Since 1982, the American Library Association has sponsored Banned Books Week, an event that informs and inspires celebration of banned literature. Although it may be easy to assume that in 2014 people have stopped engaging in something as outdated as censorship, many books are still frequently targeted and even banned from libraries and schools. Banned Books Week celebrates these works, encouraging readers to think differently about controversial materials. While each year the primary focus has been on novels, this year’s Banned Books Week is dedicated to a medium that has been misunderstood and persecuted since, well, forever — comic books.
From their earliest days, comics were viewed as dangerous contraband. They were regarded as unwholesome, irreverent nonsense that turned ordinary readers into juvenile delinquents. Comics were blamed for instilling immoral behaviors in children, and the public ire of the 1930s was impactful enough to draw the attention of powerful people, including the Catholic Church, educators and psychiatrists, who began a crusade to clean up the medium. One particular psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, was so outraged by comics that he made it his life’s work to sterilize their contents. In early 1954, he wrote “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book exploring the negative effects of comics on their readers. This book, by the way, was absolute bullshit — but at the time, it was compelling enough to get a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to put the comics industry on trial. By the end of 1954, pressure was so intense, it compelled publishers to create the Comics Magazine Association of America. Their code of standards would come to be known as the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the content of comics until around 1989.
Simply put, the Code restricted the distribution of sexual, violent or immoral conduct. If you wanted your comic to be carried in a wholesale bookstore, it needed the Comics Code seal of approval. And though the Code progressed over time, eventually allowing a more reasonable range of topics, it wasn’t until a direct market distribution channel opened in the 1970s that The Code began to lose its power. This direct market came to be known as the local comic book store, independent venues that didn’t need to worry about the strict regulations of The Code since they were bypassing the purchasing channel, thus its power began to crumble under the weight of progress.
With 30 years of restrictions dictating what could be communicated through the comics medium, it seems that censorship is in the DNA of modern comics. Creators have only recently been able to truly convince mainstream audiences of the potential of the medium, but this transition is not without it’s casualties. Comics and graphic novels are still frequently scrutinized, misunderstood and held to different standards than traditional novels, making their spotlight at Banned Books Week well-deserved.
So, now that the Comics Code no longer exists, how are comics banned? Usually, it’s as basic as a patron at a library asking that a book be moved to another section, or removed entirely. These people aren’t always assholes — frequently, they are well meaning, if massively misguided folks that probably believe they are doing the right thing. The problem with this is that librarians and educators are trained professionals who make decisions about purchasing and placement of items carefully. A patron imposing their assessment of an item on the entire community supersedes the librarian’s role and is tantamount to making a decision about what another individual can read for them. These people also probably are not comics readers. They don’t see the value of addressing difficult subjects in a visual medium and often confuse things like nudity for porn, or violence for an endorsement of violent behavior.
A recent example of this occurred in 2013, when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke” was targeted by a patron of a Nebraska public library for condoning sexual violence. The comic was reviewed by the library board and was ultimately retained as part of the collection, but not all challenges are so easily overcome. In fact, Moore’s books frequently cause controversy, most notably “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier” which inspired two public librarians in Kentucky to take drastic measures.
In 2009, a Library Assistant at the Jessamine County Library challenged the presence of “The Black Dossier” in the Graphic Novels section, petitioning a committee to relocate it to Adult Fiction due to its sexual content. Upon review, it was determined that the comic was appropriately shelved. Unsatisfied with the decision, the assistant checked the book out of the library for a year, effectively removing it from circulation. It wasn’t until a patron placed a hold on the title that the assistant was forced to bring it back to the library — but that patron wasn’t to receive the book. With the aide of another staff member, the assistant discovered that the patron was an 11-year old girl and the hold was cancelled. While librarians are responsible for helping select materials, it was not within their rights to determine the accessibility of a title based on the age of their patrons. Both employees were terminated and “The Black Dossier” was returned to the system. Ideally, the librarians should’ve spoken to the patron about the title and shared their point of view on the content, but still allowed her to check it out.
So why is all this important to your average comic book reader? First of all, libraries present safe venues where your average reader who wouldn’t think to step foot in a local comic book store might have an opportunity to explore. Comics readers should be concerned about keeping these spaces full of diverse materials that represent the breadth of storytelling that the medium has to offer. Secondly, bans are flash points that reflect where the rest of society is when it comes to appreciating and respecting comics as a legitimate literary form. They are also moments for potentially robust conversation about what comics mean. By looking out for and being ready to respond to these challenges, comics readers can have opportunities to speak up in society at large and present the value of the stories they love.
Banned Books Week creates an intentional space for awareness of these issues — so how can you help? In addition to understanding the obstacles comic books face, you can check out organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition Against Censorship and Project Censored, which exist to fight for freedom to read and have various fundraising programs. As a comic book fan, you can partner with your local library to offer suggestions on expanding their Graphic Novel collection, request challenged books or volunteer your time to educate about comics. Banned Books Week is a great time to visit a library or comic shop, since many of them have special programming. Even something as simple as passing this article along and spreading the word about censorship in the comic book industry is helpful. We are a community and through our collaborative advocacy we can continue to preserve the freedoms to create, consume and celebrate comics.
Banned Books Week runs September 21-27th. For more information, please visit www.bannedbooksweek.org
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