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The Bowdlerization of bande dessinée
January 4, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Europe has a long-standing comic tradition, at least equal to that of America. Beyond Tintin and Asterix, there are hundreds of fantastic titles with astonishing art, most of which never see the shores of the USA. However, when a lucky title does get the nod, something bizarre happens when European sensibilities face American censors.

Despite the constant reassurances by media in the USA that comics aren't just for kids anymore, there still seems to be a prevailing belief that graphic novels should be at least vaguely kid friendly. In Europe that was never particularly an issue, and combined with that continent's generally more relaxed take on nudity, titles coming to the United States have often had to deal with some rather bizarre scrutiny.

(warning, links varying degrees of NSFW)

The excellent space adventure serious Sillage (known as Wake in English) chronicled a sole human who was discovered by an immense body of different aliens, who tries to track down others of her species.

The first seven volumes were published by NBM who appear to have no desire to complete the series, or re-issue those already translated. The first volume concerns our heroine Navee, a semi-feral girl who inhabits a jungle planet. She's also topless. To pass American censorship requirements, NBM drew over her nipples with a felt marker. Example 1, example 2.

One of the more egregious examples is Jodorowsky's Incal series. The main volume with his seminal collaboration with Moebius (previously), and the prequel Avant L'Incal both were recolored at one point in a hideous update which removed much of the nudity. I don't have any examples from Incal proper, but other people have noted it, and the recolor was just generally unpleasant. The censorship from the prequel is more widely observed, and much of the incidental nudity was clipped. Thankfully, Humanoids recently re-issued Incal with the original coloring and no edits in a single volume hardcover, now available in its second print.

Humanoids also produced two versions of some of one of Jodorowsky's other comics projects The Metabarons, with some editing.

In recent years, Marvel comics took a brief swing at translating eurocomics under the Soleil imprint. While generally speaking, they've been pretty good about keeping content, they have been more than happy to remove a stray nipple or two. Sky Doll's cover got changed.

This is hardly a problem unique to European comics. Similar fates have been suffered by certain manga and anime in their transition to the United States, famously the Pokemon manga (which was kinda racey), the popular shonen manga Tenjo Tenge under DC's shortlived CMX imprint, and pretty much any anime seen during after school hours.

Censorship isn't the only unpleasantness that these volumes can face during localization. Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese is arguably one of the most influential European comics of the mid-to-late-20th century. As a character, he's been popular enough to be the face of Dior and have his own short-lived clothing line. However, a recent print of the Ballad of the Salt Sea massively edited the book to get it to fit on a smaller page size, ruining a great deal of the book's particular flow and style.

Since official translations of many European titles are rare and often don't get reprinted, a small fan translation/scanslation scene has popped up. It's nowhere near the size of the one associated with manga, but for tracking down unedited versions, or books that never got translated, it's often the only option. The largest of these groups uses the Sobriquet Dragonz, and there scans pop up in the usual dens of comic book piracy.
posted by themadthinker (39 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
French comics, regardless of intended audience, always lovingly depict the genetials of the animal characters, so much so that I'm tempted to create a French Comics review site called " The Cat's Balls."
posted by The Whelk at 11:18 AM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm at work, and so fear to follow these links, so I'll just ask - whose censorship requirements are being discussed? Is there some sort of comic book overseeing body (like with movies), or are these self-censorship on the part of the companies?
posted by joannemerriam at 11:28 AM on January 4, 2013


I should photograph the first few pages of each of the new collections of Modesty Blaise where exactly this form of censorship is covered and shows the before and after versions of the relevant strip.
posted by infini at 11:28 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't know about the Corto Maltese refit. I picked it up a while ago, knowing it to be a classic, but didn't find it to be a knockout in terms of storytelling. Now I know why.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:29 AM on January 4, 2013


As far as I'm aware, this is self-censorship (especially seeing as NBM publishes porn comics as well as translated European material). In my digging around with this stuff, I never saw evidence of an external body forcing it, but there's very little discussion of it to be seen at all.
posted by themadthinker at 11:30 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


...perhaps I've had the wrong idea about Pokemon all along!
posted by danny the boy at 11:32 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there some sort of comic book overseeing body (like with movies), or are these self-censorship on the part of the companies?

It appears to be wholly self-inflicted on the part of the publishers in the US. There has never been much in the way of formal government regulation of comic content in the US, although the threat of it has certainly been an issue (cf. the Comics Code Authority, which was a self-regulatory body similar to the MPAA created to fend off government involvement), although perhaps obscenity laws in the US (which are more draconian than in Europe when it comes to sexual content) come into play in terms of motivating the changes.

But given that there are much racier comics published in the US as-is, it doesn't seem to be just that the companies aren't willing to take the risk of sending some illustrated nipples through the mail here and there. My take on it is that they seem to think that it would be bad for sales in some way to publish them unedited. Not really sure why they'd think that, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


American consumers prefer less explicitly-sexualised comic book representations of women? In products aimed at children? So American comic book companies bowdlerise them? Well, I'm really okay with that. American attitudes to women are often better than in Europe - see the Strauss-Kahn affair, for example.

It's not like American comic books don't have sexualised images of women - see many previous MetaFilter posts. Or is that your point?

Now for actual censorship you'll have to go to the criminalising of child pornography comics from Japan under the 2003 Protect Act. Probably don't want any example links to that...
posted by alasdair at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2013


American consumers prefer less explicitly-sexualised comic book representations of women? In products aimed at children?

You do realize that most comic book readers are adults, and that the series in question are not aimed at children?
posted by signal at 11:50 AM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


In products aimed at children?

That's a faulty assumption.
posted by Pendragon at 11:56 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yipes, whoever was in charge of that Corto Maltese reprint should be fired. Mangling the layouts is one thing but that weird one panel scanned at a different resolution is like high school punk zine level.
posted by theodolite at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah, sweet memories of reading Heavy Metal in the 80s. I wish that some of these European comics I keep reading about would be online and translated into English. Has anyone got any links or recommendations?
posted by Ber at 12:22 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dammit, my budget did not need to know that The Incal finally got a proper reprint.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:34 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


The censorship here is bad, but even more appalling is how they've blurred out the linework. More than half of the reason to read French comics is the incredible art; it's horrible to see some crappy Photoshop airbrushing instead.

(And yeah, destroying Pratt's pacing like that is unforgivable.)
posted by zompist at 12:46 PM on January 4, 2013


recolor was just generally unpleasant

MY EYES! MY EYES! That's some sacrilege, right there.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 12:48 PM on January 4, 2013


Yipes, whoever was in charge of that Corto Maltese reprint should be fired

From a fucking cannon. Tits drawn on the side optional.
posted by Artw at 12:49 PM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Note to import comics publishers: You are presumably importing titles because they were successful (both commercially and artistically) in their original language.

You therefore have two things to do, one of which is a non-thing to non-do:

1. REPLACE THE NON-ENGLISH WORDS WITH ENGLISH ONES. Hire a good translator. Optionally, hire a good hand-letterer if the original demands it.

2. MAINTAIN INTEGRITY OF THE ARTWORK. Do not pay additional artists to draw bras over boobs. Do not pay additional colourists to "update" the look, or whatever the hell they were trying to do with The Incal. Do not pay anyone to reconfigure the panels to fit a smaller page. Do not click "resize to 50%" in Photoshop. Do not alter the artwork from its original form at all, ever, full stop. (The only forgiveable exception -- and even then, there are a great many who will adamantly disagree -- is to do a simple horizontal flip on comics that read right-to-left.)

That's literally all an English audience demands. You have to work pretty hard to fuck it up, so it's pretty astonishing that you so often do.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:56 PM on January 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


Also, as noted above, all of this is down to publishers and their guesses at market sensibilities - so you absolutely can pick up your Alan Moore comic full of cocks next to your Humanoids reprint with the nipples crossed out with sharpie markers.

Also FWIW it's perfectly possible to be vaguely appalled at superhero comics with a nominal preteen audience being full of twisty Escher girl butt and boob and also kind of pissed at the marker pen nonsense.
posted by Artw at 12:56 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


What Sy Rq says. Violaters should have his comment tattooed on the insides of their eyelids.
posted by Artw at 12:57 PM on January 4, 2013


'Course, they don't even need to be non-English comics to be ruined by American publishers, as everybody who read the "Quality Comics" (ha!) reprints of 2000AD series. Because they were adapted for standard yank comics sizes from artwork meant for much larger, magazine sized publications, all the art looked strange.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:09 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


3. DO NOT JUST DROP PAGES IF YOU CAN'T FIGURE OUT A WAY TO COVERUP A SEX SCENE. Especially if the very next page after the sex scene is another character reacting to the events on the pages you dropped. At the very least, if you do commit this kind of editorial butchery, go back and renumber the page numbers in the book's extensive footnotes appendix to reflect that the last two thirds of the footnotes should point two pages earlier.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:11 PM on January 4, 2013


The Sillage thing struck me as really weird given that I discovered it in my old public library shelved next to unexpurgated Love and Rockets collections. Probably another reason to kick my ass into gear and pick up another language.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:12 PM on January 4, 2013


The Sillage thing struck me as really weird given that I discovered it in my old public library shelved next to unexpurgated Love and Rockets collections. Probably another reason to kick my ass into gear and pick up another language.

While compiling this, I kept thinking how much easier it would be if I could just speak French/Italian/Spanish. I've heard great things about Loisel's Peter Pan, which never really got translated, and has been picked up by the fan groups (as far as I know).
posted by themadthinker at 1:15 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Quality Comics"

RARRRRRRGH!

/falls over from RAGE.
posted by Artw at 1:17 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Reading French is easier than speaking French, and there are specialist phrase books, so it's worth stretching your linguistic skills there.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean hasn't been picked up by a fan group. Gah.
posted by themadthinker at 1:36 PM on January 4, 2013


it's perfectly possible to be vaguely appalled at superhero comics with a nominal preteen audience being full of twisty Escher girl butt and boob

Quite. It's that weird sort of puritarian prurience, where you can't have honest nudity, not even some nippleage -- let alone male nudity -- but you still have the socalled heroines posing for a porn shoot or even socalled artists like Greg bloody Land literally tracing his models from porn mags.

There just doesn't seem to be an understanding or tolerance of the sort of incidental (non-sexual) nudity you get in real life, which you can get in European comics. Frex I doubt you'd ever see naked breasts in an American Disney comic, even in an innocent scene set in a Japanese bathing house, the way it was shown in a backup strip in the Dutch Donald Duck[1].


[1] the great classic comedic adventure series Douwe Dabbert, written by the then editor of Donald Duck and drawn by Piet Wijn, one of the greatest Dutch cartoonists, coming from what you'd call the Dutch equivalent of the Disney studios, Marten Toonder's animation and comics studio. The series would've gotten a translation in 1996 courtesy of Fantasy Flight, but then the market crashed and they stopped doing comics entirely to concentrate on the much more safe and profitable RPG market...
posted by MartinWisse at 1:39 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


My brother, who is a bookseller in Italy, still hunts up old Corto Maltese for me. I have a nice collection that I used to entice my children to learn written Italian. After all, I learned more French from Asterix than I did in the classroom.
posted by francesca too at 1:39 PM on January 4, 2013


There just doesn't seem to be an understanding or tolerance of the sort of incidental (non-sexual) nudity you get in real life, which you can get in European comics.

That is the exact European misunderstanding that leads to bullshit like this.

The English-speaking world (which is more than just the supposedly "puritanical" United States of America, but this applies just as much to them) has a full understanding and tolerance of such things. It might not surface in that dubbed version of Friends you saw, but that doesn't mean it's non-existent. There is no need -- none -- to preemptively censor incidental nudity for an Anglo audience.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:09 PM on January 4, 2013


(To wit: The Simpsons Movie.)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:16 PM on January 4, 2013


I for one am okay with this. If no one covers the nipples, then they'll just kill again.

Also, why don't they just publish in magazine form? That's what Mad did, so they could be free to say what they wanted.
posted by CarlRossi at 3:14 PM on January 4, 2013


To be fair, the lines between children/teen/young adult/adult comics are rather fuzzy in continental western Europe. Since the late 70s, comics for non-adults have contained a fair amount of nudity (sexual or not) and sometimes sexual content (following links more or less NSFW). Here's a page from Loisel's Peter Pan for instance. In French bookstores, there's a special shelf for erotic comics but all other books are available to anyone. I'm sure that I've seen Serpieri's Druuna in the sci-fi section rather than in the erotic one (though this may have changed). The preteen-oriented Titeuf, which is currently the most successful French-language comic series, is now used for sex education: there's an entire Zizi sexuel line of books, tabletop games, science shows, TV shows etc. used to teach kids the basics of sexuality. Another quite sex-obsessed character preteen character is le Petit Spirou (some covers:1, 2, 3, 4. The actual content is tamer). And for non-stop, non-sexual nudity, there's also the very successful Kirikou series (those are animated movies but books are available too).
posted by elgilito at 4:21 PM on January 4, 2013


Sky Doll's cover got changed.

IIRC a major theme of Sky Doll is slavery and a major plotline is about the destructive influence of a thinly-veiled pope/televangelist. Did they actually read the comic before deciding to localise it?
posted by ersatz at 4:39 PM on January 4, 2013


it's kind of weird that we make our media be so safe and morally hygienic and then wonder why everyone is so immature
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:44 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Universe (the publisher of the Corto book) did respond to Big Planet Comics' criticisms, basically saying "but Pratt approved this format!" (you know, when he was sick and probably needed money) and blah blah blah "more manageable in size." It was still a really strange choice to publish that layout rather than go back to the originals.

(I swear that's all I heard about for about a week. Well, like three days. But they are huge Corto Maltese fans at Big Planet Comics so I don't blame them for being bummed they couldn't recommend the book to people.)

It's not quite a censorship issue, but I am disappointed with the English translations of Nemi. They're just sloppy and Lise Myhre's work really deserves better (I sadly can't read Norwegian, although I keep trying).

I do want to start reading French so I can read French comics. Maybe this year.
posted by darksong at 5:14 PM on January 4, 2013


When I read about nipples I always have to think about Ashcroft and his nipple-gate.
posted by nostrada at 7:26 PM on January 4, 2013


American attitudes to women are often better than in Europe

Europe is not a monolithic entity. I couldn't see a Berlusconi lasting long in Norway, for example.

Not knowing a lot about manga, is the censorship particularly strong there? For years, the animation style led me to believe it was entirely aimed at children or young people, as I'd only read things like Maison Ikkoku and Oh My Goddess! myself. Hentai is available in the UK, but in a way that means you have to ask for it in stores rather than being able to come across it browsing, and certainly not in mainstream bookstores that have a comics/manga section.

darksong - Nemi runs in the major commuter paper in the UK (alongside a strip called Pearls Before Swine which makes frequent references to things like NPR which 90% of British folk wouldn't know enough about to get the joke - yeah, Doonesbury runs here, but it's in the Guardian which is for a very different audience). I'm surprised by how feminist and pro-animal rights it is, and the references to metal bands, for a relatively conservative paper to run it. Is this stuff retained from translation? What's lost? There seems to be a similar Swedish strip called, IIRC, Zelda, which from the very little Swedish I know has a lot of strips about feminism or one night stands.
posted by mippy at 2:42 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Simpsons movie was a play on the whole concept, though, wasn't it? I mean, we got to see a lot of Dr Manhattan's big blue wang in the Watchmen film, which was an American movie.
posted by mippy at 2:45 PM on January 5, 2013


Huh. I wonder how many tightass would-be censors would die of headsplode if someone tries to publish a US translation of Bonvi's Sturmtruppen comic strip. And the public protests by the many people who may miss its point entirely.
posted by Iosephus at 5:56 PM on January 6, 2013


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