EDITOR’S NOTE: Last winter, Comic Riffs wrote an essay (“The Trial Balloon”) on educators tapping the power of graphic novels — a report that was partly inspired by the banning of certain comics in schools. So Comic Riffs especially applauds that this year, the American Library Association and other groups are putting a special focus on graphic novels for the current Banned Books Week.
“Unsuited to age group.”
Given all the formal complaints that Captain Underpants rates these days, you’d think that were the name of a character in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Instead, Dav Pilkey’s illustrated young-reader series by that title tops the list of most frequently challenged books in 2013, as reported by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
There we are, “right alongside ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” says Jeff Smith with a laugh, about his work and Pilkey’s. His wildly popular graphic-novel epic, “Bone,” cracked last year’s ALA list at No. 10 — over complaints that rang as widely far-fetched, Smith tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
Which is why Banned Books Week, running through Saturday, is such a welcome campaign. The effort is an annual call to arms and brains among the authors and educators, publishers and booksellers — with a stated emphasis this year on graphic novels and other comics. These seven days to spotlight challenges to book access help spark healthy dialogue and illuminate the state of America’s public shelves.
“Banned Books Week is about entering the conversation the right way,” Smith (“RASL,” “Tuki”), who headlined the Library of Congress/National Book Festival’s Graphic Novel Night last month, tells Comic Riffs.
In terms of challenged books, ” ‘Bone’ is discussed alongside ‘(The Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn’ and Kurt Vonnegut — all my heroes,” continues Smith, whose Eisner-winning fantasy-adventure work “Bone” has been challenged or pulled from school shelves in such states as Minnesota and Texas. (Twain and Toni Morrison, Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger have all made the ALA’s “most challenged” list in years past.)
“I love that ‘Bone’ is on the list,” says comics scholar and cartoonist Scott McCloud (“Understanding Comics,” the forthcoming “The Sculptor”), noting that it can reflect the respect with which such organizations as ALA treat graphic novels.
“The biggest boon that Banned Books Week provides is the discussion that is had with honesty and awareness,” Neil Gaiman (“Sandman,” “The Graveyard Book”), the Newbery- and Carnegie Medal-winning author, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
“I get tired of when people say that no books are banned just because” you can get it elsewhere, continues Gaiman, whose “Neverwhere” was recently challenged in New Mexico schools. “Say you’re a kid in a school district [that banned a book] and there’s not a local Barnes & Noble and you don’t have 20 or 50 bucks in disposable income. …
“That book is gone. It was there and now it’s not. The fact you can buy it on Amazon doesn’t make that any less bad.”
“It’s hard to believe that books are still being banned in 2014, but unfortunately they are, and the pace is not relenting,” Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
Brownstein, who will speak tonight in Berkeley, Calif., as part of a tour of CBLDF events tied to Banned Books Week, highlights the change concerning visual narratives.
“Comics and graphic novels are seeing an increasing amount of challenges,” says Brownstein, whose Bay Area talk tonight will be titled “Censorship and Comics in America.” Besides such young-reader favorites as “Captain Underpants” and “Bone,” he notes that Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant “Persepolis” was “the target of an attempted ban in the Chicago public schools.” And that “Fun Home,” the graphic memoir by newly minted MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Alison Bechdel, was “the target of a university funding challenge in South Carolina, where it was assigned as a voluntary reading lesson for incoming freshmen.”
[ALISON BECHDEL: With MacArthur grant, graphic memoirist ‘thrilled’ to break more ground]
So for Banned Books Week,” Brownstein says, “This year’s focus on comics and graphic novels shines a national spotlight on the steady increase of challenges to comics.” But that prompts the question: Why are comics so frequently challenged in schools and “attacked,” as some say, by cultural critics?
“They’re uniquely vulnerable to challenges because of the medium’s visual nature and because comics still carry a stigma of being low-value speech,” Brownstein says. “Some challenges are brought against comics because a single page or panel can be taken out of context, while others come under attack because of the mistaken notion that all comics are for children.”
Gaiman, whose body of work spans many different intended audiences, holds a similar view.
“Comics and graphic novels are an easy target,” the Eisner-winning Gaiman says. “Historically what tends to happen is, it’s so easy to do a TV-news segment where you pick up an adult graphic novel and stand up in front of the kids’ section [and say with alarm]: ‘Parents think they know what their kids are reading these days!’ ” But then, Gaiman says, the reporter “holds up comics that are actually aimed at an over-18 audience, meant just for adults” — a clear and irresponsible misrepresentation to try to support a false angle.
“Comics has a peculiar history with censors and the suspension of ideas because it’s an art form that was quite nearly extinguished at one point in its recent history,” says McCloud, citing congressional attacks and the creation of the Comics Code in the ’50s.
“That’s something we can’t say of motion pictures or [other] books or music,” continues McCloud, who will speak Thursday night in San Diego with the CBLDF president, Larry Marder — in a talk titled, “Beware of Comics! A Banned Books Week Conversation With Scott McCloud and Larry Marder.” (And on Friday, Marder — also the creator of “Beanworld” — and Newbery-winning Jennifer L. Holm will participate in a Twitter party hosted by @CBLDF and @BannedBooksWeek.)
Smith, who is on the CBLDF board, notes there were relatively few formal challenges filed to the ALA office last year — for all books (307 in 2013, down from 464 a year earlier) — especially when you consider the massive readership. He also points out that a challenge doesn’t mean a book is actually removed from a shelf.
“One parent or guardian or library administrator files a [written] complaint — and one person constitutes a challenge … but just because a book is challenged doesn’t mean it’s actually banned,” Smith tells Comic Riffs, citing a specific case: “In Minnesota schools, a committee debated banning ‘Bone,’ but the forum voted 10-1 not to ban it.”
Yet the process can become flawed, Gaiman says, when school districts do remove a challenged book before due process. “The biggest problem with book bannings is that [although] school districts have policies in place … one parent complains and then suddenly the book is whisked off and a huge fuss is made, until the school district can be made to follow their own rules to get the thing back.”
And in some cases, such rules aren’t implemented at all. “A library in Texas just took it out and didn’t have a review process,” Smith says of “Bone,” “and I didn’t hear about it till later.”
Smith, though, does appreciate the motivations behind the challenges. “Nobody is doing this to be mean,” says Smith, whose “Bone” received ALA challenges claiming “political viewpoint, racism, violence.” “They are doing this because they honestly have concerns that are important to them.
“But the point is not the problem with the books –the point is access to the books. … ,” continues Smith, who notes that as a kid, comics like the sometimes-political “Pogo” stoked his interest in reading. “Don’t take away that option … and our First Amendment rights.”
And sometimes, there is the type of censorship and banning of ideas that comes from within — before a book ever finds a student or librarian or legislator. “Artists’ ideas can be suppressed in many ways,” says McCloud, who in 1988 drafted a Creator’s Bill of Rights. “Sometime in the heart of the artists themselves — and that can be the most pernicious form.”
“Suppression of ideas come in so many shapes and forms,” adds McCloud, who notes that edgy ’80s comics in RAW magazine proved formative for him. “CBLDF is erected to fight what can be fought in the political and social sphere.”
“This annual celebration of the freedom to read helps create awareness of how vulnerable our right to read is,” the CBLDF’s Brownstein says of Banned Books Week, “and how communities can make a difference in protecting it.”
This, Brownstein notes, is “an important moment to acknowledge that reading, and especially reading of comics, is still under attack. It’s on all of us to ensure those attacks don’t prevail, so we all enjoy the freedom to read however we choose.”