Once upon a time, comics treated the Fourth Wall as a feature of the medium, not an obstacle. If it was a wall, it at least had a window you could occasionally open or wave through.
During the Golden Age, when kids were watching the Superman cartoons and serials at the cinema, the comic book versions of Clark and Lois go to the movies where one is playing. Suddenly Clark realizes that the cartoon will reveal his secret identity to Lois, so he has to engage in all sorts of super-shenanigans to distract her from what's on the screen. Madness.
In Golden Age Batman comics, whole pages would be set aside for Batman & Robin to talk to us kids directly about the Evils of Crime. Or How to Run a Scrap Drive. Or the Importance of Flossing.
As we've mentioned before, comics used be to full of stuff like Wildcat being inspired by Green Lantern comics and Barry Allen collecting comics of Jay Garrick's adventures. Heck, when Jay left the JSA, the characters openly talked about it being because he'd now gotten his own title. Mindboggling.
Superman's Silver Age winks to the reader while still in the story are a staple of the character (so much so, Grant Morrison had to revisit it at the end of the wacky DC 1,000,000 storyline). In fact, if you'll check the Filmation cartoons of the 1960s, you'll notice the Superman frequently does "the wink" at the end of his episodes during an aside to the audience, but Batman and Aquaman never do.
Check out the Showcase Presents: Teen Titans. The "Titans Cave" is hidden behind a billboard for ... the Batman television series. According to the cover at left, Batman himself used to enjoy watching his own show.
In the Bronze Age, in-story "winks" and other Fourth Wall violations seemed to peter out (although occasionally Batman and others would still take a page out of book to chat with us about other comic books and characters that might interest us). But, in another sense, the Bronze Age shattered the literary barrier between this world and the DCU by revealing that our world ("Earth Prime") was simply one of the many worlds in DC's "multiverse".
This wasn't just an abstract idea; "Earth Prime" people (Gardner Fox, Elliot Maggin, Cary Bates, Julius Schwartz) would sometimes get mixed up in a multiversal crossover and appear as actual characters in the stories they were writing. Creepy. Really, anything with Cary Bates is creepy, fourth wall or not.
It was an odd idea, but not unprecedented. For example, Golden Age creator Jack Cole featured himself once in a Plastic Man story. In the late Silver Age, the Madman Bob Kanigher actually called Wonder Woman's supporting cast into his office and retired them. IN PANEL. Freaky.
But, at some point, the Fourth Wall got angry and locked its window. Earth-Prime was no longer our world, but just another one of DC's fictional worlds, home of the Boy Who Created the Rolling Head of Pantha, and a few other great characters. If superheroes did PSAs in comic books, they talked to the Earth-1 children drawn in front of them, not to the readers. Superman stopped winking.
The hardening of the Fourth Wall is responsible for the demise of two other devices formerly common in comic books: the Narration Box and the Editor's Note.
Personally, I miss those absurd little boxes that told you exactly what was happening in the panel, as if, somehow, you couldn't see it, or were listening on the radio. I'd rather see a suprapanel box that says,
JUST THEN, A NAZI-SYMPATHIZING GORILLA CRASHES THROUGH THE WINDOW!
than have a character be forced to say unnatural things like,
"GREAT GUNS! THAT GORILLA-- CRASHING THROUGH THE WINDOW! AND IT'S WEARING A SWASTIKA!"
And I certainly don't want to have to figure all that out from just looking at the pictures. Pictures are for Marvel readers. I mean, maybe the gorilla is undereducated and unaware of the historical significance of the swastika; maybe somebody got Sam Simeon drunk, slapped an armband on him and shoved him through the window. Please don't leave me guessing, DC; that kind of Moral Ambiguity is for Marvel readers; bring back the Narration Box.
The Editor's Note also was deemed "tacky" during this period, so nowadays we're left wondering things like,
"Hey, I am supposed to believe Superman can weld a brick building back together in one panel while talking to Jimmy Olsen?"
Yes, reader; yes, you are.
Editor's Note: Just as a furnace first softens, then hardens clay, so Superman's heat vision joins the building's cracks, sealing them with a sudden blast of super-cold breath.Oh, well; okay, then. Why, Barbelith would evaporate if DC brought back the Editor's Note. And, you know, I'd be okay with that.
During this period (which, I suppose, we're still in), there were rare moments of transquartomuralistic address (such as the end of Impulse, where Bart's dog gives the series' farewell speech to the reader).
But, unlike instances of the literary device from previous ages, most modern transquartomuralisms are intended to startle. They aren't gentle waves from the characters, they're more like slaps in the face. Grant Morrison uses them regularly; in fact, some have criticized him for overusing the device or abusing it as a deus ex machina (as in the end of his run on Animal Man).
The "tabooeyness" of violating the Fourth Wall is actually heightened by its current, principal "acceptable" uses: the Fifth Dimensionals imps, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite. Those characters have evolved so that doing the impossible is now part of their essential nature. As a result, every time they violate the Fourth Wall, it's a kind of backwards reaffirmation that it can't be done.
Transquartomuralisms of any kind remind the readers that what they're reading is a fiction. For those who want to lose themselves in that fictional world for a while, that can make escapism more difficult. They know the DCU isn't real, but they don't want the DCU itself to acknowledge it. In real life, we do not "turn out to the audience" (except, I suppose, when we pray). So, when comic book characters do, it can (for many people) damage the aura of realism in the story.
Kids are very into pretending. INTO it. They have no shame in it and understand (intuitively if not intellectually) what it's for: an outlet for emotions and exercise for the imagination. That's why work geared at kids (like Peter David's) isn't squeamish about violating the Fourth Wall, because kids want it broken. I like to read about Robin; kids like to pretend they are Robin. It's one of the reasons that Archie Comics freak me out so much; because they're still written for kids and delight in, not exactly smashing, but smushing the fourth wall, in ways that, as an adult, my mind just can't handle.
I know what degree and kind of transquartomuralisms I want: I want Narration Boxes (when fun), and an occasional "Flash Fact" or "As seen in" from the editor, but any other "violations" confined to the 5th dimensionals, for whom such things are perversely in character.
What about YOU, dear readers? Do YOU want to see more violations of the Fourth Wall? Write us and let us know!