Okay…I admit I mostly read The Archies, Scoobie Doo, and Peanuts… But sometimes in being a girl there are “ick-factor” moments, and at the age when comic books potentially become a hidden treasure trove of childhood’s self-indulgence, girls are typically learning to scream at insects and roll their eyes with style. Boys, on the other hand are only good for cooties, grossing you out and getting you into trouble. Furthermore, the only comics they won’t snarf from your own collection are the ones named above… because at a certain age, boys live in and for the comics. In retrospect, it becomes a point of delicious envy, because Horror owes a lot of its evolutionary growth to comic books. Comics gave Horror its legs. And scales. And superpowers.
G.R.O.S.S. (The Get Rid of Slimey GirlS Club)
It should come as no surprise then that Horror also owes much of its hard-core fandom to the comic book industry, and that many of Horror’s strongest fans are typically male, and frequently young. But there are also those of us of the female persuasion who were what was once annoyingly called “tom boys” and for whom – once the teen years took hold of the hormones – Horror was the only thing that would do.
We read The Amityville Horror, screamed clinging to dates in the audience at The Exorcist, and snuck downstairs to watch The Twilight Zone after everyone was asleep…Unfortunately though – thanks in no small part to The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats – most of us missed the earlier comic book years that boys knew about – a nice solid decade or so of youth spent with harem scare’em Horror that became the unwitting foundation of a lot of 1970’s, ‘80s and ‘90s Horror fiction.
These were the splashy, graphic comics that caused parents to cringe in mortal fear and warn of irreversible psychic damage – and which were the almost-exclusive territory of boys. Had I had comic books like those, they would have gotten wrinkled and bendy during those same youthful years. But comics are a veritable subculture for boys – their existence communicated by alien means that circumvent both girls and parents in most cases… Most of us girls – even those who loved Horror – were out of the loop. Owing to the actual social-driven concerns of pre-teen and teenage girls, perhaps it was for the best…
The Questionable Pastime
Sometimes coined “the picture novels of pulp,” comics got their roots in deep in the mid-twentieth century, echoing the “blue-covered Gothick chapbooks hawked on London and New York street corners 150 years earlier…Aimed at the lower classes, cheap and crudely printed, blue books and comics alike were crammed with the same lurid violence deplored by the middle classes of both eras…who feared their children’s minds would be forever damaged by the contact” (Nelson 80).
Some adults still carry this fearful prejudice, wondering at events like the recent horrific shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the effects of such things on the mentally susceptible. But comics – like their cousins – fiction, film, and fine art – are reflections of cultural obsession. They mark in no uncertain terms our sociological, psychological and religious boundaries. They are mirrors of debate – not roadmaps to insanity, which itself can be found in the most inane of things. To fear comics is to fear all flights of fancy, to toy with censorship and the auspices of life with Big Brother. It is also a direct threat to the arts and humanities, which rely on the innocence of childhood and the poking of disturbing psychic images to produce the most profound of human works.
Comic books have held onto that long pointy stick throughout their history…prodding cultural institutions like journalism, politics, religion and sexuality; and defining others like patriotism, justice and honor. They have even challenged conventions of literature by defying “proper” boundaries, mixing and borrowing genres, material, authorship and creative license. Comic book publishers of the past have loaned and borrowed characters, artists, writers and storylines…Heroes and villains can appear anywhere at any time, often unencumbered by the threat or fear of plagiarism, freed to extrapolate on any story or character as the Muse dictates (Nelson 81-82). Violence and savagery are juxtaposed with revenge and justice; stark emotions are explored, experimented with and resolved. In this way, are they really any different than their more wordy relatives – common fiction? Is it because of the graphic imagery? Or the unsophisticated and childlike blunt honesty of the questions asked that disturb detractors more?
Where indeed might be The Line in the Sand? It most certainly is not in fearing that art deforms the mind, or that comics are not “worthy” of deft minds. Says Greg Littmann in The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy, these “Works of the imagination can be extremely useful as food for thought…Such fantasies, often because of the highly unusual situations that arise in them, can be very handy for exploring such issues, as well as issues relating to human nature, morality, or…just about anything…” The point becomes moot then, if one is asking if it is “alright for us to kick back and read a “graphic novel” about a costumed crime fighter with weird powers, or…a shameful waste of our intellectual potential” (15)… Comics are not about the kind of lessons in humanity that Aristotle sought to derive from art, but about navigating the intricacies of social and cultural norms and establishing the “rules” of the game.In this way, “Comics can serve as models of human behavior, including interaction between those who are unequal in society, delivering morals, and balancing ethics (Belk 1). Even monsters become human, terror a misconstrued special effect. It is partly because of our over-exposure to heavily made-up monsters that real deformities are no longer justification to calling another human being a “monster.” It is because of Superman that we have upped our own expectations of the concept of a “personal best” with a dose of healthy patriotism via “truth, justice, and the American Way”...
Comics are of “special interest because they have up to now found their largest audience among children, who may be especially susceptible to forming material values and attitudes derived partly from mass media, including comic books…[but] they are only one factor in the development of material values” (Belk 1). For fearful parents everywhere, one must admit that comics are in the end, like everything else a child will encounter: outside stimulus that inside guidance allows the proper exploration of.
This includes the exploration of art, creative writing, and the whole of the human experience.
Within genre fiction, “The comic books of the Golden and Silver Ages (approximately the late 1930’s to the mid-1950’s and the mid-1950’s to the mid-1970’s respectively) gave American children and teenagers a rich pantheon of monstrous and beautiful divine humans – superheroes, super-heroines, and super-villains either transplanted from other worlds…or alchemically transfigured through trauma linked to manmade disaster…all of whom concealed their demigod natures behind a regular-citizen persona” (Nelson 80). In more than one sense, both Harry Potter and Edward from Twilight were born here, generations after Lestat and Frankenstein’s much rejuvenated Monster who seems to have started the whole human monster business. Comics put monsters into new perspective. Monsters were us, for good or ill. Monsters and hybrids became the tools of a whole new philosophy, with comic book writers morphing into impromptu “speculative natural philosophers” (82).
The Secret Ingredient in Genre Evolution
So instead of burying our heads in the sand, as adults we can begin to appreciate just exactly what comics have done for fiction and film…because comic books have put our innermost fantasies on the map and illustrated our moral and ethical struggles. There is no other genre where good and evil, right and wrong are so clearly and vividly defined. For those with no patience for the long, drawn out nuance of literature and who like their action without threaded symbolism, the direct correlation of allegory and plot serve to cut through the frills and deliver the issues whole and unedited for consumption. Those of us who read and write in genres cannot complain – we have reaped the benefits.
Once we embarked upon the Golden Age of pulp fiction, the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror came into their own. Superheroes became an accepted part of our culture, and the monster as superhero – no longer inherently evil. All of this reflected deep cultural rifts happening in our religious beliefs, a growing “restlessness” with the concept of Hell and eternal damnation, a sociological shift from Protestant orthodoxy to denominational choices which focus less on damnation and more on navigating the intricacies of life. Our heroes were the monsters, and the monsters were us…
Comic books suddenly were leading us by the hand from the dark and hallowed halls of traditional Gothic literature laced with Catholic dogma into a kind of Protestant enlightenment that included the banishing of darker religious thought and the birth of the Age of Redefinition in the shadow of the Weird. All of a sudden, the hierarchy that gave Gothic structure to the concepts of good and evil was not as rigidly defined and the genres were unleashed to run amok. The seeds of contemporary Horror were sewn with Marvel and DC comic book panels.
There was a definite correlation between old Gothic religious thought and comic book protagonists. Superheroes “performed miracles but lacked sanctity” in the Golden Age (Nelson 81), then in the Silver Age morphed into complex extended multicultural pantheons balancing good and evil gods, immortal beings, and humans with superpowers (82). Fueled by New Age metaphysics that revisited the Old Goth notion of an animistic universe…the increasingly sophisticated Silver Age comics of the 1960’s and 1970’s gave Satan new and distinctively heterodox forms and reinvented the 1950’s monster comics with the creation of Spider-Man, Thor and Dr. Strange…(82-83).
Says Victoria Nelson, “Comic books of the Golden and Silver Ages drew from the same well of Christian demonology and ‘occulture’ that traditional Gothick did” (82), but did not stay there. Instead, comic books transcended the old standards, changing our literal interpretations of monsters, God and the Devil, eventually coming to reflect an evolving “sub-Zeitgeist popular culture” in which “the Christian God and Satan have left the building, leaving their half-human, half-supernatural offspring poised to take over” (91).
The effects on genres like Horror cannot be understated in this age of empathetic vampires, human monsters and apocalyptic visions. Says Nelson, “Since the new divine humans mostly trace their Gothick lineage to Satan, not God, and thus partake of his dark nature, good and evil are no longer discrete opposing categories…Good seems to spring…from the human, non-supernatural side of their nature” (92).
Therefore, one cannot separate comic books and their lusciously delivered images from contemporary Horror in film or fiction. One cannot underestimate their impact on publishing trends such as the saga and serial fiction, and the graphic novel, or the concept of timeless and continuous story with no definitive beginning and no foreseeable end. Comic books have provided us with such institutions of device as “horizontal suspension” in which “time and space have been slowed to accommodate the massive over-lapping of stories and characters” as demonstrated in television melodramas like Lost and True Blood (Nelson 81). They have been inventive and re-inventive, providing original and fertile soil upon which to grow engaging genre fiction.For some, the comic book phase is just that – a phase. But for others... well, they go on to become hopeless fanatics, groupies of the pulp genres which need and appreciate them. Those of us who never waded into the waters of the Ages should not pass judgment; indeed, we savor and enjoy the benefits of those illustrated forays into the dark within our fiction and our films every day. So for those who think this is a fruitless hobby borne of shallow and pale immaturity, I say you have missed the point of comics entirely. I say get thee to ComiCon, and repent.
Belk, Russell W. “Material Values in the Comics: A Content Analysis of Comic Books Featuring Themes of Wealth.” The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Jun 1987), 26-42. Retrieved from: http://faculty.bschool.washington.edu/ryalch/M581/Postmodern/Belk(Material%20Values%20in%20Comics).pdf
Littmann, Greg. “Aristotle on Sheldon Cooper: Ancient Greek Meets Modern Geek.” The Big Bang theory and Philosophy, Ed. By Dean A. Kowalski. Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, ed. by William Irwin. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., c 2012.Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2012.