd, and bearer of an unrequited love for Lois Lane, who happens to be a near-omnipotent superhero when called upon in extraordinary circumstances, is the perfect embodiment of both teenage reality and teenage wish fulfillment. The Incredible Hulk (another Stan Lee creation) gets angry like all of us, but has real power – scary power, often – to do something about it thanks to his green steroidal transformation.
Batman (created by Bob Kane and fleshed out by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson) lives a quiet, dark life of solitude contrasted with public works of enviable nobility and good. These feelings of powerlessness and awkwardness, combined with empowerment fantasies, were and continue to be direct reflections of the collective concerns of millions of young people, and perhaps many adults, as well – how to fit into a society that demanded conformity without losing the uniqueness that embodies one’s individuality.
Ironically, the collective popularity of all of these comic book titles has historically been so striking in terms of sales that it would not be an unfair question to wonder if it fact the teenage misfits who bought them were in fact the majority, not the minority in society. Comic book sales peaked in 1993 at a staggering $850 million (U.S. dollars) and are still very healthy, though currently, the popularity of comic book characters is as likely to be manifest in movie ticket and DVD sales of film adaptations of comic books as it is in comic book purchases. More on this later.
The character archetypes and narrative themes of most of these original and ongoing comic book series were produced in the crucible of the fairly conformist sociocultural pressures of the modernist era in the United States. The teenagers of each successive decade, beginning with the 1950s and continuing to the present, have been characterized by isolation, disaffection, rebellion, disillusionment, all combined with the pressure to adapt without question to the relatively monolithic mores of the generation which preceded them, a generation for whom belonging to a larger social group, for whom the values of unquestioning self-sacrifice and acceptance of authority figures and establishment power structures were the norm.
Men were called to duty, whether in World War II or in the burgeoning post-war corporate universe; many made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives, or worse, their souls. Women, too, had their duty – to support their men in discreet, subservient lives of quiet domestic efficiency. But as American young people began to question the assumptions behind the Cold War, and question the rational and wisdom behind the interminably bloody Vietnam War, their uncertainty on these issues led to a greater wholesale questioning of the mechanisms and assumptions of society’s very foundations. (Even Batman, whose creation in 1940 arguably predates postmodernism, eventually took on countercultural subject matter and themes, to say nothing of the suggestion of a taboo homoeroticism in the relationship between Batman and Robin.)
This rebellion was met with heavy disapproval and disappointment by parents, representing the previous generation. The ongoing schism between these two generations has caused huge cultural, social, and political conflicts that continue to be played out even in 2005. These conflicts have been vividly reflected in the artistic expressions of the times – literature, music, and films.
From the standpoint of the older generations, comic books were perhaps never adequately understood, respected, or even recognized for the potent and unusual artistic and cultural forces that they have always represented — certainly as potent as more conventional and commonplace means of artistic expression, high art and classical music, just to name two ossified examples. (And, incidentally, these generational clashes were not limited to the United States in terms of understanding the rise of the superhero comic books. The country of Japan, tiny as it is, has become its own powerhouse in terms of churning out groundbreaking styles of comics, such as Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, reflecting generational struggles unique to the Japanese youth culture.)
The artistic expressions that arose out of the clash between generations also represented an evolution in classifications and mechanisms of art itself – the evolution from modern art forms to postmodern art forms. Modern art, reflective of the cultures from which it sprung, was generally conformist, and adhered to classic rules of form, function, and design, and either explicitly or implicitly supported the symbols of establishment paradigms by exploiting binary oppositions of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ (i.e., Americans vs. Communists). Postmodern art rejected the methodology of modern art on every level, deconstructing it to such an extent as to even question the basic psychological definitions of symbolism in human art forms.
The discarding and combination of genres and forms, the pastiche of styles, the toying with unorthodox symbolism, and an active interest in subversion and smashing of establishment systems – rebellion itself — are all manifestations of art evolving to postmodern form. And instead of existing to analyze, but ultimately reinforce the paradigms of patriarchal establishments, postmodern art analyzed and often sought to undermine these establishments and their conventions, if not destroy them altogether. As noted by postmodernism scholar Andreas Huyssen, “…contemporary postmodernism operates in a field of tension between tradition and innovation, conservation and renewal, mass culture and high art, in which the second terms are no longer automatically privileged over the first.” (Huyssen, 1986, p. 267).
As such, any art form that has enjoyed longevity has internalized and incorporated this revolutionary and evolutionary process, or been discarded or fossilized. Comic books are no exception to this rule, and their staying power has manifested itself in the last 20 or so years by their translation to and eventual dominance of the genre of film. In fact, comic books in their Silver Age forms were arguably inherently post-modern in nature, as they combined complex and detailed visual artistry with complex and serialized narratives, an intermixing pastiche of separate genres which had never before been combined in such a unique form.
Books had, of course, often featured illustrations in the past, but they were only to provide occasional support and dimensionalization of the narrative, as opposed to being as important a component of the medium as the narrative itself. The fantastical and stylized nature of many of the illustrations featured in comic books were often postmodern artistic explorations in their own right, seeking to push the boundaries of conventional illustrations. Their explorations of anti-heroes helped deconstruct the notion of simple constructs of good and evil.
American consumer capitalism, which is inherently (though not necessarily benignly) postmodern in its relentless desire to commodify anything and everything, particularly that which can be packaged as new, hip, and edgy – and thus desirable – has hungrily devoured comic books and the films which come from them. In doing so, the artistic and societal merit of comic books, in particular their subversive characteristics, have become themselves subverted by the deity of consumer capitalist commodification.
The ultimate dream, for example, of fans of the X-Men comic books, that their beloved misfit characters would reach movie theatres and therefore a larger audience for their collective angst, has come true — but that dream has also become a nightmare for some fans, as these same subversive misfit X-Men have also become action figures, clothing lines, cartoons on the side of fast food lunch bags and boxes — all mass marketed to mass audiences in order to maximize profits for corporations that are more interested in shareholder earnings than they are the artistic merit of airing the collective voices of disaffected teen angst.
If the phenomenology of disaffected teen angst can be appropriated to make a profit from teenagers, then corporations will be chasing the teens and their money incessantly. However, corporate interest in teenagers as a demographic generally has little to do with sociocultural altruism. In fact, cultural observers should take heed – “ventilation of genuinely alternative social visions collide directly with the underpinnings of power in the economy at large.” (Schiller, 1986, p. 152) The trade-off is as follows: as long as such ventilation of alternative social visions makes a profit, it will be tolerated. But in the consumer capitalist corporate universe of today, art for art’s sake, particularly if the art does not reinforce the machinery of consumer capitalism, will never generate much more than limited enthusiasm, and is more likely to meet with insidious hostility.
The primary perpetrators in this arena are the behemoth corporate conglomerates that own the media, and the acquisitive way in which they manage their film and television divisions. In the 1960s and 1970s, film studios and television networks existed as independent business entities whose sole focus was the creation of films and television shows – nothing more, nothing less. While these companies were undisputedly interested in profits, the process was far more artist-centered and quality-driven than they are today.
The presumption was that quality films would result in box-office successes, though the expectations of profit were relatively modest compared to today’s standards. Then, in 1977, a watershed moment in film history arrived in the form of the blockbuster Star Wars, a comic-bookish story in its own right despite being an original creation of writer/director George Lucas. The film was not only the most financially successful phenomenon in movie history, but it alerted movie studios to a whole new economic model, centered around the notion of ancillary profits. Most notably in the case of Star Wars, the ancillary profits came in the form of merchandising.
Inexplicably, before the film’s release, executives at 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, were convinced the film would be a flop, and in contract negotiations with Lucas, acceded to his unusual request to receive 100% of profits derived from sales of merchandise inspired and/or derived from the film, for example action figures and lunchboxes. The Fox executives surely rued the day they signed over these rights to Mr. Lucas, as Star Wars merchandise generated $1 billion in profits for the shrewd filmmaker.
Another lesson learned by Fox, and other studios hungry to recreate the fiscal orgy of Star Wars, was that films targeted directly at children could be extremely lucrative at the box office, beyond profit margins to which they had become accustomed. Movies were no longer mostly the artistic or escapist purview of an audience comprised largely of adults. Their children came to be seen as a previously under-exploited source of bonanza profits.
Lastly, movie studios began to rethink their conventional economic model, which was to produce modestly-budgeted films and reliably make modest profits. What Star Wars ignited was a phenomenon known as the ‘blockbuster mentality,’ a hunger for epic profits from so-called event films, on which the studios became willing to gamble heretofore-unprecedented sums of money in hopes of hitting the proverbial jackpot. George Lucas, who began his career as a subversive filmmaker of eccentric tastes with critically acclaimed films such as THX-1138 and American Graffiti, unwittingly created a perfect storm that turned the film industry on its head.
Star Wars was no fluke, as it turned out, and it was not long before the greedy capitalistic corporate culture of the 1980s began entertaining, no pun intended, the notion that film studio and television networks could be glamorous cash cows. In short order, huge companies whose core business usually had nothing to do with the entertainment industry were battling it out to see who could get into show business the fastest. Coca-Cola acquired movie studio Columbia/Tri-Star, which was later sold to Japanese electronics giant Sony; General Electric acquired the NBC television network; Capital Cities acquired the ABC Television network, and News Corporation acquired 20th Century Fox and the Fox Broadcasting Company; Gulf + Western acquired Paramount Pictures, etc.
The unfortunate side effect of these mergers was the infusion of bottom-line, short-term profit-hungry thinking, as well as corporate models of branding and marketing products. These large corporations viewed films and television shows, and the intellectual properties that underlied them, as products, pure and simple, no different from mouthwash, shoes, soda drinks, or cosmetics. They expected their new acquisitions to transition from being art-focused and letting profits flow from quality, to simply making whatever sold the most tickets and had the most lucrative ancillary market potential.
There was no single identifiable point, such a historical date or a press conference, when the critical link between art and commerce was separated, or the historical deference of profit to art was inverted (themselves postmodern phenomena, incidentally), but the entrée of comic books into the world of film and television, which has become a powerful, dominating presence of comic books in film and television, followed and was directly related to this paradigm shift in the economics of the entertainment industry.
The adaptation of comic books into film and television properties has been an exercise in creative cannibalism in some sense. Increasingly, film and television studios have taken on the risk-averse mentality of their corporate masters, and one of the effects of this has been to seek out intellectual property that might guarantee the fiscal success of a film or television show adaptation of said property. To the extent that a wildly successful book was often adapted for films geared towards adults, wildly successful comic book series were seen as a surefire way to guarantee a teen audience and the disposable income purchasing power of them and their parents.
Movie executives sought to acquire the rights to comic book characters and stories which they could ‘exploit’ – actual film industry terminology – and build into ‘franchises’ – also actual film industry terminology, particularly creepy given the obvious parallels to McDonald’s or Gap store franchise business models. For the most part, these franchises have been wildly successful from a financial point of view, though perhaps not from an artistic standpoint.
There have been six Batman films made by Warner Brothers movie studio (owned by corporate behemoth AOL Time Warner, who not coincidentally own DC Comics, the original home of the Batman characters and comic books): 1989’s Batman, 1992’s Batman Returns, 1995’s Batman Forever, 1997’s Batman and Robin, 2004’s Catwoman, and 2005’s Batman Begins. Each film sported star casting of the highest caliber; however, perhaps with the exception of the first film, were special effects showcases first and artistically ambitious second, if at all. Nor were they particularly true to the time-honored complexities and lingering darkness of the comic books. Iconic film critic Roger Ebert (a devoted fan of the Batman comic books), in his review of Batman and Robin, took a forlorn swipe at each of the films to date:
… my delight began to fade at about the 30-minute mark when it became clear that this new movie, like its predecessors, was not *really* going to explore the bizarre world of its heroes, but would settle down safely into a special effects extravaganza. “Batman & Robin,” like the first three films in the series, is wonderful to look at, and has nothing authentic at its core… Watching it, I realized why it makes absolutely no difference who plays Batman: There’s nobody at home… Give the foreground to the characters, not the special effects. And ask the hard questions about Bruce Wayne. (Ebert, 1997)
Ebert’s last line refers to the perennial rumors that perennial bachelor Bruce Wayne might actually be a homosexual, or failing that, possess some unusual sexual fetishes that might not comprise the sort of fare that young children should be seeing at the movie theatre or on DVD.
But this topic, as well as any serious exploration of Bruce Wayne’s psyche, was not been considered particularly lucrative by the marketing machines at Warner Brothers until the franchise was on the verge of death after the box office mediocrity of Batman and Robin and the outright box office disaster of Catwoman, which cost $85 million (U.S.) to produce and only made $40 million (U.S.) at the box office. 2005’s Batman Begins was an unapologetically dark and complex film. Roger Ebert’s review may well have spoken for many Batman fans who ached for more substance and less pure style:
The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets. As Alfred muses: “Strange injuries and a nonexistent social life. These things beg the question, what does Bruce Wayne do with his time?” (Ebert, 2005)
Apparently, the moviegoing audiences agreed with Mr. Ebert, rewarding Warner Brothers with $205 million (U.S.) in box office receipts in the United States alone, and a similar – and still increasing – tally worldwide. The lesson here is that while an artistically unambitious and shallow film like Batman and Robin, which is more childish cartoon and marketing machine than serious filmmaking, can certainly turn a modest profit, it is entirely possible to be artistically ambitious and make plenty of money at the same time. One wonders why the latter is more often the exception rather than the rule, to the detriment of the integrity of comic books and their rich characters.
In theory, the adaptation of comic books to the film and television arenas could have been a boon to not only the comic book industry, but a force for cultural good in the sense of spreading the subversive word to a larger audience. While there is no question that American and Western teenagers are far more aware of Batman and The X-Men than they were 30 years ago, the expansion of the audience has come at a price.
First of all, the structures of film and television do not generally lend themselves well to the sort of narrative complexity that is a hallmark of comic books’ ongoing multi-character storylines. While the two X-Men films to date were generally well-received by fans of the comic books, many fans vociferously complained that many characters were either simply not included in the storylines, or they were altered to suit Hollywood norms in order to maximize audience appeal. While a third X-Men film is in the works, the simple truth is that 20th Century Fox, the movie studio that produced the films, simply cannot make any more than one X-Men film every two to three years and the complicated narrative history of over a dozen characters unspoiled over the course of 40 years of storytelling simply cannot be done adequate justice by a two-hour movies – as good as they may be – which get released only periodically. Secondly, for many young people, seeing an X-Men or Batman film may be their very first exposure to these universes, and depending on their reaction to the quality of the films and their natural consumer predilections, it is not certain that these teenagers are going to seek out the more dimensionalized, rich, and complex narrative universes to be found within the comic book series.
In fact, given the immense popularity of video games among teenagers, who as a general rule spend as much, if not more time transfixed by their Playstations and Xboxes than they do reading, it is more likely that teenagers who see X-Men films will buy the video game adaptations of the X-Men comic books instead of investing in the comic books themselves. The statistics bear this out: in 2004, sales of comic books in the U.S. totaled $300 million – a considerable sum of money, but a far cry from the $850 million sum reached ten years earlier.
Comic book money had, for better or for worse, flowed away from the comic books themselves and into the reinventions of the comic books – the movies, the video games. It is unfair, perhaps, to dismiss video games as worthless, but also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the X-Men video game, which is simply a violent combat simulation featuring the various mutant characters, carries more artistic and social worth than the comic books to which the video game owes its digital existence.
Lastly, the value of ancillary X-Men merchandise, such as T-shirts, lunchboxes, and plastic soda cups from Burger King adorned with X-Men characters, is fleeting and thus fairly dubious in comparison to the lasting collectors’ item value of the comic books themselves, to say nothing of the inherent worth of the content of the books, and the visual and narrative artistry contained within them.
Ultimately, and sadly, the postmodern machinery of consumer capitalism has appropriated comic book visuals and narratives and separated them from their inherent artistic value in order to make them both more appealing to a mainstream audience, usually children and younger teens, and more exploitable in terms of ancillary markets such as merchandising. The positive side of this equation is that the subversive art and storytelling found in comic books was brought to a larger audience, but may well have been eviscerated of its soul in the process.
Films like Batman Begins, with its dark exploration of the recesses of Bruce Wayne’s psychology, and X-Men 2, with its unapologetic homosexual allegories, do their source material adequate justice and make their corporate masters a lot of money in the process. What can be hoped for the future is that movie studios see fit to release more films such as these and less of the vapid, lowest-common denominator special effects orgies that tend to predominate the box office landscape. Hellraiser and Constantine were met with outright hostility by fans of their comic book source material and performed poorly at the box office. It is no longer enough to simply adapt a comic book to guarantee success. Many audience members have grown more shrewd and sophisticated, and demand quality in storytelling.
In the words of Nightcrawler in the film X-Men 2, “Most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.” If this is true in a world where what is put before the eyes of teenagers is predominated by movies and video games, it is imperative that the content not merely reflect the status quo desired by consumer capitalism, but the thought-provoking stories and characters, daring and subversive thoughts, first brought to us decades ago in the best comic books.
Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels – A History of Comic Art. Phaidon Press, 1996.
Robinson, Jerry. The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art. Putnam Publishers, 1974.
Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. Amerion Publishers, 1954 (Reprint 1996).
Tuzi, Marino. “Individualism and Marginality: From Comic Book to Film: Marvel Comics Superheroes” College Quarterly, Spring 2005 – Volume 8 Number 2. Taken from:
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