This week, September 21-27, is Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the most challenged reads, and this year’s fight for the freedom to read is centered specifically on comics and graphic novels. To be clear, this week doesn’t raise awareness of Fahrenheit 451-style burnings or even Orwellian censorship. The works listed below are still widely available. There are, however, still people and parties who would like to curtail access to books that make them uncomfortable. In counties, towns and school districts across the country, some people are trying to have these titles removed from public libraries and schools. That’s where the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund comes in — the organization draws attention to these cases by providing financial and legal aid.
But let’s pause for a moment: are a few institutions within their rights to ban literature? Who cares if a single library in Missouri stops shelving Maus? Don’t forget that EC comics, those amazing purveyors of early sci-fi, horror and pulp comics of the 1950s, was put out of business by little more than censorship and faulty logic.
The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it illustrates the range of comic treasures that some people would judge inappropriate for public consumption. Some are surprising, like the benign Bone series, while others are definitely not, like the works of Frank Miller or Alan Moore. But all of these works offer cultural value that deserves to be experienced at some point, whether through parental guidance or otherwise.
1. Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Frank Miller & Lynn Varley
Challenge: The work contains sexism and explicit language.
Defense: Say what you will about The Dark Knight Strikes Again: it’s ham-handed at times, every character maintains the same hard-boiled voice and, yes, there’s certainly some sexism. It’s scattered and frenetic. There are, however, important themes at work. Writer/artist Frank Miller depicts a world distracted by talking heads and sex on TV, while a Lex Luthor-run puppet government strips away freedom. While this is clearly Miller’s critique of the post-9/11 world, there’s the very universal notion of trading in freedom for security. The plot is even oddly prescient. The line, “Once your thoughts are committed to disk the tyrants have them” carries an eerie weight in the wake of PRISM and NSA snooping. Not to mention the (ridiculously hyper-sexualized) band, The Superchix, who flout the despotic leadership with a concert. They’re the Pussy Riot of superheroes.
2. Batman: The Killing Joke
Alan Moore & Brian Bolland
Challenge: The work advocates rape and violence.
Defense: Yes, The Killing Joke is rough. The graphic novel starts off normal enough when Batman discovers that Joker has (yet again!) escaped from Arkham. But things escalate quickly when the pistol-wielding villain shows up at Barbara Gordon’s door. The joker maims and violates Barbara, while her father, Commissioner Gordon, is physically and mentally tortured. Yes, this book is violent and disturbing, but Alan Moore pours this graphic material through a philosophical and moral sieve to prove a point. Is any one of us a day, and a circumstance, away from insanity? Containing and advocating are very different things, and The Killing Joke doesn’t advocate violence and rape. When Gordon refuses to submit to despair and abandon the system he believes in, it advocates humanity and inner strength in the face of absolutely brutal adversity.
Creator: Jeff Smith
Challenge: The work promotes smoking and drinking.
Defense: No, you’re not mistaken. People have actually complained about Bone, Jeff Smith’s all-ages series published by Smith’s own imprint, Cartoon Books, with colored versions through Scholastic. The American Library Association has apparently received hundreds of complaints about it, making it the ALA’s 10th most challenged book. Now would be a good time to further address the difference between containing and promoting. It should go without saying, but Jeff Smith is not telling children to smoke. Though a character in the books — Smiley Bone — happens to smoke cigars, he’s not exactly Joe Camel. Instead, Smith embraces the classic cartooning scamps from creators like Elzie Segar. With its mix of unlikely whimsical heroes journeying home, magic and monsters, Bone doesn’t stray far from the Looney Tunes-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien playbook.
4. Fun Home
Creator: Alison Bechdel
Challenge: The work contains obscene images.
Defense: Wait, sequential art can present serious issues about family and sexuality identity? No, no, no, children might see that! It appears stories that confront real-life issues still make many people uncomfortable. In Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” memoir, Fun Home, she confronts her own sexuality as well as her relationship with her father, a closeted homosexual. It was widely acclaimed, both inside and outside the world of comics, for its compelling storytelling and poignant honesty. Just ask the MacArthur Foundation, which recently awarded Bechdel one of its genius grants.
5. Ice Haven
Creator: Daniel Clowes
Challenge: The work contains explicit language and brief non-sexual nudity.
Defense: According to the CBLDF, a high school teacher in Connecticut had to resign after lending a freshman a copy of Daniel Clowes’ Eightball #22 (later published as Ice Haven) and a parent complained. The “narraglyphic picto-assemblage” revolves around the happenings of the small town of Ice Haven, which houses a series of tangential vignettes. The stories eventually converge around the kidnapping of a child, but that’s apparently not as disturbing as the scourge of brief non-sexual nudity. Considering that Clowes’ work is both challenging, cerebral and thought-provoking, a high school kid could do a lot worse.
Creator: Art Spiegelman
Challenge: The work is offensive to specific ethnicities and unsuited for younger age groups.
Defense: The simple fact is that Maus is important — not just as a great comic, but as a cultural artifact. While history may present a succession of facts and figures, Maus paints an eternally compelling portrait of the toll the Holocaust took on those who endured it. If the image of a gestapo officer bashing children into a brick wall is unsettling, that’s because it’s supposed to be. Banning Maus from a library resembles the same knee-jerk PTA mentality that To Kill a Mockingbird has faced throughout its history. These books erect marquee warnings to observe and avoid the mistakes our forefathers made. Ignoring them, and by extension the issues they represent, doesn’t make them go away. Genocide and mass persecution are horrific, but they happened and they deserve our attention.
Creator: Marjane Satrapi
Challenge: The work contains profanity and violent content.
Defense: Similar to Maus, Marjane Satrai’s tale of life in revolution-era Iran puts a very personal touch on a larger story. Though dealing with a very heavy topic, Satrapi leads the reader from the perspective of a child, which can be funny and sweet at times, and heart-wrenching at others. The writing and sentiment are as stark as the art. The people who challenged Persepolis were right; there is violence in this book, and it’s there for a reason. The image of a theater full of people set on fire is meant to be haunting. This is a war-time memoir at its most candid.
8. Tank Girl
Creators: Alan Martin & Jamie Hewlett
Challenge: The work contains nudity and violence.
Defense: Tank Girl is incredible — she drinks too much, fights too much and prowls the Australian outback in a friggin’ tank. She may be reckless, but she’s fearless. She may be violent, but she’s tough as nails. And while there may be some reasonable concerns about Tank Girl as a role model for youthful minds, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that she’s empowered. It’s her world: men (and kangaroos) just live in it. Comics has its very own Riot Grrrl and she has giant missiles on her bra.
9. Stuck in the Middle
Editor: Ariel Schrag
Challenge: The work contains explicit language, sexual content and drug references.
Defense: Because teenagers don’t curse, have sex or use drugs, right? The target age range here is 12 years and up, or Young Adult. Yet, here’s a line from a representative one-star review from Amazon: “Unless you want your child to read about explicit sexual acts and page after page of four letter words instead of something that would actually advance their vocabulary properly, AVOID THIS BOOK.” There’s no doubt that that this book confronts some serious topics, but the truth is that keeping teenagers in the dark about them won’t give them the tools to deal with them. This is an age when seeing that their issues aren’t theirs alone can be very, very comforting. For a lot of us, that comfort came from a book (see S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Judy Blume’s works) — but only because that book was actually available to us.
10. Stuck Rubber Baby
Creator: Howard Cruse
Challenge: The work contains depictions of homosexuality.
Defense: Challenging Stuck Rubber Baby for its homosexual content is like challenging The Color Purple for its depiction of racism: opposing this content is opposing the existence of its subject. Author Howard Cruse presents a deeply personal story about his youth as an outcast in the 1960s southern world of wholesale bigotry. It’s not just a book about being gay in a place that doesn’t accept you — it’s also about the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow south. Once again, ignoring an issue doesn’t make it any less of an issue, and a book like this seems all the more poignant today, with nearly half the states in the U.S. having legalized gay marriage.