Thursday, March 20, 2014

Swamp Thing Artist Stephen Bissette to Appear at the Wexner Center in April

Stephen R. Bissette
The Comics Code is widely regarded by comics historians and fans alike as the most repressive set of content restrictions ever imposed upon any entertainment medium.  From its adoption in 1954 following the public shaming of the comics industry during Senate hearings on the causes of juvenile delinquency through the height of its power and influence during the 1960s and its long, slow slide into irrelevancy in the 1970s, 80s and into the 90s until its final dissolution in early 2011 the Code and its ubiquitous Seal of Approval stood as symbol and reminder of a dark chapter in the history of not only comic books but America itself. 
The Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, in co-operation with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, has invited Stephen R. Bissette, renowned artist for much of Alan Moore's historic run on Swamp Thing and creator of the short-lived independent comic Tyrant in the mid-90s, to give a presentation entitled Swamp Thing and the Birth, Life and Death of the Comics Code Authority in the Wex's Film/Video theater on Tuesday, April 29 at 7 p.m.  The event is free and open to the public, and there's a Facebook event page where you can RSVP if you're planning to attend.
It is quite probably safe to say that Bissette's talk will deliver, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin, covering the origins and  six decade history of the Code from the Senate hearings until its ultimate demise just three short years ago with emphasis on the role that Bissette's own work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing played in that history.
Swamp Thing began life as a standard format Code approved newsstand comic, but shed the Seal of Approval shortly after Moore came aboard as writer.  The story, at least as I've heard it told, is that after months of just automatically rubber stamping the book with the Seal, someone at the Code Authority actually bothered to read it and wasn't happy with what they saw.  DC, rather than ask Moore to tone down his stories in order to comply with the Code, decided to continue publishing the series without the Seal.  The creative and commercial success of Swamp Thing inspired DC to publish other non-Code approved mature readers titles, including the Swamp Thing spin-off Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman's almost universally beloved Sandman, and led eventually to the 1993 formation of the mature readers imprint Vertigo.
Other factors, of course, contributed to the weakening and eventual demise of the Code.  Chief among these, by my reckoning, was the rise of the direct market and with it the plethora of independent comics publishers who bypassed the traditional system of newsstand distribution and offered their product exclusively through comics shops without the benefit of Code sanction. This development roughly coincides with the arrival of Moore on Swamp Thing and the genesis of DC's mature readers line.  Both of these developments were contributing factors to the final revision of the Comics Code in 1989.
The history of the Comics Code has long been a subject of special interest to me.  I've read several books about, including David Hadju's excellent The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America and Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Amy Kiste Nyberg's more academic and analytical approach to the subject.  Thus I will be particularly interested to hear Bissette's take on the topic.  While I don't know if he'll be able to tell me any facts that I really don't already know, it will be interesting to get his unique perspective on those facts as someone who battled the Code's restrictions on the front lines.

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