I spent the weekend at comic con, I thought about writing about how its too big for its own good but that isn’t news to anyone One interesting booth I was able to visit was for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, they were selling signed trade paperbacks and prints with the same donation jargon as a PBS pledge drive. While looking around this booth I was telling my wife what I remembered about the CBLDF and mentioned that when I was first getting into comics they ran an ad in nearly every Dark Horse book with a creepy drawing of a woman tied up with tape over her mouth and eyes. “Like that one?” she said and pointed to a print of the very same ad. It was there that for the first time in around 15 years or more I saw this print by “Just One More” signed by Frank Miller. I remember first seeing this ad on the back page of nearly every Dark Horse comic I had when I was just starting to read comics in around 1997. The version I saw was formatted to fit a portrait orientation and printed in black and white. Its an intense image, deliberately provocative and not too far removed from the very direct messaging of wartime propaganda posters. I wouldn’t exactly say I “like” this poster as a work of art, nothing else hanging in my home looks like this and I’d fully understand why someone would look at it and say its in poor taste, the horror it depicts is far too close to real horror that human beings inflict on each other and Miller’s decision to introduce the implication of sexual violence and creepy dialogue of (probably) a man talking down to his victim, calling her a “good girl” is nearly pornographic. As a kid I didn’t get any of this and only remember the ad because it was in at least a dozen comic books I owned around 20 years ago. At nine years old I certainly didn’t know what the word “censorship” meant and was actually more scandalized by the occasional ad for a scary looking comic with the unspeakable name “Hellboy” than I was at this ad. In a moment of impulsive nostalgia that I asked the attendant what pledge level would let me take home that signed print, it was a steal for 40 dollars I thought given that it was signed by one of the most famous living comic book artists.
But now I’ve got to make some sort of sense of what this artwork really represents, because at its face its really ugly, but unlike a lot of Frank Miller’s other objectionable depictions of violence and women this has real redeeming ideological value. This isn’t the only work of art that I own that if looked at in isolation might make someone think I was a serial killer, I have plenty of terrifying extreme metal albums that don’t have anything “positive” about them at all.
“Just One More” is thematically effective, its not just that the image is a representation of the harm censorship has on people, how depriving people of seeing, hearing, or speaking evil doesn’t really remove evil from the world but its own poor taste, its deliberate provocation challenges the censors impulse to censure the artwork as merely distasteful pornography and yet to commit to charging this image with those crimes would require the censor to deliberately ignore the point its making. “Just One More” is both problematic trash and is also a thought provoking and challenging work of art that has a humanity affirming point of view. The idea that a work of art like this fits very neatly into both the category of “toxic” and “healing” its self challenges an important categorical underpinning of what censorship aims to do: Assign artwork/literature into the existing category of “bad/objectionable/toxic/dangerous” and that the presence of said artwork doesn’t or can’t have enough redeeming value to allow it to be left well enough alone. This is another example of Pharmakon, the cure the poisons or the poison that cures.
Knowing all this I still have to ask myself in framing and displaying this artwork and presenting it as a truly good thing, if I were questioned about my taste would denying that any reasonable person would recognize any uncomfortable ideas represented really be the best way to articulate my overall positive feelings about it? That kind of tone deaf response to genuine criticism or artwork you enjoy is really going too far in the other direction and leads to the same kind of cognitive dissonance that the censor has to engage in to condemn problematic artwork like this. The truth is more difficult and uncomfortable; “Just One More” is a mixed bag, it contains elements of violent pornography that if someone wants to view it with sadistic joy in the same way neo Nazi’s enjoy the iconography in American History X and it is a powerful statement challenging the so-called morality of the censor and depicting it for what it is; psychological violence masquerading as paternal concern. Holding this contradiction is uncomfortable, but I think its the closest position to the truth.
I’m reminded of a great interview with Kurt Vonnegut from 1978, a great hometown hero of mine from Indianapolis.
He admits that lying and omission are an uncomfortable necessity, but I’m not sure if I’d agree that this oversimplification as being harmless but he showed an important moment of humanity by acknowledging the real human concerns of the people who censor his books.
This was pretty heavy subject matter, have some fun music.