Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Controversial Issues Confront Web Comics

My comic Scratchin Post, which is listed on Family Web Comics as suitable for children, appears on a well-known host site as well as our own site.

The host suggests comics you might like if you like a particular one. For Scratchin Post, the first recommendation is a juicy slice of sexually stimulated animals in Victoria's Secret undies: foxes with human breasts and the like.

I've seen things that make eyeballs bleed, so I wasn't shocked, but I was frustrated.

In the early 50's, crusader Frederic Wertham brought the comics industry to its knees with a puritanical campaign against luridness and sensationalism. The result was the demise of EC Comics and the creation of the Comics Code, which allowed compliant titles to place its stamp of approval on their cover. 

Today, comics are contaminated by more socially significant blights than the sensationalization of crime and violence. The "anthropomorphic" genre is riddled with soft-core bestiality themes, and manga is practically founded upon the sexualization of the fourteen-year-old girl.

I have no illusions about dampening enthusiasm for this stuff. I do think that hosting sites that fail to insulate themselves are at risk. All we need is for some charismatic fundamentalist group to make this their cause, and conservative giants like AOL will start blacklisting comics sites, injuring us all. Comics will be categorically blocked at schools and places where youth congregate. There will be blanket workplace blockage as the fundamentalist assault names major companies that allow employees to access comics featuring "child porn." Negative press publicity will stigmatize comics and cartoonists. The media will randomly select one of our more prominent members to debate the issue on CNN, creating a debacle as a cartoonist tries to squeeze into the shoes of a crisis manager.

I propose the following amendment to hosting site terms of use agreements:

  • Animals like dogs, cats and foxes bearing human sexual features will be referred to adult sites;
  • Comics featuring teenage characters in sexually provocative poses and behaviors must  indicate the age of those characters;
  • Provocative sexual behavior depicting those under the age of consent will be rejected.
I encourage all comics to enforce the boundary by not advertising on questionable sites, or carrying ads from them. They can advertise on each other.

There are web sites and publishers who specialize in adult material. Those who publish it and those who read it will not be inconvenienced, except to the extent that we are depriving them of a moral umbrella for their activities by asking them not to mingle with us.

Many of those involved don't even realize how close they are to provoking various legal statutes. It's like a naive person, who in youthful folly posts comments praising Hitler on the internet, only to have their career ruined when they are discovered years later.

Though I personally think much of the offending material is immature and represents stunted sexual development, I really only get riled to the extent that it is exploitive of children.  I also think that with so much unfiltered content on the internet, kids are exposed to much worse. This is not a morality campaign. It is about taking a mature stance toward a sensitive issue.

I want to protect web comics from scandal. I believe we are vulnerable to trouble because we have been reckless about setting boundaries about what will be allowed on our most prominent and popular web sites. I think Chris Crosby, Joey Manley, Josh Roberts, Kari Pahula, John Hernandez, myself, and other host and link site owners should consider publicly adopting something like my guidelines above and culling non-compliant titles. I've tried to monitor what I will allow to link on my own link site, Psychedelic Treehouse, but if I am not to be a hypocrite I am going to have to spend significant hours reviewing what's there.

I'd like to see a culling as part of the transition to the upcoming new ComicSpace, since one of their sites is the guilty party mentioned earlier. I have comics linked on "furry" sites, and I will have to examine my bunk mates. One case is Belfry, a good traffic generator. Am I OK there because adult comics are clearly marked? I have to think about that one, but it seems the answer is yes, suggesting that coding titles is a viable alternative approach.

It's impossible to monitor hundreds or thousands of pages pouring in daily, so some kind of flagging mechanism should be available allowing reader assistance.

Lest anyone hyperventilate and accuse me of soliciting a crackdown, let me say that the system has been working pretty well, and we've all been living with it. But in these two areas, we need to come to terms with possible conflicts with both the law and the court of public opinion. 

Web comics are maturing, and we need to assume the responsibilities that accompany increased respect. I think it was Spiderman who first said something along those lines. Gambling that religious crusaders, ambitious attorneys general and "concerned parents" will remain oblivious to the chance of gaining publicity for themselves on the back of an industry that is mostly well removed from deviance and exploitation is exactly that -- a gamble.

It's amazing how simply stating obvious facts about comics and the law can make one sound like a fascist. Don't make the mistake of assigning me to that camp just because my message is inconvenient.