“Calm down, evil-doer… it’s not like you’ll bleed if I punch you in the nose! The network used up its blood quota in the first episode aired this season.”
This post is inspired, like others before it, by a conversation I recently had with a group of fellow authors in one of the many online groups I’m honored to be a part of. The topic in question focused on whether or not we agreed with the points made by the author of this article. That led into further discussions on what constitutes “mature” content in a movie/TV show/video game (etc., et al.), and whether or not such material (however defined) is required for super-hero fare to be considered good or relevant. My contributions to this conversation were less-than-well-received, which inspired this blog, as I wanted to discuss this topic in a bit more detail, including to better extrapolate my thoughts on this subject. There is also the simple matter of me being me, in that I never back away from an opinion I firmly believe in after a lot of thought simply because it’s outside the consensus.
Nevertheless, I do want to make it clear that I greatly respect the contrary opinions of my fellow authors, I’m often greatly inspired by much of what they write and say, and I do tend to understand why they think in opposition to me regarding some of my more controversial opinions. I’ll endeavor to make all of this clear in what follows.
I. The Double-Edged Sword of Maturity
Before the super-hero sub-genre of sci-fi went mainstream in the 1990s–and achieved its renaissance in mainstream pop cultural sensibilities thanks to great cinematic achievements beginning with the release of Blade circa 1998 to the present (the successful release of Ant-Man occurring just the previous weekend at this writing)–comic book fans in general were truly a niche audience. Comic geeks were among the least respected amongst the crowd, as the general public had little to no knowledge of the content of comic books. They seemed to presume (much as they still do with animated fare in America) that the comic book format constitutes a genre rather than a medium, and were intended only for children. And very young children, at that. It was common for ten-year-old comic book fans to be considered “too old” for comics, and to be derided by peers and the oh-so-wise adults alike for reading “kiddie books.” Just ask my life-long friend John, who was amongst many for giving me more than a few sniggers for still being a comic book fan past my eighth birthday (until I successfully convinced him to read Watchmen, but that’s another story!).
This attitude was part of a type of pressure younger people were subjected to by peers back then which insisted that when you “grow up,” it’s necessary to put aside many of the things you cherished in childhood. It was simply considered silly and “childish” to continue to enjoy certain things past a specific birthday. So, for instance, if you were a fan of any material that was widely accepted as being geared towards children, by the time you’re nine-to-ten years old, you were criticized with much vitriol if you maintained interest in said subjects or characters, even if only to a purely aesthetic degree (e.g., you still liked wearing shirts adorned with images of Mickey Mouse). The idea that concepts like the Looney Toons cartoon characters, anything produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, etc., might have appeal on myriad levels beyond being simple juvenile trash was anathema to this bullying mindset that you had to give all of this up to be considered properly mature (or maturing, at least).
And of course, adults could be just as harsh on kids for not “growing up” sufficiently to give up so much of what we loved and resonated with as young children. Such was the case even as they then turned around and gleefully reminded us that we were “just kids” if we wanted to exercise anything akin to civil rights. Yanno, those freedoms that only legal adults are allowed to enjoy regardless of individual levels of competency or the number of mistakes we vaunted grown-ups routinely make. Yup, my status as a youth liberationist since I was 13 will factor into this, so even though I expect the great majority of my fellow authors not to agree with me on this, please bear with me here; hey, if I’m allowed no civil rights at age 14, then at least allow me to still enjoy watching Looney Toon cartoons, dammit! 😛
“Network warning: If you’re over nine years of age, and your friends or parents catch you watching this program, you will be ridiculed. Viewer discretion is therefore advised.”
This once commonplace attitude was addressed thusly by the legendary sci-fi author C. S. Lewis: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” I’m sure I’m far from the only person who is thankful that Mr. Lewis didn’t give up his “childish” creativity and interests! I think these words of wisdom from a great visionary author should speak volumes to everyone who has such stringent definitions of “maturity.” Many “childish things” continue to inspire the creative imagination long past our legally extended childhood, and we would be much the poorer for just arbitrarily “giving them up” as the equivalent of mental garbage as soon as we become X years of age.
I personally think it can be cogently argued that “maturity” may be a mixed bag, with both positive and negative points, depending upon which traits in the popular definition of the term one may choose to adopt. Or perhaps depending upon the circumstances at hand in any given situation. I think giving up idealism, creative imagination & ponderings, a love of fun & adventure, and a sense of wonder with the phenomena of the universe are negative aspects of our society’s commonly defined version of “maturity” that fails to benefit us, either as individuals or as an overall culture, and is directly responsible for much of the less than joyous aspects of our present world order. I think there is good reason why so many in our culture poke fun at fictional characters like Ward Cleaver and Mike Brady. We would all have loved to have had them as fathers when we were children, but few of us actually wanted to grow up to be them! They were depicted as idealized (male) adults: good-hearted, hard-working men who were fountains of wisdom and benevolent authority figures whom their kids could do nothing but respect. However, in many ways they are no more realistic than the idealized children, tweens, and teens that are still commonly depicted in popular Disney series and movies. But at least the latter still have a strong sense of having fun that appeals to so many real younger viewers, as well as adults like myself who do not consider “fun” as something that largely revolves around sitting around the house while consuming alcohol, smoking pot, and complaining to each other about financial & marital problems (and complaining about how our kids want to do the same things). I also believe the above attitudes are directly responsible for the reasons, commonly attributed to adolescents, for assuming that “maturity” can be defined by waves of gratuitous nudity, sex, gory violence, profanity, and heavy grim & gritty themes.
II. So Are Super-Heroes Primarily for Kids?
As I have argued in a previous blog, I take great umbrage with statements like this one spoken by the author of the above linked article: “Superheroes work best as all ages entertainment because the roots of the genre are in the children’s daydreams: to be able to fly like Superman, to wield a lasso like Wonder Woman, to run like the Flash, or to leap from building to building like Spider-Man. A good all-ages superhero story works to satisfy the core desire that these emblematic heroes embody, while also providing a narrative hook that allows adult readers to enter into the innocence of a fantasy world.”
Here’s the thing: I think it’s very clear that super-heroes truly embody adult power fantasies, along with an assortment of archetypes related to what the entirety of any given society may consider its version of the heroic ideal. These are hardly the sole province of “kiddie” dreams. Conceptions of beings with exceptional intelligence and/or superhuman power fighting whatever aspects of society that the prevailing culture may have considered “the enemy” go back to the roots of classical deities and heroes from world mythology and folklore (not to mention popular organized religious texts). These tales of old were hardly intended to provide lessons, ideas, and fulfillment fantasies to children alone. Jesus Christ is worshiped seriously by many as a Great Martyr archetype, yet definitively fictitious characters who also represent this archetype–such as the character of Adam Warlock from Marvel Comics–are dismissed as “kiddie” fare and mental junk food simply because of the medium in which they appeared.
Note how until just very recently, schools have diligently taught the value of stories and figures from mythology, theology, and folklore while ignoring their modern manifestations in comic books. Let’s not forget that comic book heroes have always included versions of classic mythological heroes (and villains) such as Thor and Hercules, as well as heroes like Wonder Woman, whose backstory is steeped in classical Greek mythology (her mother is Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons), and major villains like Morgan Le Fey (having important versions in both Marvel and DC comics), who just happens to be a major figure from the Arthurian legends. Let’s further remember how heroes like Captain Britain have a mythos that is integrally interwoven with those same Arthurian legends. The same with DC’s classic horror hero Etrigan the Demon, who is likewise tied to the legends of Camelot and other aspects of Celtic mythology.
It’s also important to realize that in the modern world, where adults rule completely with little interest in any feedback from younger people–who are mostly regarded as incompetents who need to be interchangeably ignored and “protected”–it’s adults who wield all the power, both for good and for ill. The type of corporate villainy that Lex Luthor personifies–not to mention villains like Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, who were the Big Bads of the recent Iron Man and Ant-Man movies, respectively–is represented in reality by adult CEO’s, not children. The type of crusader for the common person embodied in larger-than-life fashion by the limited numbers of scrupulous lawyers like Matt Murdock (a.k.a., Daredevil)–who recently had an extremely popular live action series premiere on Netflix–occupy offices filled by adults, not children.
There is good reason why adults began gradually embracing super-heroes in an increasingly open fashion as time went on. This first occurred with the type of more sophisticated takes on the genre introduced by the then upstart Marvel Comics from the early 1960s onwards, embraced during that decade by younger adults on college campuses. Later, they became popular with even older adults in all areas of the mainstream beginning in the 1980s thanks to the success of works such as Frank Miller’s “Born Again” story arc in Marvel’s Daredevil comic; Alan Moore’s ground-breaking work on the U.K. series revamp of Marvelman (re-titled Miracleman for its U.S. run), as well as his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing (which later became Swamp Thing Vol. 2) and Watchmen for DC Comics; Miller’s subsequent work for a certain costumed DC vigilante with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the “Batman: Year One” story arc for the regular Batman title; Neil Gaiman’s title The Sandman, which spear-headed DC’s “mature” line of titles under their still extant Vertigo line; and the amazingly well-written and sophisticated runs on mainstream Marvel titles like Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and its first spin-off title, New Mutants, to John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, to Marvel’s introduction of Epic Illustrated–its version of Heavy Metal, as the beginning of its more “adult” creator-owned Epic line of comics; and great runs on mainstream DC titles like Marv Wolfman’s & George Perez’s New Teen Titans and John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad.
“Gee, I wonder if I’m now too old to still enjoy Tooty Fruity flavored ice cream! I hope not, or my friend John will start making fun of me!”
By the time the 1990s rolled around, comic books and super-heroes in particular were good to go for the mainstream, and comic geeks were no longer the vilified group they once were. The latter part of the 1990s began the modern era of highly successful super-hero movies, TV series, and video games that have enjoyed great mainstream success in both all-ages projects and strictly “adult” fare like Unstoppable, the Watchmen movie, and Kick-Ass.
But most non-comic book fans do not realize that adult appreciation for fantastic fiction didn’t start there. The ancestors of super-heroes are the noir-ish and often fantastical pulp heroes from the 1920s and ’30s that preceded the emergence of the modern super-hero as we know with it with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics Vol. 1 #1 circa 1938. The great pulp heroes continued to proliferate in prose magazines, made of cheap pulp wood (which is how the genre got its name) until the early ’50s (pulp heroes have undergone a major resurgence in popularity over the past two decades, both in the prose and comic book mediums, with yours truly having prose work published in this genre). Early American pulp heroes included the likes of the Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, G-8, the Green Hornet, and the Phantom Detective. These incredible heroes–who often wore masks and capes–directly inspired Superman, Batman, and the multitude of super-heroes that followed them in the comic book format. In fact, the pulp heroes were often translated into comic book versions that, until more recently, lacked the lurid, dark, and “mature” sensibilities of the pulp magazine format. The pulp magazines were largely geared towards adults, even though, of course, children and teens also read them.
Disney executive to staff:
“C’mon, guys, I see no reason why we can’t produce The Punisher/Deadpool Super Fun Adventure Hour with a TV-Y7 rating!
“We can still show them with guns, we just can’t let them actually hit someone with a bullet, or kill anyone, or have anyone bleed if they get punched in the face.
“And their knives and swords can only be used for cutting wire and rope and stuff like that. We have a cool scene written where the Punisher uses his projectile blade to cut the rope holding a chandelier over the heads of these criminals, which then falls on them and knocks them silly. It’s fucking hilarious!
“Oh, and speaking of which, we can’t have any swearing on the show, but isn’t ‘heck’ a harsh enough word to have these guys and the mobsters use? I never took Jigsaw as the type of guy to cuss anyway. I didn’t think the live action version of him in the movie was very realistic; since when do homicidal mobsters use such language?
“And he’s just as horrifying when he merely threatens someone in a vague fashion rather than actually killing them. Wait until you watch the scene in the first episode when he intimidates this stock broker who cheated him by saying he’ll ‘chop up his numbers.’ Bwah-hah-hah!
“And you ask how we’re going to show Deadpool’s regenerative healing power when he won’t ever get hurt worse than getting hit on the head by a falling log? Well, the network said we can have him joke about how his healing power made the lump on his head go away real fast. See, it’s totally doable!”
This restriction on comic book format content compared to prose occurred because attitudes of the time felt that comic books should be geared largely towards younger audiences due to their resemblance to another important ancestor to the format: comic strips that appeared in nationally syndicated newspapers. The wane of the super-hero genre following the end of World War II caused their books to be replaced by the rise of the very lurid and dark true crime and horror genres. Their domination of the medium during the late 1940s and early ’50s largely resulted in widespread social panic that led to Congressional hearings in the early 1950s, which in turn led to the establishment of the major comics companies’ self-censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority (CCA). This fascistic document effectively neutered and sanitized the comic book format until it began to be notably challenged by Marvel, DC, and the underground comics movement in the 1970s. This heavy sanitation of the medium courtesy of the CCA was largely responsible for the great limits to what types of themes and subjects could be explored in comics. This didn’t stop good and fun stories from being told, of course, and I do not want to imply that the lurid material often found in the true crime and horror stories, or even in many tales told in the prose format, were necessary to tell a good super-hero story. Marvel proved this when its modern version came on the scene in the early ’60s and provided confirmation that the medium can produce quality tales which can appeal to children, adolescents, and adults (which we today refer to as all-ages material).
III. What Did Marvel Accomplish?
Here I reiterate my main point: There were still many themes you could not broach in these early Marvel comics due to a combination of the still omnipotent CCA and general attitudes of the time in the wider world of pop culture. I’ll get to that, but first let me give all due credit to the amazing all-ages material produced by Marvel with the advent of Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1 circa 1961, and exactly how it was such a game-changer for the medium. This is also to make it clear that I’m far from against quality all-ages material, and I read and watch it with aplomb.
Marvel basically revolutionized sophisticated storytelling in the comic book medium by creating more complex characters that readers could readily identify with as human beings. No longer were invariably heroes one-dimensional characters who were depicted as unflinching paragons of wisdom, heroism, and Ward Cleaver-style maturity. They had foibles and character flaws that all good people have, they made mistakes, and they even sometimes got married. As for the super-villains, a lot more “gray” was introduced into the moral codes depicted in those pages. We had some heroes who started as villains, and later reformed (note Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, and Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel); anti-heroes (note the Hulk and Eclipso… sort of); bizarre and flatly unattractive heroes who represented the “ugly ducklings” of the hero mold (note the X-Men and the Doom Patrol); and even a few heroes who fell from grace. The first black super-heroes were introduced during this era–including the Black Panther and the Falcon, along with the John Stewart Green Lantern over at DC; more strong female characters were introduced (though still rather weak in character compared to many excellent female heroes we read about today); and despite the many fantasy elements that were part of the Marvel Universe, the Earth we read about in its pages resembled the one outside our window quite a bit more than any previous fictional version of our planet traditionally presented in the format.
This extended to the point that Marvel dispensed with the fictional cities so popular in DC Comics, and based most of their heroes in or near a fictionalized version of New York City (after using the fictitious California metroplex of Central City in the first two issues of The Fantastic Four only). This, of course, opened the door for the crossover phenomenon that has just recently become hugely popular among mainstream audiences thanks to the cinematic universe established by Marvel Studios. Not only that, but the scripts become much better quality than most of those we saw in the medium prior to that (with a few notable exceptions, such as Will Eisner’s awesome decade-long tales of the masked pulp-style hero The Spirit, particularly the tales that followed World War II). Adults could appreciate and even marvel at (pun intended) the many complex philosophical ideas trotted out by the characters, and be awed by the mind-boggling cosmic themes explored in titles like Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Doctor Strange. If you wanted the mind-expanding aspects of taking acid without actually taking the drugs, you only had to read these titles (or watch episodes of Sid and Marty Kroftt’s children’s show H. R. Puffnstuff, which debuted near the end of the ’60s decade… provided you managed to catch it before you turned ten and your peers expected you to give it up or be laughed at!).
There was another terrific aspect of these tales that I would like to mention, as it does justice to the respect that I think younger people should be afforded. Youthful super-heroes in the tweens and teens age group, and even younger, were nothing new to comics in the ’60s. The introduction of Robin to the Batman mythos in 1940 started the super-hero sidekick craze of that era, which gave us such other classic teen sidekicks as Captain America’s young partner Bucky–who has since been re-imagined as an adult who was roughly Cap’s age in certain re-tellings of the story, including in the Marvel Cinematic version of Cap’s mythos–and Green Arrow’s famous sidekick Speedy. These teen heroes fought beside their adult mentors in the most hazardous and dangerous situations imaginable, and provided more direct figures for younger readers to identify with, and be inspired by. Robin regularly stood successfully at Batman’s side amidst a crime-ridden Gotham City and against the likes of the Joker, while Bucky accompanied Cap on the battlefields of World War II and against the likes of the Red Skull.
Robin later gained a solo series in the DC (then National) anthology Star-Spangled Comics. DC later introduced an all-teen team of soldiers with the Boy Commandos, and Marvel (then Timely) had Bucky lead a team of youthful heroes (including the Human Torch’s similarly powered sidekick Toro) called the Young Allies, each in their own titles. DC brought us the Star-Spangled Kid in Star-Spangled Comics, who was actually a teen hero with an adult sidekick! Many, many more followed since, but were mostly extinct save for Robin after a few decades… and even the current version of Robin (Damian Wayne) runs largely solo these days. Fawcett Comics’ uber-popular hero Captain Marvel was 12 years old when he first gained the power of Shazam, but he turned into an adult, magickally-derived version of Superman when he summoned his powers (though his two fellow members of the Marvel Family, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, remained super-powered adolescents). National/DC followed suit (not the lawsuit; that’s another story) with Fawcett Comics by creating Superboy in 1945, who may have been the first adolescent super-hero to (literally) fly solo without debuting under the watchful eye of an adult mentor/partner. That was because creator Jerry Siegel designed the Boy of Steel to be a younger version of Superman rather than a separate contemporary hero to avoid appearing to rip-off Captain Marvel Jr., especially since DC was already suing Fawcett over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman (yes, the comic book world is full of ironies). Of course, this status has changed in more recent decades, when Superboy has been re-imagined as a contemporary young clone of Superman who struck out on his own.
Marvel, however, brought us Spider-Man in 1962, who began his career as a younger adolescent without ever having an adult partner, and who called himself Spider-Man rather than Spider-Boy. This development had far more significance in the wider cultural & political scheme of things than most people today imagine, as it was indicative of wider changes in society at the time whose progress has since suffered a setback. The Spider-Man title depicted a young hero who, despite all of his human flaws and mistakes, nevertheless went solo against a slew of dangerous menaces that his adult counterparts regularly dealt with, and with less than a fraction of the power enjoyed by Superboy. He proved as competent as any of his adult contemporaries without their direct aid or the god-like power of the Boy of Steel (who still called himself Superboy ). Moreover, his youthful exuberance and idealism were presented as an asset to his status as a hero rather than attributes commonly dismissed as traits which adults routinely deride younger people for having. And he became perhaps the greatest of Marvel’s many revolutionary heroes of the ’60s.
How is this relevant to the context of what was occurring in the greater world of that era? I’m glad I asked that question for you 🙂 The 1960s was a pivotal decade in the 20th century for many reasons, among which were providing the foundations for the following: a highly thoughtful youth culture that wasn’t pre-packaged for them by adults; the creation of a new Constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and thus granted suffrage to large numbers of people who were previously denied a voice in society; and spear-heading the establishment of the youth liberation movement which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan that made surprising progress during the 1970s until the conservative takeover of the government and popular cultural thought–beginning with the formation of the Thatcher regime in Britain and the Reagan regime in America–derailed all of that progress. That derailment has resulted in even post-’70s liberals and progressives frequently proclaiming that people under 18 need to be protected from viewing or reading “inappropriate” material.
In fact, the average person in today’s society, regardless of political affiliation, will react that way as something akin to a cultural instinct. This is because when it comes to people under a legally demarcated age of majority, conservative thinking is now considered a major facet of overall conventional wisdom that trumps mainstream progressive principles.
“Oh, damn! I mean, darn ! (Was that word okay for the network?) I had no idea that after defeating Doc Ock’s latest scheme to blow up the Big Apple, and then coming up with that scientific apparatus to circumvent Dr. Doom’s mind-control device, and then rescuing a crowd of people from the Man-Wolf’s attack on that family barbecue, and then concocting the newest serum to reverse Dr. Connors’ transformation into the Lizard before he clawed his family to bits… I would be late for my curfew, and fail to get my homework assignment for art class done in time to hand in tomorrow morning! Or that on top of it all, I’d be too tired to clean up my room in the afternoon!
“It soooo sucks being a competent, formidable solo hero while still having to live under the full control of adults in my civilian identity just ’cause of my age! I hope Aunt May doesn’t ground me, ’cause you never know when Galactus may decide to invade the Earth, or the Scorpion might try to kidnap Jameson again.
“Ah well, if I bring all of this up to Aunt May *who I think knows my secret identity this week*, she’ll only give me the lecture on what my priorities as a teen have to be, followed by the ‘as long as I live in her house’ spiel.’ *Sigh* I wonder how the Teen Titans deal with this shit (omg, did I say that would aloud? Disney is soooo gonna kill me!).”
Though the youth liberation movement is now back in action, and making modest accomplishments (including getting certain small jurisdictions to lower the voting age to 16), it’s currently largely ignored by contemporary progressives, who often refuse to support it even after discovering the platform. The lessons imparted by what the archetypal meaning of comic book heroes like Spider-Man and the Teen Titans represented alongside the real world political forces which resulted in the creation of that new Constitutional amendment, and what was started in Ann Arbor, have been successfully wiped from the cultural zeitgeist. This wipe, of course, includes any recognition of this platform from the mainstream progressive mindset. Empowerment of the young has been replaced by knee-jerk emotional sentiments to play White Knight protectors and saviors of their perceived blissful ignorance of the world. This tends to translate as a powerful desire to “protect” them from doing all the same things we did as kids behind the scenes… and didn’t end up ruined as a result. This is not really off-topic IMO, since I think it may well be the crux of the discussion to determine what constitutes “mature” content and why. I will get to that in the next and final section of this blog.
IV. So How Does Our Culture Seem to Define the Term “Mature”?
Yes, during the 1960s decade, Marvel told many great stories that didn’t require sex (or even many allusions to sexual activity), boobs, swear words, majorly dark themes, or violence accompanied by gallons of blood and gore to be good. I fully agree with my friends and colleagues on this. I further agree with them that we got many good all-ages stories and even many dark noir-ish themes with Warner Bros.’s ground-breaking show Batman: The Animated Series that debuted circa 1992. That show went on to inspire a whole group of very good all-ages animated super-hero shows as part of what came to be called the DC Animated Universe. These interconnected series continued into the early ’00s, ending on a high note with the truly excellent Justice League Unlimited. The latter was a vast improvement over the wretchedly simplistic animated exploits of these heroes from The Super Friends series that debuted in the 1970s. That was an era when super-heroes in animation were directly geared to children only, and sanitized to the point that they are considered a laughable joke today (just check out columnist Seanbaby’s treatment of these “kid-friendly” versions of the characters).
Since The Super Friends were all the mainstream public usually saw of these super-heroes during that era, is it really any wonder that such depictions caused them to automatically assume the material in the comics which inspired them must have been of the same quality and caliber? These shows appealed to young audiences in that era because they were used to watching material that was heavily “dumbed down” before being considered “appropriate” for them.
“I sure am glad this is all the bleeding that the Fox Network will let me do this season.”
I believe the reasons so many adolescents are attributed as feeling that boobs, swear words, gory violence, heavy sexual content, and excessively dark themes are required for story content to be considered “mature” are the following:
1) Consider our society’s very definition of the words “mature” and “adult.” These are the explicit labels that our various adult-controlled ratings systems place on stories, movies, TV shows, and video games that include the above content. These are most often the very things that we insist that younger people need to be “protected” from viewing or reading, despite the pastime we and our friends all made of gaining “forbidden” access to such material in our own “misbegotten” youth. Hence, younger people naturally tend to associate such content with “maturity” in a general sense, as opposed to, say, simply sophisticated forms of storytelling that respect the intelligence of all potential viewers/readers.
2) Once we cross that legal line into adulthood, we automatically adopt the powerful, socially conditioned emotional belief that it’s now a major obligation of ours to keep successive generations of people under 18 from accessing such material. You would be rich if you were handed a nickel every time you heard a contemporary adult of progressive politics echo that sentiment. The possibility of individual and varied reactions among kids to such material are not considered, and the current progressive view leaves anyone under 18 totally exempt from our empowerment efforts. This results in heavy-handed, condescending efforts at attempting to forcibly forbid all kids from ever seeing such material on their own volition replacing reasonable efforts at guidance and education to answer their questions in non-judgmental fashion (I’m not saying that unilaterally exposing them to these things should be our policy!). This, in turn, encourages them to avoid coming to adults for guidance, and to attempt to keep their private lives completely inaccessible to most adults in their lives. It also instantly transforms such content into proverbial “forbidden fruit” that natural youthful curiosity encourages kids to seek out and learn about by clandestine means, sometimes as a way to rebel against adult authoritarian attempts to withhold information. Yanno, just as we did as kids. And since kids aren’t the incompetent fools that adults are encouraged to view them as (we love them more than our own lives, but we don’t tend to respect them much), they tend to find ways to circumvent our attempts to prevent them from accessing it (sorry, Netnanny!). Again, just like we did as kids. And again, new types of “parental controls” technology are not going to cut the mustard. This is especially the case if your kids secretly know where you keep your stash of Hustler magazines hidden, and they probably do.
3) Because younger people are specifically denied any and all access to such content under any and all circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that by the time they reach adolescence, they associate such content with “adult” material. Younger people are repeatedly told that using foul language, sexual curiosity & exploration, the sight of blood, and certain themes or ideas are things that only adults are allowed access to. This is why, I think, that as they grow older, they are encouraged to reject all material–either good or awful–that is bereft of such content, and begin associating only content that contains such elements–again, regardless of quality–to be “adult” or “mature.” We refuse to examine our own complicity in the development of such attitudes, particularly the fact that adults are the ones who create and apply such labels to this type of content in the first place. We could apply disclaimer labels that say something like, “Warning: This film [TV presentation, book, video game, etc.] contains strong material, and may be unsettling for more sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion is therefore advised.” Instead, we most often label such material “adult” or “mature,” or specifically impose explicitly age-based ratings. And then we criticize adolescents (including our own past adolescent selves!) for associating such content with “maturity.”
4) Let’s deal with the elephant in the room now, which I believe is necessary to have a coherent discussion of this topic: aspects of life such as swearing, sexuality, violence, and the darker side of human nature are things that exist in reality. Kids will encounter them, whether we like it or not, and no matter how much we may try to shield them from it. Labeling such phenomena as “mature” or “adult” do not prevent children from encountering them in the real world. Educating them properly to deal with these things if and when they encounter them is, IMO, the key to enabling them to cope realistically and competently. Attempting to hide these aspects of existence from them and keep them blissfully ignorant of the world leaves them unprepared for such encounters, including in how they deal with these things once they reach the age of majority and are legally “cut loose” from our would-be protection and sheltering. What they read and what they view on TV or the cinema can help prepare them for such experiences before they actually have to face them in reality. If they aren’t afraid to ask adults in their lives certain pertinent questions about these topics, and aren’t forcibly denied access to this information, they will not feel obliged to seek out info on their own in potentially haphazard fashion. Nor will they be afraid to tell adults important developments in their lives where they may need guidance.
Like all youth liberationists, just because I believe in youth empowerment over protectionist policies, and do not consider adults as always knowing better in classic ageist fashion, that doesn’t mean I think adult guidance isn’t important, or that parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc., shouldn’t be an important force in the lives of kids. Please note that individuals who do not read this blog objectively, or who get so angry that they let their emotions take over, will likely ignore or conveniently “miss” that very important acknowledgement I just made, which is something that youth liberationists sincerely believe. You will know this when you see such individuals leaving comments where they angrily berate me for “thinking that parents and other adults are not important to the lives of kids, or should be left out” when that is very clearly not what I said.
5) As a corollary to the above point, restricting the above content from appearing in stories–whether in the super-hero genre or elsewhere in the medium–limits the type of stories you can tell, and the types of themes you can explore. You don’t need these themes or content for a story to be good and inspiring, and I fully acknowledge that. But it can be argued that stories attempting to deal with certain subjects may lose degrees of their believability if you temper too many aspects of real life. Let’s look at a few examples. Even though you don’t need swear words to make a story good, you do sacrifice a potentially great degree of suspension of disbelief when you deliberately temper the use of language when certain types of characters and situations are depicted. You can indeed argue that swearing doesn’t make one mature, but leaving profanity completely out of certain stories involving rough-and-tumble characters does have a major cost in realism. We probably shouldn’t associate swearing with “maturity,” but since only adults are allowed to do it in “polite” company, and those who impose ratings often refer to it as “adult language,” it’s natural to associate swearing with “mature” content, even though we all know how silly constant swearing actually is. I hope you get my fucking point here! (Please forgive this immature moment of mine, I just couldn’t resist.)
Sexual content isn’t necessarily “mature” at all, especially much of society’s perceptions of it, the crass commercialization of it, and the utterly ridiculous way it’s portrayed in so many venues. Popular attitudes regarding it, including the highly hypocritical and sexist “slut-shaming” aimed at women, certainly shouldn’t be considered “mature,” of course. But it’s a natural and major part of human experience, and alas, curiosity over it is not confined to fully legal adults only. Leaving it entirely out of certain stories can hurt the realism factor even if it doesn’t affect the degree of maturity, and does limit the types of themes that can be explored, such as romantic tales, even though a story can be good without such elements. And since it’s so often insisted that these elements be left out of anything that kids are expected to watch or read, it’s natural for them to associate these elements–no matter what manner they are portrayed, including the sillier contexts–as “mature” or “adult.”
Violence and gore are also, regrettably, natural aspects of the world. War is an all-too common element of our global reality, but strangely and hypocritically, many Americans tend to glamorize it and make its purveyors who wear a certain star-spangled flag out to be heroes while at the same time ignoring the fact that children and adolescents in foreign nations are very often directly exposed to the horrors it wreaks. Yet we do not want our kids to view even simulated depictions of such violence, and frequently express concerns that American children are de-sensitized to violence and more likely to commit violent acts in reality if they view simulated violence. This is clearly a heavily emotional issue, which tends to trump logical thinking, thus possibly explaining this huge contradiction in the American mindset. Beating someone’s face in to solve a problem certainly isn’t “mature.”
But since we have this powerful love-hate relationship with violence and warfare (just as we do with sexuality), and do not want our children to watch depictions of it (either simulated or the real deal via war footage), we end up with the silliness of the super-hero series that were geared towards children during the otherwise very liberal ’70s that didn’t allow super-heroes to actually punch a villain; or the otherwise excellent Warner Bros. animation of the ’90s-’00s that allowed plenty of punching and smashing, but almost no blood to result from it, and virtually no on-screen murders. That was not exactly realistic, and it caused many viewers to lose suspension of disbelief despite their enjoyment of the high quality scripts and general story-telling. These shows provided terrific all-ages viewing, yet the networks felt compelled to gear these shows towards children since they figured that the majority of viewers would be children simply because these shows were animated, not shown in prime time, and outside the genre of comedy like The Simpsons or Family Guy (I’ll explore the reasons why this strange bias with animated fare exists in America in a future blog). Hence, violent content is often considered “mature” despite its context.
6) I’ve had some colleagues remind me, regarding the above, that Batman is not the Punisher, and that he shouldn’t be expected to draw blood like the latter does. I think that is true or not depending on what type of milieu you present the Batman, and what type of stories you want to tell by using the multi-purpose archetype he represents. Do you want the goofy but often entertaining Batman from the 1950s and ’60s comics, or the Adam West version from the “Batman ’66” mythos? They are fine for presenting bloodless battles and villains who are more ribald nuisances with gimmicks who simply like to rob diamonds and match wits with the Batman than engage in any type of violence outside of those slapstick brawling sequences peppered with onomatopoeia, and those elaborate “death” traps that give the Dynamic Duo a chance to impress the audience with their skill as master escape artists (and hey, the cliffhangers required death traps!). These exploits can be colorful, light-hearted, and fun with no real darkness, and a dearth of truly atrocious acts by the villains (unless you include the Penguin’s laugh).
But if you want to use the character in a manner consonant with his very dark roots–let’s not forget that his origin tale involved seeing his parents have their brains blown out in front of him as a child–and explore the dark side of human nature, an unflinching look at insanity, or the societal forces that drive the psychotic behavior of both a vigilante like Batman and his adversaries, you need the freedom to compose stories like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth. In these stories, it would be preposterously unrealistic to show no blood, let alone no murders, resulting from the carnage of the villains; or to limit the vile acts of the villains to robbing jewelry stores or conking people on the head with a blackjack; or to leave all sexual allusions out of the framework; or to disallow any character involved to even say “shit,” to say nothing of having to replace “hell” with “heck”!
I fully realize that Batman doesn’t take lives like the Punisher, but he does deal out a lot of severe beatings, and most of his rogues gallery are ruthlessly homicidal. I understand that many of my colleagues do not agree with me on this, and I have no problem with respectfully agreeing to disagree here. The point I want to make, though, is that the argument over the inclusion of these elements has nothing to do with “maturity,” but simply with the idea of how much realism you can leave out of super-hero stories before suspension of disbelief becomes heavily impaired. Batman is a multi-purpose character who works well in a variety of milieus, and I think the case is the same for many other super-heroes and -villains, if not most. But in order for certain themes and aspects of human nature and society to be explored, you have to step out of the “all-ages” bubble. You don’t need to step of it out in order to tell good, sophisticated, and entertaining tales in general, but IMO it is necessary to do so at times if you want to explore certain ideas that our culture identifies with “mature” themes. It all depends on what your preferences and storytelling intentions are. I believe that multiple interpretations of this character and other super-heroes have a place in the cultural spectrum, which is why I like reading all iterations of Batman and other heroes as long as the scripts are intelligent and the themes are solid.
7) One last point I want to state which makes it clear I’m not entirely off the same page as my colleagues and friends who disagree with me on this. A major reason the above described content is attributed to adolescent perceptions of what constitutes “mature” is because due to the great success of the form of sophisticated take on super-hero writing by Miller, Moore, and Gaiman from the 1980s that incorporated these elements, a slew of copy cats were predictably quick to follow. As a result, the “grim and gritty” meme in super-hero fiction became a phenomenon unto itself, with many writers and artists jumping on the bandwagon. The result was a 1990s full of gratuitous use of these strong elements, which too often sacrificed good scripts and deep explorations of the human experience simply to provide readers or viewers with lots of boobs, swear words, over-the-top violence, and exceedingly dark heroes that tried and failed to cash in on the success of grim and gritty characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Lobo. An already overburdened market due to the speculator and multiple cover gimmick nonsense of the ’90s (but these constitute a whole other blog topic) was further glutted by the over use of this deluge of “grim and gritty” characters and stories.
The bulk of these tales were little more than crass presentations of gratuitous gore, swearing, and boobs simply for mindless shock value and titillation (yes, pun intended), and darkness simply for the sake of being dark rather than to tell any kind of coherent story or convey any insightful message. This type of tale was too often presented as “mature” elements and themes simply due to the classically “forbidden” nature of such content. Quality was too often sacrificed for quantity, and appeal to the intellect was too often sacrificed for appeal to the more banal and prurient aspects of the human psyche. The inevitable backlash against this overkill over the past decade was fully deserved and understandable, and I don’t blame so many of my fellow authors and colleagues for being sensitive over the misuse of the term “mature” to describe such mindless dreck.
With all of the above made clear, I want to point out in summation that I fully understand that many of my colleagues, including many whom I’m honored to consider friends, will not agree with some of the more controversial statements and opinions I expressed. This will be particularly true regarding my stance on youth liberation, which is currently just coming back to the fore after being knocked out of the liberal political loop by the end of the 1970s (due to factors I mentioned above) despite the great work and modest recent achievements by NYRA and the many newer youth lib groups and orgs popping up on Facebook and other social networking forums every other day, youth lib is currently still considered fringe and radical politics, and has yet to be embraced by mainstream progressives… or rather re-embraced, if you consider the open discourse about the platform conducted during the 1970s, including Richard Farson’s book Birthrights and the many publications released during that decade and shortly afterwards by John Taylor Gatto, all well-received at the time.
Because of this, a sizable amount of opposition and even a degree of anger by fellow progressives and colleagues at this time is to be expected. I do believe, however, that I’m providing some food for thought, and the realm of creative people like writers (if not the mainstream progressive establishment itself) are full of very thoughtful individuals whom I’m proud to work with. I know they won’t always agree, and do not expect them to, but I can count on the majority of them to simply listen.
Friends cast to readers of this blog:
“Sorry, peeps, but we have no idea why Nigro included us here. Just pretend you didn’t see us, okay?”