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When comics were weird and progressive
May 16, 2014 3:56 AM   Subscribe

These days, there’s a broad consensus that the Comics Code — which has been endlessly discussed and condemned by comics historians — was disastrous, and that it damaged comics. But nearly all of the critiques of the Code focus primarily on its dire consequences for white men’s artistic freedom, or the disservice done to readers in coddlingly denying them explicit sex and violence. What’s less discussed is the fact that independent women, and people of color, and all sorts of stories that didn’t fit with the compulsory patriotism and cop-worship of the 1950s, essentially vanished from comics for decades. This is a loss that comics are still wrangling with.
Saladin Ahmed explains how censors killed the weird, experimental, progressive golden age Of comics

His Tumblr has more examples of the interesting and often suprisingly progressive comics of the thirties and forties, for example the forgotten pre-Wonder Woman superheroines.

Many of the comics Ahmed talks about have entered the public domain and can be downloaded legally from either the Digital Comic Museum (previously) and/or Comic Book Plus (both forks of the original goldenagecomics.co.uk project).
posted by MartinWisse (28 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite

 
This... is... awesome! Thanks!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:26 AM on May 16


With a black hatred in her heart for all oppressors, Lady Satan hurries toward the government building
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:33 AM on May 16 [17 favorites]


God, I love Lady Satan.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:37 AM on May 16 [9 favorites]


The article makes its point really clearly here:

New York Magistrate Charles F. Murphy, a “specialist in juvenile delinquency” (and a strident racist), was chosen to head the Authority and to devise its self-policing “code of ethics and standards.”

...[The Code] contained the surprising provision that “ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” Given the countless depictions of monkey-like Japanese and minstrel-show black people in Golden Age comics, one might think this provision a good thing. But Murphy soon made it clear that this provision really meant that black people in comic books would no longer be tolerated, in any form. When EC Comics reprinted the science fiction story “Judgment Day” by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando (which had originally been printed to little controversy before the Code), Murphy claimed the story violated the Code, and that the black astronaut had to be made white in order for the story to run.

EC defiantly ran the story anyway, but Murphy had made a target of them, and the company was essentially forced out of the comics business. The message was clear: If comics were to be tolerated in this new postwar order, they had to be purged of assertive women, of people of color, of challenges to authority, and even of working-class, urban slang.


Thanks, MartinWisse; neat post.
posted by mediareport at 5:41 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


The link from his Tumblr to the full scan of 1947's ALL-NEGRO COMICS, "possibly the only Black-owned/created comic book of the Golden Age," is great. Check the manifesto on page 2.
posted by mediareport at 5:47 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


So pre-Code comics were a lot like pre-Code movies? Cool!!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:51 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


One of the ones mentioned that caught my eyes was Mantoka, because I have a Native friends who would love it. The first story is here, but I can't find the second. If anyone happens to know where I can find that one, I'd be much obliged.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:51 AM on May 16


Historical narrative is cool but I really wish he'd spent more words describing individual titles. Cause I want to know more about Lady Satan.
posted by PMdixon at 6:01 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


FWIW, Fantomah is collected in these Fletcher Hanks books.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:05 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Here's the whole Judgement Day comic, the one with the black astronaut. Great stuff.
posted by Huck500 at 6:07 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Saladin Ahmed is really fantastic. If you haven't read his novels and short stories you're missing out.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 6:14 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


My take on all this was that comics were already dying even before the Comics Code was enacted. After WWII, sales of comics started dropping, which prompted publishers to increase the sex, violence, and gore, which then provoked the reactionary censorship.

You can point to a few isolated examples of outstanding pre-code comics, but the fact of the matter is they weren't selling, and they were an insignificant number compared to the crap that was being shoveled out at the time. EC's great sci-fi comics were being propped up with the sales of their gross-out horror comics. The business model was not sustainable with our without the Code.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:22 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


> God, I love Lady Satan.

Such a strange thing to say.
posted by ardgedee at 6:25 AM on May 16


The guy actually lost me from his subtitle:
In the 1940s, comic books were often feminist, diverse, and bold. Then the reactionary Comics Code Authority changed the trajectory of comic book culture for good.
Except then he concludes with mentions of the growing movement which proves that it didn't change "for good". It's not the same as it was before the Comics Code, but it's not just like it was immediately after the Comics Code either.

That's what art does, anyway. It's what society does. I've seen it before - the theater I worked with most was with a company that mostly did early American plays from the late 1890's through to 1914, and some of the plays we were finding from that period were things you'd never expect from "the Old Days". A play from 1910 about the sexual double standard, one from 1911 about a sex scandal in congress, critiques of the advertising business from 1914, lots of other early feminist/social/progressive works. And then theater changed into what you all think of as "early American theater," and then...it started changing back.

Or look at film. Look at film that came before the days of the Hays Code. Then look at how squeaky-clean everything was after the Hays Code. And then look at film today.

We go through cycles - back and forth, between art being progressive and being conservative. Artists use art to speak out against societal ills, and moral busibodies put controls on it...and sometimes those controls are in place for a long time, but more artists push back and push the boundaries again until they reach a new place where the moral busybodies push back. But the moral busybodies never push things back to stay for good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:36 AM on May 16 [7 favorites]


It's interesting imagining how comics in the U.S. might have turned out if the Code hadn't happened. With the perspective of seeing comics boom-and-bust cycles during my own lifetime, I have a feeling that the wild-and-crazy fifties would have eventually settled down on its own as readership lost interest, titles got canceled, and publishers collapsed or merged.

Even without the formal censorship that comics faced, magazine publishing industry has been on the losing side of a long war of attrition against TV and especially the Internet since the 1950s, and comics, even unregulated, would have suffered a similar fate. So comics might not have become a two-publisher superhero ghetto by the 1970s (with a couple more publishers sweeping up crumbs by exclusively targeting children), but I don't think it would have become an industry for artists of the 70s and 80s to create new mature works in, like what happened in France and Japan.
posted by ardgedee at 6:37 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


There's so much cool stuff here. On the other hand, the pre-Code 1940s also gave us things like Captain America versus the to-my-modern-eyes-inexplicable drooling yellow Oriental Giants, so the Golden Age had its own problems.

And today we have Rat Queens. Which does not fix everything, but... well, it makes everything better than the world before Rat Queens.
posted by Sequence at 6:42 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


ardgedee: ... I don't think it would have become an industry for artists of the 70s and 80s to create new mature works in, like what happened in France and Japan.

I'd like to know more about how/why France and Japan are (currently) great places for comics. I don't think there's a complete support of comics and manga as viable material for adults in both countries, as I seem to recall some prominent Japanese official saying like "comics are for kids," but it's not as broad a disdain as in the US.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:18 AM on May 16


On the other hand, the pre-Code 1940s also gave us things like Captain America versus the to-my-modern-eyes-inexplicable drooling yellow Oriental Giants

Oh, that was still ok during the Code. Like when Cap fought The Sumo.
posted by yerfatma at 7:26 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


My take on all this was that comics were already dying even before the Comics Code was enacted. After WWII, sales of comics started dropping, which prompted publishers to increase the sex, violence, and gore, which then provoked the reactionary censorship.

Superhero comics were dying. EC was flourishing; from a certain point of view, the Comics Code was basically "about" their competition leveraging the prevalent hysteria (provoked by the lies and falsification of Frederic Wertham and the quasi-McCarthyism of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency) to destroy EC. And they succeeded.

That said I don't think pre-Code comics were some wonderland of liberation; they tended to reflect the broader society, which was much more interesting than the whitewash (literal sense as well as metaphorical intended) of McCarthyism.
posted by graymouser at 7:30 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the links...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:12 AM on May 16


The (standardly racist) Girl Commandos
posted by anthill at 8:21 AM on May 16


They weren't all progressive, but some of them were a lot more weird. If you're struck by Lady Fantomah, I recommend the first Fletcher Hanks collection that SysRq linked to, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!. Just look at these. The stories are as off-kilter as the artwork. The collection also ends with an interesting story of how the collector discovered Fletcher's work, and tracking down Fletcher's family to find out more about him. The real-life story isn't particularly happy, but it is interesting.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:00 AM on May 16


1947's ALL-NEGRO COMICS, "possibly the only Black-owned/created comic book of the Golden Age," is great. Check the manifesto on page 2.

Fantastic. Just amazing. And it is so very 1940s in tone, corny and hardcore at the same time. The "Little Dew Dillies" is just indescribable (except as 'indescribable').

I wonder how far they . . .

All-Negro Comics, published in 1947, was a single-issue, small-press American comic book . . . the only known issue . . . with a June 1947 issue date.

Awww. . .

= = = = =

Girl Commandos

Apparently Barbara Fiske Calhoun, creator of the Girl Commandos (as Barbara Hall) just passed away a few days ago at the age of 94.
During the war, when male cartoonists were away on military duty, she drew "Girl Commandoes" and other strips for Harvey Comics. An obituary provided by her family said she had to draw under the name B. Hall as cartooning was "a man's profession" at the time.
Women in Comics: "In the Sixties, through her daughter, Ladybelle, she met and became friends with many well-known underground cartoonists, including R. Crumb, Trina Robbins, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, and others."

UK Daily Mail: "One of the first hippies" (for co-founding what became a 'hippie commune' in Vermont in the 1940s).

= = = = =

When I saw "Girl Commandos", I thought of a comic I read maybe twenty years later, in the wake of Jame Bond, etc. I can't remember the title or brand. In a much slicker modern style, it followed an international group of female agents, each with an unique skill-set of course, who opposed SMERSH / KAOS / Dr. Evil type baddies. Seems like there were French, German, Japanese, and Russian team members, at least. Love to find that one again.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:08 AM on May 16


THE SPIDER QUEEN - A chemistry lab assistant becomes a wise-cracking costumed herowho uses wrist-strapped web shooters to swing around the city and tie up bad guys. But this is 1941, and our hero is a woman.

Hmmm, I say. Hmmm.
posted by nubs at 9:45 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Cherry-picking examples is always problematic. Even in the Girl Commandos comic linked to above, you have a non-stereotypical portrayal of a Chinese woman in with the revolting African (and African-American) stereotypes. And a lot of those fifties sex-and-crime comics weren't exactly vehicles of progressiveness.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:57 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Wow, those two Spider Queen pages really do make it seem likely she was "almost certainly the unacknowledged inspiration for Spider-Man."

Yet another thing for Stan Lee to answer for!
posted by mediareport at 6:39 PM on May 16


Cherry-picking examples is always problematic. Even in the Girl Commandos comic linked to above, you have a non-stereotypical portrayal of a Chinese woman in with the revolting African (and African-American) stereotypes. And a lot of those fifties sex-and-crime comics weren't exactly vehicles of progressiveness.

There's definitely some Sturgeon's Law at play here; it's still interesting to look at this stuff and wonder about the 10% that might've made it through to today.

For example, I would love to see the alternate universe where The Spider Queen is a multi-billion dollar super-hero franchise with blockbuster movies coming out every 2-3 years.
posted by nubs at 10:08 AM on May 19


Like when Cap fought The Sumo.

Can I just say, it is fantastically disingenuous of Captain America on that cover to be shouting "Hold your fire! Can't you see I'm unarmed", while deflecting a bullet with his shield?

While a shield is generally a tool of defence, you can't have a huge PR machine communicating that you use your shield as a weapon and then complain when people see the shield and take your assertions that you are unarmed with something of a pinch of salt.
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:18 AM on May 20


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