Requiem for the Comic Book
Gillis J. Harp on the Debasing of Boyhood Innocence
Role models like pop stars Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson (these Lolitas still claim to be Christians despite appearing scantily clad on the covers of men’s magazines and in music videos) have undermined the innocence of girlhood. Accordingly, it is not uncommon to encounter eight-year-old girls in Wal-Mart dressed like prostitutes.
Many cultural critics have decried this, but fewer have noticed how the entertainment industry has debased boyhood and undermined its innocence. For a vivid illustration, have a look at comic books.
His First Comic
I think I bought my first comic book when I was eleven years old. It was Captain America no. 104. My friends and I bought Marvel comics because we all agreed that they were more hip. The artwork was better, and anyway, only little kids read DC comics (the home of Superman and Batman). Although Marvel was the first to introduce characters who were not just cardboard cutouts (including the troubled teenager Peter Parker, alias Spiderman), I was a traditionalist and preferred Captain America.
I liked Captain America for a couple of reasons. For one, he was the very personification of everything good about America: He was honest, selfless, courageous. After all, his costume was essentially the American flag. For another, he was drawn by one of the great Marvel artists, Jack “King” Kirby. The King’s artwork was everything comic artistry should be, bold and dynamic. In his prime, Kirby portrayed the human form with a winsome simplicity and athletic power that perfectly suited his medium. Kirby rendered male musculature with crisp angular lines that remind me now, in retrospect, of cubism. Kirby was a Picasso for thirteen-year-old boys.
Comic collectors call this period—roughly the early sixties to the early seventies—the Silver Age, to distinguish it from the Golden Age comics of the thirties and forties that my father read as a boy. Captain America actually had a foot in both camps. He had been created during World War II and then revived by Marvel during the sixties, having been conveniently suspended in an ice block since the war. Even some of the villains Cap battled were World War II leftovers. His major nemesis, the diabolical Red Skull, was a former Nazi henchman still bent on world domination.
Under the watchful eye of the Comics Code Authority, sexual content was virtually nonexistent, and violence was usually of the fisticuffs variety. Indeed, the Code stipulated that blood be rendered in black ink since red simply looked too graphic. Most Marvel superheroes were men of unimpeachable character who put the security of the free world before their private lives.
Steve Rogers (Captain America’s alter ego) was long frustrated in his relationship with steady girlfriend, Sharon Carter, because of his larger commitment to ideals beyond their personal lives. In one episode, as Cap was throwing himself against a powerful enemy, the thought balloon over his head read: “My life means nothing! The fate of all mankind is at stake! If he [the Red Skull] isn’t stopped—humanity itself is doomed!” Self-sacrifice defined Cap’s character.
Before the seventies, most of the women who appeared in the pages of Marvel comics were modestly dressed. Sharon Carter had curves but hers was a “girl-next-door” sort of attractiveness. The few women who were portrayed as femmes fatales in Marvel’s heyday were usually villainesses.
But These Days . . .
Wander into a store that sells comic books these days and you will be in for a shock (I wouldn’t recommend bringing young children). In the sixties, comic books were sold in neighborhood drug stores or at newsstands. Today, they are usually marketed by less-than-clean-cut young men in shops that sell a variety of collectibles, including assorted sports cards and movie memorabilia. The store’s walls may be lined with posters depicting semi-nude women.
In addition to the new venue, the comics themselves have changed dramatically. The old oligopoly of Marvel and DC has been replaced with a plethora of independent labels. “Wholesome” is not a word that springs to mind in describing their work. One is particularly struck by the overt sexuality of today’s comic books. Many covers depict women with beach-ball-sized breasts barely contained in seemingly painted-on costumes.
Traditional heroes are hard to come by. A few titles still have altruistic heroes combating immoral villains; scores do not. Moreover, many comics now have substantial occult components. Once segregated to a few horror titles, themes of death and the netherworld have become ubiquitous. The violence has grown nauseatingly graphic, and there is a general creepiness about many of the popular titles. The “action” in Silver Age comics consisted of acrobatics and fisticuffs; now enemies are disemboweled or tortured. The comic book protagonist (not hero) today may be a person controlled by an alien parasite.
There had, of course, been bizarre comics in the forties and fifties. But with the coming of the Comics Code Authority, these few titles were pushed to the margins. Since the seventies, the margins have moved into the mainstream. In the process, a simple joy of boyhood has been despoiled.
Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.