Published on September 8th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Bondage In Comics: Under The Code
Bound to please? Female Bondage in Comics.
Part 1 of our look at the Comics Code Authority covered the reasons for its creation. Now let’s take a look at the impact the code had on the comics industry, and on one aspect of it in particular: women in bondage.
Bondage has been around in the entertainment industry for a long time. For as long as there have been heroes there have been people in need of rescuing. People in need of rescuing are often tied to things. Going back a bit, we have Andromeda tied to things, needing to be rescued by Perseus. Then there are maidens needing to be rescued by Knights from Dragons. They’re usually tied to things. Victorian melodrama updated the stories, with scheming villains often needing to tie people to things for some important plot reason or another.
The early days of cinema transferred those melodramas to the big screen as weekly serials. We were invited to share in The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917), and perhaps most famously, The Perils of Pauline (1914). These cliffhanger serials ended each weekly instalment with our heroine in dire peril, more often than not tied to something. Whilst not deliberately misogynistic, these serials were certainly sexist in that women were portrayed as the weaker sex, in need of rescuing by a male hero. The misogyny in these bondage scenes was derived from an inherent difference in perception. Rightly or wrongly, a woman in bondage is generally perceived differently to a man in bondage. For the bound man the question might be “what’s he going to do”. For the bound woman, it’s more likely to be “what’s going to be done to her?” There’s an assumption, by men primarily, that the man will free himself somehow. The woman will need to be freed. A man in bondage is going to be tortured. A woman in bondage is going to be raped. Whether perception or misconception, it colours our feelings.
Comics followed a similar path to cinema with the portrayal of bondage, and with the advent of the superhero titles there were more damsels in distress than ever. Comic publishers also realized that some additional titillation couldn’t hurt sales. That meant less clothing. Bikinis and loin cloths fitted the bill nicely, so we were off to the jungle. A lot. Muscular bare-chested jungle men and buxom, leggy, leopard-skin bikini clad jungle girls became so numerous in the 1930s and 40s that every vine and creeper must have had one swinging on it. It also didn’t seem to hurt sales if the barely dressed jungle girl was shown in bondage and in the path of a charging rhino.
In these early days there was more balance to the use of bondage images. Whilst the jungle comics depicted women in bondage regularly, the superhero comics were just as likely to show the male hero in bondage peril. Superman and Batman weren’t immune to being restrained. Wonder Woman did appear regularly in bondage scenes as the restrained, though she was equally at home being the restrainer. Other Superhero titles also included bondage imagery in the stories, but DC’s “big three” were selected for particularly harsh treatment in Seduction of the Innocent.
The Superhero titles were also different from the jungle comics in that most of the bondage imagery appeared in the stories rather than on the covers. Wonder Woman is a good example. The first cover to show her in bondage was Wonder Woman #24 in 1947, but this was certainly not the first time she’d been tied. By 1947 she was an old hand at it. Before getting her own title, she’d been the star of Sensation Comics. In most issues of that title there would be a scene either of Wonder Woman in bondage, or of her tying somebody else up.
Although not comics as such, since the early 1930s pulp magazines such as New Mystery Adventures, Spicy Adventures, Saucy Movie Tales, and to a lesser extent more high-brow titles like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, had depicted full-frontal nudity and bondage on their covers. In so doing they had set a precedent as to what was acceptable on the newsstands. As the market for these publications was primarily male, having paintings of naked women on the covers sold extra magazines. Sex sells. Taboo sex sells more. This isn’t the forum to go into detail about bondage as a sexual fetish, but the bottom line is that it’s a popular one. Though there’s a distinction here between bondage and BDSM. Damsels in distress is about naughty restraint. It’s saucy bondage without risk. Introducing the pain and pleasure elements of BDSM changes both the perception and the expectation. Saucy becomes sadistic. The peril becomes perverse. The titillation turns taboo. The pulp magazines flirted with the line between bondage and BDSM, but on the whole stayed on the ‘safe’ side of that line. Comics took fewer risks, making sure that their bondage imagery wasn’t likely to be called sadomasochistic. In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham would do exactly that. What went on in the reader’s mind when they looked at these ‘safe’ bondage images wasn’t something the comic creators needed to worry about. If a drawing of a woman in bondage resulted in unintended “lustful thoughts”, that was hardly the artist’s fault. Wertham would take them to task about that as well.
No sex please…
During the war years other genres joined the jungle and superhero comics in their portrayal of damsels in distress. As well some of the Western titles, there were war comics like Fight and The Fighting Yank that favoured the “square-jawed hero rescues helpless woman in bondage” style of cover. These scenes depicting the damsel/hero in bondage distress, whilst occasionally having erotic overtones, were still just devices of “comic peril”. Situations from which people needed rescuing. That rescue always came. Publishers didn’t expect much of a fuss about a few bondage ropes or chains accentuating breasts or hitching skirts up far enough to reveal panties. Hell, Superman’s were on display the whole time anyway.
With the rise of the crime comic in the post-war years, things changed. Bondage, of both women and men, now had more sinister implications. The rescue didn’t always come. The reasons for characters being restrained were darker. If Lois Lane found herself tied up it was likely that she was being kept from doing something, or as bait to lure Superman into a trap. Nobody was about to torture her to find out what she knew. She wasn’t in danger of being raped. With the crime titles, if they didn’t state it explicitly they certainly implied that a woman in bondage was likely to be subjected to one or both of those ordeals. Men in bondage were probably just going to get beaten to death.
With the horror comics, the character in bondage was nearly always female, and whilst the sexual aspect was played down, the bondage scenes themselves tended to be more explicit, with torn or absent clothing revealing more naked flesh. Instruments of torture were often on display, the helpless victim’s gruesome fate at the hands of some inhuman monstrosity clearly laid out before them. The crime and horror comics took the “damsel in distress” bondage that had been tolerated in the superhero comics and added an erotic element more normally found on the covers of the pulp magazines. Then they had added a threatening antagonist, human or monstrous. Bondage had been OK. Bondage with violence or sex, actual or implied, was not. Bondage with violence was torture. Bondage with sex was rape. That’s what Wertham would have us believe the comics industry was peddling.
From the horse’s mouth
“Comic books create sex fears of all kinds. In girls the identification of sex with violence and torture may cause fear of sex, fear of men and actual frigidity. A Western with a picture of Tom Mix on the cover has in one story no less than sixteen consecutive pictures of a girl tied up with ropes, her hands of course tied behind her back! She is shown in all kinds of poses, each more sexually suggestive than the other, and her facial expression shows that she seems to enjoy this treatment. Psychiatrically speaking, this is nothing but the masturbation fantasies of a sadist, and it has a corresponding effect on boys. For girls, and those boys who identify themselves with the girl, it may become the starting-point for masochistic fantasies”
“Children’s spontaneous drawings are one good indicator [of sadistic tendencies]. In one such drawing, a girl is tied to a post. A handkerchief is stuffed into her mouth. On the floor are her discarded panties. In front of her is a boy heating some torture instruments over a fire. On his chest is the S of the superman.”
“A twelve-year-old sex delinquent told me, ‘In the comic books sometimes the men threaten the girls. They beat them with their hands. They tie them around to a chair and then they beat them. When I read such a book I get sexually excited. They don’t get me sexually excited all the time, only when they tie them up.’ The difference between the surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children’s comic books is this: in one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other of making them.”
Comparison between comics and the porn magazines of the day is a device Wertham uses several times. “Graphic depiction of sexual flagellation on the buttocks is frowned upon by the Post Office – if it occurs in adult books. But in a typical comic book for children such erotic scenes are described in detail”
There’s an almost inevitable comparison to be drawn here between the jungle comics of the 30s and 40s and a famous set of photographs of one of the leading glamour pin-ups of the 1950s, Bettie Page. In 1955, Bettie Page appeared in a leopard-skin bikini in various jungle set-ups, including several bondage shots that mimic the covers of the earlier jungle comics. Her regular appearance in bondage and fetish images in the 1950s led to Bettie appearing as a witness before the 1955 Senate hearings on obscenity (the same juvenile delinquency hearings as were investigating comics). There’s an uncomfortable irony to the fact that a creator of bondage images for adults saw merit in mimicking comics ostensibly aimed at children, and was then called obscene for doing it.
There was also some truth lurking at the heart of Wertham’s vitriolic attack on Wonder Woman. Bondage and submission were recurring themes in the early Wonder Woman comics, and her creator, William Moulton Marston, stated “Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element”. Of male readers he said “Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves!” In 1944 we got to see Wonder Woman being spanked and clearly enjoying it (Sensation Comics #31). That same year she’s seen tying up another Amazon whilst explaining that bondage games were a regular pastime on Paradise Island (Sensation Comics #35). Marston also ensured that bondage would be ingrained into Wonder Woman’s mythology by making it her Achilles heel. If any man was able to weld chains to Wonder Woman’s bracelets and turn them into manacles then she would be robbed of her powers. There’s little evidence, however, to support Wertham’s assertion that Wonder Woman was a man-hating sadomasochistic lesbian, and the need to characterize a strong female character in those terms tells us more about Frederic Wertham than it does about Wonder Woman.
Seduction of the Innocent leaves the reader in no doubt that seeing bondage images turned children into debauched perverts. As an example, Wertham cites the testimony of a young man he’d “had to examine in jail in order to give expert testimony about his sanity.” The man was charged with attempted rape. According to Wertham “He [the young man] had no intention of raping the girl, an act of which he would have been less ashamed. What he wanted was just to tie her up.” In that one statement Wertham has insinuated both that rape would be the natural progression from the bondage act, and that bondage was in fact more shameful than rape. And the cause of the man’s perverse nature? “It started when he was about eleven and saw pictures of that [bondage] in comic books.” This case, according to Wertham, is the one that “made me resolve to study the comic book question systematically”.
So given that bondage in comics was so corrupting, what did the CMAA try to do about it?
Nothing at all. Not directly, anyway. The CCA guidelines don’t specifically mention bondage or restraint, so one would then have to assume it was covered by more general terms like “sexual perversion”, “illicit sex” or “sexual abnormalities”. But to do so immediately creates a link between bondage and sex. Whilst that was often the intention of the crime comics, and to a lesser extent the horror comics, it was not often the intent of the Superhero titles to create an overtly sexual context for bondage scenarios. As mentioned earlier, the damsel in distress vignettes of the Superhero titles could sometimes be called ‘saucy’, or perhaps even ‘titillating’, it would be a bit of a stretch to put them under the heading ‘perverse’. Wertham would have us do that stretching. For a while, so did the CMAA.
The almost impossibly wide scope of what was prohibited by the CCA, combined with the legislative restrictions imposed in many States, caused almost fatal wounds to the comic book industry. As it was, it took more than a decade to recover to a semblance of its former self. Between 1954 and 1956 around 400 comic titles disappeared from newsstands, leaving around 250 or so struggling to coexist with the CCA. Major publishers went under. Hundreds of artists and writers had to be fired, many never working again in the industry. The titles that did survive, and in some cases thrive, under the code were often juvenile, vacuous and highly sanitized compared to what had come before. Western, war and romance titles dominated.
The Swinging Sex-Ties. Knot.
It was the Superheroes, in the greatest rescue they would ever perform, that saved a comic book industry that was going under for the final time in the early 1960s. DC comics launched new ‘Silver-Age’ versions of many of the characters that had been shelved after World War II, managing to create action titles that depicted violence in a way that could exist under the CCA guidelines. Even those titles that had survived the post-war cull had to evolve to survive. The Man of Steel became stainless and more malleable. The Dark Knight lightened up. True comic-book violence was born and ‘safe’ damsel in distress bondage was back. DCs success in the early 1960s was in no small part down to the massacre of many of its competitors by the introduction of the CCA, but credit has to be given to DC for producing titles that excited their readers whilst keeping that all-important CCA seal. They weren’t alone. From 1961 to 1963 Marvel added The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and The X-Men to their newly constructed Superhero stable. In the second half of the 60s a few crime and horror titles emerged that were able to operate within the CCA guidelines, but like the Superhero titles they were careful to keep their covers free of anything that might draw attention, and that included the previously ubiquitous bondage images. The sexual revolution was in full swing, but the CCA ensured that it didn’t find its way into comicdom. The bondage that did find its way onto a cover was likely to be the male hero restrained.
By the end of the 60s the comic publishers were experimenting with what could be done within the boundaries of the code, pushing the limits to see what would give. Eventually something had to. Television had already taken over as the main purveyor of filth and debauchery, its moving images and foul language able to corrupt and defile far more efficiently than text and drawings had ever been able to. The late 60s also saw the appearance of the first specialist comic shops, with the growth of these ‘direct market’ outlets continuing in the early 1970s. They gave the publishers a means to get their product out to their readers without the need to go through wholesale distributors or the traditional newsstands. That in turn meant there was an outlet for comics that didn’t have the CCA seal of approval. There were also the ‘head’ shops that became popular with the counterculture underground of the late 1960s. They too carried a range of non-CCA ‘comix’ titles produced in deliberate defiance of the restrictions of the code, with artists and cartoonists like Robert Crumb coming to the fore.
By the early 1970s it was becoming clear that the CCA was badly out of touch with a changing society. Attitudes to violence and sex had altered significantly since the 1950s, and cinema and television were reflecting those changes in a way that comics simply could not under the restrictions of the CCA. In the next part we’ll look at how the CCA struggled to change, and how that inability to evolve led to its inevitable extinction.