It’s Banned Books Week again! It’s a time when we all reflect back on the absolutely filthy books we’ve read in the past (Hello, Tropic of Cancer!) and go to our local libraries to check out the dirtiest books we can find (please not 50 Shades of Anything). It’s also a time to be aware of and fight back against the small minded concerned citizens who believe that we should never be exposed to things that happen in real life in literature. Unsurprisingly comic books and other literature that one might consider nerdy have not been immune to challenge and censorship.
Surprise! this British comic book about an anarchic young woman tearing up post-apocalyptic Australia and fucking her mutant kangaroo boyfriend got challenged in 2009 at the Hammond Public Library in Hammond, Indiana. Possibly it scored extra points for featuring a don’t-give-a-fuck woman as the protagonist. There is certainly an element in the world that doesn’t like to see women behaving badly in print. Honestly I’d be happy if this beautiful mess of sex, drugs, violence and kitschy art was available at my library. It is, even on cursory inspection, very much for adults, but that doesn’t mean it needs to go away. Luckily it retains its spot on the shelves of the Hammond Public Library.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
Anyone familiar with the parent work, or even Alan Moore’s other works in general will probably nod their heads at The Black Dossier being challenged. Moore has never been one to shy from explicit visual and intellectual content. One memorably shocking scene involves Mr. Hyde raping the Invisible Man to death. That scene was not featured in this book though, nor was this book challenged by parents or administrators. Two library assistants took it upon themselves to keep this kind of “pornographic” material out of the hands of the public. When official channels failed to move the book from the graphic novels section one woman checked the book out herself and then renewed it for about a year. When a younger patron attempted to place a hold on the book she got another employee to cancel the hold. Both were fired. Librarians take the free access to information seriously.
This fantasy epic featuring the adventures of an oddly featureless little guy and his two cousins who are tossed from their hometown of Boneville into the dangerous human world of The Valley. Amidst fighting swarms of rats and even a dragon, the boys get into an episode of drinkin’, gamblin’ and smokin’. A parent whose child had recently finished his DARE classes was shocked to see behavior in the comic that had just been impressed as poor behavior in the classroom and petitioned for the book to be removed. Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, wrote a letter decrying the challenge. It was eventually nearly unanimously struck down by the review committee. The book has been successfully banned in other places however.
Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Frank Miller’s pitting of Batman against Lex Luthor, President Of The United States, received a complaint for being unsuitable for the age group (teens). Reasons cited included sexism and rough language. Ellis’ grittier version of Batman has played a huge role in defining our modern view of the character, and there just isn’t much here that wouldn’t be seen in your average PG-13 movie. Luckily the library agreed and the book remained.
One of the biggest names on the list of “important” graphic novels has been challenged multiple times. It was also the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It’s a gorgeous, nuanced look at Art Spieglman’s fictional interpretation of his father’s experiences surviving the Holocaust as a Polish Jew as well as Spieglman’s actual interview with his estranged father. Each race is depicted as a different animal, causing some to interpret the book as racist despite the fact that the conceit is used specifically to breakdown the idea that the differences between races are so cut and dried.
Between this and Maus it sure feels like the American public can have serious issues with narratives that humanize “outsiders.” This book documents Marjane Satrapi’s coming of age during the Iranian Revolution. Originally released in French, it garnered great acclaim when it was published in English in America. Despite making its way into schools it avoided any bans or challenges until 2013 when Chicago Public Schools decided to pull all copies from classrooms and libraries. What actually happened will probably never be known, but the story given when students and parents protested was that the book was only meant to be pulled from classrooms because of “graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use.” Eventually the book was allowed in 11th grade classrooms, removed from 7th grade classrooms and still under review for grades 8-10.
If you’re interested in other comics that have been challenged or banned you can check out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They document and fight attempts to remove comics and graphic novels from school and public libraries all across the United States. Jeff Smith, creator of Bone sits on their board. Obviously Banned Books Week is a big week for them, so now’s the time to go check out what they’re up to or donate if you’d like.
Fighting censorship is important. Many of the books that are banned or challenged are celebrated works both within and without the comic book industry. There’s a reason that “award winning” and “frequently challenged” often overlap. Part of it is simple exposure. A book like Persepolis, that is taught in schools, is more likely to find an audience that is unappreciative of its value as a piece of literature and hones in on scenes of torture, bad language or even just smoking. It’s also because award winning books are much more likely to discuss things that actually happen to people in the real world. Overwhelmingly books are challenged because they are unsuitable for children, but presenting a sterilized view of the world has never interested nor benefited children.
Most of us probably remember the first books and movies that we were exposed to that treated us like people who could process actual events, that didn’t talk down to us. It felt thrilling and illicit and surprising. THe first time you’re challenged by a book or made to read something over again to really understand it is mind expanding. It’s an important part of growing up and begining to interact with and understand something approaching the real world. Take this week to celebrate the media, books or not, that treats you as an adult with actual thoughts and feelings. Celebrate the media that engages you or makes you feel uncomfortable. More often than not that that’s what learning feels like.