DC’s New 52 initiative has sparked a lot of recent controversy over the presentation of women and female characters. Having debated and discussed until I was proverbially hoarse, a single question still remains unanswered in my mind… Why did the DC editorial board decide to publish these blatantly offensive issues?
There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps the folks at the DC staff are simply a band of fools. Thankfully, this proposition holds little water, as DC has been running well as a company for a long time. Maybe the editors are actually sexist and chauvinistic? Again, this is an unlikely theory. If these publications are a pervasive conspiracy designed to denigrate women, then they are a very poor one.
Perhaps, then, the DC staff is just unaware of the implications of these comics? This, too, seems unlikely, for these sorts of insulting representations of women are nothing new. They are simply the latest example of an ongoing problem in all media, DC or otherwise. This problem of female portrayal has been railed against for a long time, from numerous sources. There is no longer any possibility that DC Comics could be ignorant of these issues.
So why did they put such unabashedly offensive content into print? With the above options removed, there is only one remaining explanation: they thought it would sell. And so far, it has. DC has been reporting multiple issues breaking the 200,000 sales mark – high marks for any monthly issue.
It’s just another example of the age old adage – sex and violence sells. How many times have we heard such a maxim applied to poor Hollywood movies? When we ask, “Why would anyone make such a pointless movie?” we are rebutted with, “Well, sex sells.”
And it does. But does it sell well?
1. The Long Haul
Enter the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In its ten year run from 1985 to 1995, it was published in up to 2,400 newspapers, reaching millions of viewers. It re-runs internationally in 50 different countries and has been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, and Arabic, among others.
There are a total of 17 books collecting Calvin and Hobbes, and combined they have sold around 500,000 copies a year for 16 years straight since the end of the strip’s newspaper run. Their total sales are nearing 45 million copies. But what is most incredible by far is that Calvin and Hobbes has absolutely no merchandise. Bill Watterson, the creator, repeatedly turns down any and all attempts to make money off of his creative property outside his comic strip. He has refused t-shirts, dolls, mugs, bumper stickers, and even animated films. For 16 years, Calvin and Hobbes has had no press, no advertising, and no circulation in anything besides book form.
And people still buy it like it’s going out of print. Why?
2. The Simple Answer
Because Calvin and Hobbes is good. Many dissertations have been penned on what makes Watterson’s strip work so well, and just as many answers have been put forth – the characters, their interactions, Calvin’s fantasy world vs. the real world, the alleged split personality of Calvin and Hobbes themselves, or the subject matter of the strip.
Frankly, all of that stuff doesn’t matter. Though charming, the specifics of the strip are not really what made Calvin and Hobbes sell monstrously, even years after having left circulation. The selling point was the quality of its execution. And that execution is marked by one very important factor which all comics, mainstream or otherwise, could stand to take a look at.
Respect for the intelligence of the audience. Watterson never went for the cheap gag. He was never obviously crude, and never pushed a political or philosophical message down your throat. He was always witty, always level-headed, and always kind enough to allow you to think about his humor. People of all ages have enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, from 7 years old to 70 years old.
This respect extends to the characters inside the strip as well. Calvin, the young protagonist, is remarkably shrewd and thoughtful, a trait which most children possess when you stop and look long enough. But he is also relentlessly devious and self-interested – another trait most children possess, often to the older generation’s chagrin.
Calvin and the rest of the cast were always written in a complex, yet unobtrusive manner. They exhibited flaws, pondered strange thoughts, asked odd questions, concocted fantastic dreams, and offered a great deal of love. All of these aspects were revealed in each of them and respected, never cheapened for a dollar or exploited for a sale.
For example, take the following strip:
Even in this, the most undeniably foolish of actions to attempt, Calvin is respected by the strip. Not in a molly-coddling, restraining sort of way, but in a genuine manner. Though this strip is clearly slapstick humor, and we are laughing at Calvin’s obvious expense, it doesn’t feel like a Three Stooges skit. The protagonists are not merely insufferable dunces. We’re not laughing at Calvin’s stupidity, we are laughing at his humanity, and that makes all the difference.
3. There are no rules in Calvinball.
Is this to say that all mainstream comics should emulate Calvin and Hobbes? Of course not! Mainstream comics should not suddenly be filled with stuffed animals, private eye fantasies, homework woes, and cardboard box transmogrifiers. Our cape ‘n cowl punch-ups need not be always family friendly and set in domestic backdrops. All those things are just surface qualities.
What mainstream comics should have a look at is the deep and abiding respect that Calvin and Hobbes exhibits, towards both its audience and its content. If Calvin and Hobbes can sell 500,000 copies a year with no advertising, imagine how well comics as a whole would be doing if our stories were a little bit more respectful, a little bit more thought out, and a little bit more human.
Let’s take the time to make better comics. It will pay off.