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Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

Comic Books

Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

TL;DR – it’s a tricky subject and we’re all terrible.

In some regards, it’s become nigh impossible to discern what’s now too far in society (thanks to Donald Trump straight punching the walls of decency a la Superboy-Prime). However, this idea of a bridge too far and censorship and reactionary countermeasures is nothing new – our society has continually struggled with questions of what is too much in art, politics, government, etc. and whether or not we should step in to police thoughts/actions.

You’d think, though, that by 2019 we’d have made some progress in this regards. At the very least, we could raise difficult questions and mull them over collectively as to discern new truths. Perhaps we as a planet would be truly ready for thought-provoking artifacts that require earnest consumption. That, I shudder to say, we’d no longer need to brandish censorship as a pointless weapon in the culture wars.

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But then people went and got upset about Jesus Christ in a comic book.

The tome in question in Second Coming, from writer Mark Russell and artist Richard Pace. The story would have seen Jesus team up with the superhero Sun-Man to “learn what it takes to be the true messiah of mankind” as he undertakes a new “most holy mission by God.” Before it was to be released via Vertigo on March 6, a group of citizens launched a petition on CitizenGo to ban the book, earning more than 235,000 signatures in total. In the petition, they called the book “inappropriate,” further asking, “Can you imagine the media and political uproar if DC Comics was altering and poking fun at the story of Muhammad… or Buddha?” DC responded in kind by pulling the book outright.

Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

Art from Second Coming.

Before anything else, I am opposed to censorship. It stifles the human soul and empowers fascist thought. That said, I’m no dummy, and there’s real context at play.

That begins with taking note of Russell’s concept, or at the very least, his own description of the book. Speaking with Bleeding Cool, he said the book centered around how God was “so upset with Jesus’s performance the first time he came to Earth, since he was arrested so soon and crucified shortly after, that he has kept him locked-up since then.” There’s a certain level of grace that comes with tackling these hugely controversial topics. Even the mere muttering of Jesus sets people’s sensibilities ablaze, and it’s important to approach this topic with that core understanding. Regardless of the book’s final scope – and it sounded as if Russell was interested in exploring ideas of second chances and a recontextualization of the Jesus mythology, all of which seemed appropriate if not respectful – his media presence was lacking.

Nuance and sensitivity aren’t just shortcomings we blame on an overly PC world – they’re the tools used to crack the safe we’ve built around our most sensitive ideas and values. The level of brazenness displayed by Russell was shooting himself in the foot (when he was already standing on one leg), and it’s hard to blame folks for petitioning. How these projects germinate and evolve in the public matters deeply, and it seems like this was a case of people forgetting some basic lessons of civility.

As bizarre as it sounds, there is an idea of “good” censorship, especially as it relates to basic politeness. A form of self-censorship that helps us better form, distribute, and disseminate ideas. That’s a social contract that’s essential for all parties, something missing entirely from so many of these fierce, deeply reactionary debates on censorship. This isn’t about policing thoughts or information, but recognizing the sort of thought that goes into approaching sticky subjects like sex and religion. To quote Jay Z, “We change people through conversation, not through censorship.”

With all that said, though, there’s no reason for this book to have ever been censored.

I could go over the long and sordid history of censorship in comics – except the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has assembled an amazing, multi-part feature/resource, and you should certainly read that. What I will say, however, is that there’s always been this tendency for people to over-react to comics, from banned manga in libraries to the court case surrounding Planet Comics’ horror titles. Certainly Second Coming is now apart of the long, sad lineage, and it’s natural to mourn what could have been.

Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

A Plant Comics title.

Though Pace mentioned plans of releasing the book with a new publisher, there’s no telling how that’ll turn out. It could be an instance where a bit of controversy jump-starts sales/interest, as with books like The Great Gatsby American Psycho. However, an equally likely case is that this spot of trouble has forever tarnished the book, and even if Russell and Pace find a new publisher, the book may have had the same impact as before (especially with Vertigo, which has both corporate money and an equally long history of controversial, adult-themed titles).

Then again, that’s what happens in censorship cases. While battling the PMRC in the ’80s, Frank Zappa likened censorship to “(treating) dandruff by decapitation.” On the one hand, that speaks to that vast over-exaggeration in many of these cases, but it also speaks to something far worse: a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot (a la Russell). So many books and films have been locked away in the vaults of history, never to be explored. How much potential understanding or newfound commonality has been swept aside because a piece of media never saw the light of day? Progressiveness aside, censorship degrades the rights of citizens (namely, those afforded by the First Amendment) and enforces a certain set of morals upon the populace. When we close ourselves off to ideas based on how sad or awkward they make people feel, we narrow the lens in which we view the world, and that inevitably stymies how we grow as a species. We as a people are quick to toss ideas into a roaring fire, with nary a thought of what this might mean for us.

And that’s no generalization, either. There’s some studies and solid research that shows that Americans – on either side of the aisle – are totally in love with censorship. For instance, a 2015 Harris Poll found that 28% of people believe “there are…books which should be banned completely,” up a whopping 10% from 2011. The reasoning and targets of the censorship vary wildly between liberals and conservatives, but as the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell explained, the only criteria is “speech they find transgressive.” Which for conservatives appears to be books and movies and games, while liberals are more focused on policing speech. Does that mean we should all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” about a shared love of censorship? Maybe it means that censorship is some inevitably human reaction to the world, and controlling thoughts and ideas is our way to exert some influence in the ceaseless chaos?

That presents an opportunity – a grand moment to evaluate ourselves and our thoughts and behaviors regarding censorship. Like in that epic moment in PCU, where we all decide we’re done protesting (which is ironic since, a-duh, it’s still a protest). But that movie moment matters because it’s a true recognition of just how much the act itself (censorship and protesting) are ingrained within us, and how we’re likely to never fully escape it. But being stick with something doesn’t mean progress is impossible.

Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

Courtesy of the CBLDF.

If we’re more cognizant of our words and actions, recognizing that what we say and do matters in these instances, maybe something can change. Maybe it’s not some grand shift that occurs, but a commitment to pay more attention and let things happen. To grin and bear it a bit more and accept the painful birth and maturity of ideas within the public space. That a little discomfort is OK given what we have to gain, and that we’re all in this journey together. That censorship and freedom aren’t opposing ideas but a balance to be achieved within an advanced society.

Quick aside: I understand people getting upset about the religious nature of the book. I’d counter that ideas like Second Coming exist in the public space, and as such, it seems unfair to claim sacrilege given the multitude of interests at play. It’s like placing a “perma dibs” on a table at your favorite pizzeria.

So, why not start our rebirth with comic books? If you’re reading this site, you love the medium, and treat it with the respect and thoughtfulness it deserves. But for a moment, let’s suspend that respect and recognize that, for a huge swathe of society, comics aren’t the bee’s knees. Sales are generally down. Most people flock more readily to superhero flicks, which indicates a certain disregard for the source material (even if some people are drawn to the comics afterward). For me, all that exemplifies a much larger reason for that extensive history of censorship in comics: people don’t mind as much.

These books, no matter how much progress is made and diversity feature and creativity achieved, will almost always exist as a kind of secondary market or medium for some people. Unlike, say, Fahrenheit 451, most folks don’t get up in arms if a Superman title is tossed into a fire pit, or a Wolverine comic is deemed inappropriate. These are cartoons, silly little gimmicks, and as such, some people afford them little rights as compared to other works. The fact that we’re still having the “comics as art” debate here and now only proves how dismissive some people can be.

Running around with lit matches: A personal essay on censorship in comics

Tell me this isn’t art.

At the same time, that history of censorship highlights something else about comics: a penchant for pushing buttons and exploring sensitive or controversial ideas. Creators across the medium have seen the way some parts of the world view comics and taken that as a sign of freedom to explore all sorts of ideas and emotions. That being left to the refuse bin of history by art critics is actually a chance to do as one pleases, away from prying eyes. If and when censorship does occur, when people of the wrong ilk pay close attention at last, that’s just par for the course. Censorship doesn’t have to spell the end, and can be a way to make comics the true medium of exploration and fearlessness.

Not that censorship is a good thing, though it can be a certain badge of honor. Rather, that it’s something that always happens, and while it means conversations about decency, stinging ideological attacks, and lost sales and creative opportunities, comics is built to handle that and more. Comics’ role in the world means it can be the bad guy in the eyes of many (the “Dark Knight,” if you will), that thing suffering the slings of injustice to help push us all forward into new artistic territories. A scapegoat the world seems to need, which can bounce back from controversy and diminished attention and move on with the larger mission at hand.

If you’ve gleaned absolutely nothing else, let it be that censorship in general is a tricky subject. We want to believe in a world where the free exchange of ideas can occur, but there’s several shades of grey to that process. We want to believe that we are all champions of new ideas, but it’s clear that there’s real hesitation on all sides. We want to believe we’re tough enough to endure the discomfort that comes with breaking down artistic barriers, but sometimes awkwardness is just far too overwhelming.

What we can be sure of, though, is Second Coming is another link in a sprawling history of censorship, of a society battling with itself over the Truth. We may never get it right, but that struggle is essential. It’s another form of momentum that keeps us moving upward and onward. Whether we reach new plateaus of knowledge and understanding, we’re making promising steps each and every time.

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