September is Banned Book month and it is worth mentioning that the government’s effort to ban artistic materials continues, even as we creep almost a quarter of a century through the 2000s.
Censorship battles are legendary – from George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV, to the Beatles, and even to classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird. This is not a case of determining what should be considered obscene or hate speech, but almost always a case of fear and imposing what some officials feel is offensive on their community at large.
The Fight Continues
Comics and graphic novels have been the focus of such fear-mongering for decades, going back to the Congressional hearings on popular horror and mystery comics in and the eventual creation of the Comic Code Authority almost fifty years ago. Facing incredible governmental pressure at the time, the industry decided to self-censor and adopted the CCA rather than risk being put out of business.
While the CCA is no longer a limiting force on artist creativity and storytelling, banning books continues today, but efforts to combat these restrictions are becoming as newsworthy as the bans themselves.
Islamophobia – Persepolis
This 2003 graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi details one family’s journey through the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s and 80s. The name of the comic refers to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire.
Although it made The NY Times bestseller list in 2003, it has been subject to various bans on the grounds that it depicts some torture of Iranian dissidents. But the real issue is that it provides a deep and unflinching look at Islam. The strange thing is that if one bothers to read it, the story is a condemnation of the radical Islam movement that took over Iran.
Challenges to this book have continued since 2013 when Chicago Public Schools pulled it from 7th-grade classrooms. Ironically, I first read it because it was part of my kid’s 8th-grade curriculum. For someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, it provided a glimpse into a world I realized I only had known through one very narrow lens.
Homophobia – Drama
Raina Telgemeier has many popular graphic novels and her book, Guts, was an Oregon Battle of the Books book and read by thousands of third through sixth graders. But, her book Drama has had the dubious distinction of being one of the most challenged books of the past decade.
It is targeted because of its LGBTQ content and characters (including the fact that two boys share a kiss on stage). It feels like forever ago that it was controversial that there was the first tv lesbian kiss back in 1991 on L.A. Law, but schools are still challenging this slice of middle school storytelling in the “defense of family values.”
What is it They Say About Denial? – Maus
Thanks to the ban by the McMinn County, Tennessee school board in January of 2022, the sales of Maus jumped 753% just a few weeks later. Maus is the Pulitzer Prize-winning set of books by Art Spiegelman which tells the story of his father’s survival through the Holocaust. Jews are drawn as mice and nazis as cats, and yet this school board felt that the nudity and profanity in the story offended them to the extent that they should remove this from 8th-grade classrooms.
Nirvana Comics in Knoxville, TN started a fund to provide free copies of Maus to people and managed to raise $83,000. This allowed them to ship well over 1000 copies of Maus and brought together proponents of free speech in order to get the 1986 book in the hands of interested readers.
One has to wonder if, in the days of unlimited data and the internet at your fingertips, a school board can effectively ban 7th and 8th graders from finding anything?
Censorship still works in controlling the narrative and making the journey to thoughtful discussion all the more difficult. For all these challenges we should be thankful we don’t live in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or any other society where the government can effectively ban material.
Celebrate the right of free speech by taking the time to find out for yourself and read challenging materials. You don’t have to agree with it all but we can be thankful that we have the ability to choose for ourselves.