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Comic books – the truest examples of free speech?

CW Vong

Wed Oct 17 2012


THEY’RE often dismissed as entertainment for ‘pimply geeks’, but comic books have been ahead of their time – championing taboo issues long before mainstream media dared touch them. CW Vong gives us a brief history. 

The one popular media that holds the least amount of censorship is arguably the humble and unnoticed comic book. Comic books have been treated for decades as a subculture beneath the considerations of social commentary.

For a long time, Western ideology has relegated comics to ‘the funnies’ page of the newspaper. It was a common insult that if you’re not really interested in facts and liked to stay uninformed, that’s the only section you read.

The comic book was for children or teenage boys. They were the domain of denizens of skinny and pale young men with large starry eyes and jobs behind comic book store counters. Or, alternatively, the reading material of the stereotypical obese loner who still lived in his mother’s basement.

As more and more comic books are adapted into movies, there’s been a shift in attitudes toward them. But by and large, general opinion remains the same.

Movie makers have often looked to comics to produce their blockbusters. Recently X-Men, The Avengers, Batman and Superman have all come out on the big screen.

But as tragic as this all sounds, comic books have used uniquely overlooked position to gain some rather extravagant privileges.

Comics have been able to broach all kinds of topics without refrain and therefore also without restraint. It is possible to depict extreme violence and torture, cannibalism, the occult, make sweeping insults towards religious organisations, incest, nudity, rape, homosexuality, corruption of a particular government, police brutality and insanity, without a bat of an eyelid from any social watchdog. To date, no review board or age restriction of any kind has been made for comics.

The only topic comics have been picked up on are the depictions of minors in sexual acts. And this is mostly due to confusion about the way females are portrayed in manga, a Japanese stylistic comic form.

The other topic comics shy away from is racism – quite possibly because the community of comic artists do not seem particularly interested in this issue.

Of course, sex, a taboo topic in most other forums, is easily and freely approached in the comic world. In fact, it might be the one medium in which sex is not approached with giggles, guilt or frowns.

As with all subject matters, the only borders sex has in the comic world depends on its creator. And the creators, being free from practically all criticism and moral bashing, have over the decades let their imaginations run very wild indeed.

Michael Turner’s “Witchblade” style of portraying female characters was held as a pinnacle of the comic book art for quite a while.

Even as we decry that Hollywood is full of sexual imagery and suggestions, the comic book realm has far exceeded, surpassed and evolved beyond Hollywood’s portrayal of sexuality.

When singer Madonna was on the rise and making headlines for her ‘lewd’ appearance, indie magazine Heavy Metal was already publishing pictures of erotic, nude women in lesbian acts as well as images depicting bondage and sadomasochism. While bikinis and cleavage were still making their way to magazine covers and Playboy, most women depicted in comics were already very scantily clad and heavily-bosomed (well beyond the capability of any plastic surgeon). And no feminists ever raised any issues about it.

Heavy Metal was famous for a lot of its covers depicting themes that were in the spirit of rock and roll.

Ironically, while comic books are filled with fantastical imagery of the female form, it is probably also the realm where there are the most number of empowered female characters. It is the most progressive medium in uniting female sexuality together with female strength. While most of the world is still split into two, railing against the objectification of women or hungering for as much sexual imagery as it can get, comic books have already gone through that stage – with its depictions of women becoming more normalised, well rounded and ‘real’. Strange is it not?

Masamune’s “Ghost in the Shell” main character is Major Motoko Kusanagi. “Ghost in the Shell” was extremely popular and would later inspire the creation of ‘The Matrix”.

I take hope in comic books because, although they’re widely thought of as an area dominated by pimply geeks, their freedom to cultivate ideas and all-embracing nature has shown us what it actually looks like to have true freedom of speech.

It is the arena in which people have been allowed to voice their opinions, no matter how extreme they are. And it has shown us that without the need for any large rallies and demonstrations, without petitions or large movements of money, without anger or condemnation of any party for what it says. In that freedom, humans progress to better and clearer understandings of who we are and of the human condition.