It's Time for Comic Books to Show Us What They're Made Of

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The Texas jury was tired, eager to render a verdict and go home. The Prosecuting Attorney was making her passionate closing remarks.
"This medium," she intoned, "the medium that this obscenity is placed in, is done so in an appealing manner to children."
Obscenity? Appealing to children? What new horror was upon us?
"Comic books," she continued, " -- and I don't care what type of evidence or what type of testimony is out there -- use your rationality, use your common sense! Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids!"
It was bloviating, and it was grandstanding. And it was working. Jesus Castillo was on trial for selling an adult comic book to an adult. But all the jury saw was drawings in boxes with word balloons, depicting things they'd never seen Captain Marvel Junior do back in the day when they plopped down a dime for their funnybook fix.
And what a strange argument used by the prosecution: comic books are just for kids. After over a decade of newspaper headlines shouting from the rooftops that comics aren't just for kids any more, you'd have thought people would have got the message.
Oh, they got the message, all right. Just not the one that the comic industry was trying to communicate. With the announcement that comics aren't just for kids anymore, parents have heard that comics are no longer safe for kids. They've heard that there are adult comics out there, and have rightly decided that Jane and Junior need to be protected so they don't get their hands on any of those.
You see, while the comic industry has done a fine job of telling the world that comics aren't just for kids, they've screwed the pooch, as it were, in communicating exactly which comics aren't just for kids, and how parents and retailers can easily identify them. And if one can't tell which is which, who can blame a parent for taking the safest route -- choosing none at all?
Jack Valenti figured out the solution to this problem a long time ago for the movie industry, and the videogame industry followed in his footsteps. They implemented a clear, concise method of communicating to the potential consumer what could be expected from the product being sold -- by way of a tiered ratings system. Each year, the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey, has polled parents on the MPAA's rating system, gauging its usefulness. The most recent polling found that 76% of parents with children under 13 found the ratings to be "very useful" to "fairly useful".
Before I get into the meat of all this, let me disabuse my readers of any notion that I will somehow cave under the standard and presumably indefeatable argument that "Books don't carry ratings!" with this response:
Comic books are not books.
Now, pick up your jaw. I'm not implying that they're the bastard child of media that they have often been held to be. Nor do I mean the content of either form is inherently superior (or inferior) to the other.
Comics are a blended medium. They utilize words and pictures to tell a story. Done properly, they tell the story in a way that neither words nor pictures alone could have pulled off with the same effect. But the only semblance between a comic and a book is the paper (and some folks like Scott McCloud expect comics to leave even the paper behind some day!) In actuality, comics have much more in common with film, television, and videogames than they do with books. Director Robert Rodriguez notes this familial relationship in the special features found on the DVD release of "Frank Miller's Sin City". "The mediums, really, are very similar," says Rodriguez. "These are just snapshots of movement."
And film, television, and videogames all share one thing in common: they carry up-front content notices to let consumers know what can be expected.
Ratings vs. Censorship
As patriotism is the final refuge of the scoundrel, so is censorship the initial defense of the lazy. When the concept of ratings is broached in earshot of the comics creative community, there is no shortage of people willing to jump into the breach decrying how the so-called censorship of a ratings system would deny them their freedom of speech, as though the rating would dictate ahead of time the kind of story they could tell. Nothing could be further from the truth. A rating label should be a guide to the consumer, not to the writer, much in the same way that the ingredients label on a can of soup is a guide to the buyer, not the manufacturer. (Not that the after-effects might not drive the publisher's choices if a certain type of rating shows to sell better than another; if soup manufacturer's see a trend toward lower sodium intake in health conscious consumers, they would be likely to alter their recipes to meet that demand.)
Of course, it doesn't hurt that -- when legal issues do arise over the content and sale of comic books (and arise they do, else there wouldn't be a need for an organization like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) -- the creators are hardly ever the ones brought to task for the work. Instead, the hammer usually falls on the retailer.
One such retailer who's been a vocal proponent of a point of sale system for identifying age appropriate content is Michael Tierney, proprietor of The Comic Book Store in Little Rock, Arkansas in addition to his duties as an Overstreet Price Guide Advisor and trendwatcher for the industry publication, the Comics Buyers' Guide. For the past few years, Tierney has been calling attention to the need for a system to clearly identify comic book content that would assist the seller and the buyer.
"All content advisories do is provide truth in advertising," says Tierney. "Honesty in retailing. I know that there are some creators out there who consider providing target audience guidelines to be creating a possible danger of censorship. I don't see it that way. I see the limiting, or eliminating, of cover content information as censorship. Since when did knowledge and honesty become dangerous things?"
Perhaps creators are less fearful of being told what they can write than being told what retailers would or wouldn't sell in the first place if they were ratings-conscious. "Because both of my stores are located near churches and schools, it's a violation of Zoning Laws for me to carry anything rated Adults Only," says Tierney. "Even if a book is not rated, it's still against the law for me to carry any comic that contains Adults Only material. So it's very important to me to know content in advance, and avoid any possible legal breaches and the subsequent, lengthy legal battles that could accompany such an oversight."
"As far as not carrying books without ratings," Tierney continues, "I have to say that I'm already forced to do that. There are a number of independent publishers known for putting out predominantly mature material, so in absence of knowing if a particular title has milder content, I'm unwilling to order copies for the shelf. Operating in a non-returnable market, when I order a book and discover upon arrival that the content is too strong for my shelves, I'm stuck with unsalable merchandise. So there are probably many instances of comics I might have carried if I'd had a better idea of the content. But again, operating in a non-returnable market, it's better to err on the side of caution than to gamble my whole livelihood on blind bets. I'm operating a business, not a civil liberties crusade."
It's not an unheard of practice. Perhaps the most parallel business model to comics retailing can be found at Blockbuster Video, where movie and videogame rentals have made them a giant in the industry. Very ratings conscientous, Blockbuster does not carry the extreme end of rated movies or games.
"Blockbuster relies on the rating system provided by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Entertainment Software Rating Board," says Blockbuster's Jeff Sieg. "Blockbuster does not carry X or NC-17 rated movies, nor do we carry AO (adult-only) rated games. If a particular movie is given an adult or NC-17 rating by the MPAA or if a game is given an adult rating by the ESRB, then we won't carry it."
"Additionally," Sieg says, "Blockbuster offers a Youth Restricted Viewing (YRV) program that works in partnership with parents to limit the games and videos their children rent and purchase."
In a press release for Blockbuster's YRV program, Blockbuster North America's president Nick Shepherd states, "Blockbuster understands parents’ concerns about the movies and games their children are viewing, and we took the initiative more than 17 years ago to develop the industry's most comprehensive parental control service that asks parents to decide which products their children may access." According to Shepherd, "We know that many parents do not want their children to be able to rent or purchase R-rated movies and M-rated games, but we are also mindful of the fact that some parents want to give their children access to these products. We believe that as a responsible retailer we should uphold parents' wishes, whatever they may be."
The Blockbuster YRV program is a point-of-sale system that prompts store employees to refuse the rental of mature-rated movies and games to anyone under the age of 17 unless parental consent has been given. Employees are trained to confirm the age of any customer who appears to be under 17 before renting or selling product to them.
A universal system that clearly identifies the contents of a comic book would give retailers guidance -- and would provide a much needed tool to parents to help them do the job of parenting. "Expecting parents to read every page of every book before their kids do is unrealistic," says Tierney. The current market, which consists largely of titles without ratings, is to many parents a four-color mine field, where the safest course of action is complete avoidance. To make the market more friendly to these parents -- and ultimately to a new generation of readers -- a map must be provided. A consistent method of ratings would be a large step toward creating that map.
Hey, Kids! Comics! Uhm... Kids?
But kids don't read comics any more anyway, right? Ah, if only I had a nickel for every time I've heard that one. If kids aren't reading comics, whose fault is that? "Children did not abandon comics," noted Michael Chabon at the San Diego Comic Convention, the world's largest of these events. "Comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children."
The general consensus in the comic book industry is that the audience for comics has evolved, matured, and grown beyond the kids' fare that comics had for so long been associated with -- and that this somehow obviated the need for any kind of ratings. Why put ratings up to warn an audience that isn't there, right? But as Spidey's Uncle Ben might have said: "With great maturity comes great responsibility." There's a huge untapped market still outside the relatively close confines of comics fandom that still views comics as the Biff! Pow! Ka-Zowie! stories of their youth. If there is no clear indication to people regarding the content of comics, can we really blame parents for getting upset when they open up Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man to find him subtly engaged in oral sex? (The issue carried a rating of "A" which Marvel's new ratings system declares as suitable for ages 9 and up.) Or for figuring out exactly what kind of kinky size-changing bedroom play Ant-Man and Wasp are engaged in over in Avengers #70?
In 2005, I spoke with Patricia Vance, the president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), the agency that applies the ratings to videogame content. Videogames, like comics, are another medium that uses sequential art to tell a story. And also like comics, they were initially marketed toward the younger audiences.
"Videogames have evolved over the last several decades," said Vance. "Initially, based on the graphics and the capabilities of technology, content was fairly primitive and straightforward. The average age of the gamer today is 30. Ten to twenty years ago, that age was significantly lower, so the games that were being manufactured were targeted to a younger audience. You can't say that any more."
So, if the average videogamer is of legal age -- if the video game audience has evolved and matured that much -- is there really a need to have a ratings system for the product?
"Absolutely," says Vance. "Because parents who might not play the games themselves need to be able to distinguish between them. Usually the packaging and the advertising to a certain extent can communicate the target audience, but sometimes it doesn't, and I think it's very important to have an objective, standardized ratings system that provides consumers with information so they can make an educated purchase decision -- and that goes for people who may or may not actually be consuming the product."

"I think it's very important to have
an objective, standardized ratings
system that provides consumers
with information so they can make
an educated purchase decision --
and that goes for people who may
or may not actually be consuming
the product."
-- Patricia Vance,
ESRB president on game ratings

Parents who don't read comic books themselves certainly deserve to be afforded the same tools; they had them when deciding whether or not they could take the family to see "Superman Returns" or "Batman Begins" or "Spider-Man 2". But when those same parents bring the kids to a comic book store after such films, they no longer have the necessary tools to judge which titles match up with what they believe is okay for their children to see.
"With all the recent movies concentrating on super-heroes, I've had a lot of parents come in to start their kids reading comics," says Tierney. "And they have a hard time finding material that they consider appropriate. The comics industry has got to do a better job of reaching all the markets interested in buying our product."
"There are 60 to 90 million people in the USA under the age of 18," says Tierney. "And while some may want to ignore that market, I'm not one of them. The comic industry can support all kinds of material. But just because we now make more mature reading product, it doesn't mean that we should completely abandon the biggest potential market out there, the market that can only grow our industry in the future. That's the market where our current, mature readership came from in the first place!"
"While some of us operate in more sensitive markets than others," adds Tierney, "every retailer's goal is to grow their market. And to grow it, you need product that you feel confident will perform to your expectations."
The Chicken or the Rating?
If a universal system of ratings were put into place, then which would come first: the rating, or the material? Would a creative team's work be judged on its completion, or pared down to meet a pre-determined desired rating? It's not an unfair question, and certainly one that deserves attention, particularly in light of the trend that the more family-friendly products in movies and videogames provide the biggest part of gross sales.
"Great game design sells games," says Vance of her market. "If you look at the top 10 or top 20 selling games, year in and year out they are dominated by E rated and T rated games. There are some M rated games that sell well, but there are many that do not. And I think you could probably say the same thing about films. These are creative forms of expression, and people go and see them or buy them because of the creative elements -- whether it moves them or it's fun or it entertains them; that's really what drives sales in our business. It's not whether it has an E a T or an M rating. M games only represent 16% of all sales of videogames in this country."
And Vance is correct in her assumption that the trend holds true with films. According to statistics compiled by the MPAA, PG-13 films make up the bulk of the industry's top grossers; PG and PG-13 films together account for 85% of 2005’s top 20 films. In 2005, 18 of the top 20 films were rated G, PG, or PG-13, and only 2 were rated R. It's a time-tested trend: Since 1968, the 10 top grossing films break down into 5 PG-13s, 4 PGs, and 1 R.
With a demand for more family friendly products, a creator could reasonably express concern that a story idea with content equating to an ESRB M or an MPAA R might get shot down or watered-down by the publishers into a more mass-marketable commodity, particularly if submitted as a story arc of an ongoing series; editors would likely be very keen to maintain the same rating across a series, thus avoiding the intermittent differentials in ratings among consecutive issues of a title like Superman.
However, it behooves us to remember that R-rated films are still successful moneymakers -- just not as successful on the whole as the milder rated films. There is still room for mature-themed stories in comics just as there are in film. And with the comic book industry's record of publishing one-shots and mini-series for just about every character who has an ongoing series, there's certainly a number of ways a mature-themed Superman story could be published without affecting whatever editorial edicts might reign over the ongoing sequential periodicals, particularly if the story is a good one. As Vance says about game design, the same can be applied to stories: if it's a great story, it will sell regardless of the themes contained therein.
Just let us know what those themes are upfront.
The Seduction of the CCA
Once upon a time, in the faraway land of McCarthy-era USA, comic book publishers banded together to save the sinking ship. A noted psychologist, Frederick Wertham, had published a book, Seduction of the Innocent, that warned parents of the malicious evil that was to be found in comics, and how it was turning their children toward crime, drugs and depravity. There were actual book burnings, as concerned moms and dads purged Junior's room of these perfidious four-color funnybooks.
An extreme action like Wertham's movement begat an extreme reaction from the publishers. They created the Comics Code Authority, a self-governed advisory board that would apply strict criteria to comics from then on, setting their seal of approval on all books that passed their stringent guidelines for content. It was the publishers' way of saying, "Parents, we hear you, and we're responding." It was an overboard reaction, albeit a necessary one, and it saved the industry from certain extinction.
The problem with the CCA was that it was an all-or-nothing affair. You were either in, or you were out, and if you were out then you may as well be out of business because no seller would touch your product. A more rational approach might have been to institute a tiered system of ratings, similar to the MPAA. But it wasn't exactly a rational time. Of course, the system of rating movies at the time was also an all-or-nothing system, which Valenti revamped in the late sixties, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of states and cities to police media and prevent children from being exposed to books and films intended for adults.
Obviously, the CCA made it impossible to tell certain types of stories, although on rare occassions publishers felt a story was important enough to forego the approval stamp and risk publishing anyway (three consecutive issues of Amazing Spider-Man, for example, for a plot detailing the dangers of drug abuse; the issues are considered a landmark in comics history today.) But such stories were exceptions, and the rule was a very limited palette for creators to play with.
Sometime within the last handful of years, Marvel Comics decided to chuck it altogether. Several new independent publishers were already doing well enough without submitting to the CCA. DC's Vertigo imprint was churning out the occassional critical success with the leash removed (albeit the line had more than its share of done-because-they-could titles as well.) But Marvel wasn't dumb enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater: almost immediately they began to implement their own tiered system of ratings to provide content guidelines. It's a system that's gone through a number of evolutionary changes and still bears a good deal of confusion that needs to be cleared up, but credit where credit is due: they recognize the problem and are attempting to address it. Other publishers simply dropped the code altogether, and have implemented no plan to replace it with an improved form of labelling. DC Comics retains the code on some titles, and has dropped it off others; this has left room for the convenient excuse in matters of controversial mature content: "Well, this wasn't a code approved book." But there is also an inherent fallacy that needs to be dealt with in these kinds of situations: Lack of a rating does not in itself constitute a rating.
Back to Square One?
A world without the CCA has opened the floodgates to all forms of experimentation in comics, and not all of it has been good. A Code-less industry saw the publication of The Intimates #4 with underage partial nudity on the cover. DC's Outsiders #30 featured a villain instilling lust in prison guards so they'd have sex with each other. Dark Horse Comics' Conan and the Demons of Khitai #3 ran an in-house ad for the next issue which featured full-frontal nudity. And the Image Comics produced Zombie King #1 consisted of several pages of an undead having graphic sexual intercourse with a cow. None of these comics carried even the hint of a "Suggested for Mature Readers" warning, let alone a rating.
Even Marvel Comics hasn't been immune, despite its strides in setting up a self-governing system of ratings: the aforementioned first issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man carried a rating of "A" -- a rating that implies the book is intended for ages 9 and up, according to Marvel's latest ratings guide. Japanese Manga titles are much further ahead in consistency of rating their product than is Marvel. "The Manga model has been very successful," says Tierney. "Parents want to know what the age appropriateness is for the books they buy their children. I've seen it happen many times, where a kid asks a parent for an American Graphic Novel and a Manga Graphic Novel. The Manga clearly tells the parents what age group the content is targeted at. The American Graphic Novel gives them nothing on which to base their decision. The American Graphic Novel goes back on the rack, and the Manga goes through the sales register."
"Manga sold not so much because people wanted to read stories about characters with big eyes and tiny mouths," says Tierney. "Manga sold because it was consumer friendly in packaging format and provided the information that buyers wanted to know. It's all about giving the customer what they want!"
The corollary to that is that it's all about not giving the customer what they don't want. No parent wants to feel like his parenting has been subverted by allowing his child to buy a comic book -- believing it to be as friendly as it was when he bought the same title -- only to find themes that are too mature for his children. No parent who monitors what her children read and watch wants to have her parenting circumvented by an industry that refuses to be upfront about its product. If the industry won't tell parents what to expect, the industry can expect parents to refrain completely from being a consumer of their product.
The titles I've listed are just a few examples -- and, granted, they represent only a tiny slice of the wide variety of titles that are out there. But just as it only takes one match to start a forest fire, it only takes one upset parent to land a retailer in court.
The comic book industry insists that it has grown up. But has it matured? Maturity is a measure of how responsible one is. Are comic books responsible enough to stand up and show us what they're made of?