Banned Books Week: Guest Post From Bound and Gagged
Hi, all! This is Shannon from Bound and Gagged, a blog dedicated to banned books and other censorship/intellectual freedom issues. I was asked to talk a little bit about banned books, censorship, and how it pertains to genre fiction and the Comics Code Authority.
As some of you may know, this week (September 22-28) is Banned Books Week, an event started in 1982 to bring awareness to banned books and book challenges. The event is largely focused on book/library challenges within the United States, as it is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), as well as a number of other American organizations, including the Library of Congress. However, book banning is a global issue and Amnesty International has brought the event into a more global context.
The topic of book banning is a broad one with a long and complicated history that no one blog post (or even one blog) can cover. I will do my best, but I encourage all of you to read more about these issues, how they impact you, and what you can do about them.
WHAT IS A BANNED BOOK?
Let’s start with what exactly a banned book is and what it means to ban a book. This can and has meant many things to different people in different places and times. Throughout history, people have attempted to keep books from being read, whether to keep trade/secret knowledge within a certain group, to suppress ideologies not accepted by the reigning political or religious authority, or out of fear that the books will cause some sort of harm to individuals or society at large.
This may take the form of confiscating the book, destroying it, or merely limiting access to it and can be done in secret or as a protest or statement. Sometimes books are banned by the state or other governing body, such as a Church or government; sometimes it is pressure from the people (or bonfires from the people) that does the banning. Perhaps the best known examples of book censorship would be Nazi book burnings or various efforts to destroy or suppress books that contradicted Church doctrine throughout the history of the Catholic Church.
However, many countries have outlawed or banned books for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s to keep classified information from getting out, sometimes it’s to silence political opposition/dissidents, and sometimes it’s to keep the peace. For example, India’s censors are very strict in an attempt not to inflame the tensions between its large and varied religious communities. Similarly, a law passed in the state of Arizona in the American Southwest sought to avoid culture wars/racial tensions by essentially outlawing any book dealing with race or minorities from use in a public school curriculum.
In some countries or periods of history, banning a book meant actively removing, destroying, or protesting it. However, at many points in history and in many countries/institutions today books require(d) approval from government or industry censors before their release or for any kind of successful, mainstream release. The varied nature of what being “banned” means can cause a great deal of confusion and tension, especially between cultures or generations.
For example, if something is legal, but certain groups do not have access to it or their access has been limited, it may feel as though it has been outlawed, yet many may argue that it is still freely available. This is often an issue in school libraries, as sometimes book will not be removed but will require special permission to take out, which limits availability, knowledge of the book, and may stigmatize those who wish to take it out. Some opponents of Banned Books Week, which largely focuses on school/library challenges, maintain that if book has been stripped from a school library, but is still available in the local bookstore, it is not banned. It all comes down to access, intent, and perception, all of which vary from person to person.
It is these complicated issues that Banned Books Week seeks to bring awareness to. At my blog, I’ve mostly looked at books banned (removed from the library and/or curriculum or disallowed on the school grounds) or challenged (someone has filed a complaint or attempted to remove the book from the library or curriculum) in US schools and libraries. However, there is a great deal of crossover, as books such as the His Dark Materials series or The Da Vinci Code are often banned by countries, religious groups, or other organizations the world over for the same reasons US schools banned them.
WHAT TYPES OF BOOKS ARE BANNED?
Books that are politically loaded or that address controversial religious or social issues are obvious fodder for censorship. However, books can be banned or challenged for any number of reasons, some less sensical than others. For some of the stranger reasons books have been banned, check out this list or any number of others like it floating around the internet.
Controversy and moral panic can also be a driving force in banning a book. Often this is done by snap-judgements on the part of parents or school officials who often have not read the book or bothered to find out what the book is about. This sort of blind concern for people’s, especially children’s, well-being is often framed as concern, morality, or even freedom, making the water even murkier for legal action or attempts to defend the rights of people and students to access certain books. The ALA keeps a record of book challenges and provides assistance and a reporting process when book challenges occur. However, it’s estimated that 70-80% of challenges go unreported and not all of them kick up enough of a ruckus to get the media’s attention. As banned books are often classic works of literature, books that encourage kids to read, or books that address serious but under-discussed issues, these challenges and bans can make an impact on one’s education, lifelong reading, and even mental/physical well-being.
Moral panic often finds easy prey in the form of fringe media and youth media, as they readily supply a mix of concern for impressionable young people and lots of confused/angry/frightened people who haven’t read the book. This can be seen in the sheer amount of YA novels gracing banned book lists, as well as censorship’s age-old fixation on Fantasy/Sci-Fi, horror, and comic books. It’s the same kind of mindset that has scapegoated Dungeons & Dragons, WoW, or video games at large for any and all social ills for decades. Fear of youth media, fringe media, and genre fiction culminated in one of the greater moral panic induced acts of censorship in American history: the Comics Code Authority.
In the mid 20th century a child psychologist interviewed children behind bars and decided that, because the majority of juvenile delinquents read comic books, comic books were responsible for juvenile delinquency (ignoring the fact that most children in general read comics at this point in time). His book on the matter, Seduction of the Innocent, led to a nationwide moral panic over what exactly was in these comic books the kids were reading, with horror and crime comics taking the brunt of the blame. Even the US Congress got involved. Rather than have government oversight, the Comics Code Authority, or CCA, was born as a form of self-censorship.
However, the CCA was draconian to the extreme, with very strict guidelines about sex, drugs, crime, moral ambiguity, gender dynamics, portrayal of government officials/law enforcement or other authority figures, and good’s triumph over evil. The government crackdown also took issue with women’s active and often sexual roles, fearing that comic book leading ladies encouraged lesbianism. Thus, under the CCA, the place of women in comics was restricted to romantic support roles. For more on this, I suggest the documentary Wonder Women.
Comics could be published without the CCA stamp of approval, however, few stores would stock these comics, making the CCA an economic if not legal requirement, much like the current rating system on the American movie industry today. This sweeping censorship caused whole companies to go under. It also effectively ended horror as a genre, as vampires, the undead, werewolves, and all variety of supernatural plot points were banned. Certain comics were even forced to change their titles to avoid prohibited horror-related words.
Some comics found ways around the rules by substituting things like “zombie” for other words that did not get flagged. Some feminist blogs in the Middle East use similar tactics, such as using “woman” instead of “women” to avoid drawing the attention of censors targeting specific words. The ban on werewolves came to a rather humorous end when comic writer Marv Wolfman’s name name got flagged as “wolfman” was one such prohibited word. The comic book MAD dodged the CCA entirely by becoming MAD Magazine, thus removing itself from the jurisdiction of the comic book industry. The CCA began to be chipped away at through the decades, in part due to several high-profile comics about the dangers of drugs. Though it grew less and less restrictive and important, the CCA was not abandoned entirely until the 2000s.
Yet the legacy of the CCA remains today. A once booming industry limps along in specialty shops, comics are still dismissed as a fluff medium devoid of literary value, and graphic novels/comic books are frequently the subject of book challenges in schools and libraries today. In fact, some libraries are reluctant to stock graphic novels as they are so frequently challenged. For more on this and examples of frequently challenged comics, see here.
Some of the outrage behind today’s challenges of comic books and graphic novels comes from the mistaken notion that comics are for kids and therefore automatically child appropriate. However, in part due to the CCA’s destruction of comics as a childhood staple, it is increasingly adults who make the trek to comic book specialty stores. Thus, comic books deal with all manner of violence, sexuality, moral ambiguity, and adult content. The black and white morality of the CCA, where evil is always punished and good is unquestionably triumphant is no longer the status quo. Thus, while Tiny Titans or Li’l Gotham are targeted at children, most comics are not and cannot just be handed off to an elementary schooler without any research or active parenting. In addition, the rise of the graphic novel and its increasing focus on trauma, politics, or other complex issues has brought the comic book industry increasingly adult and literary readers and writers.
This confusion over what age group a product is targeted at is not unique to the comic book industry. It has plagued animation and the video game industry more and more as society refuses to adjust to changing demographics. Many parents also ignore existing rating systems. An M-rated comic or video game is not for kids and it’s not either industry’s fault if parents hand them to impressionable youngsters, yet all too often said comics or video games become the fodder of outraged parents (or Fox News hosts). The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a sort of ALA/OIF for the comic book/graphic novel industry, brings attention to comic book censorship/challenges and provides assistance to librarians and teachers, be it dealing with book challenges or incorporating relevant comic books/graphic novels into a school curriculum.
Both the CBLDF and the ALA have information on Banned Books Week, so I highly recommend checking them both out. Many local libraries also participate in Banned Books Week and the internet has numerous banned book lists and articles about specific challenges. For anyone curious to know more, there are books with much more in-depth information on the CCA and the crackdown on comic books, including reprints of offending comics. I’ve covered a lot of these same issues on my blog, so feel free to poke around there. I’m always happy to answer questions and I’m sure your librarian is too. Maybe a book has been banned in your town or school library. Who knows?
Enjoy this year’s Banned Books Week and defend your freedom to read.
For more information on Banned Books Week and how you can get involved:
Books/documentaries on comic book censorship:
Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003)
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu
The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You To Read!, Jim Trombetta, R. L. Stine