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A Question of Taste

By Kurt Amacker     January 31, 2007


SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY VOL 4 TP
© N/A

Greetings Maniacs, and welcome to another rip-roaring Comicscape adventure!  Last week’s column about the comic book industry’s slow progression towards mainstream culture garnered very little mail.  But, of the couple of letters I received, one revealed to me that DC had cancelled WildStorm’s The Boys, a mature-readers title written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Darick Robertson. For those unaware, The Boys depicts a black ops team backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.  The team polices the world’s superheroes, who, though revered, often leave collateral damage in their wake.  The “heroes” also take drugs and use prostitutes with reckless abandon.  Many of them look just a bit like some of the iconic heroes found in the DC pantheon.  The series characterized itself through both graphic violence and crude humor – though, in my opinion, not without purpose.  Initially, DC cancelled the title with no comment.  However, Rich Johnston at Comic Book Resources revealed this week that the publisher canned the book out of concern over its content.  Besides the obvious level of graphic content, it seems the profane and crude depiction of several characters similar to those in its main universe troubled the publisher.  But never fear – the series will return at a different publisher sometime in the near future, along with a trade collecting the first six issues of the series. 

This raises interesting questions about the boundaries of taste in comic books.  Marvel and DC have long treated their main “universe” titles with an amount of restraint not even found in other visual media.  That restraint has loosened over the years – Marvel abandoned the Comics Code Authority in 2001 and created its own rating system.  DC routinely publishes in-continuity titles without submitting them to the CCA, as well.  Still, the mature titles of both publishers, along with scores of independent and underground comics, have long reveled in a level of creative freedom not afforded to other visual mediums in the mass media.  You can certainly make a movie as violent and offensive as you want, but you might not find a distributor willing to pick up a film called Zombie Cannibals Go to Daycare.  But, Marvel publishes The Punisher, a title that renders a label like “Adults Only” hilariously inadequate.  DC/Vertigo has published storylines in Hellblazer that, were they in a movie, would lead to torched theaters and riots in the streets.  I can only imagine the grief HBO will endure when their adaptation of Preacher hits television.  But, the comparably low cost and do-it-yourself spirit that infuses comic publishing makes it easier to create and sell weird, dark material – both for major publishers and guys working out of their garage.  It’s one of the reasons I love the medium so much.   

No doubt, comics have it kind of easy.  With the array of publishing options available, The Boys or any other book cancelled for content reasons can, barring any legal restrictions, find a publisher willing to endure (and celebrate) the attendant controversy.  Still, it makes me ponder the never-answered, oft-debated question of taste.  Obviously, taste varies from person to person.  Even if I assert a truly objective standard for good and bad taste, someone will invariably find a counter-example.  I could say – and many have – that portraying Sue Dibney’s rape by Dr. Light in Identity Crisis crossed boundaries.  However, I could also argue that the scene served as an intrinsic part of a story that necessarily exposed the darker side of the DC Universe.  Taste varies among people.  Certain things that disgust and offend one person may not faze another. 

Marvel and DC exercise fairly tight control over their main titles in this regard.  Outside of their mature titles and those published under other imprints, the publishers portrays very little nudity, profanity, or exceptionally graphic violence.  As I stated earlier, both publishers have allowed more in the past few years.  Wolverine: Origins shows the most blood I’ve seen outside of a Max title.  DC doesn’t even submit 52 to the Comics Code Authority. But, questions of taste rarely arise with their main titles.  Still, some readers complained about the death of Robert Kirkman’s character Freedom Ring in Marvel Team-Up.  They decried Kirkman and Marvel for introducing a gay character and then promptly killing him – to them, a story in decidedly poor taste.  Kirkman later explained that he wanted to create a gay character not defined exclusively by his sexual orientation.  He felt that so many homosexual characters offer little to readers other than their sexual preference.  He also wanted to create a superhero that, as would happen in real life, dies because of his recklessness and lack of training.  But, the combination didn’t sit well with some people.  Then again, some people complain every time a gay character appears in a television show, comic, or any other media.  Usually, they say they don’t care to read about or watch a character that wears their sexual preference on their sleeve.  They think it’s in poor taste.  Some people can read Burlyman’s Doc Frankenstein or Image’s Loaded Bible and not care about its rather over-the-top depictions of Christianity.  Others will find their religious sensibilities deeply offended.  Then again, Left Behind offends me on many levels, but I don’t take it personally. 

The point stands that someone can always find something in poor taste, even in the most innocuous work of art.  That leaves us with the question of what standard writers and artists should observe.  First and foremost, they have to observe the standards set forth by their editors and publishers.  If you want to write for Marvel or DC, you ultimately play by their rules.  Unless a publisher decides to traffic in extreme content with reckless abandon, their standards for taste depend on what the market will bear.  From a strictly economic standpoint and barring any other considerations, they can choose to traffic in boobs and blood if such things turn a profit.  But, particularly in the case of Marvel and DC, they won’t sell comics for very long if the market flatly refuses such material.  That’s why Marvel slaps “Adults Only” on The Punisher.  An independent publisher can abandon all standards of taste and write that zombie porn that’s lurked in their imaginations for all these years.  In fact, many do.  But, only a select few will buy such a thing.  For some publishers, a niche market that reads less-than-savory titles like Satan Gone Wild can sustain them (more or less).  

Still, I have to ask what justifies a profanity-laden nude bloodbath, when it only seeks to offend some people and thrill others by doing so.  This is where I draw the line.  I don’t care about content as much as the purpose it serves.  You can depict the harshest, most extreme content in service of a noble idea.  You can’t depict the horrors of war without showing heads and arms flying off.  Similarly, you probably can’t properly show the excesses of the adult film industry without at least discussing some of the things to which its performers subject themselves.  But, you can also use nudity and violence to see just how many people you can offend.  That’s why I won’t watch the Saw movies anymore, but I’ll happily sit through The Hills Have Eyes.  One uses gore to prove how extreme it is, like a bad death metal band.  The other uses gore to suggest that a fine line separates civilization from the primitive.  Extremity for the sole purpose of showing how far the creators will go achieves very little.  Outside of a campy sort of gross-out thrill, humanity stands little to gain from something that seeks to offend, rather than instruct. 

I think that The Boys, though ribald, crude, and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, manages to show extreme content in service of a larger message about power’s ability to corrupt.  While I won’t deny that the series has moments where it seems to traffic in shock value, I find its intentions noble, ultimately.  I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.  I love superheroes, but I acknowledge the absurdity that Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson expose in The Boys. I also agree with some of the harsh realities they extrapolate – that, if superheroes were real, a lot of them would act like Motley Crüe on a backstage bender.  The creators have also portrayed their protagonists as relatively amoral.  While we can laugh at them beating up on DC-look-alikes, we also see their darker sides.  The Boys, while no doubt harsh, is more than the comic book equivalent of shock rock.  In that regard, it puts bad taste to good use.  That’s a trick some creators employ artfully, while others never learn it at all. 

THE SPINNER RACK

By Kurt Amacker 

Hey guys, Al took the week off.  He’ll return next week to continue fulfilling his community service hours.  Until then, you’re stuck with my colossally lame jokes.  Enjoy! 

DARK HORSE COMICS 

HELLBOY ANIMATED VOL 1 BLACK WEDDING TP  $6.95

Kurt: This isn’t by Mike Mignola, but I love me some Hellboy, so I’m buying it anyway. 

STAR WARS KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC #13  $2.99 

USAGI YOJIMBO #100 (NOTE PRICE)  $3.50 

DC COMICS 

52 WEEK #39  $2.50 

AMERICAN VIRGIN #11 (MR)  $2.99

Kurt: I really like this series.  My wife does, too.  So, if you’re dying to get your spouse into comics, give her this series. 

BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK #6 (OF 6)  $3.50

Kurt: The second of Matt Wagner’s miniseries concludes.  The last one, Batman and the Monster Men, was good.  I’m reading this in one shot, so I’ll say something about it when the trade comes out. 

BATMAN LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #214  $2.99 

BATMAN SECRETS TP  $12.99

Kurt: Batman miniseries by Sam Keith.  I liked this, but I can only remember that it had a thing about the Joker supposedly reforming himself.  But, I remember that I enjoyed it.  So, buy it.  Shoo. 

BLUE BEETLE #11  $2.99 

CARTOON NETWORK BLOCK PARTY #29  $2.25 

CREEPER #6 (OF 6)  $2.99

Kurt: Steve Niles’s miniseries wraps.  This series finally turned on the gas in the last issue, so this should be decent. 

DEATHBLOW #3  $2.99 

DEATHBLOW VAR ED #3  $2.99 

DOOM PATROL VOL 5 MAGIC BUS TP (MR)  $19.99 

EX MACHINA #26 (MR)  $2.99 

HAWKGIRL #60  $2.99 

ION #10 (OF 12)  $2.99 

ION VOL 1 THE TORCHBEARER TP  $14.99 

JACK OF FABLES #7 (MR)  $2.99 

JLA CLASSIFIED #33  $2.99 

JSA CLASSIFIED #22 $2.99 

KRYPTO THE SUPER DOG #5 (OF 6)  $2.25 

PENGUIN REVOLUTION VOL 2  $9.99 

SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY VOL 4 TP (RES)  $14.99

Kurt: Certainly worth reading, but prepare to be confused. 

SUPERMAN BACK IN ACTION TP  $14.99 

TEEN TITANS #43   $2.99 

UNCLE SAM AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS #7 (OF 8)  $2.99 

IMAGE COMICS 

ADVENTURES OF SPAWN #1 DIRECTORS CUT #1  $5.99 

COYOTE VOL 4 TP  $14.99 

ELEPHANTMEN #6  $2.99 

GEAR GN  $14.99 

HUNTER KILLER LTD DLX BOXED ED HC  $29.99 

HUNTER KILLER LTD ED HC  $19.99 

HUNTER KILLER ROCAFORT CVR A #11  $2.99

Kurt: This series has picked up speed, now that it’s coming out on time.  It isn’t as compulsively readable as Rising Stars was, but I dig it. 

HUNTER KILLER ROCAFORT CVR B #11  $2.99 

INNOCENTS GN  $9.99 

NEGATIVE BURN #8 (MR)  $5.99 

PIECES FOR MOM A TALE OF THE UNDEAD (ONE SHOT) (MR)  $3.99

Kurt: One week and twice the Steve Niles!  It’s manna from Heaven! 

SPAWN #164  $2.95 

WALKING DEAD #34 (MR)  $2.99

Kurt: This issue takes place in the A.T. era – that is, After Torture. 

WONDERLOST #1  $5.99 

MARVEL COMICS 

ANITA BLAKE VH GUILTY PLEASURES #4 (OF 12)  $2.99 

ANNIHILATION #6 (OF 6)  $2.99 

ASTONISHING X-MEN VOL 3 TORN TP   $14.99 

BLACK PANTHER #24 CW  $2.99 

CABLE DEADPOOL VOL 4 BOSOM BUDDIES TP  $14.99

Kurt: Somehow, calling those two “bosom buddies” doesn’t quite do them justice. 

DAREDEVIL #93  $2.99

Kurt: Ed Brubaker continues kicking ass. 

DEFENDERS INDEFENSIBLE TP  $13.99 

ESSENTIAL GHOST RIDER VOL 2 TP  $16.99

Kurt: I haven’t even finished the first one yet! 

GHOST RIDER FINALE  $3.99

Kurt: I’m torn about whether or not to buy this.  This is the completed final issue of the last Ghost Rider ongoing series, which I’ve never read.  Still, it’s nice that Marvel went back to patch this hole. 

IRON MAN EXTREMIS TP  $14.99 

KABUKI #8 (MR)  $2.99 

KABUKI KENT WILLIAMS VAR #8 (MR)  $2.99 

MARVEL MASTERWORKS ATLAS ERA HEROES VOL 1 HC VAR ED 73  $54.99 

MARVEL MASTERWORKS ATLAS ERA HEROES VOL 1 NEW ED HC  $54.99 

MARVEL SPOTLIGHT DARK TOWER  $2.99

Kurt: FYI, this is just a magazine with interviews and such. 

MS MARVEL SPECIAL  $2.99 

PTOLUS CITY BY THE SPIRE #4 (OF 6)  $2.99 

ULTIMATE CIVIL WAR SPIDER-HAM CRISIS #1  $2.99

Kurt: FYI, this is just a parody.  Imagine that! 

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #38  $2.99 

XIII TP (MR)  $14.99 

X-MEN #195  $2.99

Kurt: I’ve got nothing.  I’ll see y’all next week. 

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at comicscape@mania.com. 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 9 of 9
1 
noblenonsense 1/31/2007 8:00:58 AM
And its a light week in the comic world...
deadcowboy138 1/31/2007 11:53:09 AM
They can't all be winners. I wonder if these more academic columns just bore the piss out of everyone.
MrKeith 1/31/2007 12:24:55 PM
Hey, the guy's got to fill a weekly column. Sadly, too many times we look away from what offends/scares us, as opposed to facing it head on; or question why it offends/scares us. And isn't that what, ultimately, comic books try to teach us anyway? And, of course, movies and TV shows get more hype and controversy because they tend to be bigger, high profile, targets that get pumped into your TV. Comic books you have to go out and get. But, yeah, it's all just a context thing.
noblenonsense 1/31/2007 1:52:15 PM
I'm all for the academic columns. It has an intriguing approach to comics. But there's on aspect I found lacking from your column, the stereotype of comics as a medium. I find that the stereotype of comics as for kids to be what holds back the current big two from using excessive force. Didn't Batman once own a gun and kill the bad guys? I could really use a crazy, sloppy joe eatin' Starman this week...heck I'd settle for a good Wolverine story
deadcowboy138 1/31/2007 10:28:48 PM
Hey guys, Kurt here. I was asking if my own material bored the piss out of everyone. I have a column to fill every week and they can't all be brilliant, unfortunately. And yes, comics still are largely stereotyped as children's media, though the characters have moved into pop culture through other media. I think the "no kill" thing has become such a hallowed tradition among some titles that the publishers are afraid to break it -- for instance, having Batman kill people again. I think it also gives them a moral highground, whereas a guy like the Punisher or even Wolverine becomes more of an antihero who loses part of themselves through their killing.
lister 2/1/2007 11:05:48 AM
Kurt, when you first started, your writing was very academic which was cool but what I did not like was that it was dry. But from then until now, you have definitely made your work more compelling. Don't ever worry about being too academic. This site NEEDS that. I hope your editors in chief (if you have them) aren't trying to turn your articles into something more "acceptable" to the "masses".
shadowprime 2/2/2007 10:22:11 AM
IMHO, excellent column. The problem I have, when issues of taste, content, sex, violence, etc (in comics) are discussed, is that the discussion tends to be cliched and dominated by straw-men. Those indicating ANY ambivalence over some of the excesses are generally portrayed as uptight, closeminded prudes or unsophisticated busybodies. It is nice to see a more nuanced, sophisticated take on the whole subject. No easy answers here - but there SHOULDN'T be, it isn't a simple subject! So thanks for an intelligent, refreshing read.... Shadow
lister 2/2/2007 10:37:13 AM
If they are ambivalent about the excesses, why are they called uptight prudes? Am I reading your intent correctly?
karas1 2/2/2007 3:39:09 PM
I liked the column. I like the acedemic columns a good deal more than I liked the trashy sex jokes, that's for sure. This column was interesting and entertaining as well.
1 

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