The Death of Publishing Censorship?

By Poison Ivy,

The recent demise of the Comics Code Authority reminds me that this self-censoring body was in its time the ONLY such organization in publishing. In the 1950s, amidst the debacle of horror comics coming under Congressional investigation and Frederic Wertham’s sensational, tawdry smear of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent, becoming a bestseller, comic books suffered an enormous decline in readership and in public acceptance. Previously, adults in the U.S. read comic books; afterward, it was mostly children. To ensure that parents would even allow comic books in their homes, all the comic book companies still in existence banded together and funded the independent Comics Code Authority, which laid down very strict rules about the visuals and the conduct and storylines in comic books. These standards held fast until the recession of the early 1970s, when business was so bad that the comic book companies successfully convinced the Comics Code Authority to let them publish zombie comics—calling them “zuvembies”—and vampires, and more. Over the next forty years, the standards were consistently chipped away, until today, when anything goes in most graphic novels, the Comics Code Authority seems completely unnecessary. So it finally has been disbanded. Thus ends censorship.

But wait. We all experience an even stricter and more irrational form of censorship today. We have the Not Safe for Work firewalls, each tailored to the standards of the particular company for which you work, or the public library where you access the Internet, or the content supplier from which you buy ebooks. A friend couldn’t view my last posting here, for instance, because it included the word “prostitute.” I think her office firewall stops the word “sex,” too. (There’s no point in saying that she’s not supposed to cruise the Internet at work, because statistically that’s where most people do their surfing.) Clearly, not every mention of the word “sex” equals a pornographic Web site, but the censors are taking no chances. Trouble is, they aren’t even giving content the amount of consistent rational scrutiny that that Comics Code Authority provided in its day. So I am not sure that comic book companies abandoning their self-censorship is either a good thing or a step forward, simply an acknowledgment that whatever censorship that occurs now is mostly accomplished through Internet controls and the posting of a rating on each comic. And we all know how accurate movie ratings are.

The graphic romance novellas on this site are rated M for mature because romances today (other than those specifically marketed to conservative religious sects) mostly are explicit. This is basically a good thing. I distinctly remember as a teenager reading the naive comments of other comic book fans, published in comic book lettercolumns, who wrote in to tell the editor that a “mistake” had been made because Superman had been shown talking while also kissing Lois Lane. Raised on a diet of silly movie kisses, similarly censored by the movies’ own self-censorship system, an entire generation of children did not know that kissing could include more than The Big Close-mouthed Endless Smooch. Is this the world we want to pretend exists?

If you truly wish for censored content, watch all your movies on airplanes, all your television shows on broadcast networks, and do all your Internet surfing at the public library or at the office. You’ll be safe from too many flashes of flesh, possibly from the wrong people kissing, and even from fairly nasty stuff of all kinds. But you’ll also miss out on honest stories of how people really behave, on discussions of same, and more. I’m glad that the comics aren’t wasting their time with self-censorship anymore. I just wish we had a better and more consistent method of protecting ourselves on the Internet from outright unwelcome pornographic material (merely by using that word, I am dooming this post to being stuck behind many a firewall, alas) and still allowing free speech to remain free.