So this little movie is in theaters now.
I haven’t seen it, although it is currently on my list of films to see, but I have seen the trailer and a good portion of the promotional media for the film.
A quick summary: the movie follows the real life journey and exploits of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.
In real life, Marston was a respected psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector,
he was also engaged in an unconventional relationship with his wife Elizabeth and his partner Olive Byrne.
As for the exact nature of their relationship, all you have to do is take a look at the comics that Marston wrote to get some idea of what was going on.
Frankly, I’m glad this became a movie and I would love to see more films like this since the story behind the creation of some of our most beloved superheroes is often just as interesting as the characters themselves.
Personally, I would love to see a movie about the trials and tribulations of Supmerman’s creators Siegel and Shuster,
and we’re probably getting a Stan Lee film soon.
but that’s not what I want to talk about today.
There’s a scene in the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman where a group of people are burning a pile of comic books.
While I don’t like seeing anyone burning books this actually got me pretty excited. This is the first time I’ve seen any movie talk about the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics and while it is presented as a backdrop for the story the movie wants to tell, it’s an important time in American pop culture where the nature and effect that art has on our minds and souls was being hotly debated.
So today I’m going to give a brief history of the comic book industry in the late 1940’s and 50’s and in order to do that we have to talk about:
The post war comic industry
After the Allies won the Second World War Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated by coming home, starting a family, and giving up on superhero comics.
Yes, the infamous “superhero fatigue” that so many people say is coming with this current glut of superhero movies is actually nothing new.
Naturally, the comic book industry reacted to this shift by switching to different genres and trying new things. Post war America saw a boom in non superhero comics, especially romance,
and horror comics.
Post war America was actually a pretty good time for comics. More people were spending money on entertainment, readers were getting older and more mature, and some of the greatest artists of the time were doing some of their best work.
Unfortunately comic books were confronted with a force more powerful than any super villain doomsday device: concerned parents.
You know how concerned parents thought violent video games were turning kids into mass murdering psychopaths?
Well, it turns out that that isn’t all that new either. In the 1950’s comic books went through the same process and things would come to a head with,
Backlash, Dr. Wertham, and Seduction of the Innocent
Maybe it was the soldiers coming home from the war trying to process the violence and destruction they saw, maybe it was the Red Scare and the rise of anti Communist sentiment in America, or maybe comic books have a bigger place in our psyche than we think, but for some reason these hearings swept the American people into an anti comic fervor that saw a tremendous backlash against the art form. This resulted in crazy events like mass comic book burnings as early as 1948,
but sadly the real destruction would come in the form of a well meaning man in a suit and tie.
Every art form, at some point in its early history, has had a vocal opponent who claims that said art form is destroying our children’s minds and must be censored before it’s too late.
Rap music had Tipper Gore,
video games had Jack Thompson,
and comic books had Dr. Fredric Wertham.
Now, I don’t think Dr. Wertham did what he did because he hated comics or because he was an uneducated hack who was simply making wild accusations because he wanted the attention. He was actually a highly respected psychologist who did a lot of good work, including providing cheap psychiatric care to under privileged children.
Unfortunately, he noticed that a lot of the children under his care read a lot of comic books and he started to believe that it wasn’t societal woes or a poor home life that turned kids bad, but violent and disturbing imagery in the media the kids consumed.
Things would come to a head in 1954 when Wertham published his most famous work Seduction of the Innocent
where he blamed comic books for the rise of “juvenile delinquency” in American youth.
The book was a hit and led to a Congressional hearing on the effects of comic books on children’s minds, and Wertham was the star witness.
The hearings were incredibly destructive for the comic book industry and effectively brought mass censorship to the medium. Companies that depended on risque and controversial content to stay afloat, such as the horror and comedy powerhouse EC Comics were the hardest hit and were forced out of business. The industry underwent a massive contraction and thousands of people lost their jobs as publishers went out of business left and right.
In an attempt to save themselves from excessive censorship the remaining comic book publishers formed an organization known as the Comics Code Authority. It was an organization that reviewed comics before they could be published and made sure they followed a certain set of rules in order to ensure that they were suitable for children.
The most famous and notable legacy of the Comics Code was the stamp that appeared on the far right corner of almost every comic for the next forty years.
While the Comics Code didn’t kill the comics industry it did cripple it so badly that it’s still recovering today. Since comic book writers weren’t allowed to tell complex and morally ambiguous stories if they wanted to get their book published comics became simple and almost boring in their predictable story lines and basic morality tales. Sure, mature and grown up comics existed, but they could only be found in small press, out of the way places such as the “comix” scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Eventually cracks in the Comics Code would start to show and historians widely believe that it lost its power after Amazing Spider Man #96 told a story where Spiderman helped a friend who was addicted to drugs and was published without the stamp.
But if you ask me, the damage had already been done. The Golden Age of Comics was a time where characters like Wonder Woman could talk about deep and meaningful issues like man’s tendency towards hatred and how women could bring about a more peaceful world, whereas the immediate post Comics Code publishing industry decided to celebrate its newfound freedom by throwing all subtlety out the window and indulging in a lot of violence for violence’s sake. This,
is downright childish in comparison to the early issues of Wonder Woman.
Now, I firmly believe that we as a society have gotten better in dealing with art and the effects that it may or may not have on our minds, and I also think that the comic book industry telling better stories today than it did twenty years ago, but it is vitally important that we never forget why heroes like Wonder Woman were created and how important it is that we apply the same passion and thought into our stories today.
Let’s take a bite into the comic book industry’s version of vanilla ice cream and talk about Batman.
Batman is one of the most popular superheroes in the world for a reason. He’s got a great design, he’s got a cool story, he’s got tonnes of history, but most importantly…he has great villains.
Yes, it seems pretty cliche to talk about how awesome Batman’s villains are but we all know that Poison Ivy is awesome,
Mister Freeze is tragic and deep,
and the Joker needs no introduction.
But how does Batman manage to have so many great villains?
Easy, because he doesn’t kill them.
Batman’s aversion to killing criminals (even if the justice system he’s sworn to protect would have put the Joker to death a long time ago) and distaste at using guns is well documented. With that being said, we’ve talked about how the Batman of the Golden Age wasn’t above using guns, or even killing criminals.
The Golden Age Batman was a much darker and violent superhero than a lot of modern iterations and as a result, he either needed equally dark and violent villains or a small army’s worth of disposable henchmen.
Today we’re going to talk about one of Batman’s first adversaries, a creature of the night who wasn’t just violent and unquestionably evil, but one of Batman’s first important villains: The Mad Monk.
Origin and Career
The Mad Monk made his first appearance in Detective Comics #31 in September of 1939.
He beat out the Joker by 8 months.
The character was created by Bob Kane and Garner Fox.
Kane is the man who is widely credited with the creation of Batman (while he did play a part, a lion’s share of the credit does go to Bill Finger) and Fox is the man who helped create little known DC heroes like the Flash, Dr. Fate, and Hawkman.
The Mad Monk is special because he was the main villain for one of the first multi part stories in Batman’s career. While the first super villain to face Batman in a multi issue series was the imaginatively named Dr. Death,
The Mad Monk was a bigger, and much more mystical and terrifying, threat.
The Monk’s real name was Niccolai Tepes, a homage to historical crazy person and real life inspiration for the actual Dracula: Vlad Tepes aka “Vlad the Impaler”.
The Mad Monk was a literal vampire complete with the need to drink blood, the ability to turn into a wolf, the ability to hypnotize people into a trance, and an assistant named Dala.
While it is unknown why the Monk wants to kill Batman it is made apparent that the Monk does know his secret identity as Bruce Wayne when he kidnaps Bruce’s girl friend Julie Madison.
The Monk and Dala hypnotize her and use her to lure Batman into a trap in Paris where he has to fight a giant gorilla.
After defeating the beast, Batman is captured and is trapped in a net dangling over a pit of snakes. Because this is a comic book and nobody just wants to shoot their captured adversary.
Fun fact: This is the first time Batman ever uses the Batarang in comics.
After escaping, Batman tracks the Monk to Transylvania (because of course) and confronts the villain in his mountain castle. The Monk puts up a good fight by transforming into a wolf but Batman manages to knock the wolves out and escape.
The comic ends with Batman shooting The Mad Monk and Dala as they lie in their coffins.
If you ask me, this was a brilliant display of common sense. While I think the idea for the Mad Monk is cool, I certainly wouldn’t want an immortal blood sucking creature roaming the streets of Gotham or anywhere else in the world.
So what happened?
The Monk remained dead for a long time, probably because he was just two scary and dark for the censorship police known as the Comics Code Authority.
But, like the vampires that he took his inspiration from, he would arise from the grave many years later. In 1986 Gerry Conway, the co creator of the Punisher and the man who killed Gwen Stacy,
reworked the original 1939 story into a modern origin for the Mad Monk in the 1980’s.
In the new version the Mad Monk was a former plantation owner who owned slaves in post Civil War America. He and his sister Dala were attacked by their slaves and turned into the undead in a voodoo ritual.
Personally, I preferred the earlier version better.
The Mad Monk manged to turn Batman into a vampire but was eventually defeated by a wandering priest named Father Green.
The character would be given another fresh coat of paint in 2006 when a six issue mini series was published by DC Comics entitled Batman and the Mad Monk.
It was pretty good.
The Mad Monk is a villain that has been mostly forgotten to history. While he was a pretty one note character who didn’t have much staying power, and while he has been overshadowed by much more complex and interesting villains, he deserves a lot more attention and respect.
He was one of Batman’s first true challenges and paved the way for the rogue gallery that keeps us coming back to Batman comics again and again.
WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES OF SEX AND VIOLENCE ARE POSTED BELOW! IT IS ONLY THERE TO PROVE A POINT.
I would like to share something with you that’s been on my mind recently. We as an art loving and entertainment consuming culture have fallen in love with the word “mature”.
Audiences love mature content because it treats them like the fully functioning adults they are. Maturity in art and media gives the audience the benefit of being able to think and process an idea in a complex and interesting way and doesn’t treat them like children.
After all, anyone who is capable of handling mature art and content is clearly operating on a superior emotional and mental level than a child so why shouldn’t art and entertainment reflect that?
The problem is that there are far too many artists and creative types who have no idea what the word “mature” even means and it needs to change.
Let me explain. If you’ve bought a video game, a music album (when that was still a thing), or a comic book before 2000 you’ve probably seen something like this on the box.
Granted the label above is what you would find on video games but the idea is the same across all forms of media: the rating agency for that particular form of media (in America we have the ESRB for video games, the MPAA for movies, and we used to have the Comics Code Authority for comic books) took a look a that particular piece of art and decided that anyone under a certain age wasn’t emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle that content.
But what qualifies any form of entertainment as mature? Well, if the label above is anything to go by than mature content implies this
and a lot of this.
And speaking as someone who enjoys comics and has decided to create comic books as a form of creative expression I’ve seen a lot of comic books, especially from the 1980’s and 90’s with a lot of this
and, dear God help me, this
yes a lot of creators like to use the word “mature” as an excuse for putting in all the raunchy, dirty, scandalous stuff that a mainstream, decent, God fearing audience simply cannot handle.
Here’s the thing tough, simply putting a barely clothed woman into your game/comic/movie/what ever you’re creating for the sake of having her there doesn’t make your work mature, it makes it childish. The same can be said for drug use, extreme violence, and excessive amounts of swearing. Keep in mind, I’m not saying children should watch Hostel
but this sort of entertainment should be labeled as “adult”, not mature.
So why do people make this stuff? Well if you ask me it’s because nothing pisses off an artist or any sort of creative type than having to adjust their vision to some sort of censoring authority. Want proof? Look no further than video game industry during the early 2000’s where sex and violence was used almost as a form of protest.
Most of you reading this article will remember the time when games like Grand Theft Auto
faced tremendous social and political backlash for being a corrupting influence on our poor innocent youth. There were protests, politicians tried to have it banned, and other lawmakers tried to jump start careers by trying to take it off the shelves.
In response to all the criticism of their art form a lot of video game developers created a whole slew of violent and “mature” video games. These were games that you wanted to play, not because they were intelligent or even necessarily good games, but because they had all the blood and violence you could stomach and your parents would hate them
You can trace this sort of behavior across all forms of media. Artists don’t like have other people tell them their work can’t be shown to people so they react by making art that tries to subvert the status quo. The problem with things like violent video games and excessively sexualized comics and film isn’t that it will cause the downfall of society, it’s that it’s usually just not very good. We slap the mature label on material like this when all it really winds up being is childish and immature.
The good news is that there is quality art out there that does deal with mature themes in a much better way. The even better news? It’s not necessarily just for adults.
I want to show you one of the best examples of art that deals with mature subject matter in the last 20 years and also happens to be a children’s Saturday cartoon.
Most of us know this series, most of grew up watching it as children. Batman TAS was known for not just being a really well animated and well directed show, but for the way it treated its audience like the mature and responsible people they were without resorting to excessive violence and overly sexualized images. Probably the best example I can think of is the episode “Baby Doll”
Without going into too much detail the episode deals with an out of work actress who became famous as a child protagonist on a popular TV show.
Unfortunately, the actress had a rare genetic condition called systemic hypoplasia which meant she would never grow as she got older. Even though she was 20 when the show ran she still looked like she was 5. When she tried to leave the show and branch out her disorder meant that she couldn’t find any work as an actress and, coupled with the fact that many people just couldn’t take her seriously, she eventually snapped and attempted to kill the cast of her old show. The episode ends with her surrendering to Batman and suffering a severe mental breakdown.
Here we have a case where, and I cannot stress this enough, a children’s TV show displaying more maturity and adult subject matter than almost any other media ostensibly meant for adults. It doesn’t show any blood, sex, or hard drug use but it does deal with incredibly mature themes of loss, denial, depression, and hopelessness. Real maturity has almost nothing to do with blood and sex but has everything to do with complex emotions and themes.
So in conclusion all I have to say is this. If you are setting out to create a piece of art in any form and you would like to create it for an adult audience feel free to put in all the sex, drugs, and violence you want into it. Just make sure that you use it to present something in a mature and responsible way.