Posts Tagged ‘Comics Code’

Art Robot O’Neill’s Twisted Take on Christmas

December 29, 2017

Kevin O’Neill is one of the great British comic artists, who came out of 2000 AD in the 1970s. His grotesque and nightmarish depictions of aliens, mutants and robots have been delighting and traumatising readers for decades. With writer Pat Mills, he created the Nemesis the Warlock strip, and has drawn the art for a number of classic comics, including Marshal Law and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The last has been turned into a film with Sean Connery as Alan Quatermaine. This weird vision of the Christmas season is the wrap-around cover for 2000 AD 398, for the 29th December 1984. As you can see, it shows a monstrous Santa Claus, a chimney with jaw pursuing a flying Christmas turkey, snowmen fighting, and two houses trying to burn each other down with their chimneys. Oh yes, and the mechanical reindeer that’s part of Santa’s sleigh looks anything but jolly. Though he is red-nosed.

O’Neill’s artwork was considered so grotesque and revolting that it was banned by the Comics Code. The Comics Code were an unelected body of censors set up following the scare about Horror comics that devastated the industry in the 1950s. They were charged with making sure that American comics were good, wholesome fun, and were suitable for children. I can remember Mike telling me that American comics at the time worked to be suitable for a child of seven to read. It was supposed to be a voluntary code, meaning that its decision were not legally binding, and there were comics published far outside, and often deliberately against their control: the underground comics, like Robert Crumb, and the independents, like Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, the Code had a near total grip dictating what comics could or could not publish. If a comic did not have their seal of approval, then the vast majority of newsagents and mainstream retailers simply wouldn’t sell it.

This whole system collapsed in the 1980s, as a new generation of fans objected to censorship and being told what they could or could not read in their favourite literature. The result was the emergence of adult comics ‘for mature readers’, like Marshal Law. But this was not before there were a few casualties. O’Neill was one of them.

He was the artist for a story in DC’s Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore, who had also been one of the script robots working on 2000 AD. In the story, the Corps visit a planet which has been overrun by demons. The Code rejected it.

Moore rang them up, and asked if they would pass it if he made a few suggested changes. No, they told him. He tried again, suggesting taking out another incident in the strip. No, they still wouldn’t pass it. So Moore asked him what was wrong with the strip, that they didn’t want to pass it.

‘O’Neill’s artwork’, the faceless censors replied. ‘It is totally unsuitable for children’.

In the end, I think DC did go ahead and publish the story, but it appeared without the Comics Code approval badge on its cover.

I really like O’Neill’s art, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is grotesque and disturbing. I can remember reading an interview with another British comics great, Dave Gibbons, who drew the Rogue Trooper strip in 2000 AD, where he said that a fan had told him at a comics convention that O’Neill’s artwork gave him nightmares. He could only dispel these by looking at Gibbons’ smooth art.

2000 AD later paid homage to the incident in one of their anniversary issues, where Tharg walked around various characters and art and script droids in his head. O’Neill is depicted as a crazed, stunted brat drinking at of a can marked ‘Bile’. During their brief conversation, Tharg describes O’Neill’s ban by the Comics Code as his great accolade.

It says something about American culture at the time that O’Neill’s art was considered too grim and upsetting for children across the Pond, but he had been published in 2000 AD for years and was one of the comic’s cult artists.

As for the nightmarish vision of Christmas, this strangely harks back to the type of humour the Victorians themselves like to put on their Christmas cards. There was a brief piece about Christmas cards on the One Show about a week ago, where they mentioned that the first Christmas cards showed scenes of anthropomorphised Christmas food or other items hunting each other over a wintry background. Art robot O’Neill’s weird, crazed interpretation of the festive season harks back to that, although its direct inspiration was probably the iconoclastic punk ethos that ran through 2000 AD.

Here’s the two pictures. Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares!

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