Comic Books, Adults, and a History of Stigmatization
Comic books, perhaps best known as the staple for superhero fans, have indisputably become a major part of popular culture. However, most readers of comics will likely encounter someone who assumes that comics only possess simplistic and childish stories—and that they are simply not worth one’s time. This stigma seems to assume there is an age at which one “grows out” of reading comics, even though they simply tell a story through images like movies. No one would dare suggest movies or even books as a whole medium are only appropriate for a certain audience, so where did this stigma come from and why do comic books—and their older readers in particular—face this judgement? More importantly, have the efforts within the recent decades to diversify the content of comic books and shift the favoured audience contributed to a changing idea of comic books?
Comics for Kids
Comics, in the form of sequential and juxtaposed images, have existed for centuries and were even used in satirical cartoons and “funnies” strips in the 1800s. Modern comics as we recognize them now were only introduced and popularized in American society in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. It almost comes as no shock that comic books—with their bright colours, and heroes with strong moral compasses and the abilities to do fantastical things—became extremely popular. Children, specifically young boys, were the target audience and the birth of the superhero comic in this time gave us some of the most familiar and popular characters in the form of Superman and Batman. Who wouldn’t want to be like Superman or Captain America, battling evil and saving the world, especially during the Depression and World War Two?
The contents of comics eventually came under fire and the most recognized opponent was Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who crusaded against violent images in mass media. In Seduction of the Innocent (1954), he argued the depictions of violence, drug use, and sex had a detrimental effect on the development of children (Coville; “Seduction of the Innocent”). He specifically linked children who were exposed to violent images to juvenile delinquency, showing the dangers of children imitating what they read or watched. Even the beloved superheroes were criticized: he described Superman as a fascist and suggested the Batman stories had a homosexual overtone (Coville; “Seduction of the Innocent”). Some of Wertham’s research has been disputed and proven as falsified, but he fuelled the idea that comics were not suitable for children.
At the same time Wertham conducted and published his research, the Comics Code Authority (1954) was created as a way of regulating the material of comic publishers. Its code—the “Comic Book Code”—lasted until the early twenty-first century and a small stamp appeared at the top corner of the covers of whichever comic books obeyed it.
The code’s original regulations included portraying crime only as an immoral activity and having the criminal punished by the triumphant good figure to deter children from crime, banning excessive violence and depictions of horror, prohibiting all representations of creatures like vampires and werewolves, and eliminating anything sexual (“Good Shall Triumph over Evil”). The code was occasionally updated but until publishers stopped conforming to it or developed their own rating system, it determined what was acceptable for its child-focused audience.
Criticisms and Codes: The Result
In many ways, the backlash and the comic code helped reinforce the notion that comics should be exclusively for children. Comics originally appealed to a younger audience with its heroes and awesome adventures, but the more mature activities and images could at least appeal to an older audience. The outcry against comics and the attempts to make the content as harmless as possible to children likely narrowed down the audience to almost exclusively young readers.
Comics were also considered “low culture” and part of the degrading mass culture since they were cheap and easily distributable. This relegated them to the lowest position on the supposed hierarchy of literature. Just like how we give children picture books with little words and then shift to stories with less pictures once they learn to read and then to novels without any pictures, there seemed to be a belief that reading comics was a passing phase. Once children grew up, they were meant to abandon comics and move onto better literature.
You could easily start tracing the stigma of adults reading comics from here because comics were culturally and ideologically reinforced as children’s things, surviving almost solely because of their popularity than their worth.
Comics for Adults
Since comics were ruled by the Comic Book Code, the question becomes how or why adults would even wish to read comics. Comic books, by definition and by regulation, should have been child-friendly, inoffensive, and too simplistic for most adults to even spare a glance. And of course, the notion of comics as childish likely warded off older readers who might have enjoyed them.
From these strict regulations and lack of freedom for some artists, underground comix emerged. And from here, the stigma of adults reading comic books becomes slightly more complicated.
While the Comic Book Code carefully monitored the content of all the mainstream publications, an underground comic counterculture became popular in the late 1960s. This created comix, which used the same form as regular comics, but they were not mass-produced or readily available to the public. Mad Magazine (1952-present), which satirized everything from pop culture to politics, had a great influence on underground comix. The comix themselves followed this satirical tone, poking fun at societal norms like the nuclear family, and explicitly exploring subjects that were outlawed in mainstream comics such as sex and drug use (“Underground Comix”).
The counterculture movement, spanning the comix and even adult cartoons like Fritz the Cat (1972), brought media that typically targeted children to adults. Even The Simpsons (1989-present) has its roots in the counterculture movement. Its creator, Matt Groening, was approached to create the show because of his underground Life in Hell (1977-2012) comic strips—and no one can deny The Simpsons’ role as a hugely successful satirical cartoon appealing to children and adults alike (Murray). Another obvious legacy of the underground comix are the alternative or independent comics, like Dark Horse Comics, which still offer different stories and styles that contrast the mainstream superhero comics.
What the underground comix illustrated was that comics were not only for children. They showed the possibility of making comics that could be adult in tone and content, making jokes that a younger audience wouldn’t understand. The successes of the underground movement and the persistence of certain aspects in modern culture have definitely helped challenge the stigma of comics as childish or unsuitable for adults.
The Rise of Graphic Novels
The last piece in the stigma of adult comic book reading is the creation of the ever-popular “graphic novel.” This was a term popularized in the 1970s to distinguish the works dealing with more complicated narratives from the stereotypical images of simple and colourful superheroes commonly associated with comics. In a way, it helped artists who might have been otherwise ridiculed for pursuing a career in comics.
In publishing terms, “comic books” now describe the serialized issues bound like magazines, while “graphic novels” often have the glossy cover and bindings of a regular book. Both use the same form of juxtaposed and sequential images, even if the use of colours or the content of the stories may vary. Graphic novels might arguably have more freedom in their content, ranging from the contemporary superhero narrative found in Watchmen (1987) to the iconic story of the Holocaust in Maus (1991). While they tend to deal with mature themes, they don’t target an exclusive age group so its audience can range from young preteens to adults—but when it comes down to it, graphic novels share many key similarities with comic books and are still technically comics.
The stigma surrounding adults reading comics is perhaps most clear when discussing comic books versus graphic novels because we have these two terms. It’s important to first note that neither “comic books” nor “graphic novels” describe the content of the works because neither are limited to specific genres or art styles (especially since the comic book code became void). Saying you are reading a “comic” will not give anyone an accurate indication of what is inside the comic.
These terms become harmful when people use “graphic novel” to distinguish their preference of reading material from “comic books”—as if the former is superior to the latter. This is definitely a flawed idea and becomes very blurred when some graphic novels, like the highly acclaimed Maus, are simply a collection of previously serialized comics. “Comic books” are still largely associated in popular culture as cheap paperbacks with colourful stories reminiscent of the early comic code era, while “graphic novels” have been popularized as more mature and complex. This makes some comic book readers quick to correct anyone who calls their reading material “comics,” as though reading comics is embarrassing but graphic novels are worthy of their time—which unfortunately only fuels the stigma that comics are only suited for children.
A Changing Opinion
There have been many historical and even cultural ups and downs in how comic books have been received by readers and critics, but the response to them has been steadily improving.
For example, one major benefit to the emergence of graphic novels has been the fact that there is now a wider availability of reading material for people regardless of their age. Graphic novels have given teenagers and adults a way of enjoying the content of comics—regardless if it’s a crime, superhero, or even contemporary story—without being ridiculed for it. Even if graphic novels continue to be more culturally respectable than comic books, they have at least helped reduce the stigma that adults shouldn’t read comics.
Additionally, even if you only look at superhero comics, we have been given many characters that perhaps become more admirable as you get older. Many have become more human and relatable with backstories and weaknesses, so they’re not just invincible or flawless beings. Some characters have visible or invisible disabilities, ranging from blindness to depression, and can still kick ass. There is a diversity in comics that is only possible with the multiple iterations of certain characters, the endless possibilities of parallel or alternate universes, and the new writers and artists who often adjust things to contemporary times. Even though the characters do crazy things we can’t imitate, they can be as inspirational as Hermione Granger or Sherlock Holmes.
And of course, in the last fifteen or so years, there has been a visible change to how comic books are approached and publicly received due to the explosion of successful comic book-to-film adaptations. The comic book-to-movie possibilities are currently dominated by superheroes in the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the long-standing X-Men franchise, and the recent DC Extended Universe—but there have been successful non-superhero adaptations like Sin City (2005) and V For Vendetta (2005). Although adapting a comic book can be risky when aspects of a beloved character or story are changed and this can translate into a box office failure, the successes largely outweigh the failures. Not to mention, these movies have helped expand the appeal of comics to people who hadn’t even picked up a comic before or might have thought it wasn’t for them. Even if they are just casual fans of the movies, this definitely helps the popular image of comics.
So does a stigma persist around adults reading comics? Unfortunately, yes.
But as Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, “[i]f people failed to understand comics, it was because they defined what comics could be too narrowly” (3). This is one of the best ways to sum up the stigmatization of comics and their older readers throughout the years. Comics have been re-defined several times since their popularization and have felt the pressure of social or cultural beliefs that have limited their content and audience. But they have also since expanded even if some people outside the comic community still can’t fathom why comics are useful or popular. McCloud sees the many possibilities that exist in comic books and his statement reveals that perhaps there is hope for people’s definition of the medium to expand and resemble the reality of comics today.
Comics—and their reception—have come a long way in the past eighty or so years. And no, it’s not perfect but it’s difficult to erase decades of a certain popularized image of comic books, even with graphic novels and comic book films. But at least comic readers and even casual fans have a community in which they can enjoy an endless supply of amazing characters, art, and stories.
The bottom line is that there is nothing shameful about reading a comic book—even if no one understands it because it’s really their loss if they think anything less of you or what you’re reading. So if anyone asks, Yes. It is a comic book. And it’s fantastic.
Coville, Jamie. “Seduction of the Innocents and the Attack on Comic Books.” Integrative Arts 10. Gregory J. Golda at Penn State University, n.d., http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html. Accessed 14 Jan 2017.
“‘Good Shall Triumph over Evil’: The Comic Book Code of 1954.” World History, n.d., http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6543/. Accessed 21 Jan 2017.
Maslon, Laurence, Michael Kantor. Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. Crown Archetype, 2013.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperCollins, 1993.
Murray, Noel. “Between Zap and The Simpsons: Matt Groening’s Life In Hell: How Groening brought the underground to the mainstream.” A.V. Club. Onion Inc., 17 Jan 2015. http://www.avclub.com/article/between-zap-and-simpsons-matt-groenings-life-hell-213583. Accessed 16 Feb 2017.
“Seduction of the Innocent.” World Public Library. World Heritage Encyclopedia, n.d., http://www.worldlibrary.org/articles/seduction_of_the_innocent. Accessed 9 Jan 2017.
“Underground Comix and the Underground Press.” Lambiek Comiclopedia, n.d., https://www.lambiek.net/comics/underground.htm. Accessed 16 Feb 2017.
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