Introduction to the Special Blog Series

‘Beyond the Graphic’ – Considering Violence, Sexuality and Obscenity in Comics

Despite being among the most culturally iconic narrative forms in the world, comics is only just starting to break away from its ignominious past and claim its rightful place alongside film and literature in the American canon. Since the 1970s, the form has grown massively, with its popularity moving beyond the original reader stereotypes and into new territory. As with gaming, which typically focusses on a narrow demographic of participants and materials, popular understandings of comics is liable to focus only on the mainstream (which includes the publishers Marvel, DC and Dark Horse) and ignore the huge number of other texts, which may be seen as outliers. This could not be further from the truth. The form is as diverse as any other, with examples in every conceivable genre and spanning all themes.

Of course, just because comics can do nuanced and diverse narratives, doesn’t mean it necessarily must. Much has been made of the oft-demonstrated skill of both artist and writer, the amazingly detailed and highly researched narratives of life and trauma and ‘big themes’, and the complex socio-linguistic, socio-historic and educational roles that comics plays in contemporary cultural production. I most certainly do not want to diminish this – and have written on it elsewhere – but what about the stories that do not set out to be high comics art? In every form, there is a spectrum of quality and banality. There is no reason why comics cannot also have its lower quality moments – its own equivalent to Michael Bay movies or Mills and Boon. Much of the form, especially across the broad scope of American comics, sits at the lower end of quality. Cheaply produced ‘funnies’, high-intensity action narratives and other stories designed to be consumed once and disposed of. There is no reason why we should clamour to write (potentially overblown) critiques of these works and not let them be what they are – pulp. Similarly, though some may seem to deify comics, there is much in its history that is still inherently problematic, especially when it comes to women.

The aim of this series is to consider these high-intensity, pulpier comics and seek to ask questions of their purpose, their place in society (both contemporaneously and now) and their overall position in the wider comics conversation. Moving beyond value judgments and close analysis, the posts here consider broader issues of comics in education and in geopolitics, as tools for corruption or community and also as social comment. What these posts have in common in their movement beyond the ‘graphic’, the basic statement that comics uses violence, sex and obscenity to drive up sales, instead moving individual texts into a wider cultural conversation.

Christopher Maverick’s post introduces the infamous Frederic Wertham and his 1954 treatise Seduction of the Innocent. Though many things have changed in the landscape of American comics, we ‘continue to fear the depiction of sexuality and especially sexual violence’. Maverick asks if there is a responsible way to address and explore the issue of sexual assault in mainstream comics – and is it not also our responsibility to find one? On a similar theme, in his article on Batgirl and sexual trauma, Saljooq Asif considers the ‘women in refrigerators’ phenomenon – the mutilation and murder of superheroines to create plot points for superheroes. He discusses how these stories can and are being reconfigured to allow the traumatized heroines to ‘make meaning of their own sexual trauma’.

Comics have long been considered a juvenile form; Alex Liddell’s post asks if there is any empirical evidence to suggest that removing or editing “obscene” material from comics has adequately protected children from trauma or developing bad behaviours. The post lays out a short yet comprehensive analysis of the arguments for and against censorship for the sake of protecting children, along with the history and current industry trends shaping these arguments. Taking a 180 degree turn towards the horrific and the explicitly gory, Craig Thomson analyses the vampire in an American context. What is it about this mainstay figure of horror and terror that speaks to the USA – especially in the series American Vampire. Snyder and Albuquerque’s series positions the vampire as a postmodern figure, molding himself to his historical situation in horrifying pastiche. What does this portrayal of a classic horror trope say about both vampires and comics?

To close the series, we have two sideways glances: one geopolitical, one legal. Dominic Davies widens the geographic scope of his post to look at the work of several comics collectives that have emerging in recent years from several cities. These networks bring together diverse urban artists and show how comics is particularly adept at representing, as well as critically responding to and reimagining, the violence embedded in a range of divided cities. Finally, Thomas MacManus reminds us of the 1978 comic ‘Burger Wars’, in which the immutable Judge Dredd is embroiled in a protracted war between the world’ s biggest hamburger chains. Dredd and his team find themselves captured and force fed high-fat, high-sugar burgers and shakes by the Burger King on one side and a familiar clown called Ronald – sporting a stripy top with familiar golden arcs ‘m’ logo thereon – who runs MacDonald (sic) City, on the other. MacManus discusses how issues surrounding parody, comics and caricature work in relation to out-of-control mindless, soulless corporations taking over the world.

Harriet Earle

Dr Harriet Earle is a lecturer and researcher in American comics, literature, and popular culture. She completed her PhD in American Comics at Keele University in 2014 and is the author of Comics, Trauma and the New Art of War (2017). She has published across the field of comics and popular culture studies, with recent publications in The Journal of Popular Culture and Film International. Dr Earle sits on the editorial board of Comics Forum.

About Harriet Earle

Dr Harriet Earle is a lecturer and researcher in American comics, literature, and popular culture. She completed her PhD in American Comics at Keele University in 2014 and is the author of Comics, Trauma and the New Art of War (2017). She has published across the field of comics and popular culture studies, with recent publications in The Journal of Popular Culture and Film International. Dr Earle sits on the editorial board of Comics Forum.
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