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>> Letter from the Editors

Is the Mature Readers label a sign that comics have a lot of growing up to do? Ninth Art's editors discuss certification and self-censorship. Contains scenes of explicit self-importance, and ideas some readers may find stupid.
08 March 2004

ALASDAIR WATSON: Alan Moore famously fell out with DC over - among other things - their intent to label some of their comics as 'For Mature Readers'.

ANTONY JOHNSTON: "You may as well label it 'full of tits and innards'", I believe was his actual phrase.

WATSON: Do we think he's right? Is this what mature readers comics have turned into? Is there any value in marketing a comic to a specific age group, or are they all just for kids?

ANDREW WHEELER: I suppose Moore's point is that to label something as 'For Mature Readers' is inherently childish.

JOHNSTON: It says that, by default, all comics are for children, except for these ones.

WATSON: Comics do it the wrong way around. If you go into a bookshop, certain books are labelled as being for kids. Everything else is assumed to be for adults.

JOHNSTON: There are two separate points there, really. On the one hand, marketing something to a specific age group is entirely different to labelling it as for that age group, and I don't think there's anything wrong with targeting specific age groups at all. But, I don't think books for adults should be labelled as books for adults.

WHEELER: Isn't there a bit of deliberate obtuseness going on here, because with comics, the reason they do things that way is the roots of the form.

WATSON: It depends on where you think the roots of the form are.

WHEELER: Well... I realise there are arguments to be made about the various different audiences that have read comics over the years, but in terms of a perennial audience, the children's audience has always been there.

JOHNSTON: Isn't that just the sign of a youthful medium? The origins of the novel are in the sensationalistic.

WHEELER: That's not the same thing as childish.

JOHNSTON: But it doesn't imply intelligence or maturity. The origins of cinema were in novelty.

WHEELER: Children are often smarter than we give them credit for, and adults are frequently stupider. I don't think there's a connection with intelligence.

JOHNSTON: 'Sophistication' may be a better word. The roots of both the novel and cinema are not sophisticated, by any means, but in time they've grown.

WHEELER: But the form tends to be sophisticated. In comics, I don't know if that's true.

JOHNSTON: Is that the fault of the form, or the creators?

WHEELER: The creators. It's all very well to object and say, 'I don't want it labelled Mature Readers because that should be the default', but it's an idle protest when the creators are busy producing unsophisticated narratives. Tits and gizzards.

JOHNSTON: Tits and innards. I disagree.

WHEELER: Such is my lot in life.

JOHNSTON: I don't think it is wrong in principle, because that's the whole point of a principle. It doesn't matter what the reality is. I guess again it comes down to evangelism; if comics are to be taken seriously, I think it's important that we do what we can to fight this perception that they're for kids. Isn't this what Jesus Castillo got strung up for? [The Texas retailer imprisoned for selling adult comics to an adult.]

WHEELER: We must listen to what Jesus taught us! But this is misplacing the blame; to say, how dare you suggest my work is puerile, when we should be saying to the creators, how dare you produce such puerile work.

JOHNSTON: It's not a question of being puerile. It's a question of labelling the medium of being unworthy of adult consumption.

WHEELER: Fantagraphics doesn't label its books as being for mature readers. Marvel and DC are the ones where you get the mature readers label, and you get it there because they're Disney in comics form. Disney, if it wants to release an adult story, will release it under a different studio name.

JOHNSTON: And so do DC and Marvel. Buena Vista films, while they come with a rating, don't automatically come with a label saying, 'This is a Disney film, but it's not for the kids'.

WATSON: But DC books do. They come out saying DC Vertigo, not just Vertigo.

JOHNSTON: Exactly. They shouldn't. That's my point.

WHEELER: So DC should sell its books without the DC branding on?

JOHNSTON: Stuff like Vertigo, yes. And the WildStorm books.

WHEELER: But it's using the DC cachet for a very specific reason. Is it wrong to want to sell books?

JOHNSTON: Of course not, but in principle it's not doing the form any favours.

WHEELER: You and your damn principles. I don't think there's anything wrong with the mature readers label, per se. I think it's misapplied. No; I think it's used to describe something that isn't an aspiration. It isn't applied to adult stories.

JOHNSTON: And what exactly does 'Mature Readers' mean? Why don't they just say 'adults? You can be ten years old and still be a mature reader.

WATSON: I was.

WHEELER: But nowadays, God, look at you.

WATSON: I regressed.

JOHNSTON: All three of us probably were. It's not a specific at all. They would be better off saying 'adults only'.

'It's important that we fight this perception that comics are for kids.' WHEELER: I did used to wander in to my comic shop when I was fourteen, see the mature readers books, and wonder if they'd let me get away with buying that. Now, my comic shop also sold porn, so I'm not sure what the dividing line was.

JOHNSTON: It's all right to swear and show people being de-limbed in a Mature Readers book, but you can never show people having sex.

WHEELER: I was raised to abide by certain rules, so I never read a Mature Readers book until I went to university.

WATSON: Really?

JOHNSTON: Good lord.

WHEELER: Except for an issue of FROM HELL, which my mother bought me. My mother knew I loved comics, she saw a comic, and so she bought it for me. I opened it up, and it had pictures of vaginas, and I thought, that can't be right. That's a little odd.

JOHNSTON: Thinking about it, the first American comic I read was SANDMAN, and that was before it had the Mature Readers label on it. It was just labelled a DC comic.

WATSON: I don't think labelling things as 'For Mature Readers' serves any good while the label is tits and innards. It would be useful to have a label that said; this is a good comic aimed at adults who can think with their brains.

WHEELER: 'This is a good comic' isn't necessarily the best thing to slap on the cover. It sounds like a Stan Lee-ism. "The finest comic you'll ever read, true believer".

JOHNSTON: "The story we just had to tell."

WHEELER: "The breasts we just had to show."

WATSON: The problem is that 'For Mature Readers' means 'tits and innards'. You've got Marvel slapping 'Mature Readers' on the cover of Garth Ennis's FURY, which was a joke...

WHEELER: You can have a joke for grown ups.

WATSON: But the joke was all about blowing people up.

WHEELER: Yes, it was utterly gratuitous violence, but it was extreme violence.

WATSON: I don't think extreme violence is bad for children, though. Give them a choice between a happy man skipping across the road and a man having his head blown up, and they'll go for the head blowing up, every time. I think children know what they want.

WHEELER: I think they'd also rather have an ice cream than a happy man skipping across the road as well.

JOHNSTON: You can't predicate the label on quality.

WATSON: No, but the Mature Readers label surely should require you to have a certain experience of the world, a certain knowledge, a certain capacity to understand that things are not black and white, a capacity to understand that just saying fuck does not make it grown up. I appreciate that I don't have that capacity yet, but I'm working on it.

JOHNSTON: If that were the case, why have a label at all? What would stop a child from reading that? They may not understand all the references, but that shouldn't stop them reading it.

WHEELER: Shouldn't parents be given the indicators to decide what is appropriate for their children?

WATSON: My mum never walked in to a comic shop in her life.

WHEELER: That's not the point. You have to at least make the gesture to parents to give them the information that lets them raise their own children.

WATSON: They should be reading the bleeding things first!

WHEELER: The parents have to go to the comic shop and thumb through every comic that the child thinks is pretty?

'I don't think labelling things as 'For Mature Readers' serves any good.' WATSON: No. But when I was ten, my parents were paying for the books I bought, because I had no money, and they had some idea of what the books were.

WHEELER: What did they judge by? They judged by the information provided on the cover, surely?

WATSON: They read the back of jacket blurb, they could flick through.

WHEELER: How would they know not to pick up FURY without the parental advisory?

WATSON: They should have a bloody look at it!

JOHNSTON: But that goes back to, do they have to flick through every comic their children want to buy?

WATSON: Initially, they take their child into the shop, and he says I like those ones, and they say, yes, you can have that one; you're not allowed that one; you can have that one when you're a bit older...

WHEELER: I think it should be easier than that. I think it should be easier for parents. I don't think it's the comic publisher's responsibility to raise the child, it is the parent's responsibility, but I think it's the comic publisher's responsibility to aid the parents as best they can.

WATSON: No-one says that about a book publisher, though.

WHEELER: Well, I do think it is the responsibility of book publishers, but book publishers in bookstores have that division between children and adults.

WATSON: In that case, why not rack it that way in comic stores as well?

WHEELER: That's a retailer's decision.

WATSON: Then why doesn't the retailer do anything about it?

WHEELER: Why shouldn't the publisher aid the retailer?

WATSON: It's the retailer's job to know the product.

WHEELER: It's the publisher's job to produce the product!

JOHNSTON: Some retailers are doing that.

WATSON: There is a certification board that films go through. Nobody ever suggests that a filmmaker should say, right, I rate this film as this.

WHEELER: No, but filmmakers know what they're going for when they submit a film for classification, and they will make cuts appropriately to get the certificate they want to release the film under.

JOHNSTON: I've personally advocated age ratings on comics similar to that on films for a while now. I think that would be the best solution.

WATSON: I'm not sure I even agree with film ratings, so maybe I'm coming at this from the wrong angle.

JOHNSTON: If we're going to have a ratings system, I think the way films are age-rated is much more practical, and would serve comics better than the existing, 'assume they're for kids unless we say otherwise'.

WATSON: Well, Marvel has done it, but it degenerated into 'For Mature Readers' and 'Not'.

WHEELER: Marvel has been very strange about devising its rating system.

JOHNSTON: It was a very ill-conceived experiment.

WATSON: Comics come from this Comics Code Authority background, where it was thought, 'We must censor ourselves', not, 'We must indicate our contents'. Therefore, you were either Comics Code Approved or not, and if you weren't Code approved you were going to have problems. That's done the industry no favours whatsoever, this notion that you must dumb down for the kids.

JOHNSTON: But that's not exclusive for comics.

WATSON: Well, you find another medium that had something as Draconian and absurd as the Comics Code.

WHEELER: Well, the Hays Code in films was pretty absurd.

WATSON: Was it that bad?

WHEELER: It said that if two characters are in bed together, each of them must have one leg on the floor.

WATSON: Did anyone actually respect it for any length of time?

WHEELER: Yes. From the 30s to the 60s, I think.

JOHNSTON: And don't forget, while the existence of the Comics Code can be traced back to Wertham, the code itself was actually a voluntary, self-censoring organisation. It was formed because of outside influences, but I'm not sure you can call it Draconian when it was made up by the companies themselves. There was no law involved.

WATSON: I'm not saying it was Draconian in the sense of 'You must do what we say', more in the absurd rules that were applied. 'Thou shalt never say that drugs are anything but evil'.

WHEELER: Crime must be shown to be punished.

JOHNSTON: Authority figures must never be shown in a bad light, and so on. But doesn't this relate to the second part of this, which is, regardless of what ratings you put on comics, are comics that are aimed at mature readers actually for mature readers, or are they just fairly juvenile books with tits and innards and people saying fuck a lot?

WHEELER: An interesting illustration of this is ALIAS, by Brian Michael Bendis, which has been essentially relaunched as THE PULSE, and has gone from Marvel Max to Marvel proper. It's lost its mature readers label. Bendis has said, the book wasn't violent, there was occasional sex, but it wasn't really important, and all it will mean is that we'll lose the swearing, so I'll increase the swearing in POWERS in exchange. So what did the 'Mature Readers' label achieve?

WATSON: That's kind of my point. I think it does children no harm to read someone saying 'fuck', or seeing people having sex.

WHEELER: But Bendis's point is more that you don't need to say 'fuck' to tell a story.

WATSON: But at the same time, as Warren Ellis has said, a certain type of character says 'fuck'. To capture them honestly, you need to be able to say it.

JOHNSTON: Regardless of how much kids like seeing people's heads blown off, and god knows I did when I was a kid, there were plenty of books, plays, whatever, that I wouldn't want to have read, seen, whatever, because they just weren't interesting to me, whereas as an adult I'm sure I would have found them very interesting. Is there anything like that in comics? I think there should be, but is there more of it than there was ten years ago?

WATSON: I think there's more of it, simply by virtue of the fact that there's ten years' more material.

JOHNSTON: But have things changed?

WATSON: Well, FROM HELL came out without a Mature Readers label, and that is genuinely a book for mature readers.

JOHNSTON: That's a very good example. Kids would just lose interest. Can you honestly imagine a thirteen-year-old sitting and reading through it, rather than flicking through to the gory bits?

WATSON: Thirteen-year-old kids read LORD OF THE RINGS, and it's boring as fuck.

JOHNSTON: But it still has swordfights in it. FROM HELL really doesn't. It has a couple of erect penises and some murders, and that's it.

WHEELER: Well, I didn't enjoy it, when I was a kid. The one issue that my mother bought me, I thought was awful. I was too young to enjoy it. But that was years and years ago. As an adult, I think it's a great book.

JOHNSTON: It's for sophisticated readers. The great majority of kids are after a visceral reading experience, whether in prose or comics or watching movies. They don't want to be contemplative, because they're not old enough to understand what contemplation means. There's nothing wrong with that.

WATSON: FROM HELL isn't labelled 'Mature Readers' because it makes the assumption that anyone reading it is mature. I don't think that's an unreasonable way to go. If a comic is entertaining enough to grip a child, it is not for mature readers. There you go.

JOHNSTON: I'm not sure that I agree with that extreme.

WATSON: I'm not saying it's appropriate for children, I'm just saying it's not for mature readers. I'm using 'For Mature Reader's at its most literal.

JOHNSTON: I want to disagree with that, but I'm having a hard time thinking of too many examples that put a lie to it. Apart from maybe RESERVOIR DOGS. Most modern horror films really aren't mature in their storytelling or subjects.

WATSON: Those will give kids nightmares, and therefore I can understand why they're not suitable for kids. But they are not for a mature audience, they're for an audience that won't have nightmares just because something jumped out at them.

JOHNSTON: So how does this relate to your average superhero? Who is that being aimed at?

WATSON: Children.

JOHNSTON: Is it? Everyone assumes superhero books are aimed at children, but are they really being written for kids these days?

WHEELER: They're being written for fans, and fans can be any age. Usually they're young adults.

JOHNSTON: They want visceral thrills, even though they're adults.

WHEELER: In which case you could perfectly well write a mature superhero comic.

WATSON: What would you classify as a mature superhero comic?

WHEELER: Well, WATCHMEN immediately springs to mind.

WATSON: I think that's it.

WHEELER: ARKHAM ASYLUM is clearly a mature superhero comic. I read it as a child and enjoyed it, but part of the appeal was that it was clearly something I shouldn't be reading. ALIAS, too, was kind of a superhero comic. Superheroes in themselves are not immature, I don't think.

JOHNSTON: The problem even with something like WATCHMEN is that you do have to accept that from an adult perspective the whole thing looks absurd, and you have to be able to incorporate that into the story in order to then tell a mature story, a sophisticated story using the tropes of superheroes. Which is exactly what Moore does. You have to acknowledge that it is absurd, otherwise you will look immature. So have we actually seen any improvement in the sophistication of comics over the last ten years, since Vertigo launched. They were the first comics to have 'For Mature Readers' slapped on them. Since that time, have we actually seen more comics that are worthy of that label?

WATSON: I think it's the ones that haven't had that label that have done it better.

WHEELER: But you think the comics are there, so the label may have been a catalyst?

JOHNSTON: The catalyst was there before there was a label. The catalyst was all the stuff that happened that made Vertigo necessary.

WATSON: I'd take issue with the idea that a lot of Vertigo's books in the past or currently should even be labelled as 'For Mature Readers'. I think Jamie Delano's run on HELLBLAZER was for mature readers. I'm not convinced Ennis's or Ellis's or Jenkins's runs were. Actual books for adults, there are still very few of them, and they're mostly by the people who rejected the label for mature readers.

JOHNSTON: QUEEN & COUNTRY. It doesn't have the label, but it's a great example of comic that's for mature readers, that most kids would find very boring. Some of Scott Morse's more esoteric stuff - though he does specifically do kids' comics as well. Quite a few of the Fantagraphics people. JIMMY CORRIGAN is a perfect example.

WATSON: I'm still not old enough to read JIMMY CORRIGAN yet.

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