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History of comic-book censorship 'Speaking Freely' transcript

Recorded Oct. 2, 2001, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’ll look at the history of comic-book censorship. Our guests today include Wendy Pini of Elfquest, Joe Quesada of Marvel Comics, and Carmine Infantino, the former president and publisher of DC Comics. Welcome to you all.

What a great lineup. And we've got folks with every possible perspective on comic books here. Just by way of background, there is something called the Comics Code that is on comic books. Most of the comic books I grew up reading, many of which were illustrated by Carmine, had the Comics Code Authority approval on it, which basically said this comic book has been sanitized for your protection. Every comic book we read as kids was censored in some way for our own good so we would not grow up warped in any way. And all of this was inspired by a guy named Dr. Fredric Wertham, who wrote a really influential book called Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. And he suggested, among other things, that comic books were a negative, had negative impact on kids, that it encouraged juvenile delinquency and put bad thoughts in their heads — many of the same arguments you kind of hear today about video games. And he got a lot of attention. Carmine, you were an artist in the industry at that time. Do you remember Wertham? Did you have a sense of him?

Carmine Infantino: Yeah, we got a sense of him when the … he first hit the airwaves, and suddenly we’re being attacked all over the place. And I'm looking under the desk for what I was doing wrong. I couldn’t figure it out. But it got pretty bad. And then all of a sudden, Kefauver jumped into the picture 'cause he —

Paulson: Estes Kefauver.

Infantino: Yes. He wanted to be president at that time, so he found a great vehicle here. And he jumped in, and all of a sudden the attack got vicious. And the … the people who was distributing books got very nervous, and they started swinging comic books back at us. And we were getting returns up to 90, 95 percent. So we got desperate. While I'm not a fan of censorship, I can understand what happened at the time and why they needed a code at that period of history.

Paulson: So did you think Dr. Wertham was a distinguished scholar?

Infantino: No, he was a sickie.


Paulson: He was a sickie.

Infantino: He was a sickie.

Paulson: He’s no longer with us, is he?

Infantino: Thank God.


Infantino: Neither is Kefauver, too, by the way.

Paulson: Any other dead guys you want to bad-mouth here?


Infantino: No, no … no, that’s it.

Wendy Pini: Give him time.

Infantino: (Laughs.)

Paulson: I … (laughs) and yet he put great pressure — tell me about the —

Infantino: But the reason for it … you gotta go back in history. Remember that time of history or that particular time in America’s history. We were a very different country. And Gaines, Bill Gaines was putting out horror books and Lev Gleason, that’s (inaudible), are putting out crime books. And they were going to the extreme, there’s no question about it. And Gaines told me … Bill was a good friend of mine, and … Bill said to me once, “With this sort of stuff, you gotta keep pushing the envelope constantly. Otherwise, the readers didn’t get enough. It’s insatiable.” So apparently he did such a good job that Wertham saw this and he found a cause. And boy, he worked it over.

Paulson: Now some of those books that you're talking about, things like Crimes by Women and Phantom Lady books and … there were a lot of … I mean, you look at the comic book (inaudible) guys today and there’s a premium for something. Lingerie panel contained herein.

Infantino: Right.

Paulson: So there was a lot of adult material. But wasn’t it also true at the time that a lot of your readers were not kids? I mean, weren’t there servicemen reading your comic books?

Infantino: Yeah, yeah. Basically, yeah. There was an awful lot of … of servicemen. But he didn’t concentrate on that. He concentrated on the very young. He claimed we were destroying the 4- and 5- and 6-year-old children, you know. And that was the big point he had.

Paulson: And … and people became afraid to carry any comic books.

Infantino: Well, it got that sort of point where the publishers went crazy. And they … they didn’t say nothing for a point. But then when the distributors found out and they got the pressure, and all of sudden they were slinging them back. I think it was 90 or 95 percent, as I said, returns were coming in. They had to do something, and then they created … they, the five publishers at that time, that was Marvel, DC, Archie … help me, Joe, who were the other ones?

Pini: Archie … Harvey?

Infantino: Harvey Comics was involved, too. And there were five. And they … they got together and they created this code and they put this gentleman in charge. We tried to figure out the name before; I couldn’t.

Paulson: And what did this code tell you as a creator you could not do?

Infantino: Uh, I was an artist at that point now. At that point I was told I couldn’t … draw any blood. No, can't have … couldn’t have any blood on the picture. No dead bodies. No women who were semi-nude, and men and women couldn’t sleep in the same bed. Let me see … kissing was out, too, I think.

Paulson: Kissing was out?

Infantino: They could talk … yeah, they could point to each other but that was it.


Paulson: Joe, you are in the business of running Marvel Comics. And you are the editor in chief?

Joe Quesada: Yeah.

Paulson: And what is the business of comic books about today? At that time there were servicemen reading comics. There were also young kids. What's the market for comic books today?

Quesada: You know, I … I don’t think it’s really changed that much. I … I think we want to fool ourselves that comics are strictly for kids, and you know, it … it’s an argument that … that’s obviously raised by people that want to censor us, that we’re doing it for the children. That’s always … always the argument. “It’s for the children.” You know, we … we bring in the children whenever we need to try to, you know, force upon, you know, our civil liberties. And quite frankly, I … there is a significant adult readership in comics today. There … there’s no doubt about that. And there are kids that read the books, also. But I don’t think it’s really changed. I … I think we fooled ourselves into believing that … that they were strictly young kids back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When, like Carmine said, I mean … you know, back when we were selling millions of copies, every book millions of copies, we had tons of servicemen and civilians, you know, reading … reading these books. I mean, I would venture to say we probably have fewer kids today, only because they have that many more things to take up their time and to distract them and … and their dollar goes in a million different other places, not just comics. I mean, we have to compete with a lot of other venues, you know — TV movies, video games, you name it. But I think the demographics are … are probably the same.

Paulson: Now Marvel Comics has very recently announced that this code that Carmine described is no longer applicable to Marvel Comics.

Quesada: Right.

Paulson: Why is a code a problem? Don’t we need to protect young people?

Quesada: I think that every publisher has the right to police itself and has the … I think has the wherewithal and the common sense to sell the appropriate material to the appropriate age group. I don’t think that we need an outside source, which by the way is a complete fallacy because this “outside source” was the most inside source ever created.

Paulson: Talk about that.

Quesada: Well, I mean, the … basically what was happening with the code is that … that, well, we lost (inaudible) those publishers since the ‘50s. But I think the … the remaining code companies were Marvel, DC, Archie, Dark Horse, and I believe every once in a while the guy’s … Bongo Comics would join in for … for something. But basically what was happening with the code was that we would sit together and talk about the rules of the code. We made up the rules. And then we would … we would pay an outside source to watch our rules for us and make sure that we behave, based upon our own rules. Now aside from the fact that this is ridiculously silly, aside from the fact that … that I could not for the life of me think of anything left over from McCarthyism with the exception of the Comics Code. I … I just can't think of anything in today’s world that … that’s still here, aside from fear. But the … the interesting thing about this code is that it … it was … everything about it was based on fear. And it was fear of our government coming down upon our heads. And it was … it was … I mean, I … I'm not one to really quote our nation’s readers, but … but in a speech given after the World Trade Center disasters, you know, when our president said, you know, “Fear and freedom are at war,” you can't have those two things exist in one world. But the biggest thing that scared me about the code was its inconsistency, the fact that you rate an Archie comic the same as you would rate X-Men. OK? Now for … for the … for the layperson that doesn’t understand really what that means in comic terminologies, imagine taking your child to … to the multiplex and you look up on the big multiplex board, and there’s “Little Mermaid” and there’s “Matrix.” And they're both rated the same thing. How can you possibly judge? So at Marvel we felt that it was very inconsistent. It was probably more dangerous. People don’t even know what the seal means anymore. It’s become irrelevant. I mean, the mother on the, you know … the mother on the street who brings her child into a comic shop who, you know, shows her … shows her child the comic has no idea what that little scallop [symbol] means or … or says. You know, for all they mean it’s … it’s good paper. They have no idea.


Quesada: So … so we felt that it was … it was … first of all, it was time to get out, OK? It was … it was stodgy, it was old. It’s … it just … it felt dirty. (Laughs.) To be honest with you. So what we’re doing at Marvel is we’re saying, “You know what? If the book has no marking on it at all, it’s kid-friendly. Just get it, it’s fine. If it’s not kid-friendly, we’re gonna tell you. We’re gonna tell you what’s in the book as … as a responsible publisher.” That’s what we’re gonna try to do.

Infantino: Joe, excuse me. But didn’t K-Mart have their own censors guys set up where they would look at the books and take the books and not take the books? I understand DC and Marvel’s books were being thrown out like crazy.

Quesada: Yeah, yeah … the —

Infantino: Am I correct in that (inaudible)?

Quesada: You're … well, in a way, Carmine. What … what was happening was that they … that they were only taking code-approved books. That was the fallacy.

Infantino: Oh, I see.

Quesada: That was the fallacy that —

Infantino: But even those they rejected, didn’t they?

Quesada: But what happened was that … that there’s this code authority, right? And we all meet with this code authority …

Infantino: Right.

Quesada: … and we all chip in. And we … and we give dues. We pay dues to the code authority.

Infantino: Yeah, I know, I remember that.

Quesada: And the code authority is supposed to protect us against this stuff. So one of my major questions at this … our last code meeting was, “OK, so what happened when we went into K-Mart?” Well, you know what? A non-code-approved book from an independent publisher snuck into the pack. So I was like, so what are we paying our dues for if we’re not being protected, anyway? What's … what's the difference? If we’re gonna get … you know, we keep talking that we need the code to get into K-Mart, and to the best of my … recollection, we’ve been in K-Mart twice and we've been booted out twice because something non-code has sneaked in.

Infantino: But they do have their own censor board. That’s what I'm saying. K-Mart does.

Quesada: Right.

Infantino: Am I correct?

Quesada: Right. But now, in our conversations with companies like K-Mart that … that are looking for kid-approved product, before we did this sort of self-labeling we approached them and talked to them about this system. And they really liked it. So we’re … we’re in discussions right now. I mean, I don’t want to get into Marvel business (inaudible). It’s really not what this is about. But … but it … it was a red herring. This whole thing about K-Mart will not take you without the code, which is what we were being fed, you know.

Paulson: Well, and of course we have that situation with Wal-Mart and CDs today.

Quesada: Right.

Infantino: Right.

Paulson: They … if it’s got a parental advisory on it, they won't carry it. If you can get it shipped without any kind of advisory and then the content is shocking and appalling, you have a chance of getting it into Wal-Mart because they're not necessarily listening to everything.

Quesada: Sure.

Paulson: If you label, you actually invite some censorship sometimes, as well.

Quesada: You do. And I’ll … and I’ll also … I’ll also venture to say that one of the reasons we got bounced out of K-Mart was because the quality of the books was terrible, you know. At the end of the day, if those comics were selling through the roof —

Infantino: But Joe, the important thing is, who the hell are they to make the decision of what goes in or what doesn’t go in?

Quesada: Well, I … they do have the right to make (inaudible) ...

Infantino: I mean, they choose a guy, they give him the job, he probably makes about 70 bucks a week.

Quesada: Mm-hm.

Infantino: And if he likes a book, he puts it in. If he doesn’t, he throws it out.

Quesada: Right.

Infantino: And he’s in charge.

Quesada: Yeah.

Infantino: Doesn’t make sense.


Paulson: Let’s get Wendy —

Quesada: Oh, no, I never said it made sense.

Paulson: Let’s get Wendy into the conversation here. Wendy … represents another part of the industry.

Pini: Yes, we’re those evil independent comics.

Paulson: You're the independent ones, yeah. That’s right.

(Laughter, applause.)

Paulson: This is clearly an evil independent comics audience here today. You produce a series of graphic novels called Elfquest. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and where that fits in the comic-book universe?

Pini: Absolutely. Well, it … it began with my husband Richard and I being fans of comic books when we were teenagers, and I was particularly a Marvel fan. And just growing up understanding the medium and … and how it’s put together. My career in my early 20s was as a science fiction and fantasy illustrator. I illustrated magazines and book covers and so forth. And it never occurred to me to consider the profession of comic book artist. But in 1977 there was a real upsurge of popularity in fantasy. “Star Wars” was out. Lord of the Rings was very popular. And so I told my beautiful husband the … the idea I had for this epic series called Elfquest. It had hundreds of characters and a long soap opera-ish plot line that’s still going strong after 24 years. (Laughs.) And … and he … he gravitated to it right away. And so we … we began to just sort of publish it by the seat of our pants. Prior to that, what had been going on was something called the underground comics movement. These were comic books published in black and white with fabulous artists like Robert Crumb. And the … the work in these comics was purely adult-oriented and … and extremely … oh, iconoclastic. And so apart from being a … a regular Comics Code fan, my husband and I were also fans of these very outspoken, very, very liberal in their thinking comics. And it never occurred to us that it wouldn’t be OK to publish a comic book ourselves. So we did. And —

Infantino: Did you finance them yourself, Wendy?

Pini: Yes, we financed it ourselves.

Infantino: You got guts.

Pini: And we were very lucky.

Infantino: You got guts.

Pini: Thank you. Uh … our first run sold out right away.

Infantino: That’s … how many did you print?

Pini: Oh, at the time, this was in 1977, it was unusual. We did 10,000.

Infantino: Wow. That’s great.

Pini: Yeah. Yeah.

Infantino: First time around, that’s great.

Pini: And it sold out and quickly developed a … a cult following.

Infantino: Beautiful.

Pini: I believe it did so because Elfquest really kind of crosses the border from comics fandom to science fiction and fantasy fandom. So we were able to bring in an entirely different kind of audience for a comic book than it had … had ever existed before. And lo and behold, and something I'm happiest for, we were able to bring in a large female audience. To this day, Elfquest’s audience is pretty much half and half male and female. And … and more on the … on the older side. We have a pretty wide demographic, but I would say college age is still our … our primary audience.

Paulson: Now you are not subject to the Comics Code.

Pini: No.

Paulson: You decide on your own what to put in the book.

Pini: Yes.

Paulson: Which explains the orgy issue.


Pini: Ooh, I knew you were gonna ask me that.


Infantino: That’s funny. (Laughs.)

Pini: Well … (laughs.) As the story progressed … Elfquest is about a race of beings that are somewhere between humans and angels. We call them elves. And they live by an entirely different moral code than humans do.

Infantino: Oh, you bet. Mm-hm.

Pini: And being immortal, they … there are certain things they don’t have to worry about that we here worry about. And we have laws and religion to cover that. They don’t. So they’re … the issue in question that you’ve just brought up is … they were about to go into a horrendous battle out … out of which not many of them would survive, and so naturally they partied very hearty the night before.


Pini: And we thought this was just a natural thing to do. And this was the first issue that we published where we put a warning to our audience, not for the sexual content which, while it was done in very good taste, was definitely there, but for the violence that followed. Because that’s where the battle … that’s also where the battle took place and people were bashing each other’s heads in and there was blood everywhere. We've never worried about blood. So …


Pini: So much to our great surprise, the hue and cry was not about the … the graphic violence. It was about the sexuality. We received so many letters and phone calls. “What have you done?” We received our comic books ripped into confetti shoved into envelopes and sent back to us.

Infantino: Did you say in Europe you didn’t have a problem with that?

Pini: Well, at the time we weren’t selling in Europe. This was —

Infantino: Oh, you weren’t. I'm sorry.

Pini: … these were our early years. It was primarily an American product.

Infantino: OK. But you didn’t have this problem when you sold in Europe, did you?

Pini: Well, no. Later on Europe —

Infantino: I know. ‘Cause they’re very liberal in that area. Yeah.

Pini: … picked it up. Absolutely. Our … our content is tame over there.

Infantino: Uh-huh. I know, I know.

Pini: So … yes.

Paulson: Did you —

Pini: So —

Paulson: … did you … I mean, do you market … did you market the orgy issue intending that a 14-year-old might see it, or a 12-year-old?

Pini: Absolutely. Absolutely. And … and one of the things we were most grateful for, we got a letter from an 11-year-old saying, “Thank you for not talking down to us.”

Paulson: Have you had a … is it an annual elf orgy issue or is that —


Pini: Let’s … let’s put this in context. Elf … my husband and I believe that the purpose of fantasy is to in some way symbolically make a commentary on the human condition. And we don’t believe in censoring ourselves in any way, whether it comes to the emotions the characters feel, the relationships, the sexuality, the … the decisions they make regarding violence. It’s all up for discussion. Elfquest … most … the theme that is most often expressed in heroic fantasy is good versus evil, OK? That’s very simplistic. In Elfquest our theme is knowledge versus ignorance. We often tackle stories about racial prejudice using the elves as the victims of these feelings and how they overcome it and … and what they do leads to understanding.

Paulson: Well, let me push you a little bit here.

Pini: All right.

Paulson: You’ve got explicit elf sex.

Pini: (Laughs.)

Paulson: And you’ve got —

Pini: Not that explicit.

Paulson: Not that explicit. And you have really what you describe as grisly battle scenes.

Pini: Yes.

Paulson: And you have an 11-year-old who says thank you.

Pini: Yes. Yes.

Paulson: Do you want that letter from a 7-year-old?

Pini: Well, let’s take into consideration the fact that Elfquest was created in 1977. Kids are more mature today than they were back then.

Paulson: 7-year-olds?

Pini: And if a 7-year-old is capable, with, I think, parental guidance, because very often … you know, Elfquest is multigenerational now. Parents who grew up reading it are now sharing it with their younger kids. We often get letters from parents. So if a parent chooses to share that with a 7-year-old, and the 7-year-old understands it, we think that’s entirely appropriate.

Paulson: And I don’t want to distort the content of Elfquest. The —

Pini: Right.

Paulson: … the orgy scene is an exception (inaudible).

Pini: One issue.


Pini: One issue out of many. (Laughs.)

Paulson: Right. There’s no … there’s no centerfold involved.

Pini: No.

Paulson: But … but you're saying that publishers have an obligation to warn parents and —

Pini: Yes.

Paulson: … and to invite parents to be part of that.

Pini: Yes.

Paulson: So you have the freedom to publish what you want, but you can do it with some guidance.

Pini: Yes, exactly. I mean, bringing it into this … this year, we are reprinting some material that was first published in Europe. And as you brought up, Carmine, it’s … it’s much more liberal over there.

Infantino: Much more. I know. When I was there, I noticed that.

Pini: Yeah. And … and this gives an artist more … freedom.

Infantino: Much more freedom. They prefer the work over there than here, actually.

Pini: Yes.

Infantino: Yeah, I found that, too.

Pini: Yes. And … and so voluntarily, for the reprint in America because we know some comic-book retailers get into trouble for selling questionable material to minors, we are voluntarily taking out some of the naughty bits for the American audience.

Paulson: How do you feel about that? Aren’t you watering down your art?

Pini: Yes, yes.

Paulson: And you're OK?

Pini: But the point is, I got it out there. It’s out there. And … and for the serious collectors, they can collect the European comics. And … and so there … we are presenting an alternative within the alternative. If you want the milder version, you can have the milder version.

Quesada: Ken, there … there’s also a certain amount of responsibility. And I know what Wendy’s talking about here, that … that we have to show towards certain retailers in certain parts of the country. Because there are cases right now or past where retailers have been arrested for selling what is considered questionable material.

Pini: Yes.

Quesada: And … and that changes from state to state. And … and we’re not talking about a ticket, you know. Fifty bucks, go pay it at court. We’re talking hard jail time. So in situations like this, you … you know, it … it’s a tough and very fine line that you have to walk between labeling and not labeling. Do you, you know, do you inform the retailer? Is the retailer solely responsible? Is the parent solely responsible? And I think everyone … everyone makes their own sort of educated decision. But … but there … but there are laws that we have to be very, very careful that we … you know, in certain states that are … that are still there.

Paulson: There are a lot of people out there … well, I don’t know how many. But there are people out there who think that Harry Potter suggests some satanic influence.

Pini: Yes, yes.

Paulson: Have you faced that kind of backlash yourself?

Pini: Occasionally. I have heard that we were honored by being featured on some Christian fundamentalist station as … as being satanically influenced, along with The X-Men, I believe it was.


Quesada: Did it increase your sales? Did it increase your sales, too?

Pini: (Laughs.) I hope so. But naturally when you work with characters that have pointed ears and sort of elfin features, you're going to get … well, Mr. Spock received the same kind of criticism in “Star Trek” long ago. But it … it’s nothing we've ever worried about. I think one of the greatest things about our experience in doing Elfquest, and it has been going for 24 years now, is that we’ve gotten away with so much. We live in an environment where we really can express ourselves freely and … and choose the kind of imagery we want to put out there. And we really haven't received that much backlash in that regard.

Paulson: Carmine, as an artist and then later as an executive, were there times when you could not communicate your message in comics because of the code? Were you ever … did you ever censor yourself because of the code?

Infantino: No, no. I always felt that we could get … we could be more creative by having been … (inaudible) restriction. That never bothered me. And I … my editors felt the same way. Well, if they felt it, I would say no, no.

Paulson: You have not been reluctant to share your views here, and I want a candid response to this question, as well.

Infantino: Right.

Paulson: Is Joe wrong to get rid of the code?

Infantino: No.

Paulson: You're OK?

Infantino: No, no. No, no. Even … you gotta remember something. We were in a different period of history when we had that trouble. We … this business would not be around today if we didn’t have a code 'cause that’s how bad it was. It was really destroyed. When you get 95 percent returns of comic books, you're dead. It’s over. So they had to do something. And these five gentlemen who ran the companies put this thing together. They didn’t like it, but they did it. And … the numbers were (inaudible) coming back. The distributors we got handling the books. But they were getting sales of 30, 35 percent. We were told to get … taking cuts in salary. And I tell you, we hid our names. I signed different names all over the place. It was a scary time. But now? No, no. I'm not in the business now and whatever Joe does I … I applaud.

Paulson: OK. Do any of you think that violence in comic books encourages violence in kids?

Pini: That is one of the toughest questions you could ask because there … there is such a thing as imitative behavior. I'm remembering that movie where the kids were lying on the yellow line in the road and the cars going by.

Quesada: Someone calls that Darwinism, I don’t know.

Pini: Kids were imitating … Darwin.


Infantino: Superman first began …

Pini: Yeah.

Infantino: Superman first began. Remember kids were jumping off roofs, they thought they could fly?

Pini: Mm-hm.

Infantino: There was a problem at that time.

Pini: Uh —

Infantino: How much … how much reflects … I think it’s the particular personality. Some kids are gonna be strange no matter what you do.

Paulson: So you guys are all —


Pini: Absolutely.


Paulson: That … that sounds like a benediction right there.


Pini: Where we experienced that was one of our characters died and his mate cut off her hair in mourning. And we got a box in the mail a little while later. Opened it up and one of our fans had (laughs) cut off her braid and sent it to us. So … you know, imitation. (Laughs.)

Paulson: Echoing Carmine’s comment there.


Paulson: This has been a terrific conversation and I want to thank all of you for being a part of it. I think a lot of folks who see this show will have learned a great deal about the comic-book industry. There are a lot of people who have the sense that it is just about kids and [that] there are no mature themes and there are no mature messages.

Infantino: No, no.

Paulson: For those who do have an interest in the history of comic books, I want to recommend an extraordinary book, The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, a terrific new book. Contains a lot of your artwork.

Infantino: You do that, you buy them.

Paulson: What’s that?

Infantino: If they buy it, I don’t have to worry about food stamps.

Paulson: All right. Let’s keep Carmine —

(Laughter, applause.)

Paulson: … well fed. Thank you all for being there.

Infantino: Thank you.

Paulson: Our guests today, Carmine Infantino, Wendy Pini, Joe Quesada. Thank you.


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