Comics are turning kids into criminal psychopaths! Superman inspires fascism! Batman turns kids gay! That nonsense was the thesis of Dr. Frederick Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, and people believed it! The mass panic over how comics could be corrupting the children in the 1950s led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority censorship board. Today the Comics Code is dead, but calls for the censorship of comic books continue. Sometimes these calls actually lead to the books being pulled from schools or libraries (one was actually declared “obscene” in court!); but thankfully, more often than not, these challenges are rejected or overturned.
Some of the banned and challenged comics on this list are clearly targeted at adult readers but because of the old “comics are for kids” stigma, get treated more harshly than prose literature of a comparable maturity level. Others are aimed at kids and teens, but treat their target audience with more respect and honesty than so-called moral guardians believe they deserve. For more information on cases of comic book censorship and how to combat such challenges, look into the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the American Library Association as resources.
15. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: REVELATIONS
Of all the comics you might expect people to try to ban, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man probably isn’t the first that comes to mind. But in Millard, Nebraska in 2009, a parent tried to get the second volume of J Michael Straczynski’s run of Amazing Spider-Man removed from her son’s elementary school.
Here’s a case where the parent almost has a point. The book’s violence is intense for an elementary school set, and Marvel rated it appropriate for ages 12 and up, so it would be better served moved to a middle school or high school. On the other hand, this wasn’t a complaint about the violence at all, but about “sexual content.” There’s zero sexual content in this particular volume, unless you consider one scene of a girl in a bikini as so “sexual” that you don’t take your kids to the beach.
14. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
The Killing Joke has been the subject of intense debate among Batman and comics fans since its publication in 1988. But one question you wouldn’t think to argue about is “Does this book advocate rape?” Yet in 2013, a patron of the public library in Columbus, Nebraska demanded the book be taken off shelves, claiming that it did advocate for rape. This complaint was voted down unanimously and the book stayed on shelves.
While it is implied that the Joker does commit sexual assault in the book, and there are fair arguments to be had about how tastefully the subject is handled, the idea that the book could be read as advocating for ANY of the Joker’s crimes is patently absurd. If anyone is looking to the Joker as their moral compass, it’s certainly not the book’s fault or intention.
Jeff Smith’s comedic fantasy epic Bone is one of the most praised all-ages comics out there, but some moral guardians clearly don’t see the book as kid-friendly. The American Library Association reported it was the 10th most frequently challenged book in the United States in 2013. It’s been challenged in schools and libraries all over the country, from New Jersey and Minnesota to New Mexico and Texas, and has been banned at least once.
Reasons for the challenges vary, from complaints about scenes of smoking and drinking to claiming it’s too scary for children to, in the vague words of one anonymous complaintant, calling it “politically, racially, or socially offensive.” In regards to the more outlandish complaints, Smith has said “I have no idea what book these people read.”
12. BIG HARD SEX CRIMINALS
Sex Criminals is clearly not a book for children, just the title will tell you that much. If that’s not enough, the back cover of the “Big Hard” omnibus collection reads “For Mature Readers. Duh.” Yet, somehow that giant content warning isn’t enough to prevent people from trying to ban the collection from libraries, making it the 7th most challenged book in 2016.
Sex Criminals also ran into problems when the Apple store banned the second issue from the Comixology app in 2013. As a private company, Apple is within their rights to reject explicit content without being a first amendment issue like it would be if a library was to, but the inconsistency of their content policy (the same issue wasn’t banned on the iBooks store) deserves to be laughed at.
11. BOILED ANGEL
Many comics might be challenged or even banned in a single school or library, but only one comic has been officially ruled obscene by an American court of law, and only one artist criminally convinced. Mike Diana already attracted the attention of law enforcement when the disturbingly graphic content found in his comics zine Boiled Angel reminded a police officer of the Gainesville student murders. Diana was a suspect in the murders but acquitted. His violent comics, however, got him an obscenity conviction. The CBLDF tried to appeal to the Supreme Court but their case got rejected.
Diana’s work was depraved, vile, offensive (CBR won’t be posting any screencaps). But obscene? The legal definition of obscenity requires the work in question to “lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Diana’s comics did have clear anti-religion, anti-authority political messages, but the conservative jurors weren’t interested in defending his free speech.
And now for the complete opposite of Boiled Angel. Drama is best-selling YA graphic novel about a middle school drama crew, written and illustrated by Reine Telgemeier. These are about as safe and mainstream as comics get (Telgemeier’s books far outsell anything from the Big Two comics publishers). However, any book that’s popular with kids, be it Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, or Drama, is going to get parents trying to take it away, and Drama was both the 10th most challenged book of 2014 and the 2nd most challenged book of 2016.
The charge is that it’s “sexually explicit.” The actual content of the book contains nothing more “sexual” than kissing, but because one of those kisses is between two boys, and because characters discuss same-sex crushes, homophobes panicked like their kids were reading porn. The legacy of Wertham’s freak-outs over Batman and Robin lives on.
9. ALL OF EC COMICS
EC Comics was one of the most successsful publishers of comics for older audiences in the late ’40s and early ’50s. When the Comics Code Authority went into effect, EC Comics was hit the hardest. Their biggest success stories had been in the war, horror, and crime genres, none of which could feasibly be continued or republished under the CCA restrictions. They tried to continue their Incredible Science Fiction series, but when CCA administrator Judge Murphy tried to censor a black astronaut out of the story “Judgement Day,” an allegory about racism, EC’s owner William Gaines called it quits for the company.
There was one EC series that managed to escape the confines of the Code: Mad. Gaines got the bright idea to relaunch Mad as a “magazine” so it wouldn’t be considered a “comic” and could continue its funny business as usual without censorship.
8. ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN
Frank Miller’s adults-only Daredevil spin-off found itself at the center of an obscenity case that lasted from 1986 to 1989, alongside other adult-oriented comics such as Elfquest, Love and Rockets, and Heavy Metal. Michael Correa, manager of the Friendly Frank’s comic book store in Lansing, Illinois, was arrested on account of displaying these “obscene materials.” The officer who arrested him, Sargeant Jack Hoestra, was particularly suspicious that these comics contained “Satanic influences.” This was an actual thing actual adults actually got freaked out over in the ’80s.
Fortunately, cartoonists from across the industry came together to raise funds for Correa’s defense, and the CBLDF was born. While an initial verdict did find him guilty, on appeal the judge ruled that, though the comics he sold were “bizarre,” they were by no definition “obscene.”
7. FUN HOME
Allison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir, the inspiration for the Tony-winning musical, was the 7th most challenged book in 2015 and has faced major banning attempts almost yearly. These challenges repeatedly refer to the book as “pornographic.” Fun Home does contain sex scenes, but they’re a small part of a literary narrative about family and self-discovery. Given it’s about a lesbian author and her closeted gay father, it’s safe to say homophobia is a motivating factor in these challenges.
A major challenge came in 2013, when the conservative Palmetto Family organization convinced the South Carolina House of Representatives to cut funding for the College of Charleston to punish them for including Fun Home in a summer reading program. Bechdel absurdly got compared to Hitler and Charles Manson in the debates. After pressure from free speech advocates, the state Senate restored the school’s funding but demanded the funds go towards studying the Constitution.
Another acclaimed and frequently challenged graphic memoir — the 2nd most challenged book in 2014, in fact — Marjane Satrapi’s true story about growing up during the Iranian Revolution has clear educational value and has long been a staple of middle school and high school curriculums. However, in 2013 the Chicago Public Schools administration abruptly pulled the book from classrooms, banning its use in 7th grade and restricting its use in 8th to 10th grade. While the book depicts violence, it does so in a more abstract way than the real photos middle schoolers will see in history class or on the news.
As homophobia motivates Fun Home‘s challenges, Islamophobia motivates Persepolis‘. Quite explicitly in the 2014 challenge in Smithville, Texas, where the parents advocating a ban opposed Persepolis as “Islamic literature.” The irony is that Persepolis makes a clear statement against Islamic fundamentalism, but just portraying regular Muslims as human beings upset them.
Sandman has faced challenges in libraries since the series started in 1989. In 2010 the ALA listed it as one of the most frequently banned and challenged graphic novels of all time. Reasons given for challenges include “offensive language,” “anti-family,” and most commonly “unsuited to age group.” The big controversy is about whether or not it’s appropriate for the series, aimed at “mature readers,” to be shelved in Young Adult sections.
Neil Gaiman’s been involved with the CBLDF since its inception and is an outspoken advocate for freedom of speech. Responding to a letter from a teenager dismayed that their library would refuse to purchase volumes of the series, he wrote on his website “I suspect that having a reputation as adult material that’s unsuitable for teens will probably do more to get teens to read Sandman than having the books ready and waiting on the YA shelves would ever do.”
Saga was the 6th most challenged book of 2014. The reasons for its challenges are for the most part predictable: complaints about nudity, sex, swearing, appropriateness for different age groups. But there’s one reason that’s downright baffling: the charge that it’s “anti-family.” What!?! The series’ whole message is incredibly pro-family, especially what was available for most of 2014 (the fourth volume deals with infidelity but that trade wasn’t released until December of 2014).
The 12th issue also got in trouble with Comixology for a brief image of gay oral sex displayed on a TV, believing the issue wouldn’t pass the Apple store content standards. Considering the array of perversions presented in earlier issues that got by with no problem, there appeared to be a homophobic double standard. Comixology later clarified things with Apple and released the uncensored issue.
3. THIS ONE SUMMER
Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s YA graphic novel This One Summer became the most challenged book of 2016 due to people not doing research after it won the Caldecott Medal. While the Caldecott usually goes to picture books for young children, any illustrated work aimed at kids up to the age of 14 is eligible. This One Summer, a coming-of-age story dealing with drugs and puberty, is aimed at ages 12-18. Elementary schools bought the book not realizing this and freaked out.
Where the elementary school reactions are understandable, school districts in Minnesota and Florida took things further and threatened the book in high schools. The Florida challenge was defeated, while in Minnesota 12th graders still require parental permission slips to rent the book. The content’s no different from many other YA books, but “comics are for kids” stigma plus homophobia (it has one reference to lesbians) made it a target.
Given Watchmen‘s legendary status as one of the first mainstream American superhero comics aimed at adults, it’s inevitable that it would face attempts at censorship. The ALA has confirmed two cases where people attempted to remove it from high school libraries. The first case, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was unsuccessful. The fate of the second case, at an undisclosed location in Florida, is unknown.
Alan Moore’s no stranger to challenges. In addition to Watchmen and The Killing Joke, Neonomicon and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier have been challenged. In a 1987 interview with The Comics Journal, Moore emphasized how important it is for parents “to take an actual personal interest in what their children are reading and to monitor their reading habits themselves,” rather than handing that responsibility to others.
1. Y: The Last Man
The first volume of Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn’s series about a man and his pet monkey who are the only males left alive on an all-female Earth, found itself joining some of the usual censorship suspects (Fun Home, Persepolis, and Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House) when a 20-year-old student at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California protested the syllabus of a graphic novels course. She claimed the books were “pornography” and “garbage.” (Spoiler Alert: they’re neither!)
The college added content warnings to the course in response but thankfully refused to remove them from the class or from the campus bookstore. Calls for book bannings from students themselves rather than from parents or political groups is a relatively new and rare phenomenon, but one educators now must prepare to deal with.
Can you think of any other books that were banned or pulled from shelves? Help us fill out our list further in the comments!
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