Thursday, October 04, 2007

C.C. Beck on "What Comics Ought To Be"

The late C.C. Beck was the co-creator of Captain Marvel & the character's chief artist.

In "Alter Ego" #72 I ran across an essay he had written in 1986. Called "Originality In Art," it is his examination of basically what comic books ought and ought not to be.

Two passages stood out for me:

"Art -- or cartoon art, at any rate -- should not be produced for people with warped personalities, for psychopaths, for inmates in insane asylums or prisons...but for normal, average, everyday citizens. Just as average citizens would rather associate with other average citizens than with weirdos and perverts, average citizens would rather read about and look at pictures of normal, happy people doing things that everyone understands and enjoys."


"In my way of thinking, comic art is a form of entertainment. It should never touch, except very lightly, on serious subjects such a religion, sex, child and substance abuse, various kinds of perversions, and ethnic and racial matters. Few cartoon producers are qualified to handle such material, and even if they are, putting such matters into cartoon form trivializes them and doesn't entertain the kind of people who read comic strips and comic books (there are some people who don't, remember)."

Now, the above paragraphs could be written off as an "old timer's" view derived from a vastly different era. But I have heard variations of some of the above applied to everything from why rape should never be used in comic books to why gay characters can't be major characters to why Mary Marvel shouldn't walk around in a hot black sexy dress.

Your thoughts?


  1. I disagree that putting serious subjects in cartoon form "trivializes" them. As with any other medium, comics can treat a subject well or badly, and the quality of that treatment will be what trivializes the subject or not.

    However, I'd also say that those putting such serious issues into superhero comics run a fairly high risk of trivializing them, simply because the form was built on a black & white morality in which good always triumphs, and it takes a good deal of skill to fit more subtle issues into that world. It's not impossible, by any means, but many of these issues require more than one good story to do them justice -- they require follow through, and the nature of superhero comics is such that even a skilled writer who introduces a concept is not immune from having that concept trivialized by a later, more hamhanded, writer handling the character. (Witness this post Identity Crisis Green Arrow/Dr. Light confrontation from a fairly recent issue of Green Arrow. Say what you want about Meltzer's handling of the subject, but I'd argue that Calafiore's reference to it made it ridiculously worse.)

  2. I'm going to have to say that comics are a MEDIUM. Hence, any statements about what that medium should & should not be are going to sound kind of stupid. Now, the discussion of genre is a different one-- but one that I ultimately come down on the side of "have at it." You can deal with topics more freely when you can divorce yourself from the immediacy of the subject, & capes & cowls provide just that level of separation. I don't mean to imply that comics have to be gritty 80s comics (blech) but rather that the genre has plenty of room to address issues.

  3. I think the key passage is this: "Few cartoon producers are qualified to handle such material."

    This is true today as well, when we have a lot of derivative hacks rushing to imitate "Dark Knight Returns" almost endlessly. And even Frank Miller has pretty much lost it.

    That they're going to try is a given, but whether or not they succeed is up in the air. Like Rob S. wrote, even if the original writer gets it right there's no defense against someone coming along later and screwing it up.

    But what I wish comics would do is stop relying so much on supposedly dark or "mature" subjects in an effort to appear more grown up. Almost without fail, the writer produces something grotesquely inappropriate... Rob S.'s Green Arrow/Dr. Light confrontation example perfectly illustrates this.

    It seems like C.C. Beck-style is out of favor as unrealistic, but I'd submit it's no less realistic than endless variations of the "morally compromised" hero cliche or the "which one is worse- the hero or the villain?" type story, or stories that truck solely in degradation and depictions of the absolute worst in human behavior. This idea that the world is a dark and horrible place and therefore all art should reflect that is as silly and reductive as Pollyannaism.

    But as far as comics always trivializing such subject matter? Nah, I don't agree with Beck on that. It just requires skill and sensitivity on the part of the writers, artists and editors. I don't necessarily think we'll ever get that from the majority of them, but then again, we have TV movies all the time that are just as stupid!

  4. The fact that you put "gay characters shouldn't be major players" in the same sentence as "rape should never be used in a comic" completely invalidates any and all references to a depiction of rape in a comic being a bad thing. Maybe the next time you're trying to complain about how if something bad happens to a female character (i.e. Identity Crisis, Phantom Lady in Infinite Crisis...) saying how that proves that the "comic hates women" you'll realize it's the same 1950's CCA mentality that prevents any major progression or growth in comics.

  5. "The fact that you put "gay characters shouldn't be major players" in the same sentence as "rape should never be used in a comic" completely invalidates any and all references to a depiction of rape in a comic being a bad thing."

    no, actually I'm giving a range of widely divergent points of view that could all be "defended" by the C.C. Beck essay.

    I still think in the hands of a poor writer, a rape storyline can be an offensive trainwreck.

    On the other hand, Beck's assertion that "controversial" topics not be covered in comics is not a point of view I agree with. But, as he points out, a writer has to be skilled in order to pull these topics off.

  6. Sounds like he saying

    "This is a mass democratic medium, and you want to reach as wide an audience as possible. Don't do anything to rock that boat. Keep cartooning as something fun for the majority."

    Doesn't sound too nefarious. Cohesive societies aren't all bad.

  7. My sister likes talking with me far more than my father. It's not that we're so terribly different, but my father tends to make grand pronouncements of absolute authority, while I add qualifiers like "as I understand it." So many arguments can be resolved by respecting the phrase, "I believe."

    I believe that Mr. Beck is correct in what he says as it applies to "funny books" for the easily amused. I also believe that art is not a license to do whatever you fancy without regard for the repercussions of your expressions. That said, if it's art, the first rule is that there aren't any, so it seems to me all Beck can comment on is personal truth and commercial responsibilities.

    So, y'know, fuck the narrow-minded codger, as I understand him.

  8. If you go fishing out in the deep, more often than not you come up with nothing. Sometimes when you are splashing out in the shallows you stumble on hidden depths. I wish comic creators would remember their first job is to entertain - everything after that will fall into place.

  9. i think if in the phrase ""In my way of thinking, comic art is a form of entertainment"

    you swapped out "comic art" with "superhero comics" i'd be more on board.

    comics are like any other medium, they shouldt be inherently limited to what topics they can cover.

    but i'm a big believer that any fictional universe that has helmets that talk to their owners, a guy who can morph himself into a red and yellow mailbox, and a detective-solving chimp should not be a universe in which things like rape occur.

  10. Mary Marvel shouldn't walk around in a hot dress because it's silly to think someone would want to go fight crime that way. Is she going to the club or is she hitting people? Does she want to clean blood from her inner thigh?

    You know, I've been watching HEROES on DVD and as I watch it I'm just continually struck by the thought: this really is how folks like this would behave. Man.

    Otherwise, though, yeahh... I hate anyone who says what an art form should or shouldn't be. It's dumb. Comics are a form. They can be anything. If he doesn't want to read serious comics then let him not read them. WONDER GIRL just got a new book.

  11. Eh, respect to Mr. Beck and all, but what Mordicai said is really the only answer to this. Every once in a while someone will claim that particular media (e.g. photography) or genres (e.g. the thriller) are inherently inferior in some way, or have inherently less range than other media or genres (e.g. painting or bucolic poetry). After enough time passes, those people sound like dopes. Same thing here.

  12. Wait, is this the guy who drew this and this? Cuz, if so it kinda lends a touch of irony to saying comics "should never touch, except very lightly, on serious subjects such as... ethnic and racial matters. Few cartoon producers are qualified to handle such material." 20/20 hindsight and all that I suppose.