The History of Ultraviolence In Comic Books
Comic books have been the driver of new ideas in popular culture for generations simply because there are no limits on what pen and paper can deliver. Where movies would have to muster up billion-dollar budgets to depict the cosmic clashes of Jack Kirby, a dedicated artist can do it all with just a drawing board and a dream. That’s why sequential art is so good at pushing the envelope.
In this piece, we’ll track the ebb and flow of ultraviolence in comics, from the grimy pre-Code days of EC horror to the modern wave of blood and guts. We’ll also travel the world to see how other cultures handle gore in their funnybooks.
Founded by Maxwell Gaines in 1944, Entertaining Comics — known to the trade as EC — didn’t come into their own until three years later, when Max died in a boating accident and his son William took over the presses. The younger Gaines would assemble a roster of some of the most innovative and talented artists of the early 1950s — Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Will Elder and more — and turn them loose on a lineup of war, sci-fi and horror titles. It was the third group that would come to define the company, for better or for worse.
In the pages of Shock SuspenStories and Tales from the Crypt, EC’s artists skirted the line of good taste illustrating stories of revenge, murder and cruelty. Heads were lopped off, people were buried alive and the grisly Crypt Keeper cackled in delight the whole time. A horde of imitators soon flooded the stands, and it wasn’t long before grown-ups started to take notice.
Juvenile delinquency was a major fear in the 1950s, as a new post-war leisure class of children was coming up without having to slave away in factories. All that free time and disposable income had young people out on the streets and getting into trouble. And rather than blaming bad parenting, the nation was looking for a scapegoat and found it in comic books.
Psychologist Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. In it, he argued that comics were a serious cause of juvenile misbehavior, inspiring violence, deviant sexuality and drug use in children. Although the industry scoffed at many of Wertham’s conclusions, he was taken seriously enough to inspire a hearing in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, where William Gaines was brought to the stand to defend his horror books. It… didn’t go well for him.
By 1956, EC was completely out of the comics business but for Mad, which soldiered forward in its own taboo-breaking way to the present day. The remaining publishers formed the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body that laid down serious restrictions on the content funnybooks could portray for the next few decades.
Right To Left
While most American comics toed the line of the Comics Code, artists in Japan had no such compunctions. Influential manga series like Fist of the North Star depicted martial arts brawls where heads popped and arms were severed by brutal punches and kicks. In its wake, more and more adult-oriented manga started pushing the gore. Series like Berserk, where the lead character wields a massive broadsword that cuts foes in half with ease, or more realistic Lone Wolf And Cub, set a highwater mark for balletic, stylized violence.
Although manga are typically printed in black and white, artists have used that minimal palette to express some seriously ugly stuff. The level of detail in Japanese gore far outstrips most American comics, with books like Vagabond showing finely-penned carnage on page after shocking page. Because the Japanese comics market is so diverse, with manga targeted at adults, kids, men, women and everything in between, there wasn’t ever a moral panic about these violent books and creators were allowed to express themselves mostly in peace.
Over in Europe, there were a variety of approaches to the problem of cartoon violence. France adopted a program much like the Comics Code, while England went in a different direction. In the 1970s, a group of punk-influenced cartoonists launched Action, a weekly series from IPC that took the popular war comics of the day and made them more contemporaneous and uncompromising. It wasn’t long before the press started writing scare articles and IPC was pressured into toning the content down and eventually cancelling the book.
Many of Action‘s contributors went on to a new title, 2000AD. That showcase would become one of the most influential comics in British history, featuring dozens of iconic characters – most notably a helmeted future lawman with a penchant for brutality. Judge Dredd, introduced in the magazine’s second issue, became a lodestar for British comics. Gruff, brave and a crack shot, Dredd laid down the law as judge, jury and executioner on the streets of Mega-City One and inspired a generation of artists moving forward, many of whom would go on to make American comics as well.
Special mention must be made to Alan Moore’s Marvelman (published in the States as Miracleman). This inversion of the Shazam story featured an everyman hero who gained godlike powers from speaking a magic word, but when his one-time sidekick loses his sanity, he turns London into a charnel house in some of the most gruesome and chilling pages ever published.
The Indie Age And Beyond
Underground and independent artists had always dabbled in violent content — S. Clay Wilson’s filthy Checkered Demon is one early example — but for the most part their black & white printing didn’t lend itself to over-the-top gore.
With the collapse of the two-company hegemony in the late 1990s and the rise of Image, Dark Horse and others as competitors, the limitations of the Comics Code began to seem less and less necessary. Marvel abandoned the Code in 2001, with DC and last holdout Archie Comics following in 2011. That’s not saying that these companies took the gloves off, just that they didn’t feel the need to emblazon their books with the family-friendly seal.
Most mainstream books stayed pretty tame, changing with the times a little bit but still steering clear of over-the-top gore. Indies, though, used their creative and financial freedom to really go wild. Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn let the former Spider-Man artist feature a villain who cut childrens’ fingers off and glued them to boards as sick conceptual art – something Marvel would have never let him get away with.
At the same time, both major publishers were creating imprints where more mature content could thrive. DC’s Vertigo line started with reimaginings of a number of lesser-known heroes like Animal Man and branched out into urban fantasy, crime and other genres. Marvel launched the MAX imprint, which offered R-rated takes on heroes like Daredevil and the Punisher, with violence to match.
Frank Miller’s high-contrast noir series Sin City was wildly successful as well, letting the formerly mainstream artist cut loose on the page to his heart’s content. That book was very influential to a new generation of artists who wanted to make action comics without the restrictions of newsstand distribution.
As the comics reading audience has aged, restrictions on violence have lessened. The introductions of characters like Wolverine and Deadpool gifted with “healing factors” allowed creators to inflict grievous bodily harm on them without worrying that they’d be needed for another story. Deadpool in particular has suffered some of the most vicious abuse in comics history. Over on the DC side, books like Cry For Justice and Countdown To Infinite Crisis upped the gory ante, depicting heroes like Arsenal and Blue Beetle being maimed and killed in explicit fashion.
Marvel’s Ultimate line originally started as a kid-friendly way to tell Peter Parker stories without the burden of continuity, but by the end it was as bloated and lopsided as the original Marvel universe. The limited series Ultimatum decimated the world and included shocking scenes of gore like the villainous Blob eating the Wasp.
But it was on the indies where comic book mayhem would find its fullest flower. Here are a few successful independent comics that pushed the envelope when it came to over-the-top violence.
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a dark and desperate vision of a world ravaged by zombie apocalypse, but that book’s black and white printing and subdued art by Charlie Adlard keeps the blood and gore to a moderate level. The same can’t be said for Invincible, the indie superhero he created with artist Cory Walker in 2003.
The son of an alien superhero who is revealed to be the point person for an invasion of the Earth, Mark Grayson takes on the mantle of Invincible when his powers kick in as a teen. It all sounds like standard fare, and is for the first few issues, but when Kirkman decides to really lean in to the ramifications of superhuman strength things get extremely messy. Series artist Ryan Ottley doesn’t flinch away from showing heads mashed to paste, arms and legs ripped off and holes punched through bodies in excruciating detail, and the combination of his bright, airy traditional style with this subject matter makes it all the more disturbing.
Of all the publishers out there, none seems to revel in pushing the envelope quite like Avatar. The Illinois-based press got its start in the mid-90s with “Bad Girl” books focusing on cheesecake, but they’ve slowly begun to attract high-level talent looking to play in a sandbox with seemingly no rules. The archetypal Avatar book is Crossed, created by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows in 2008. The premise isn’t anything new — a mysterious contagion causes the infected to go violence-crazed — but the sheer level of depravity on display is unlike anything ever seen in the mainstream comics industry. This book swims in fountains of blood and terror, pushing the envelope of good taste until it breaks clean through.
At this point, it’s hard to see how comics could get any more violent. There’s a sort of hard limit to how far the human body can be abused, and we’re not sure what’s really left in the tank. But as researching this feature has shown us, artists will always find new and terrible ways to surprise us.