Comics

Witchblade Creator Dead at 37

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Michael Turner, the former golden boy of Image Comics and Top Cow Comics, and more recently, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, died last month of cancer. Turner's style was as good as it gets by action comic book standards, but he'll be remembered most for successfully challenging the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

The CCA wielded gospel-like influence during the Red Scare, banning visual depictions of and references to drugs, sexuality, and violence. For almost 40 years, publishing houses had to go through the CCA if they wanted their titles to see the light of day. In response to artist complaints, the CCA liberalized its code in 1971 to allow references to drugs, and again in 1989 to allow representations of gays. By the late '80s, the CCA had fewer and fewer topics to go after, but big houses like Marvel Comics and DC Comics still made whatever artistic changes the CCA deemed necessary.

The rise of comic shops in the early 1990s meant that newsstand comics had a smaller market share. Artists and publishing houses who didn't want their work censored by the CCA had a new home. Image Comics was founded in 1992, and its earliest titles—Spawn and Gen13, as well as Turner's Witchblade—proved that a comic could draw fans without doing time on a newstand. Inspired by Image, Marvel and DC followed suit a few years later, creating smaller houses that would eventually foster titles popular with adult readers, such as Sin City.

Below are some highlights from the original Comics Code, published in 1954:

If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds. No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.

Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.

Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

Turner's work violated every nearly every rule in the 1954, 1972, and 1989 codes. Thanks in part to the path blazed by Witchblade, two of the four biggest comic publishing houses in the country—Image and Dark Horse—operate by their own in-house standards, free of the CCA's anti-comic moralizing.

Editor Brian Doherty hates on Image co-founder Rob Liefeld (for artistic reasons) here.

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  1. I highly recommend clicking on the Doherty link and, once there, on the link in the beginning of his piece. The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings is hilarious, even to a non-comic reader like me. The husband, who is a stealth comic/graphic novel geek, loved it even more.

  2. “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”

    Good riddance to that code, and the crappy one that Catholics et al forced on Hollywood for so long. Robert Bork writes a lot about how censorship must be great because, you know, movies in the 1950’s were so great. Those movies were often terrible of course, but the great ones were great despite not because of the censorship. And many depictions and storylines that we can enjoy today would have been forbidden then. And it led to some absurd results (bedroom scenes with married couples in seperate beds for one example). Good riddance to that nonsense but we should all be aware that there are people on both the left (in Canada I’ve read for example scenes of man on woman “violence” found, for example, on WWE pro wrestling shows are often censored) and right (Bork n’ Buddies) who would bring such nonsense back in a heartbeat.

  3. Turner drew this cover for “Identity Crisis” No. 1, which spawned the immortal line,

  4. Mike–

    I think your history of the effect of the direct market (that is, “comic shops”) is a little too rosy. Sure, it kicked the CC in the nuts (fine, good, whatever) but, by getting the Marvel and DC to abandon (or at least de-emphasize) the newsstand in favor of Big Nerd dollars, it indirectly killed comics as a mass art. Its a rare comic that sells more than 100,000 copies a month anymore, which was a fairly common thing back in the good old days (Marvel and DC now make waaaay more money through licensing than they do through comics). Sure, comic shops are still hanging on, some are even flourishing. But concentration on the direct market has taken their attention away from younger readers, many of whose first contact with comics would be (or would have been) in a grocery store or gas station or some other non-specialty shop. I go to my local comics emporium every Wednesday, and every time there are two things you can predict about the crowd there: 1) they’ll be men, and 2) at age 32, I’ll be among the youngest in the shop.

  5. Holy shit that Liefeld link gets funnier every time I read it. It’s a masterpiece of hating. Better than Kool Moe Dee vs. LL…

    I get the smug satisfaction of actually having had hated that guy and his fame back when everyone seemed to like him. It’s good to know I wasn’t the only one.

  6. Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

  7. Turner drew this cover for “Identity Crisis” No. 1, which spawned the immortal line, “Bad art makes Superman cry.”

    I’d cry, too, if I had to put my still attached penis into a coffin and bury it…

  8. Handsome Dan,

    The problem was the the newsstand market was starting to dry up before the specialty shop/direct market even really took off. We can complain about how the direct market narrowed comics’ audience, but the audience was already starting to narrow on its own. The last people buying any product are the ones who value it the most. And that’s why we’re left with a small, hardcore audience of thirtysomethings who read superhero comics and are willing to pay $4 an issue.

    Of course, there is a growth area for comics, even though it seems to have peaked at least temporarily, and that’s manga. And it sells reasonably well in bookstores, which is where all of the non-fanboys shop.

  9. Wait a minute. A “code” established by a nongovernmental “association” whose membership is voluntary is hardly censorship. Shame on the weasel publishers for giving it the power it never could have had if they’d stood up for their First Amendment rights.

  10. Does Turner deserve that much credit for pushing envelopes? Dark Horse was operating outside the code before Image was even around.

  11. I am completely unqualified to discuss anything whatsoever to do with comics.

  12. That Liefeld article is a masterpiece.

  13. I really, really did not like Turner’s art. But, by all accounts, he was a great guy, and fun to work with. Very sad.

  14. R.I.P. to Mr. Turner.

  15. I’m actually drawing a comic (graphic novel) right now (and yes I can draw better than Rob Liefeld), and the time and attention to detail it takes is humbling. I’ve been storyboarding the thing for several days.

  16. The only thing more disheartening than a just-off-the-mainstream artist being eulogized by the popular media a mere three weeks after his death is the fact that Thomas M. Disch’s apparent suicide this past weekend will probably never see much coverage past Locus.

    If anyone cares, surveillance prophet Algis Budrys died last month as well.

    And a little appreciation for Arthur C. Clarke would have been nice amidst the month-long Tim Russert canonization.

  17. That Liefeld stuff is just hideous. His sense of proportion, physicality and wit makes one long for the snappy dialogue and anatomical discernment of a Fletcher Hanks.

  18. “disheartening”

    40,000 men and women every day, I guess some are going to fall through the cracks. The Russert thing was too much, though, I agree.

  19. Rick H.,

    Hanks’ art is mesmerizing. That comic seems like it was written and illustrated by 8th-graders. It’s absolutely insane.

  20. Art-P.O.G.: Yeah, Hanks was an example of an artist with limited technical skills creating something that’s both entertaining and beautiful to look at.

    I like ugly art too, but Liefeld burns my eyeballs; those are the wrong-est comics I’ve ever seen.

  21. Some guys are naturals. I would say that Liefeld probably would have benefited from some formal training.

  22. Some guys are naturals. I would say that Liefeld probably would have benefited from some formal training.

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