When Graphic Novels Get Too Graphic

July 13, 2009

Comic books have finally won their long battle for legitimacy, affirmed Charles Brownstein, opening a  program on censorship and graphic novels sponsored by ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee. Noting that every library that matters now collects graphic novels and material that was once condemned is now lauded, Brownstein—executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that protects the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers, and retailers—said, "We are now at the moment where we've overcome the stigma" and the time has come to turn to other concerns, such as legal challenges to the material. Neil Gaiman, Charles Brownstein, Terry Moore, and Craig Thompson Brownstein presented an overview of the medium's development, concentrating on the 1950s, when child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and other do-gooders waged a war against comic books that Brownstein called "one of the great censorship debacles of the 20th century." Wertham's crusade led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body intended, as Brownstein put it, "to make comics a clean and sanitary medium." Neil Gaiman, fresh from the previous evening's banquet where he received the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book, identified the moment when the medium's validity seemed assured: a 2003 preconference sponsored by ALA's Young Adult Library Services Association where he and other creators "came in to talk to librarians at the bequest of librarians." By that point, Gaiman recalled, librarians realized their users wanted to read graphic novels, and "They were coming to us to say, please explain this thing." Gaiman recalled standing outside during a break with Art Spiegelman, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus. "We looked at each other," Gaiman remembered, "and said, 'Everything's just changed.' " Craig Thompson said that when he learned that his acclaimed graphic novel Blankets (2003, Top Shelf) had been pulled from the shelves of the Marshall (Mo.) Public Library, along with Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Mariner, 2007),  his first reaction—and he apologized to the crowd for it—was amusement, followed by confusion, then flattery ("Oh wow, I'm banned"). He subsequently felt "gratitude towards the people who were working to defend my book," then "residual Christian guilt" for causing the trouble. Thompson grew up in a conservative Christian family where censorship was the norm. "My brother and I gravitated toward comics because every other medium in the house was banned," he explained. Comics, however, were "under the radar." Terry Moore worked as a film editor before creating the popular comics series Strangers In Paradise, so he says he "went into comics with an awareness of the power of the image." He maintains that comics' combination of words and visuals creates something more powerful than Hollywood or prose publishers can produce. "You're hoping to have characters so real you feel like they're family," Moore said, and it's the presentation of private, intimate moments that produce that response. "That's the goal," he declared. "That's why we aren't creating G-rated fluff." Gaiman agreed about the primacy of the visuals. "You're dealing with raw images," he said, "and images have power." He maintained that he couldn't have created his celebrated Sandman series in prose; "it wouldn't have had that power." Remarking on the collaborative nature of the medium, Gaiman said, "A comics script is a letter to the artist; it's a blueprint to the artist. That's why I still love comics. I cannot read my prose with pleasure, but I can read my comics with pleasure." The panelists related various incidents where booksellers faced criminal charges for their wares. In 2007, a comics store in Rome, Georgia, was prosecuted for mistakenly distributing a comic with a story depicting Pablo Picasso painting in the nude to a child during the annual Free Comic Book Day promotion. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund spent over $100,000 to keep the store owner out of prison. During the Q-and-A session following the presentation, several librarians told of their own challenges over graphic novels in their collections. Gaiman cautoned, "As a bookseller or a librarian, you have to be aware of what's on your shelves" and be careful not to put the adult material with the kids' comics. It's at the point where people cross barriers and put things into peoples' hands that shouldn't be there "that explosions happen," he warned.