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.
When 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.
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.
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?
- Blankets by Craig Thompson — challenged at a library in Missouri for obscene images.
- Bone by Jeff Smith — challenged at a school in Minnesota for promotion of smoking and drinking.
- Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa — this was the second-most challenged book of 2011, for nudity and sexual content.
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel — challenged at the same library in Missouri for obscene images.
- Maus by Art Spiegelman — challenged at a library in California for being anti-ethnic.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi — banned in classrooms in Chicago for profanity and violent content.
- Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon — challenged in various places for sexual content.
- Sandman by Neil Gaiman — challenged in various places for anti-family themes, offensive language and being unsuitable for teens.
- Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse — challenged in Texas for depictions of homosexuality.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — challenged in various locations for being unsuitable for teens.