The Cigarette, The Batman, and The Youth: a History of Tobacco Regulations and Comic Books – Part V: Advocating for Industry Self-Regulation

The U.S. has a long and relatively effective history of regulating tobacco advertisements in comic books. Regulating comic book smoking depictions, however, has a much shorter and less substantial history. The last post in this series addresses the future of regulating smoking depictions in comic books.


Current Smoking Depiction Research

Smoking depiction issues intersects both American and Japanese comic books, which has been acknowledged by Dr. Masahito Jimbo, Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. Dr. Jimbo read manga comic books while he lived in the U.S. during high school.[1] He was bothered by the high prevalence of characters that smoked, especially ones that were supposed to be in great physical shape.[2] Currently, Dr. Jimbo is concerned with smoking depictions in manga comic books where it has been shown that media can influence youth to smoke.[3] He points out that smoking among children is a top health concern for the U.S. because most new smokers are teenagers and children.[4] Dr. Jimbo also points out that previous studies show that children exposed to smoking depictions in media are more likely to begin smoking, but that these studies primarily focused on television and movies.[5] He is concerned that not enough research has been done regarding the effects of smoking depictions in comic books, and he is particularly concerned with the high prevalence of smoking in manga.[6] As manga increases in popularity in the U.S., the children who read manga may have significantly higher exposure rates to smoking depictions than children who do not read manga.[7]

Dr. Jimbo has received a grant to study the issue of smoking depictions in manga and American comic books.[8] Researchers are currently analyzing the top-ten American comic books and manga from 2011 in order to provide descriptive and statistical analyses.[9] The top-ten American comic books are all titles from DC Comics and Marvel Comics, which include The Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, Action Comics Superman, and Uncanny X-Men. The immediate goal for the project is to provide the data to “primary care and public health arenas,” but the next steps are less clear.[10] Dr. Jimbo ponders whether advocacy to regulate smoking depictions in manga is the next step.[11]

Advocating For Smoking Depiction Regulations

Advocacy is a logical next step where, as my research has shown, smoking depiction regulations are few and far between. Only Marvel Comics’ Joe Quesada has taken an across-the-board approach to banning smoking depictions in Marvel comic books. This ban, however, only applied to the heroes and heroines, and not to Marvel’s adult line of comic books. Some editors have taken a hard stance against smoking in their respective comic book titles, such as Dennis O’Neil in Daredevil and Batman. An individual editor for a single comic book title, however, does not provide a strong message where other comic book titles by the same publisher may have messages that appear to endorse or condone smoking.

Furthermore, even comic books with anti-smoking storylines and messages may provide readers with confusing or conflicting messages about smoking. In the Amazing Spider-Man comic book discussed in a previous post, Peter Parker’s Boss, John Jonah Jameson, is seen smoking a cigar, but this is not addressed in any way in the issue.[12] It sends the message that smoking is a non-issue for an adult like Jameson, which may confuse young readers who are told they should not smoke. Anti-smoking messages and storylines may be ineffective where such confusion exists. A broader and clearer approach is needed.

Industry Self-Regulation

The options available to deal with the issue of smoking depictions in comic books are limited. There is currently no comprehensive or uniform regulatory body for the comic book industry, the two largest comic book publishers have no exceptionally strong smoking depiction regulations, and it is unlikely that a constitutionally sound statute could be crafted. With these issues in mind, advocacy for the comic book industry to self-regulate smoking depictions is likely the most appropriate course of action. The foundation of this advocacy would be found in studies similar to the one being conducted by Dr. Jimbo, where it likely shows that smoking depictions are prevalent in comic books. Research similar to studies that demonstrated smoking depictions in movies influenced youth smoking would also be immensely beneficial. These studies would highlight the need to regulate smoking depictions in order to address youth smoking as a significant public health concern.

It is important to conceptualize the substance of the advocacy, and it appears that two types of regulation could be effective. First, comic book publishers could, as Joe Quesada did with Marvel Comics, prohibit smoking depictions within their comic books. Ideally, the ban, unlike Quesada’s ban, would ban all smoking depictions from its comic books. The benefit of this type of regulation is that there would be no opportunity for smoking depictions to influence young readers. The problem with Quesada’s ban was that smoking villains could be idolized as much as their superhero and superheroine counterparts. As the “Tobacco is Whacko” discussion in a prior post pointed out, positioning smoking as a rebellious activity done by villains would have the effect of promoting, rather than discouraging, smoking among the young readers. This type of self-regulation, of course, would be qualified to allow anti-smoking comic books to exist.

Second, and alternatively, smoking depictions could be restricted to comic book publishers’ adult comic books. This would significantly curb children’s exposure to comic book smoking depictions, especially in the mainline comic books that are popular among children. The advantage to this solution is that it could easily fit into Marvel Comics and DC Comics current self-regulating rating systems. Both Marvel Comics and DC Comics rate their comic book titles based on age-appropriateness. DC Comics’ rating system includes the following ratings:

“E” (everyone): Appropriate for readers of all ages. May contain cartoon violence and/or some comic mischief.”

“T” (teen): Appropriate for readers age 12 and older. May contain mild violence, language and/or suggestive themes.

“T+” (teen plus): Appropriate for readers age 16 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes.

“M” (mature): Appropriate for readers age 18 and older. May contain intense violence, extensive profanity, nudity, sexual themes and other content suitable only for older readers.[13]

Marvel Comics has a similar rating system:

“All-Ages”: appropriate for all ages.

“T” (teen): appropriate for ages 9 and up.

“T+” (teen plus): appropriate for most readers 12 and up, parents are advised that they might want to read before or with younger children.

“Parental Advisory”: Similar to T+ but featuring more mature themes and/or more graphic imagery. Recommended for teen and adult readers.

“MAX”: Explicit Content: 18+ years old. Most Mature Readers books will fall under the MAX Comics banner, (created specifically for mature content titles, with the “MAX: Explicit Content.” label very prominently displayed on the cover. MAX titles will NOT be sold on the newsstand, and they will NOT be marketed to younger readers).[14]

Any comic book with smoking depictions could receive DC Comics’ “Mature” rating and Marvel Comics’ “MAX” rating. This would allow writers, pencilers, inkers and colorists to have the freedom to provide smoking depictions in their respective titles while substantially reducing children’s exposure to smoking depictions. This would be especially true for Marvel’s MAX comic books, which are not sold on the newsstand and are not marketed to young readers. Moreover, because the rating systems are based on age-appropriateness, it makes sense that comic books deemed appropriate for young readers should not include content that influences young readers to smoke. It would be difficult to argue that promoting harm to children is age-appropriate.

Future Advocates

A salient is concern is who would advocate for smoking depiction regulations. Many comic book fans, at least those that have discussed the issue online, seem reluctant to advocate for a ban on smoking depictions. There was substantial pushback from comic books readers when Quesada initiated the Marvel smoking ban. One reader stated, “Joe’s [Quesada] reason is a pretty crappy one to me. If he wants the characters HE created not to smoke, that’s one thing…And though most Marvel & DC characters have quit, some indie characters still realistically smoke.”[15] The reader was questioned why the reason was “crappy,” and he went on to explain

I think it’s crappy b/c it’s unrealistic and idealistic. the [sic] fact is, people are always going to smoke. whether [sic] it be cannabis or tobacco. Sure people quit, but to think you have this wide, expanse of different people and cultures in comics, yet to assume they all are non-smokers is silly…There’s been huge litigations against smoking, yet the business remains. People overdo things. If you don’t smoke, fine, that’s your business, but your attitude is obviously one of those who think that they are morally ‘above’ smokers but it’s not an evil, imo. [in my opinion] I wonder why some people so opposed to nicotine don’t feel the same way about other drugs & alcohol.[16]

Another comic book reader stated that superheroes and superheroines are role models, but “superheroes that do smoke have a valid reason.”[17] The reader then offered that superheroes like Wolverine are not affected by smoking and smoking helps define characters as rebellious or from “another time.”[18] Another reader asks whether smoking or underage drinking causes more deaths per year.[19]

This discussion reflects many uninformed viewpoints where the effect of smoking depictions on children is not properly understood, and some readers are unaware that the dangers of smoking are a much greater public health concern than the use of drugs or alcohol. Many of the readers take the position of Flash in Injustice: Gods Among Us, where taking away cigarettes—in this case, from comic book characters—is too paternalistic. Interestingly, Flash’s comment that people would be resentful if cigarettes are taken away has some truth in the context of Quesada’s smoking ban. Many, though not all, readers that discussed the smoking ban on blogs and message boards expressed dissatisfaction, annoyance, and indignation at the ban.[20] Others tried to rationalize why a character like Wolverine would smoke, especially where his healing powers would prevent him from ever getting addicted to nicotine in the first place. One blogger argued that Wolverine is not a hero, he is not a role-model, he is a violent killer, it is in his nature to be a rebel, and a person in his situation would need a smoke to clear his head.[21] A commenter replied, “Great analysis! I understand the need to be cautions [sic] of smoking in media around children. However, comics are read by people of all ages and to wipe it out across the board just limits character development. There is away [sic] to include it and be responsible.”[22]

Admittedly, a small sampling of discussion threads and blogs does not provide a statistical or analytic breakdown of comic book readers as a group, but it does provide insight into the general discussion about smoking depictions in comic books. At this point, it is unknown whether there is little or overwhelming support from comic book readers for regulating smoking depictions in comic books. It would, of course, be extremely beneficial if comic book readers supported smoking depiction regulations. Anti-smoking advocates within the comic book industry would be one way to generate support from comic book readers. For example, Dennis O’Neil, former writer and editor for Marvel Comics and DC Comics, would be an invaluable advocate for regulation, especially where his anti-smoking messages in comic books are substantial, consistent, and span multiple titles.

Casey Brennan mused that public outcry against comic books, similar to the outcry against crime, horror and sex comics in the 1950s, may be necessary before comic book publishers seriously address smoking depictions in comic books. He made a relevant point, even though his anti-smoking campaign was disingenuous. The public outcry may not reach the level of the 1950s, but many persons and groups outside of the comic book industry would be likely and willing allies to advocate for smoking depiction regulations. The American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobbaco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are just a few of the organizations that would be likely supporters. Family physicians and public health officials would also be likely supporters. Of course, parents are not to be overlooked as ardent supporters where they are concerned with the wellbeing of their children and, importantly, have control over comic book readership during a child’s formative years.


Note on Citation

All citations to internal tobacco company documents are cited by Bates Numbers, which refer to the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu. Citations to comic books follow the following format: [writer] & [editor], [issue title], [volume number]:[issue number] [comic series title] [page number] ([publisher] [date of publication]).

[1] Emily Fontenot, U-M doctor seeks to prevent smoking by studying comics, The University Record Online, (May 20, 2013) http://ur.umich.edu/1213/May20_13/4636-u-m-doctor-seeks.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Masahito Jimbo, Japanese Manga and Smoking: Puffing Away, 2:1 Int. Inst. J. 19 (Fall 2003)

[5] Id. at 20.

[6] Id. at 20-21.

[7] Id. at 21.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Dwayne McDuffie & Bob Budiansky, Skating on Thin Ice!, 1:1 The Amazing Spiderman (Marvel Comics Jan. 1990).

[13] DC Drops the Comics Code, Comic Book Resources (Jan. 20th, 2011 at 10:33 AM) http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=30436.

[14] Anthony Falcone, All Ages Means Kids, Comic Book Daily: Whosoever Holds This Hammer (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.comicbookdaily.com/columns/whosoever-holds-this-hammer-blogs-2/all-ages-means-kids/.

[15] How Come Don’t [sic] Superheroes Smoke Today?, Comic Book Resources (posted by “mgs” on March 30, 2008, 7:57 PM) http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?214856-How-come-don-t-super-heroes-smoke-today.

[16] How Come Don’t [sic] Superheroes Smoke Today?, Comic Book Resources (posted by “mgs” on March 31, 2008, 5:11 PM) http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?214856-How-come-don-t-super-heroes-smoke-today/page2.

[17] How Come Don’t [sic] Superheroes Smoke Today?, Comic Book Resources (posted by “Naetnalta” on April 7, 2008, 8:44 AM) http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?214856-How-come-don-t-super-heroes-smoke-today/page2.

[18] Id.

[19] How Come Don’t [sic] Superheroes Smoke Today?, Comic Book Resources (posted by “GHalecki” on Nov. 11, 2008, 12:29 PM) http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?214856-How-come-don-t-super-heroes-smoke-today/page2.

[20] See Joe Quesada Has Crossed The Line With The Smoking Ban, Super Hero Hype Forum (June 11, 2008, 3:45 PM) http://forums.superherohype.com/showthread.php?t=304466; Wolverine Quits Smoking, ars technica (Sept. 24, 2001, 3:46 PM) http://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=928319.

[21] George L. Steward, Why Wolverine Should Smoke, Books, Literature, and Writing Blog (Dec. 16, 2013) http://georgelstewart.hubpages.com/hub/Why-Wolverine-Should-Smoke.

[22] Id.

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