Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Comics and Censorship

You Can't Say That!

When I was a kid I discovered many old books about comics and cartooning in my home away from home, the Snohomish Public Library. Almost every one of them mentioned the arcane rules regulating what you could and could not put into a syndicated comic strip.

These weren't official rules, like postal regulations. They were rules of thumb developed by editors based on feedback from their readers. "Feedback" usually meant a threat to cancel a subscription. Editors, the story went, estimated that for every person who complained there were several times that number (3, 4, and 5 were common figures) who felt the same way but didn't bother to write. So the editors passed each complaint up the line and threatened to drop the strip if the syndicate didn't keep its cartoonists in check. The result, the story went, was that newspaper strips were among the most conservative storytelling forms, their content dictated by a vocal minority of readers in the South and the Midwest.

I read so many variations of that story that I began to wonder if it was an urban legend. The alleged list of taboos included obvious stuff like nudity and profanity, but also depictions of black persons, alcohol use and snakes. Authors always mentioned snakes. Yet at the same time these strictures were supposedly in effect, major strips broke many of the rules. Just one example was Leslie Turner's Captain Easy, which offered plenty of lingerie shots and backlit semi-nudity.

I still don't know whether readers demanded those hidebound restrictions, but I'm certain editors believed they did. A case in point is this remarkable Bud Sagendorf Popeye strip I found on Segni & Disegni's site. It is dated 13 April 1976.

This strip was the payoff of an extended sequence in which a vampire menaces Olive Oyl. She scares him off by using the moonlight to cast a shadow shaped like...a dagger?! Anyone want to bet on what might be hidden beneath that pasteover? I didn't think so.

Obviously someone at the Syndicate got scared that some editor would figure some reader would be offended by the words "A cross!" I suspect the hypothetical editor feared not an outraged atheist, but rather a conservative Christian who found the scene sacriligeous. And this was in 1976, well after strips like Doonesbury had challenged most of the old taboos.

When I was drawing Dallas in the early 1980s I had my own brush with editorial second-guessing. One storyline had bad boy J. R. bribing a hot-pants Arab oilman by offering him a shot at his niece Lucy. J. R. presents his offer by showing the oilman a sexy photo of Lucy in a swimsuit. The "reveal" is in the final panel of a Sunday page, where there is plenty of room to show the picture that makes Abdul's mouth water.

From the beginning the Syndicate editor instructed me to be ver-r-r-y careful not to make the picture sexy, lest it shock an editor into cancelling the strip. I was to present Lucy in a demure pose in a one-piece swimsuit with a high neckline and a modest cut about the hips. I did what I was told. The result looked something like this.
And believe me, there was no cleavage--precious little bust, in fact--and the legs were chastely crossed. But when the editor saw it he still wondered if the drawing went too far. At his instruction I pasted an enormous piling over the middle of the figure, large enough to cover any conceivable area of interest, drawn large enough (and carefully placed) so as to avoid any unintended phallic suggestion. It came out something like this (I no longer have a copy of the strip to show you):
Actually, I think this sketch shows a little more than the revised art; I was charged to eliminate any chance that someone might ogle Lucy's boobs. Not the sort of thing to fire the passions, is it?

The incident spotlighted a fundamental problem with basing a newspaper strip on the Dallas TV series. The two key elements of the show were sex and booze. In the strip we couldn't do sex--period!--and the booze was limited to endless shots of  J. R. pouring from a bottle of wine. Kind of took the wind out of the sales.

No comments: