Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I've been reading a lotta Bronze Age stuff lately, a lotta Marvel comics from the 1970s. And as fun as they can be in a nostalgic sense, they're also pretty goofy and cringe-inducing. It's not difficult to see sometimes how superhero comics developed the reputation of being juvenile and brain-decaying. The exposition is overly repetitive, the characters can be fairly two-dimensional, and little space is accounted for nuance and subtlety.

But what really sticks out to me is the dialogue. Yes, the corniness can be overlooked or dismissed as simple charm. But there is one aspect about a lot of this dialogue that really calls attention to itself, and that is all the fake swear words. This was pretty common practice up through the late '90s, but it seems the '70s is when you'd find a vast amount of dialogue like, "I'm so mad, I could spit!" or "I'll send you back to Hades!" And by heck, that stuff makes me so gosh-darned annoyed, I could brown my no-no's.

The obvious reason for this is that Comics Code Authority standards at the time were very stringent but also a very necessary business decision, since these books were to be sold mainly at newsstands and drug stores. This was well before the direct market and comics specialty shops allowed for a system of mass distribution that didn't hinge on the puritanical ethos of so-called community standards.

But there's more than one way to skin a foul-mouthed cat. If the rainbow of profanity is not made available to you as a writer, then I would say it oughtta be completely hands-off. To employ these silly substitute curse words is a form of cheating and is just plain lazy writing, which we all know is the most cardinal sin of all.

The analogy that pops to my mind has to do with one of rap music's greatest acts, the Geto Boys. Individually known as Willie D, Bushwick Bill, DJ Ready Red, and Scarface, the Geto Boys were one of the filthiest, most vulgar combos to hit the music scene, especially for the mid to late 1980s. Any word, phrase, or concept you'd be uncomfortable mentioning in front of your mother or the Pope is covered on their brilliant self-titled album on Rick Rubin's Def American label, so much so that Def American included an advisory sticker that proclaimed they themselves found the material to be "violent, sexist, racist, and indecent." Genius, right? I know.

But at this time in American cultural history, radio airplay was indispensable to any working musicians, not unlike newsstand distribution once was to comics. And the practice of "resinging" the offensive language as is the custom today (I think that's the term I want--y'know, when the vocal track drops out for a second or two and it's really disconcerting) either wouldn't do or just no one had thought of it. So at least one radio-friendly track was required per album.

Now, as much as I could not do without any of these three rappers, the skills needed to pull off a full track without a single swear word belonged to only one Geto Boy. Bill and D were some angry dudes, and that raw emotional power is what helped put them at the top of their game. But if they ended a lyric with the word "sucker," you knew what the next rhyme would be. Same deal if they used the words "trigger," "bigger," or "snigger."

Scarface takes sole vocal duties on the track "Life in the Fast Lane" not because he was better or more vital to the group, but merely because he more than the others was able to hone that rage to fit within the prescribed boundaries and do it with skill and finesse. When it comes to artistic expression, there is technically no outside obstruction conceivable that a true artist cannot overcome. Yes, Scarface uses the words "butt" or "brother" at times on this song, ostensibly in place of more choice words. But those are fair game, words well within the lexicon, not made-up nonsense surrogates.

Thankfully, as we get this century rolling along, a lot of "profanity" is finding a more sympathetic home. This should come as no surprise, y'know, when in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking and blah blah blah. But even if the symptoms are changing, there is still a lot of this disease going about. What all this stems from is that people are afraid of words, and as it pertains to comics, people are afraid of the effects these words are going to have on their kids. And when people are afraid and act out of that fear, their decisions are often rash and ill-informed.

Recently, in the pages of Fantastic Four #574, little genius Valeria Richards calls her brother Franklin a "retard," in the manner that all siblings take pokes at one another. But this choice of word by writer Jonathan Hickman caused at least two readers to write in and take Hickman to task in the letters page of the next issue. The motive of these letter-writers is very, very difficult to impinge, since they sincerely acted out of concern for those who, through no fault of their own, must live in a sometimes debilitating condition. But in the course of their defense of this segment of the population, they claim that Hickman and Marvel Comics itself hold an inherent responsibility to not use language like this.

And that's where they jump track. Famous writer and all-around smarty-pants George Orwell once claimed that he wrote solely with political purpose, meaning the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Hey, super. Orwell would go on to claim that he couldn't understand why any writer would write for any other reason. Again, that's fair enough. Fortunately, for every other writer in the world, we don't have to make that clear to anybody, not even Mr. Big Deal Political Purpose Orwell.

The only responsibility inherent to any writer is to the craft of writing. That's it. Anything else is certainly up for debate but remains subjective. If a writer chooses to use substitute swear-words in order to tell the story as well as possible under certain restraints, then that is his or her responsibility, and he or she can thus be criticized for it. Which I just did, but you never heard me call into question any writer's responsibility to anything other than the story. He doesn't owe me real curse words because I shelled out the money for the comic, but as a writer he owes me a good story. Just as Scarface may partially owe his career to reigning in the profane for at least one track, he also completely owes his audience a decent work of art all the same. Same with Orwell and his hewing to an agenda of social upheaval; that's his call. And though he can't imagine why other writers write for any other reason, he certainly never attempts to prevent them from doing so (that'd be ironic, wouldn't it?). And as boring as parts of 1984 can be, Orwell was a good enough story-teller to be just that, even when he was hitting his audience over the head with political purpose.

Therefore, Hickman cannot be blamed for what his characters say. That sounds weird, but it's true. Hickman remained true to the character of a three-year-old girl in her relationship with her older brother, and though the choice of word wasn't one Hickman may have used himself (he does respond to those letters saying that he hates it when other kids insult his own with such callousness), it's what the character called for. To put any other word in Valeria's mouth would have been irresponsible.

I feel bad for any mentally challenged kid who read that FF and was insulted by it, I truly do. But here's the thing: it's just a word, man. As a writer myself, I am well aware of the power that words have. But they still remain abstract. They're not really real, when you get down to it. And they simply can't hurt you. A bullet, that can hurt you. Somebody's fist can cause damage. I couldn't throw a word at you if I tried. You've got nothing to fear.

Let writers rise or fall based on their ability as writers, not as sensitive-types. If we begin assigning them some sort of greater responsibility, then we run a very real risk of killing their muse altogether. If words make you uncomfortable, it is solely your responsibility to examine why that is so before trying to lay the blame at the foot of the writer. They're just words, baby. But at the same time, the only responsibility the writer has is to them.