Two weeks ago was Banned Books Week, an annual campaign sponsored by many literary organizations including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is meant to draw attention to the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the freedom of expression. This year, the focus was on comic books and graphical novels and the CBLDF’s list of banned and challenged books reads like a murderer’s row of some of the finest works in the history of the medium. One stood out to me in particular, which I’ll get to, but examining the list reinforces that comic books have made leaps and bounds towards becoming the worthy art form it is regarded as today despite being subjected to an inordinate amount of scrutiny and ignorance. Unfortunately there are still far too many out there with the perspective that because of the use of illustrations, comic books are hardly literature and even if they are, they are meant for children, which subjects comics to a unique level of scrutiny. Even in the year 2014, there are still more than enough voices of censorship out there that would like to deny others the right of experiencing The Color of the Earth, Fun Home, Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad and even Bone for fuck’s sake! That’s a special kind of monster who looks to silence the “youth corrupting” exploits of Fone Bone. But here we are. Banned Book Week is a great idea, but one that need not be spotlighted only once a year. If you love comics, if you remember the first time a work of comic art changed the way you looked at the world, then we all owe it to ourselves to bring attention to the various attempts at censorship that still exist. Everyone deserves the right to have a comic change their life.
Twenty years ago, I read Maus for the first time. It was 1994 and it was for a project in my fifth grade English class, in which we needed to create a poster introducing your classmates to a new book you discovered in the school’s library. It had always been on the shelves, its red spine tickling your periphery each time you walked down that aisle, and it was always whispered about amongst the kids as the book that was “a comic book” and had “mouse people drawn naked” followed by giggling. Virtually everyone had flipped through it, but I don’t think anyone had ever actually read the thing. It was in black and white after all and our sugar-addled minds were effectively hardwired by Saturday morning cartoons to dismiss anything not inundated with bright flashing colors. Like many ten year-old adolescent males in the early 90’s, I was totally into comic books; specifically those featuring unimaginably muscled pouch-laden, teeth-gritting, gun-wielding, cyborg-limbed mutants. You know, comic books. So when it came time for us to select a book of our choosing for a project, I instantly knew this was my chance to finally check out the comic book from the library. It was devoured in an afternoon, my hands unable to release their grasp as my eyes and brain tried to have a dialogue previously unknown. To my nascent analytical brain, the epiphany of “Ooohh…so the bad guys are cats because the victims are mice and the other good guys are dogs” was more or less akin to “This is the most intelligent piece of literature I have ever had the great pleasure of indulging in.” In essence, it changed my life. Obviously, there was a lot of nuance to Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece that went right over my head, but there was no doubt that what did hit, hit hard. It quite literally changed how I understood words and pictures, the world and how remarkable their relationship to each other can be. Years later I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be assigned Maus both in high school and again in college. Each reunion with the work stirred new areas of my now very mature cerebrum…okay, mature is a stretch, but at least I had a few additional years of perspective. Anyway, I need not tout its greatness considering the Pulitzer Prize sticker adorning every one of its millions of covers. The point is I had the opportunity to experience Maus as an act of exploration and then again as assigned reading, each time getting more and different things out of it. That’s why this CBLDF list struck me personally, remembering my own personal opportunity in the context of appreciating the accessibility of what I had taken for granted was truly eye-opening.
Other than the attempt to ban Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from the College of Charleston earlier this year, I was embarrassingly ignorant to the majority of the controversies highlighted on the list and the CBLDF website and likely, some of you are as well. There’s no denying that challenges to art will not be waning anytime soon, but there’s still plenty to be gained by bringing awareness to these attempts. Maybe someone will pick up a comic for the first time to see what could possibly be so horrendous about it to earn cries for its banishment. Maybe someone will become more interested in seeing what else comics have to offer after being assigned a controversial graphic novel. Maybe a well versed superhero fan more readily chooses to read a harrowing autobiographical experience because it’s in a familiar format. My own comic oriented views were shaped by The Sandman, Watchmen, Blankets, Stuck Rubber Baby, The Dark Knight Returns and, again, Maus. Looking at all these diverse titles and genres makes it clear that the only real connection between them is that they are comics. And each and every one of them could have an important, unique impact on a fifth grader. Or a college student. Or, as it should be, anyone who wanders into a library.