The 2014 American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in Las Vegas this week set the stage for Banned Books Week, scheduled for September 21-27, 2014. This year, Banned Books Week will shine light on banned and challenged comic books and graphic novels. On the show floor, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which provides legal support and expertise to readers, authors, and librarians, debuted a new handbook offering rundowns of commonly challenged comic titles, myths about banned books, and ideas for programming around Banned Books Week. (For more on the new resources, see infoDOCKET.com).
The last couple years in particular have seen some high profile challenges of comic books and graphic novels, including the removal of some financial support from the College of Charleston after it included Alison Bechdel’s coming of age graphic memoir Fun Home in a school-wide reading program and the restrictions placed on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in Chicago public schools.
Comic books are frequent targets for censorship for a number of reasons, CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein told LJ. For one thing, many people still see comic books as a low art form, and the free speech and expression of authors and artists has a similarly low value associated with it. The graphic nature of the medium also mean it depends on static images that are easy to take out of context, said Brownstein.
Nevertheless, the recent spate of high profile challenges to comics makes the medium a natural way to shine a light on censorship. “Comics are a great way to engage readers with the real problem of censorship today,” said Brownstein.
The cover of the new handbook was provided by comic artist and author Jeff Smith, whose Eisner-winning fantasy epic, Bone, was the tenth-most challenged title in libraries across the USA in 2013. As far back as 2010, Ramona DeLay of Apple Valley, Minnesota, attempted to get the title removed from the shelves of her son’s school library, telling Minnesota’s Sun Newspapers that the title depicted gambling, smoking, and sexual situations and requesting that it be “withdrawn from all students.”
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that Brownstein believes is a problem. “Parents have the right to say what should be in their household,” Brownstein told LJ in Las Vegas. “They don’t have the right to take that decision away from other parents.”
It not just kids and authors that CBLDF finds themselves defending lately, though. In recent years, adult readers of Japanese manga titles have found themselves on the wrong side of the law and turned to the fund for assistance. Manga titles, which sometimes contain images of minors engaged in sex acts, sometimes run afoul of the Protect Act, which criminalized images of child sex, whether real or drawn. Brownstein said there are many good parts of the law, but that the portions of it which treat drawn images as equivalent to actual child sex abuses are misguided, serving to criminalize expression that, while distasteful, is still protected by the First Amendment. “The law exists to curtail criminal behavior,” Brownstein told an ALA panel on banned comic books, “Not to prosecute people for deviant fantasies or images.”
To help librarians learn how to deal with manga titles in their libraries, the CBLDF worked with publisher Dark Horse Comics last year to produce a guide to best practices and collection development of the titles, many of which are steeped in Japanese culture and can be poorly understood by Western readers. Brownstein said that he hopes Banned Books Week will present an opportunity to spotlight that title and help librarians better understand the genre and its intersections with the law. “Libraries are going to be serving kids that are curious about this art form, and we have an obligation to protect them,” said Brownstein.
To support Banned Books Week, the CLBDF has released discussion guides for commonly challenged graphic novel titles including Fun Home, Persepolis, the popular manga series Dragon Ball, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In addition to the discussion guides and handbooks, CBLDF.ORG will provide what Brownstein described as “tools and springboards” for advocates like librarians and booksellers to create their own local Banned Book Weeks programming. “We provide the flint,” said Brownstein. “The fire comes from the community.”
Suzanne Scott, Performing Art Coordinator for the Las Vegas Clark County Library District, said that comics have always played a role in the system’s Banned Book Week programming, with librarians putting together displays of banned and challenged comics at libraries as well as comics retailers in the area. While plans for this year’s event lineup are still being discussed, she told LJ she expects comics to take center stage.