Banned Books Week: Let’s Celebrate Comics & Graphic Novels!

I Read Banned Comics - CBLDFI guess it’s no secret by now that I love comics (probably more than a sane person does or should), so I was really excited and happy and thrilled to learn that for this year’s Banned Books Week celebration, the American Library Association is choosing to focus on comics, graphic novels and manga and the attempts made to censor them at every level. 

From Batman to teenage angst to superheroes who really aren’t that super, books that have inspired and encouraged readers to keep the lights on long after the dark has settled in have been challenged and often times removed from shelves, denying future readers the eye-opening wonder of reading these thought provoking and sometimes just plain fun stories. 

In this post, I thought I’d give a brief look at the attempts to censor comics from practically the moment they were introduced as well as showcase comics’ greatest superhero – the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) as well as give you all a taste of some of my favorite banned & challenged comics & graphic novels.  Here we go, dear readers, into the not so distant past – join me, won’t you?

A lot of the information I’m passing along to you today comes from one of my most favorite nonfiction books ever – The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.  It’s a long form comic book about comics – how great is that?  If you are at all interested in history, comics, manga, Disney or Jack Kirby (and if you’re not interested in Jack Kirby, you really should be), please make sure to add this book to your reading list. 

So, back in the 1950s, something called the Comics Code Authority was established by the newly formed Comics Magazine Association of America.  It’s like – hey, you submit your comics to the Authority, and then we’ll (and by we, I mean some retired schoolteachers) will decide whether your book is not gross (more on that below), and thus get the stamp of approval – the Comics Code stamp.  It was usually up in the upper right hand corner of the comic.  So now you might be asking yourself, well, what exactly is the CMAA? 

Well, after some high profile senate hearings regarding what was causing the “rise” of juvenile delinquency in the country (spoiler alert:  they thought it was due to the <gasp> comic books!  Oh, the horror!), the head of all the major comics publishers at the time got together to prove them wrong!  Unfortunately, instead of proving them wrong, they ended coming up with a code that was more restrictive than the code for any other art form at the time.  Awesome job, people.  Anyway, books that had the stamp of the Code would have no depictions of sex, drugs, violence or even use words like crime, horror or terror in their titles – this is what I meant by the “not gross” designation. 

However, it all depended on context – there was one specific comic that got a lot of press when it was originally released in 1971 (and a comic that I wrote about in my SuperMOOC:  Addiction post) – the sad tale of Green Arrow (I guess the code didn’t account for rudeness & just being a straight-up jerk, which Green Arrow was in spades) and his heroin-addicted ward Speedy.  There was a lot of back and forth between Denny O’Neill, and Neil Adams (the writer & illustrator of the story) and DC’s editor at the time about how it wouldn’t get the Comics Code stamp because it featured drug use – even though it was showing growth and recovery in a person.  Well, luckily for readers, it ended up receiving the all-mighty stamp of the Code, after a total revamping of the Code itself which was really the beginning of the end for this form of self-censorship. The Code was used for a really long time and put more than a few publishers out of business.  Thankfully, starting in the early 2000s, support for the Code and the willingness of the publishers to go along with it started to wane, and now the Comics Code is appropriately extinct. 

Comics CodeMoving along the timeline of comics and the attempts to stop them in their tracks, we’ll cop a squat right around the year 1986.  It was during that year that a manager of a certain kind of store in Lansing, Illinois was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of obscene materials.  Guess what he was selling?  You guessed it!  Comic books & graphic novels!  It was certainly not fair and it definitely never should have happened, but what this arrest did (that was good) was help to establish the greatest superhero the comics world has ever known (and, no, I’m not talking about Batman) – the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or the CBLDF.  So much money was raised to help in the overturning of said manager’s conviction that there was some left over after he was released, and that money was used to set up the CBLDF as a non-profit charitable organization in 1990. 

The CBLDF works tirelessly to (and this is just a partial list of all the great stuff they do!) fight unconstitutional legislation regarding comics, help with legal costs of those who are arrested or charged with crimes relating to comics, help libraries with issues related to challenges to materials as well as making sure that people don’t forget that First Amendment rights apply to comic books, too – plus, they partner with ALA every year to help celebrate and publicize Banned Books Week!  The good people at the CBLDF may not be able to fly or become invisible or embiggen themselves (yeah, Ms. Marvel!), but they do something that’s even more important – they give readers the ability to keep reading about those things however and whenever they choose. 

Readers, librarians, teachers, anybody can and should subscribe to their free email newsletter; it gives up to date information on challenges in schools & libraries across the country and informative updates on all the great work they do – plus, every time I read one of their newsletters, I just feel like kicking some censorship butt! 

So, what exactly gets people so in a twist about comics & graphic novels?  Well, because they’re graphic, that’s why!  Like the CBLDF says – “Given their visual nature, comics are easy targets for would-be censors.”To give you an idea of the depth and scope of books that have been challenged and/or banned, I thought I’d go over my all-time, top 3 favorite banned or challenged comics…and I’ll even give you the sordid details as to why they were banned!  Ooh, scandalous!!  As always, let’s start with Batman…

Batman:  The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley:  If you remember all the way to last year, I put this book as number 1 with a bullet on my list of great Batman recommendations.  Here’s my little synopsis from December – This is the Batman that many have speculated that Ben Affleck’s Batman in the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie will be based on.  He’s weary, tired and older in this future nightmare Gotham where crime has gotten worse since Bruce Wayne hung up his cape and cowl.  This is a story of gloom and sadness, but ultimately hope and faith.  It’s dark and gritty and brings in all the favorites from Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery – Two-Face, Joker, Selina Kyle.  Oh, yeah – Batman and Superman really seem to hate each other guts in this one.  Sounds good, huh?  So, why was it challenged – well, according to the challenger, TDKR contained sexism, offensive language as well as the ever popular “unsuited to age group.”  Luckily for patrons of the Stark County District Library in Canton, Ohio, the book was retained and is still a part of the teen collection to this day.  Frank Miller can just keep on being that bad influence well into the future.

Blankets by Craig Thompson:  So, this was the very first graphic novel I ever read.  Up until Blankets came out, I was reading superhero comics only.  When I heard about the magnum opus of one Craig Thompson – a book loosely based on his life growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household and how he’s trying to reconcile that with his own thoughts on what it means to be a brother, a boyfriend, a person – it was already getting tons of praise and being heralded as a great achievement in graphic history.  It’s the ultimate story of what it is to grow up and realize that you must leave certain aspects of your childish self behind.  It’s a book that I absolutely fell in love with that will touch the heart of any reader (well, according to me, at least).  Now, why would such a beautiful and touching book be challenged or banned?  Well, as with a lot of teen books, our protagonist, Craig, was wrestling with issues of sexuality, among other things.  So, yup – sexuality and nudity are what got this book sent to the proverbial principal’s office.  After a very well publicized letter was sent to the Marshall, Missouri Public Library’s board of trustees (from guess who?  Our superheroes at the CBLDF in collaboration with the National Coalition Against Censorship!), the public rallied around this book of honesty, sincerity and growth, and the book (along with Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – another awesome graphic novel) was retained in the public library with no restrictions.

WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons:  You guys.  Watchmen is seriously my favorite comic ever.  Even more than Batman, and you know how much I love Batman, so that’s saying something.  When I first read Watchmen, my mind was seriously blown.  Here’s a story of superheroes who are most definitely not acting in a super way; they are acting like regular human beings.  Wha‽  They are moody, getting older, struggling with declining public opinion – in this alternate history, superheroes have actually been banned, so let’s say public opinion of them is at an all-time low.  They are not only having to grow older and go through the emotions that come with that, but also combine that with the fact that they can’t be superheroes anymore (people don’t like them!) and they are trying to solve the murder of one of their own – the jerk known as the Comedian.  We learn throughout the book that the term “jerk” can be nuanced (maybe, just maybe the Comedian has some goodness inside him.  Maybe.); we also learn that the murderer might be after all the rest of them, too. 

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created a world for us where superheroes really exist and they age and they deal with horrible situations and not everything is perfume and roses – sometimes it’s dingy and horrible.  Alan Moore was writing a superhero story that was commenting on the superhero genre itself – genius!  So, not much is known about the specifics of the challenges, but we know it was because of the classic (here it is again!) “unsuited to age group” specification and there’s nudity, too.  The book was retained in at least one of the challenges – great!  If someone wants to read Alan Moore’s stuff, they should be able to, because, c’mon, how awesome is Alan Moore? I like to think you’d see his picture in the dictionary if you looked up the word awesome – only in dreams, I guess.   

Well, as we come to the end of another post, I hope you can accept these very important truths – comics & graphic novels are important!  And they’re fun to read!  And they can be just as thought-provoking and touching and beautiful and controversial as “normal” books. 

So, pick up a comic or graphic novel to celebrate Banned Books Week.  It doesn’t have to be one that’s been banned or challenged – pick up something that appeals to you be it nonfiction, superhero, memoir or a story of the Punisher and his best friend coyote – just make it something that makes you happy.   For me it will probably be Batman, but maybe I’ll read Watchmen all over again. 

–Traci Glass, currently rereading the awesome comic book The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz