The word censorship often conjures images of Orwellian thought control and Bradbury-esque book burning. While Freedom of Speech is entrenched in the First Amendment, it isn’t unlimited. Censorship is just one of the ways speech is curtailed and while it often winds up stifling ideas, it often gives birth to workarounds. One such workaround was the production of queer comix—zines and publications independently produced as a way to circumvent censorship.
In 1954, mass produced comic books began to adhere to the Comic Code Authority (CCA), as a reaction to publications and Congressional hearings that pointed to comics for the rise in juvenile delinquency. In short, the CCA was a code of conduct the large comic book companies used to self-regulate themselves. If a comic had the CCA seal on it, that meant it was good-to-go and safe for all-ages to consume.
But what does that have to do with queer culture? Well, under the CCA, comics could not depict “profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity,” nudity was banned, and “sexual perversion or inference to the same is strictly forbidden” (Source). Essentially, no one could curse, make lewd gestures or advances, and even in subtext one could not imply that a character might be anything less than heterosexual.
While these restrictions changed the game of comics, and precluded a lot of representation, these caveats gave way for one of the niches of the underground comix movement—queer comix.
One of the direct by-products of the CCA was the development of underground comix — comics with an “x” was used to differentiate it from the mainstream comics of Marvel and DC, and also alluded to its X-rated nature. Starting in San Francisco in the 1960s, comix were a way to showcase the art and ideas of artists that wouldn’t be taken in by big companies for fear of reprisal. Stories surrounding sex, drugs, and other alternative lifestyles began to pop up at head shops in the San Fancisco Bay Area; consequently, as the movement grew, it became a way for the LGBT community to create sequential art that spoke to their community and their needs, without the need for industry approval.
But what does all of this have to do with censorship? Comic books in any form is printed media after all, and that should be protected right? Unfortunately, no. Or at least not in the 1970s.
The popularity of underground comix, of any subject, became the concern of the police, particularly in New York City, where the city had created a de-facto morals squad. One of the most popular comix—Zap Comix—drew the attention of said squad, when issue #4 depicted the infamous “Joe Blow” comic.
As described by Comic Book Legal Defense Fund writer, Joe Sergi, “Joe Blow was drawn in a simple, Walt Disney style and featured a white-collar executive who, after a hard day at the office, enjoyed spending quality time with his nuclear family. Of course, this quality time consisted of an incestual orgy (with the motto ‘the family that lays together, stays together’), thus providing a unique commentary on the hypocrisy of America.” This didn’t sit well with the morals squad, and a sting operation was set up. In the end, two employees were charged with “promotion of obscene material.”
Despite expectations to the contrary these charges and prosecution didn’t stop comix creators. Rather it fueled them. In the case of queer comix, publications and zines became a way for the LGBT community to produce content that concerned them. The subjects ranged from biographies, to coming out stories, to reactions to the AIDS epidemic, and more. These pieces showcase a variety of lifestyles and identities, demonstrating that the queer world is as wonderfully diverse then as it is now.
Additionally, the culture created a space for feminist creators when there wasn’t room for them in the regular comix scene. The queer comix movement gave us greats like Howard Cruse and Alison Bechdel, while paving the way for contemporary creators like Erika Moen, Ed Luce, and Tony Breed.
Censorship usually leads to the suppression of ideas, but it is because of censorship laws that this movement began. Yes, it could have happened without censorship because when creativity strikes it will find a way to come into being. But the catalyst in this case was censorship—a group of people saying no to lives and points of view unlike their own, causing the minority to carve out of space of their own. Because these individuals stood up to censorship we have representation in mainstream comics. But more importantly, because of these creators and artists in the queer comix movement, we know our representation can be better.