This year for Banned Books Week, always an important week for libraries and literature awareness, the focus will be on comics. By encouraging people to choose and read a book that has been challenged, somewhere in the world, we celebrate the freedom to read any sort of material we choose, in the spirit of intellectual and cultural freedom. And, besides, many of the books on this list turn out to be important and enlightening works of literature, so it helps make a nice fall reading list.
Banned books usually includes such stalwarts as A Clockwork Orange and Catcher in the Rye, but a quick look at the comics that have been challenged over the years reveals some interesting titles. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again is on the list, as well as The Killing Joke, The Black Dossier and Watchmen. (A strong showing for Alan Moore.) Lest one should think that the list consists entirely of superhero titles, Craig Thompsons’s Blankets is a challenged comic, as is Bone, Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes, Maus and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
What’s interesting is to look at the reasons why each of these titles were challenged and banned. “Sexual Overtones”, reads a justification from a middle-school library in Nebraska for banning Amazing Spider-man: Revelations. “Sexism,” is the reason given for banning Frank Miller. A library in Nebraska claims that The Killing Joke, “Advocates rape and violence”. Sandman gets singled out for “Anti-family themes.” And over and over again, the reason given for banning comics is “unsuited for age group”.
That last reason has to be the most outrageous. Accusing Miller of sexism is one thing, but saying that Watchmen is unsuited to age group… what age group? Very young children might find it disturbing, but it is not a book for very young children, and that much should be obvious from the blood running all over the cover. The Pasadena Public Library also used that justification for banning Maus, but in that case I guess the age group offended would be 90-year-old Nazis.
It’s also interesting to note that, other than the laughably ridiculous claim that Killing Joke “advocates rape”, and some concerns about violence in Tank Girl and Dragon Ball, very few of the concerns are about violence. Sex, however, is a big red flag. Any depiction of any kind of sex or even of just sexuality can get a comic book banned, even if it’s a Spider-Man book. In other words, as in mainstream cinema, violence gets a pass, but no sex, please.
The days of the comics code might be over, but the forces that created the code are still out there. This year for Banned Books Week, we can demonstrate how much we support full expression in our favourite medium by choosing one of these (quite uncontroversial) titles.