Celebrate Banned Books Week With Your Favorite Comic

Comics Code Authority Seal

Almost all comics published between 1954 and the 2000s bore this seal, indicating they met a set of rigid standards pertaining to sexuality, violence, and other things.

Yesterday began this year’s Banned Books Week, and lists maintained by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the American Library Association show that comics are as susceptible to banning as their prose cousins.

In a way, it’s flattering to the medium that comics and graphic novels are being challenged and banned in public school systems and libraries each year alongside well-known literary classics (“challenged” means someone wanted the book removed but was unsuccessful in their bid, and the book remained on the shelves).

It means kids are reading these books, that they’re making it onto curricula and reading lists, and that they’re making people uncomfortable.

But kids have been reading comics since adults have been publishing them. And the history of censorship and banning comics goes back almost just as far. Church groups and educators attacked crime and adventure comics for their content as early as the 1930s, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Comic book censorship would have remained on the fringe, though, if not for noted social scientist and psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, who believed comics harmed children and turned them into delinquents.

Seduction of the Innocent by WerthamWhen Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent came out in 1954, America rallied behind his crusade to ban comics, including superhero comics, which he thought harmed children by making them believe incredible and fantastical things.

A round of congressional hearings later that year resulted in comic book publishers agreeing to self-regulate to avoid government legislation. Publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and the Comics Code Authority, which had to approve every single comic that went up for sale on newsstands. Newsstands refused to sell any book that didn’t display the Comics Code Authority seal (remember: comic shops didn’t exist yet!). If you’ve ever bought a comic, you’ve probably seen the black and white seal that reads “Approved by the Comics Code Authority.”

Among other things, sexuality, corrupt police and government officials, too much violence, and things like werewolves, ghouls and zombies were banned from comics altogether. Read a 1940s Batman comic and then a 1960s Batman comic, and you’ll see the difference immediately. 1940s Batman has a lot more in common with contemporary Batman — he’s pretty darn dark.

The code went through numerous revisions as times changed, and was finally rendered obsolete when the last two major publishers printing the seal on their books — DC and Archie — dropped it in 2011. Changing distribution channels helped comics out greatly in overcoming this form of censorship — not many books are sold on newsstands anymore, for example. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has since acquired the intellectual property rights to the CCA seal.

This issue of Saga wasn't sold in the Apple store immediately upon publication, but appeared later, after protests.

This issue of Saga wasn’t sold in the Apple store immediately upon publication, but appeared later, after protests.

But that doesn’t mean comic creators are free from worry. In addition to challenges in school districts and libraries, censorship comes from unexpected places–like Apple. In 2013, Bleeding Cool reported that Apple required French publisher Izneo to pull 1,500 comics the tech giant considered “pornographic” (even though the comics were meant for adult audiences).

2013 also saw a huge hullabaloo over issue 12 of Saga involving digital comic distributor ComiXology, the Apple Store, and portrayals of gay sex.

Thankfully, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund stands ready to help fight censorship of comics where it can, not to mention the scores of librarians and level-headed adults who stand up for books of all kinds in their cities and towns across America. The future of comics looks pretty great from where I stand.

Even award-winning graphic novels are challenged and banned.

Even award-winning graphic novels are challenged and banned.

To celebrate how far we’ve come, and to remind ourselves of how far yet we have to go, why not pick up one of these “banned” comics this week from your favorite Library?



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12 responses to “Celebrate Banned Books Week With Your Favorite Comic

  1. stonthat

    Read Maus while I was in college. Great and very important comic!

  2. Brilliant post, Kelly! As a result of the CCA, Marvel could not use the term “Zombie” in its superhero comics of the 1970’s. So they replaced this term with a new one, “Zuvembie.” They also could not use “Vampire” for a while, so you got Morbius, the Living Vampire.

    A lot of this was needless self-censorship, but it made for some interesting outcomes. Oddly, “The Son of Satan” was not an issue. Perhaps due to the biblical underpinnings?


  3. I knew about all of this troubling history, but I loved learning about it all over again. There should perhaps be a better distinction between children’s, teen, and adult graphic novels not only from publishers but also from booksellers and librarians. Not all adult books should be read by kids, just as not all adult TV shows should be seen by kids. How are graphic novels shoved into this general “younger people” profile if nothing else is?

    • Thanks for your comment! Many libraries — including ours — do make distinctions between children’s, YA, and adult sections. However, librarians also feel strongly that it is the role of parents to decide what they do, and do not, want their children to read. Hopefully Banned Books Week will lead everybody to have good conversations about this topic – like the one we’re having now!

  4. Reblogged this on mariner janes and commented:
    A very readable article on Banned Books Week: Maus, Moore and Gaiman!

  5. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    Oooh, Banned Books Week. Interesting . . .

  6. Something about Banned Books Week always inspires me–to take out my old copy of The Catcher in the Rye and randomly read a few a passages, browse the list of the banned and challenged, chuckle (and sigh) at the number of important titles, titles that have really mattered to me and to countless other readers that I simply would not have missed for the world. The world of literature is by its very nature, free and freeing. Reading remains our greatest liberty. Thank you for all of the thoughtful posts on Banned Books Week. And thank you, Librarians, for keeping the stacks open.

    • We’re honored to get such a wonderful compliment! Thank you so much for reading, and taking the time to let us know what’s on your mind. We’re honored to keep those stacks open for you, and for all readers.

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