Comic appreciation for Banned Books Week

As the annual ‘Banned Books Week’ Festival returns, libraries, schools and bookshops all across the US prepare for a week-long sleuth of events and exhibits protesting the use of censorship in literature. With Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants children’s series emerging as the number one most frequently challenged book of 2013, and Jeff Smith’s series Bone occupying the number ten spot, it is impossible to ignore the growing struggle of comic books and graphic novels against increasing restrictions.

With over 18 thousand attempts at removing materials from schools and libraries having been reported by the American Library Association since 1990, Charles Brownstein, the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund’s executive director, said that comics and graphic novels are facing “an increasing amount of challenges” with their ever-growing popularity.

So what is it about comic books and illustrated works that make them a particular target? According to Brownstein:

“Comics are one of the most commonly attacked kinds of books. 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.”

Challenges are also brought against comic books due to their interpretative nature.

“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,” Brownstein continued.

With the acceptance of comic books existing as a legitimate part of the literary scene only a relatively recent, and ongoing, transformation, their spotlight for this year matters a great deal. Neilsen BookScan reported a comic book and graphic novel sales increase of 10 per cent in 2013, indicating that 5.6 million books were sold last year. Their disproportionate focus for censorship affects millions of readers across the globe, which is why they have become the special focus for the forces of free speech in literature.

“The point,” says cartoonist Jeff Smith, author of the multiple-award winning and censorship-victim graphic novel Bone, “is that they’re trying to take away someone else’s ability to choose what they want to read, and you can’t do that.”

Smith added that he doesn’t believe that the people trying to ban comic books and graphic novels are doing so out of malicious intent.

“In fact just the opposite. They have a concern which to them is legitimate, but that isn’t the point.”

“The point” is that the value of illustrated works and their contribution to the literary world is underappreciated. It is a market plagued by deep-rooted stigmas that have existed on the wrong-side of public opinion for most of its existence. It is a great irony that Jeff Smith’s Bone would simultaneously be considered low-brow and childish merely for its chosen medium, whilst being criticised for its exploration of adult themes including racism, violence and political viewpoint.

And so the crux of the issue lies fundamentally in a lack of understanding; both for the large and varying audiences to whom they are marketed, and for the fact that they are equally as capable of and as entitled to portraying adult themes as conventional literature. Subsequently, as the Banned Books Festival kicks off this year with its usual emphasis on old controversial classics and publications now removed from the risk of censorship, spare a few thoughts for the ongoing struggle of the illustrated mediums, and show the world of graphic novels and comics a little more love.   

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