Batman’s Comedy of Eros, by Dennis O’Neil
Way back in the late 80s, or maybe early 90s, an inker working on one of DC’s superhero comics rendered a female form rather more like the Lord made female forms than the mores of the time allowed. The editor dealt with the problem by putting a color hold – a purple one, I think – over what some would have deemed offensive nudity. Sex always wins. The lady’s charms shone clearly though the purple haze and a fuss ensued.
I remembered this anecdote when I saw, in the New York Times, an item about a Batman comic describing “a two page action sequence that is filled with foul language…uttered by (a) heroine…
“A black bar covered the blue words, but it was too transparent and allowed the text to be read.” Sex always wins and maybe “foul language” at least doesn’t fight fair.
According to the Times, the print run was destroyed. Having made more than my share of blunders when I sat in an editor’s chair, I know how easily goofs like this can occur and I hope the ensuing fuss doesn’t devolve on the editor, whoever he or she may be. As a certain Secretary of Defense said, stuff happens.
But I’m curious. Did the creative folk always intend the offensive language to be covered? Surely not. Why go to the bother and expense of lettering copy that no one will read? Easier, one imagines, to simply do the black bars in the first place, though as a storytelling strategy, that would be questionable; why pull the reader out of the story while they puzzle over the meaning of the black bars?
Okay, the copy was meant to be seen? Didn’t somebody wonder if such language could cause trouble and…I dunno – ask around?
Maybe someone saw it as a free speech issue. If so, I’d demur.
I think the First Amendment is the crown jewel of the Constitution, and, personally, I can be a potty mouth. Much of my choirboy vocabulary was left on an aircraft carrier and much of whatever was left in the gutters of the East Village, pre-gentrification. But I think the way things are marketed creates expectations, and it’s not playing fair with the customers to thwart those expectations. Anything – and I do mean anything – should be allowed in the public arena, but if one buys a book bylined Henry James, one should not be subjected to a story by Mickey Spillane.
Comics have come a considerable distance in the few years since I left editing. Hell and damn, once verboten seem okay both in comics and on TV, and a few gamier locutions are beginning to pop up. But I don’t believe the medium – comics – has evolved to the point where authentic street lingo is expected.
A final consideration: The question in matters like this is always a simple one. Does it help the narrative? Is the vocabulary the writer is using his way of showing off, or does it serve a larger purpose? Any vocabulary that tells the story is almost certainly the right vocabulary, though I’d expect to get argument on this. In the case of the Batman comic we’ve been discussing, I don’t know, and probably never will.
RECOMMENDED READING: Redemolished, by Alfred Bester
Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and