Nudity and the Editorial Process, by Dennis O’Neil
In my dotage, I’m coming to believe that a little adolescent rebellion is usually a good thing, and if the rebellion creeps a year or two into full, card-carrying adulthood, that’s okay. Much after the fact, I learned of some things my kid did in his Greenwich Village youth: I’m not sorry he did them and I’m glad I didn’t know of them until much later.
(As for myself…let me note that the principal of my high school told my mother after graduation that they never, ever wanted to see me again. I must have done something…)
Father does not always know best and either does Mother. Like generals, they’re fighting old wars and kids are caught in new wars, which means the kids have to find their own way, which is a process of experimentation, which means that Junior and Pops can’t and shouldn’t march in lock step,
We will now retire the military metaphors and explain what any of this has to do with our current topic, the evolution of superheroes.
A few years ago, there was a brief vogue of making old-timey, boring-and-dull, goody-two-shoes hero’s jerks. I think it was often a form of young man’s rebellion, a thumbing-of-the-nose at the Establishment. It’s like comics artists who sneak naughty words into the background of busy shots, maybe as wall graffiti, or the guy who drew a woman naked and thought that a color hold over her body would conceal her lushnesses. (It didn’t, and an editor got yelled at.)
This kind of activity is, I submit, a bit like scrawling shit in wet concrete. Not a hanging offense, maybe a valuable part of the perpetrator’s psychological development. (But not necessarily without consequence, as witness the above-cited editor who let his attention flag for a little while and got roasted. I can think of at least two instances when I had similar attention lapses and didn’t think the artists/writers were even a smidgen cute. This stuff can put a man in the unemployment line.) Practical considerations aside, my objection to this brand of rebelliousness is that it’s bad storytelling. If you get a better story by making Charlie Virtue a crumb, that’s a pretty good reason for doing it. If you don’t, it’ll distract a lot of readers from the story you’re actually trying to tell, and you don’t want to do that. Lousy craftsmanship.
Note: this is not the same thing as having a bleak view of the human condition and using superhero tales to reflect and express that. Such productions may not always be my idea of entertainment, but that’s a question of taste, not morality or aesthetics.
In the world of day-to-day publishing, editors have to decide where to draw the various lines involved, one of the hardest parts of the job, and the least satisfying. Err on one side and you’re being a censor; err on the other, and you and/or one of your creators could get fired.
Let’s circle back to this subject later.
RECOMMENDED READING: Einstein, by Walter Isaacson
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles. The Question: Zen and Violence is on sale right now in trade paperback.