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Does class affect our perception of the comic image? If so, how?

In today's society, comics have a much different image than they did in the early years - 30's and 40's - of what we now call the comic. In an interview with the Delaware County Magazine, Stan Lee commented, "In the past, back in the late 50’s, I had a publisher who felt comics were just for little kiddies, so he never wanted me to use words of more than two syllables." This is the image that society has continued to hold in their understanding of comics: bad stories, questionable literary and intellectual merit, and moral corruption.

While John Sumner (appointed in 1915 after Anthony Comstock's death) and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to derail literature's attempts to express the reality of life and modernity - mainly sex (United States vs One Book Called Ulysses 1933) - comics were just beginning to find their voice in a new medium: the comic book. Before the comic book, pulp magazines, named after the cheap paper used, would host science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction that was sold for a relatively low price. These magazines were bought mainly by children, and as the children matured, the comic book became available (first famous comic is Action Comics #1, where Superman makes his first appearance in June 1938). Because the medium's average consumer and reader was a child, the medium suffered - things that children like, could never be considered an intellectual pursuit or item of social and moral value. Thus, class affects society's perception of the comic image.

In the early years of comics and today, for the most part, the villain was a rich or wealthy person of influence in the upper class. While not directly aimed at this class or a particular person, the stock character of a corrupt, rich businessman or politician made the ideal villain. Consequently, this upper class would avoid these comics. While there is no correlation between the negative portrayal of the upper class and their reading of the comic, it dictates why a class might challenge or discourage a group from reading materials in the comic medium. However, these comics were not for the wealthy and rich. Comic books were created and read by middle and lower class families looking for something better. Creators like Siegel and Shuster, who created Superman, were first generation Americans. Their parents were Jewish immigrants from Canada and Lithuania that came to America in search for a better life.

Ultimately, that is the crime of the comic medium: created by first generation lower and middle class Americans geared to people like them (people that felt disenfranchised and unrepresented). Thus, in society's understanding, the comic book had to have little to no merit artistically, morally, literary, etcetera. This view of society was carried through till, I believe, the 80's with Alan Moore's Watchman. While not the first graphic novel, according to Time Magazine, it is one of the top 100 novels of all time. This is the first time, in my opinion, that a comic book had received such praise and considerations from popular media and society. Comic books were no longer the pulp magazines of the '10s, but rather an academic and intellectual pursuit worth merit. They were no longer the "mind rotting" comic books that "you wasted your money on," but accepted forms of graphic and literary media. With the proliferation of comic book characters onto the big screen and T.V., comics are becoming more and more accepted by mainstream society. Famous author: Ray Bradbury, and Not-Yet-So-Famous author: Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), have entered in the comic medium. Bradbury has teamed up with a series of artists to portray his novels into graphic novels: Farhenheit 451 and Martian Chronicles, and Joe Hill has a series called Lock and Key, has an up-coming TV series with FOX, whose pilot has been airing at Comic Cons.

The comic might have once been destined to the dark-windowed comic shop full of "geeky, pimple faced nerds" playing DD and talking about the merits of DC vs Marvel vs Darkhorse, but it has evolved into a multi-million dollar empire that is reaching mainstream status. No longer is the comic destined solely for the chubby hand of a child wishing he had super powers to buy his family some milk; the comic now resides in the hand's of the rich and poor, bridging the gap between socio-economic boundaries that were once closed.

Comments

Bill Svitavsky said…
This is a well informed discussion of the issues. As the class continues, I hope you'll give further thought to how comic books made that progress from "bad stories..." to the respect that works like Watchmen have received. Also, is the respect accorded to "one of the top 100 novels of all time" the same kind of status garnered by a genre generating multi-million dollar blockbuster movies? Is it related? Or are there multiple aspects changing in the widespread perception of superheroes?

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