The troubled adolescence of comic books

By Ryan Pike

When the average person thinks of comic books, often they think of brightly-coloured spandex and over-muscled heroes socking bad guys in the jaw to save the day. Truth told, super-hero comics make up the vast majority of sales in the industry. That said, it’s not wholly representative to think of comic books as nothing but big breasts, big guns, big explosions and escapism. Comics, both historically and presently, have tackled a number of meaty issues. Unfortunately, when escapism and social awareness collide, the result can be bad news for everyone involved.

Social commentary in comic books goes back a long way. In the 1970s, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics ignored the advice of the Comics Code Authority — the governmental body that rated and regulated content — and published a multi-part storyline in Amazing Spider-Man where Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osborn got addicted to drugs. So, when Peter (as Spider-Man) fought the Green Goblin (Harry’s father), he was also fighting against widespread ignorance of his friend’s problem. Similarly, Marvel competitor DC Comics published a storyline in Green Arrow where the titular character’s sidekick, Speedy, got hooked on heroin.

The industry has also seen some rather embarrassing treatments of real-life events and issues. Most recently, an issue of Amazing Spider-Man brought writer Fred van Lente into the public eye as he had to defend a scene where super-villain the Chameleon impersonated Peter Parker and made out with his female roommate. In other words, it seemed as if Peter Parker forced himself on a woman, essentially bringing sexual assault into the realm of comic book villainy. Even worse, the scene made it seem as if much more had occurred than the writer apparently intended — leaving puzzled readers wondering if they had seen someone raped in a Spider-Man comic.

The situation isn’t unprecedented in the world of Marvel Comics. A pair of storylines after the 9/11 terror attacks drew fans’ ire. One featured Captain America fighting Islamic fundamentalism at home and abroad, much in the same manner he fought against the Red Skull and his giant Nazi robots in decades past. Another issue showcasing Spider-Man and other heroes aiding the rescue effort in the collapsed World Trade Center area drew controversy — this time, for showing super-villain Dr. Doom shedding a tear in the wake of such destruction. This coming from Dr. Doom, a villain who had previously attempted to enslave or destroy the Earth on multiple occasions and stole a child to harvest its powers. What made the inclusion of villains even worse was that the issue came just months after the killer robot Ultron blew up an entire country — bringing the 9/11 tragedy into the realm of comic books felt completely hollow and wrong given the scale of deaths that routinely occurred in super-hero books.

This decade has seen an influx of literate writers with an eye to grounding their writing in the modern world. Brian Michael Bendis wrote about teen sex in Ultimate Spider-Man and treated the issue in an appropriate, albeit really funny, manner. Mark Millar tackled the Patriot Act and its ramifications in the context of super heroes in Civil War. Y: The Last Man examined gender roles in the context of a plague that killed every man on the planet, except for one. More and more, series that would’ve flown under the commercial radar are becoming increasingly well-read.

Unfortunately, perception of comic books within wider society sees them as kiddie fare. As such, having more adult situations featured in super-hero books — like Peter Parker having a drunken one-night-stand in Spider-Man — or tackling issues like gay-bashing, sexual assault and rape flies in the face of what people think these stories should be about. Given the sales and critical reaction to many of these stories, dealing with more mature topics hasn’t alienated readers. The challenge facing creators now is changing society’s antiquated notions of what comics should be to match what writers, artists and readers believe comics actually are.

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