Friday, May 1, 2015

You Dare Not Miss This Issue's Shock En... er, Beginning!


In the '70s, the letters pages of Marvel comics were the closest thing you had to a forum--and when there was a point of contention to be hashed out, those pages were the closest thing you had to what today would be known as a comment thread. One such point of contention involved a case of a character's nudity--or lack thereof--in the pages of Incredible Hulk, when the Harpy was transformed back into Betty Ross Talbot and was led by Bruce Banner in a harrowing escape from the sky-city of the Bi-Beast. Of course, the Harpy was a villainess who didn't need to bother with clothes--and so when the transformation to Betty occurred, Betty had no choice but to seek escape with Banner au naturel:


But the sky-city was on the verge of destruction--and almost immediately, Banner and Betty found themselves without any footing and plunging to their deaths from a height of eight miles above the earth:



So as you might imagine, scrambling for clothes for Betty wasn't a priority, nor was it possible before the two were hurled into their plummet of doom.

Yet, on the splash page of the next issue, Betty seems to have miraculously recovered her dignity:



I know what you're thinking. "Come on, it's obvious! That scrap of material must have fallen from the city around the same time, and ended up within arm's reach--and so she just reached out and snagged it!" Riiiiightt. You're falling to your death and you're about to make a bloody splat with no chance of survival, and your first concern is going to be to look around to see if there's anything falling with you that you could use to cover yourself.

Fortunately, concerned reader Alexander Kaihn called "phooey" on the whole thing:



And his was the comment which began the comment thread to follow. Should Marvel have backed off like they did on showing nudity in this instance? Let's see how other readers weighed in.



"About the brown bag cover-up conspiracy. I totally disapprove. I disapprove of any censorship in comics, whether it be banning zombies or not allowing blood to be shown when someone gets stabbed or banning nudity. Nudity is a part of life, and as such it should be included in any comic striving for realism." -- Stephen Sullivan

"I agree with [Alex]! The female body is one of the most beautiful things in the world! If Betty wasn't wearing clothes as the Harpy, then she should not be wearing clothes when she became normal again! Alex also mentioned a love scene between Daredevil and Tasha. I think that would be lovely. From now on, show the truth!" -- Trisha Blacke

"I think the problem with your 'cover-up conspiracy' is that it does not go far enough. Most of your mags (with some exceptions, such as CONAN) should not have many of the things which are sometimes implied. Now that the Comics Code has loosened its restrictions, don't revert to the things which made those restrictions necessary." -- James E. Hinds

"I think you did the right thing by adding clothes... I do not think nudism should ever enter Marvel magazines. The reason for this decision is that you have many young readers. The problem could have been solved by keeping Betty in the shadows of some building until she could have found a cloth to wrap around herself. However, if you do decide to go nude (in your comics) do it in style. Have an artist that can really draw good women." -- G. Abney & T. Fish

[Somehow I don't think Messrs. Abney and Fish really thought through their response. - CF.]

"About nudity. Alexander Kaihn is absolutely right. I personally would enjoy it if you were allowed to be that honest. I wouldn't be offended, and I'm sure that very few others of your readers would be, either." -- Susan C. Boyle


Marvel's response noted that the actual percentages of all the letters on this topic fell within the ratio of 80/20 in favor of a more liberalized policy toward nudity. But, wanting a better cross-section of their readership, they invited more letters on the subject, which were featured in a later issue:

"As for nudity in comics ... right on! Comics are supposed to depict life as it really is. But I've yet to see a streaker in a comic book. I've yet to see a skinny-dipper in a comic book. I've yet to see anybody make love in a comic (but I have seen stabbings and shootings). All of these things are certainly part of today's world. Yet comics make the attempt to cover up basic facets of life. Sue Richards didn't get pregnant by eating peanut butter sandwiches. I've yet to hear the Thing say, 'I gotta go to the can.' Has Luke Cage ever cursed?" -- Michael Macrone

[All right, could someone please educate me on the correlation between peanut butter sandwiches and pregnancy? - CF.]

"I'm twelve and I guess what you'd call a 'young reader,' and I wouldn't be offended, shocked, or anything if you had nudity in your comics. Besides, you've had some nudity in your black-and-white mags before." -- Alec Beck

"It's totally disgusting even to think of having nudity in comics. Sexual awareness at an early age is certainly not beneficial. If your older readers want bareness, they can pick up a copy of a sex book at a bookstore (there's enough of 'em!)." -- Joel West

"As to the question of nudity in Marvel comics, I vote 'no.' But that is a deceptive vote. Personally, I would like to see as realistic a depiction of life as possible in comics, nudity included. Unfortunately, there are some parents who would not see it that way--parents who would write nasty letters, forbid their children to buy comics, and even (gulp!) band together to take some kind of unified action against comics. That would be bad for your business and ultimately, bad for the comics fan." -- Kim Draheim

"I have long wondered about those who feel God's greatest creation is vulgar and obscene. These people seem to think that Man, who created clothes, is superior to God, who created man. If we were all more honest about the human body, the children of today would realize that nudity is a natural state, not something to drool over as the children of yesterday do now as adults." -- Mike Shonk

"Nudity in comics has never appealed to me. I don't think I'd like the idea of having to show an I.D. before I buy a comic book. If things come to that point, I'll have to go five years without comics. So please keep nudity out of your books, not just for me, but for all your readers who are minors." -- Lloyd Hemingway

"Our world and society of today have seen enough lies and fakery to last us a lifetime. A love scene between two of your characters, done with the taste and grace that I know Marvel can accomplish, would be beautiful." -- Michael Arndt

"I have one reservation about nudity in comics. I realize that the controversy in HULK centers around a specific example, but still, the discussion seems to be about female nudity rather than nudity in general. The female body is beautiful, the male body is beautiful--the human body is beautiful: it isn't a matter of gender. If you have nudity applying only to women, if you draw a sharp distinction between male and female nudity, you may be reinforcing artificial distinctions which can be quite harmful." -- Adrienne Fein


Finally, Marvel was ready to wrap this matter up with its own response that sought to balance the opinions expressed by giving what amounted to a noncommittal acknowledgement of the fact that, well, everybody had some interesting opinions. In a practical sense, the editor(s) couldn't really let this back-and-forth continue--as they could today, over forty years later, in a genuine comment thread. This subject had already taken up two separate letters pages, and the mag couldn't afford to let its readership dwell on the subject and keep at it.

So Marvel closed with words that essentially let everyone know that, as far as Marvel was concerned, this matter had run its course:

Before making any statements of our own on this question, we feel we do have to clear up one point in reference to Joel West's letter:

Absolutely none of our readers, Joel, have said they 'want bareness' in our magazines. Rather, the tone of the mail has been simply that they don't wish for us to avoid nudity when it seems a natural part of a specific story. There's a tremendous distinction there, and we can only hope you understand it. If a hundred issues went by without a single instance in which nudity would be appropriate, we suspect that not one reader would object--whereas, it seems, many more than we suspected would be annoyed if we purposefully copped out on showing a nude figure when there was a logical reason to do so.

All of which forces us to conclude that a sizable portion of our 'young' readership (as opposed to the 'adult' readership of more conventional mags) may just hold a far more mature--or at least, more liberal--position on this question than does our society in general.

It's weird, folks. We expected to be swamped with piles of letters expressing utter outrage at our even raising the question for discussion. That didn't happen.

Nor did any of the pro-nudity letters we received seem to wish for its inclusion on a sensationalistic basis.

What most of you seemed to be saying was, in effect, that you just wanted us to be more honest and maybe a little more liberated.

And that gives us food for thought, friends.

No, we're not going to make any major policy changes just yet, because we strongly suspect that this batch of comments is going to elicit yet another storm of controversy, and we want to read those letters, too.

And Marvel staff might well have read additional letters on the subject that arrived; but there was no further *ahem* exposure of the nudity issue in succeeding letters pages, and Marvel's final response here was likely worded to send the tactful message that they considered the matter closed.

All in all, if they were going for a cross-section of opinions, the letters they selected did a good job of offering just that--and without the trolling that comment threads are notoriously vulnerable to. It turned out to be a fascinating sampling of readership values from different age groups, combined with a gutsy call by management to open the door to their readership and invite opinion on what was, back in the day, a controversial subject for a comic book to broach.

But this is today--and your perspective on how Betty's situation was resolved has to be equally fascinating, considering how our values have evolved over the decades. So, since technology allows us to throw the floor wide open without worrying about limited print space, and since we here at the PPoC love to hear from you anyway, we'd welcome your take on Betty's sudden cover-up. If Marvel had it to do over again, should they have made a different decision and thrown caution (and Betty's burlap sack) to the wind? Or did they act prudently, and make the only decision possible?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I dunno.
I don't really mind the magical burlap sack that much. After all, if you can't put your sense of logic in park when you're reading a comic book, you're in for a bumpy ride.
After all, what keeps the Hulk's pants on? (I'm glad something does)
Comics have become a lot more sexual and graphic since I was a kid, and it seems to me like they lost a lot of their charm and innocence.
Last decade or so, I've been a little embarrassed to go into comic shops. I feel like I oughtta be wearing a trenchcoat and a pair of sunglasses.
Ah, I'm becoming a grouchy old coot. Pretty soon, I'll be complaining about rock 'n' roll music. Damn hippies!
M.P.

Comicsfan said...

Yeah, M.P., they should just get off our lawn! :)

Colin Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve W. said...

I'm all in favour of nudity, so I think she should have been left au naturel - as should the Hulk.

Interesting to see that one of those letters was from Susan Boyle. I assume it wasn't THAT Susan Boyle.

Comicsfan said...

Steve, the same thought crossed my mind about Ms. Boyle, I'm embarrassed to say!

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