Sunday, February 20, 2011

"...And I helped!" Manga’s contribution to the death of the CCA.


In the wake of the recent unsurprising news that has finally made it into mainstream media, that MPAA ratings are nothing more than a corporate censorship tool used to maintain entertainment monopolies. The not-so-recent demise of the Comic Code Authority can hopefully offer some helpful insight on how to hasten the end of the for-profit disease that is the genuinely evil MPAA Rating System.

Unfettered by knee-jerk restrictions of 1950's moral panic, manga shows us the heights that American comics could have reached if not for a Godwin-envoking, research-faking maniac (Fredric Wertham, who doe snot deserve the title "Doctor") in the aftermath of the horrific cultural destruction perpetrated by one Anthony Comstock.

The final nail in the coffin often gets too much credit. It signifies the end of an era, entity, or other institution being forced into that long good night either by circumstance, attrition, or social upheaval. It doesn’t really do much though. If you were trapped in a coffin with all the nails in the lid except one, you’d probably stay trapped. No, it’s those first nails that are the truly important and often heroic ones, desperately holding down the coffin lid themselves while that which lies within struggles to break free with all its strength. These “first-nail” endeavors often have their significance muted by the passage of time and the ascendance of a subsequent generation which knows no other world than one where the effects of the “first-nail” efforts might as well have existed forever and all time. Thus, these “final-nail” efforts come to signify the entirety of a struggle in a singular, lasting, well documented, and stationary mote.

To over three (perhaps four) generations, it’s just as impossible to picture the CCA having any real power to change things in publishing, as it is to imagine a world where the color of your skin meant sitting in the back of the bus. We’ve never known a world where the McCarthy-era soaked tenets of this bully pulpit were followed by the publishing industry as absolute unbreakable law. A world where breaking from such obedience to these racist, sex-phobic, misogynistic, paranoid, hyper-puritanical whims, would mean they would put you out of business in an instant. But that was exactly the case of EC Comics:

What, Me Worry?

By the time I was born, let alone old enough to be hauling new comics home from St. Mark’s Comics every Wednesday, the CCA had already passed the event horizon of irrelevance, becoming a lame duck with the publication of Amazing Spider Man #96. The cat (more like paper-tiger) was out of the bag, and Marvel survived publishing a comic without the seal of approval, effectively telling the world that the emperor had no clothes. The CCA desperately tried to amend its code in a very retroactive “I totally meant to do that” fashion, but it was too late.

But though the CCA was shown to be worthless, it wasn’t going to go away any time soon, and they made laughable efforts to evolve. They were still around during the 1980’s, and only by perhaps just a slim margin was the CCA not revived with new strength and legitimacy during the “music scare” of the 1980’s, which brought us the PMRC organization, and first painted the RIAA as the “bad guy” when it came to opinions of pop-culture fans. Thankfully, the “Highlander-style" reinvigoration of power never happened with the CCA, and in the 1980’s, manga started creeping into the commercial comic-shop circuit, all of it sans-CCA label, with ninja-like stealth.

It was acceptable in the 80's

Things trotted along, and no one really worried about that ever shrinking CCA tag in the corner, as it no longer had any value. But the ever present nagging feeling it reinforced; “comics are for kids” and the “living in your parent’s basement” stigma if you were over the age of 14 and still buying them, still clouded the minds of comic readers and non-readers alike. The CCA stamp was a zero-sum entity. All or nothing, no shades of gray like we see in the equally destructive and more powerful MPAA ratings. This fact gave even more substance to the notions that all things published as comics were “for kids,” requiring their precious eyes to be shielded from possible destructive “adult” elements; Elements which belong in novels or films, where there is a system capable of differentiating between the many levels of age-appropriate content... anywhere but comics (think of the children!). But manga was now on the scene, providing narratives and windows into universes so much deeper than the one- dimensional dictates of American CCA approved comics. Slightly more plentiful than before, manga were chock full of CCA violating content like nudity, homosexuality, “liberated women,” successful criminals, nice guys finishing last, gambling, sword-fights, and happy drunk-drinkie time. And by that fact, they actually offered the reader a story where the ending was NOT a forgone conclusion, and therefore, genuinely entertaining.

Left: CCA Approved content
: Worse than Hitler (According to "Dr" Wertham)

Then the 1990’s comic bubble happened, and suddenly comics were not entertainment but a financial instrument. This produced three major environmental factors that would have lasting effects both on the CCA and manga itself.

First: Comics were being produced and sold at a record pace. Many people were buying and then selling them without a second thought to the actual content, because they never looked past the cover. A cover that they could care less if the stamp of approval from an organization based on the social values of their grandparents was on it or not.
Second: This rapid buying and selling had publishers scrambling to produce anything, regardless of the narrative or artistic quality (how else can anyone explain Rob Liefeld). This lead to seriously poor quality publications and the endless spinoffs soon generated brand fatigue (or character fatigue) in readers. This led manga being accepted as an alternative to what American comics had become, almost preserving the higher quality narratives that readers had come to expect. This helped give manga a foothold in the third factor.
Third: Extreme retail proliferation. During the boom of the 1990’s, the national comic retail footprint expanded exponentially. I remember in my neighborhood alone, the number of stores you could walk to, went from 1 up to 5 in a single year (after the bust it’s back down to 2). Comic retail was everywhere, and brought with it the “fringe” titles that included all manga, making their way onto the shelves next to the 7 different X-men spinoffs with varying chromium covers vacuum packed with a “limited edition” collectable trading card of Jubilee and 17 pages of ads for Extreme Ranch Doritos, Sega CD games, and Mountain Dew. Sure that issue of Ranma1/2 was a wallet-destroying $4.95, but next to the alternative, it was totally worth it.

Viz's first American release of Ranma 1/2 (issue #1, full color).

Point #3 is the most important here, because with such fierce competition, and the need to sustain sales as comics become a business unto themselves and not simply a product carried at stores that sell other things (drugstores, and so on). The majority of retailers and distributors did not consider the CCA seal as necessary and were happy to carry any publication that didn’t have it if it were part of a successful product offering. This meant that a book that didn’t carry the CCA stamp now had equal footing in the war for shelf space.

What's missing?

After the inevitable comic bust, the seeds planted by manga were watered by the popularity of anime (most American Otaku discovered anime first and then sought out manga, where I was an anomaly seeing manga first and then seeking out anime). From the desolation of the previous bust rose an indie comic scene to rival that of the major publishers, and not only was Japanese manga a large part of that, but after a few years American produced manga-style books starting permeating retail channels via independent labels and independent producers. The choice of appropriate content was put into the hands of the consumer, and not pre-determined by an organization which gleefully exercised its power to censor content, simply for the sake of feeling powerful.

Yes I bought this crap... give me a break, it was a different time.

This was the start of the final leg of the power drain from the CCA, which included the massive success of non-participating Dark Horse and Image Comics, and the withdrawal of Marvel Comics in 2001. Hoards of publishers weren’t even bothering with the CCA, including boatloads of Pokemon comics going out the door, all without the “seal of approval.” This was important in that it literally drained the life-blood of the CCA, and made it impossible to ever be relevant again. Their all-or-nothing way of doing things could never weather the kind of cultural transitions that happen in a country like the USA, nor could it ever weather the kind of rapid evolution in media retail in a country like the USA. The forced censorship of the MPAA and ESRB are more insidious and difficult to dislodge because they have gradient levels, but it’s only a matter of time before theaters stop giving a crap about ratings, but given what's happened with the downright criminal censorship of The King's Speech, it still may be a while before theaters stop giving a crap about MPAA ratings in favor of selling tickets. When films and games are bought and consumed exclusively by the end-users (as they soon will be via digital distribution), the MPAA and ESRB will become worthless as well. We can see that process in action at the moment with the once powerful now irrelevant PMRC, who’s “Tipper Sticker” has in effect been thoroughly murdered by P2P sharing, iTunes, and music streaming services.

This is why nobody likes you and you're going to die alone Tipper!

It only took a bit over 50 years, but this power-hungry censorship organization, the product of McCarthy era fear mongering, and predicated on a medical hoax by a misogynist doctor, has finally been rightfully buried in irrelevance. ...and manga helped.



Sip some Champaign in celebration, and keep up the good fight.

Do you have any stories from 1990's English language manga collecting? Share them with us here, share them with the internets for otaku e-points... you'll feel better.


Dustin Kopplin said...

I found an Issue 1 of Metal Bikini a couple of months ago from some guy who deals comics in my area. I looked at the cover, pondered and said to myself "This looks like its dumb, but... I think ill get it."

And, it was dumb, but was somewhat enjoyable.

And I do get a kick outta Sega CD ads in comics. Seeing how I do own one and makes me check if I have that game or not, and just shows how old I am also.

Anonymous said...

Well, I always found it weird that you had to be 18+ to check out the "underground" comics section for even stuff like Robert Crumb. But then racy stuff like Crying Freeman and Sanctuary come along, and they let *anyone* read 'em. And this was *before* the "polybagged" era we have now. I'm actually surprised there were so few complaints about it, given that people seem to forget that the 90s was the era when anything with violent content was being targeted by parental groups. Beavis and Butthead and South Park were once considered "controversial" to be banned in a lot of places. So my only assumption for why manga took off is because it was so low-profile that most people never even *heard* of it at the time.