Tucker Stone has a column up on Comixology in which he argues that comics should get rid of the mature reader labels. He hopes this will allow for better stories:
Opening up the door of storytelling to allow for anything, be it violence and sex or just the simple rejection of any and all continuity, might even help the writers themselves—it’s this columnist’s firm opinion that the Punisher, a character who had seen a fleeting popularity in the 90’s that dwindled into nothing, has really only been well-utilized as any sort of interesting narrative character when Garth Ennis came along and rejected just about everything that had come before short of the concept, followed that up by taking his stories out of the regular Marvel universe, and then amped up the violence in his own twisted way. The argument isn’t that allowing writers to embrace their own personal understandings of “mature” storytelling would somehow make all comic books better—the argument is that there’s really no reason to put some forgotten stricture on the morality of the stories they’re telling. It just doesn’t apply anymore—it’s a fake predicament, erected against a concern that’s no longer valid. Meanwhile, the sales for these things are pathetic—and that’s after a summer where the most financially successful movies (from a global standpoint!) were about costumed super-heroes. If nothing else, it’s high time to change things up. When something is broken, and it’s limping its way around with nothing more then a straggling group of aging fans who can’t find anyone who wants to join them, the solution isn’t to just keep going in the same direction you’ve been going in at the same incremental pace. The solution isn’t necessarily that you make everything into The Boys and Lost Girls, either—but that’s a potential consequence of freedom that has a hell of a lot more craziness to it than the stagnancy of decelerating failure. That kind of freedom—to tell stories with these characters that allow for anything—is the same kind of freedom that produced comics like Doom Patrol and All-Star Superman, comics like Batman Year 100 and The Ultimates. It’s the freedom to take the character and do absolutely anything with it, because the character can’t break. Right now, comics have to come up with something and crazy is just about the only thing that’s left to try. Boring sure as hell isn’t working.
I agree with the general argument; mainstream comics are seriously screwed up, and they need to do something drastic if they’re ever going to be (A) broadly popular or (B) not incredibly crappy. And, certainly, at this stage, trying something — anything — seems better than the same old same old.
But I’m really not convinced this would be especially helpful. In the first place, as someone with a small child who adores Spider-Man, Batman, et. al, I feel like it would actually be nice to have a somewhat clearer system of labeling content. Some Batman comics really aren’t appropriate for five year olds; some are. A G or PG rating system would be helpful — especially for people who aren’t quite as tuned into comics as I am (God bless them.) And it’s true, as Tucker says, that kids aren’t necessarily going to be as attracted to the Vertigo line since the marquee characters aren’t there…but still and all, and despite the best efforts of the industry, comics qua comics remain quite attractive to kids, parents tend to see comics as kid friendly, and…yeah, from a pure marketing standpoint, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to tell people what kind of thing they’re purchasing.
As far as improving the quality — again, I don’t know. As Bill Randall points out, censorship doesn’t usually limit creativity in a straightforward manner; in fact it can be an opportunity for artists to innovate and get their point across in less direct, more creative ways. Certainly, mature content and continuity don’t need to be linked — the all-ages Jeff Parker books I’ve been on about are out of continuity — much to their benefit.
I do think Tucker’s article points in some interesting directions. For instance, he notes that “mature” comics tends to mean violence, not sex. I think he’s definitely on to something there; there really is a major marketing lacunae in mainstream comics where R-rated, sexual material should be. There are actual porn comics aplenty, and there are all sorts of alt-underground comics with explicit sexual content. But there isn’t really the sort of exploitation-cinema equivalent of mainstream action fare marketed around bare breasts and general salaciousness. (Sin City is something of an exception here…though I don’t remember even that ever quite hitting R territory. (Update: Matthew Brady in comments points out that there is some R-rated nudity in Sin City.)) Especially given the mostly male audience, the relative lack of sex in comics seems fairly bizarre, and is, I think, linked to fears about mature content. Certainly, it seems like if you wanted to reach out to a broader audience, one way to go would be to sex things up.
Basically, it comes down to the fact that the mainstream at the moment is devoted to telling mature stories with, for the most part, kids’ characters. The result is weird and distasteful and makes expansion beyond a very select group all but impossible. The stupidity and inconsistency around mature warning labels that Tucker points out is, I think, a symptom of this problem, but it’s not really the cause, and as such it’s hard to see how getting rid of them is going to solve anything.