In 2007, it became illegal to smoke in a pubs, restaurants, government buildings and any enclosed public space anywhere in the United Kingdom. For a non-smoker like me, this was pretty cool. Finally, I could go to a pub and not come home stinking of cigarette smoke. And, yes, it cut down on second hand smoking etc.
Some anti-smoking campaigners think this isn’t enough though, and one area they try to eradicate all semblance of smoking is the media. As well using increasingly smart photo-editing tools to bowdlerise history and remove cigarettes from photos and artwork of musicians and actors, smoking is increasingly less commonly depicted in film and TV (not least because TV studios in the UK are covered by the smoking ban, requiring fake cigarettes or the use of CGI).
The ultimate expression of this smokeless reality is to be found in comics though. Marvel Comics, specifically.
In 2001, Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, started the process of banning any Marvel comic (apart from those under the mature readers’ Max imprint, I believe) from depicting characters smoking. Quesada had lost a grandfather to lung cancer, so believed that showing characters, especially heroic ones, smoking glamorised and encouraged the habit and thus cancer.
Eventually, this rule spread beyond just making notable smokers like The Thing, Wolverine and Nick Fury give up their cigars and became effectively a blanket ban on all characters smoking. For instance, artwork to an issue of Ultimate Avengers by Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco was altered between the initial pencils to the final coloured pages to remove a cigarette from the hands of the Red Skull. Other reasons were given, such as ‘curling trails of cigarette smoke being a cliché and crutch for artists to use’, which is hard to argue against, but even harder to defend given the number of artists Marvel regularly gives work who trace photographs.
Although Marvel doesn’t alter its back-catalogue for reprint editions – you can still safely see Reed Richards circa the 60s with his pipe – they’ve taken to altering existing artwork used for new covers. Compare these three versions of an X-Men cover, for instance.
If that wasn’t enough, an issue of Amazing Spider-Man from 2008 bizarrely went out of its way to drive home how bad smoking is by having the elderly father of minor ‘villain’ the Bookie appear, suffering from lung cancer and a persistent smoker’s cough, complete with footnotes reinforcing the dangers of smoking. Now, as this was Amazing Spider-Man under the tenure of editor of Stephen Wacker, it was suitably funny in how it was handled, you could even charitably call it a parody of Quesada’s ban, but it still felt a little heavy-handed. Like the ban entirely really.
I can absolutely see the need to not have characters like the Thing and Wolverine be shown smoking, as, even if there are relatively few kids reading mainstream American comics these days, they’re role-model characters that are highly imitable (let’s ignore that Wolverine still smokes in the X-Men films).
But when you’re extending that rule to all characters, it starts to feel like over-kill. As much as non-smokers may not like it, lots of people do still smoke and removing all the trace of that from your comics kills their verisimilitude. It’d be like suddenly having no-one in comics drive petrol cars because they pollute too much. Stopping villains especially from smoking is rather ludicrous. Who reads a comic, sees the Red Skull smoking (and throwing babies out of a window) and thinks, ‘yeah, that’s a guy I want to be just like?’ Well, neo-Nazis, possibly, but those guys have many problems above and beyond just smoking.