A couple of weeks ago I posted some images from an old comic book that were — well, let’s call them subtly risque. It was an alternate reading of the text, to be sure, but it did make one scratch one’s head just a little.
I got a comment on the post from a regular reader, to the effect that she wasn’t sure if censorship boards ever even looked at comics like they did at movies. This was my reply, and I thought it merited a rewrite here, because I think knowing about censorship and knowing why one stands against it is important. Especially in light of the recent scandal over Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mo Yan’s pro-censorship stance and Salman Rushdie’s public condemnation of him for it.
Comic books in particular have a fairly dark history of censorship that ties into McCarthyism, racism, and homophobia. They’ve been a heavy target for fearmongers. But fearmongering often only glances off the surface of any given narrative — you can’t swear in comics but you can murder, you can’t show sex but you can show musclebound men and busty women in spandex, you can’t (well, couldn’t) show an interracial relationship but you could show Cap and Falcon fighting evil together.
Comics censors had a lot of rules but they rarely looked into the deeper story, the part that grabs you by the emotions no matter what the medium. Take Arnie as an example. In the Captain America comic books, there’s a story where Captain America in the sixties meets a man he knew when they were growing up in the thirties named Arnie. When they reunite and catch up on each others’ lives, he finds out Arnie is gay. They couldn’t explicitly state it — which is of course wrong — but any gay man reading it back then and certainly anyone reading it now (and probably a lot of heterosexuals back then) could clearly get the message.
Cap accepted Arnie without hesitation or question, defended him, and avenged his partner’s death. The censors said “You can’t say gay” so the comics said “Cap’s best friend has two failed marriages and a roommate named Michael who makes him happy” and Cap said “I’m glad you’re happy” and a generation of gay comic book readers understood implicitly that Captain America was okay with them. It wasn’t ideal, certainly, and the story itself wasn’t perfect, but the censors couldn’t get the meat — they could only get the shine on top.
Censorship is evil, but it’s a very narrow evil, and stories always find a way, which is why censorship has never won and won’t ever win. You can burn a book, but you can’t burn a story.
You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken – unspeakable! – fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse – a little tiny mouse! – of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.
— Winston Churchill