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Don't Ban Comic Books

Dear Senator William Langer,

I understand that you are the chairman of the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, and that your subcommittee plans to hold hearings regarding the impact of comic books on today’s youth. As an editor at Awesome Comix, one of the nation’s leading publishers of comic books, I have been around comic books my entire life, and I’ve spent a good part of it studying the merits of comic books. I am writing you this letter in hopes of shedding some light on the cultural relevance and merits of comic books, and to dispel the popular notion that comic books are unnecessarily obscene works with very little intellectual value.

I completely understand your committee’s concern about the mental and emotional health of our children, and I also understand that there is a public fear that the presence of violence in comic books may also influence children to mimic the crimes they see. However, these concerns in fact, are not newfound, but rather date back historically all the way to Ancient Greece, when the philosopher Plato was very concerned that the new media of plays would influence children in terrible ways, causing them to be lazy, violent, indulgent citizens. Aristotle on the other hand, argued that these plays provided a sort of cathartic experience for the viewers, allowing them to experience sex and violence without actually committing it. Violence, crime, and sex are not themes that exist solely in comic books, but are very much present in the now socially accepted media of books, radio, and even plays. Lights Out, a radio program that was extremely popular a few years ago, featured horrifying tales of characters being skinned alive, murder, and lab experiments gone terribly wrong. Also, consider a story that is very friendly to children – “Snow White” (the original fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm, not the Disney movie). In this “innocent” fairy tale, the wicked Queen orders a huntsman to kill Snow White, and bring back her liver and lungs so that the Queen may consume them. In the end, when the Queen finds out that Snow White is indeed alive, the Queen is forced to dance with heated iron shoes until she dies. Both Lights Out and Snow White feature murder, torture, and cannibalism, themes that Fredric Wertham condemned in his book Seduction of the Innocent, which warned parents about the dangers of comic books. However, books, especially fairy tales, and radio dramas are popularly accepted forms of media that also happen to be widely available to children, and often considered family friendly. This is because novels and radio are simply vessels through which information is shared to the audience, much like the way comic books are also vessels by which the author shares his opinion with the reader[1]. The comic book itself is separate from the pictures and dialogue presented by the author in order to convey a certain idea.

Like novels, when studying the merits of comic books, it’s necessary to look past the story, pick apart the language in the dialogue and narration, and carefully analyze the way in which the comic book artist presents each panel. Take for example, one of my favorite comics – “Susan and the Devil”. The plot is fairly simple; a gorgeous woman seduces and ruins several men, uses her beauty to circumvent the American justice system, gets murdered by an ex-lover, and goes to hell. It’s a fairly classic case in which the villain gets the punishment she deserves in the end. However, the art and text reveals elements of satire and irony, giving the comic book greater depth than just the story alone. Even though the story revolves solely around Susan and her awful deeds, the art’s depictions of the men who fall for her is a fairly clear satire of the today’s male tendency to not only adore, but worship and obsess over female sexuality, and how easily men can be manipulated with even the suggestion of sex. Randy Breen, one of the men who fell victim to Susan’s charms, starts stealing from his employer in order to keep her attention. In the panel in which he is taking money out of his employer’s safe, the artist focuses on Randy’s widened eyes. His eyes are not wide open in fear, but rather, the shadowing of his brow bone indicates his excitement to receive the money, and the promise the money brings of winning Susan back. Later on, after Susan murders Betty Blake and is put on trial, the immense effect of Susan’s sexuality on the judge and jury is also shown through the men’s expression. The judge is leaning past an American flag and adjusting his glasses in order to get a better view of Susan as she poses for him seductively. In the next panel, the men in the jury are drawn with goofy expressions as they delight in leering at her exposed legs. The caricature of the old man is especially comical; his eyes are wide open and his jaw is slack, and his expression tells us that he simply can’t believe his luck. The men that Susan encounter are so enamored by her sexual appeal that they are not only willing to break the law, but also let her get away with her crimes.

Susan is a despicable character not only because of what she does, but also due to her recognizable facial expressions. As a matter of fact, all of the characters in the comic are drawn with easily recognizable expressions, allowing the reader to identify the emotions of each character. The title page is a close-up of Susan’s face, deviously smirking as she literally wraps a man around her pinky. The artist dedicates yet another panel to only Susan’s face after she is acquitted for murder. In this panel, she has the same sly smile, smirking at the reader as if to state that her charm can let her get away with anything. It is this recognizable yet symbolic expression that allows the reader dislike Susan.

The simple language used in “Susan and the Devil” is used to hyperbolize Susan’s actions, and in the end, highlight the irony of her fate. The comic features scene-to-scene transitions, and the text serves to state each major event that occurs. However, the most important and interesting feature of the text is its simplicity, along with the fact that each sentence ends with an exclamation mark. The simple language detracts away from the overall seriousness of the comic, giving it a slight lightheartedness that sheds light on the satire featured in the artwork. Although the consistent usage of exclamation marks may seem excessive, it gives each panel great importance, pointing out the many plot twists that occur. The biggest exclamation marks occur in the very last panel, when Susan discovers “what no human ever suspected. . . the devil is a woman!” The last phrase is bolded and enlarged to emphasize the irony of Susan’s fate. This panel features the only dialogue from Susan, as she exclaims, “No! No! It can’t be!” Only when Susan discovers her ironic fate and realizes that she cannot charm her way out of eternal damnation does the author choose to show her speaking, instead of only focusing on her actions.

Although condemned for being full of mindless violence, comics, like other types of media, are so much more than their stories alone. The quality of the comic book does not rely on simply the content, but also the way the author chooses the execute it, allowing for the creation of a thoughtful message to the reader, like Susan and the Devil. Comic books offer the reader a high level of interactivity, telling stories through endless combinations of symbolic visual vocabulary, thrilling the reader with its ability to visual aspects of the world[2]. Because comic books are meant to be vessels to be filled with the author’s ideas, their possibilities are endless, and their potential is great.

Sincerely, Jonathan Smith


[1] McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993.

[2] McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993.

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