Creator Suppression and the History of Comics for Kids

The very smart Kevin Maroney takes on the question of why American comics were considered only for kids for so long.

…Carl Barks, whose works were read with delight by all ages in the US in the past and in much of Europe to this day. But Barks was never in a position to market his work as his own work, and his publishers strongly discourged any possible audience from even identifying his works, let alone preserving or showcasing them. Comics publishers wanted N disposable pages every month, fired into the market and forgotten; encouraging people to think in terms of “Carl Barks” (or even “Siegel and Shuster”) didn’t fit their business models at all.

The difference between comics publishing in Europe (and Japan) and the United States seems to me largely tracable to that active suppression of the creator.

It’s true, movies began being taken seriously as art when French critics identified the director as the auteur whose vision was on display. To think about art, we have to be able to identify the artist.


3 Responses to “Creator Suppression and the History of Comics for Kids”

  1. Joshua Macy Says:

    But does being taken seriously as art have anything to do with mass-market appeal or what audience it’s aimed at? It doesn’t look to me like one has anything to do with the other, and both pre-auteur theory film and the rise of the star system (starting w/Lee, Kirby and Ditko) in super-hero comics seem to disprove the connection.

  2. Michael Rawdon Says:

    The US comics industry has always behaved that way. Even in the heyday of Marvel in the 60s, they would promote their creators as part of the greater gestalt of the company. That was probably the best-case midpoint between creators interests and corporate interests given the way the large companies operate.

    The large companies have a vested interest in behaving this way: Their assets aren’t truly the creators, their assets are their intellectual property, i.e. their characters and (to a lesser extent) their back catalogue of reprintable stories. To a comics company, creators are only valuable to the extent that they make money for the company, especially generating new assets which can be used long-term.

    Conversely, creators are interested in getting paid for work they enjoy, but they’re also motivated to keep their best material which can generate revenue long-term for themselves. So the two groups are fundamentally at odds.

    The little blip in creator-owned titles circa 1978-1994 aside, the major companies have always tended to market their characters first and foremost, and the creators only to the extent that they bring new and hopefully lasting sales to the book. But crossovers and big event stories are attractive to the companies because they directly milk the elements over which the companies have direct control: The characters, and the marketing thereof.

    (The odd company out here seems to be Image, whose business model I don’t really understand as they mainly seem to be a packaging and publishing firm for creator-owned titles, and yet they seem to be wildly successful. This suggests to me that either Image is unique in some strange way, or that I don’t understand some fundamental element of their publishing model. My bet would be on the latter.)

    My opinion is that fans are best-served by following the creators rather than the characters – that you’re more likely to find consistently good material by following creators you like than characters you like – and therefore that the fans are more closely aligned with the interests of the creators than the companies.

    I don’t know why the European market is different from the American market. My gut feeling is that it’s a cultural difference. However, I know very little about the European comics industry.

  3. James kosmicki Says:

    I did a master’s thesis on this, and it basically goes back to the very beginnings of comics as a form. Originally comics were dismissed because only illiterate immigrants and unsophisticated children like or read them. Then, when the comic strips survived and their children readers became adults, there was a very distinct difference made between the more sophisticated and adult comic strip and the gory, childish comic book.

    It seems so simplistic, but honestly what happened to the comic book in America was the Kefauver Commission, Wertham and the Comics Code. Just as the early readers of comics were growing up (and still reading comics created more for their adult concerns), the newspapers and magazines and the US Senate began writing all these articles talking about how comics were hurting kids. If you’ve ever read the Kefauver testimony, several comic strip creators (Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff for sure) also spoke to the Commission, but the questioning was basically “so you don’t do that crappy kid’s comic book stuff, right?” and then several minutes of fawning over the cartoonists while they sketched for the Senators. A line was drawn. the comics WE read (comic strips) are NOT the same as these evil comics that we are concerned about (comic books).

    then, when the Comics Code basically forced all publishers to publish bowdlerized comics designed specifically to have no sophistication or adult themes, the publishers drove away almost all of the adult readers that they had.

    Add into this the effect that TV had on all other forms of entertainment, and you have AN explanation (not necessarily THE explanation) of the phenomenon. As TV penetration into the American home grows, there is an almost exact correlation to the loss of the audience for comic books, general interest magazines, paperback books, short stories, etc. so ironically enough, just as Marvel and the undergrounds were beginning to keep the young readers a bit longer, there were so many other alternatives for the entertainment dollar that the market shrunk like almost every other print media.

    I’m an American, so my knowledge of other countries is limited, but I’ve read many articles that have claimed that countries with state-controlled TV and/or limited or late TV encroachment into homes still have a much stronger print media tradition. That could also explain why comics aren’t as limited to children. you grow up with Donald and company, move on to TinTin and Asterix and then continue on to Jodorowsky. If there’s never been the negative reputation of comics only being for children — if they’ve never been limited to JUST being for children — then this is a much more natural evolution for readers.

    my experience in the classroom has been that when I assign a graphic novel, my students look askance at first, but then find themselves enjoying the form. But very few of them look for more to read. But then again, very few of them look for more prose novels to read either. We simply aren’t a reading culture anymore, more’s the pity.

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