Of book challenges, attempts at bans and advocating for comics in libraries

The fact that Maus is being removed from school libraries and there are attempts at banning it should give us serious pause for thought. Why is this happening now, when this book was published decades ago? Like it or not, and there are come critical voices, there's no doubt that Maus is an outstanding work of non-fiction in graphic novel form that explores a deeply personal and, at the same time, universal story around genocide, trauma and the author's relationship with his father, who survived the genocide, Nazi Germany and Auschwitz.

Pen America published an interview with the author recently. In the interview, Art Spiegelman, makes some really great points that are highly relevant for us as librarians. He mentions how librarians and teachers participated and were complicit in book bans in the 1950s. It's an uncomfortable truth, but one that we need to acknowledge and be aware of. Then he says:

I think that book banning is not the only threat. I mean, there are many threats right now, where it seems to be, memory is short, fascism is a while back, they don’t know much about it. And, you know, it’s maybe attractive. It’s so complicated to live in a plurality, a democracy of some kind, even if it’s a flawed one, and try to balance out all those needs, and make decisions for yourself. So there’s a desire to keep it simple. And maybe fascism looks simple to them. And it seems to be the direction we’re moving in, more and more in various ways. And not just in America. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Art Spiegelman 2023

While many see book bans as something distant that happened in Nazi Germany and the USA, I'd like to mention here that Australia was at the forefront of book bans in the 1950s. The Horwitz Code for comics was set up before the Comics Code Authority was created in the USA and there were various literature review boards across Australia set up in order to ban books they objected to. Comics were especially targeted as Daniel Best, author and comics historian explains here

Boards were being formed in almost every state. South Australia was attempting to have amendments to its Police Offences Bill to deal with ‘objectionable literature’ in August, 1953 and New South Wales and Victoria were looking to follow suit. The state leading the way for outright banning was Queensland. Various mothers groups were calling for censorship of both comic books and film. In March, 1954, the Queensland Literature Board Of review was formed and duly announced. Its role was simple – to ban comic books in the state of Queensland.  Once a comic book was banned in one state, other states would unofficially adopt the bans, thus preventing a title from being on sale, resulting in cancellations and publishers either going out of business or looking at other mediums to stay afloat. The Board was up and running and busily banning comic books before the year was out. Daniel Best, 2014 

This year, in Australia, a pattern is emerging. Those who are challenging books and want them out of libraries are targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes and comics. The bulk of titles being challenged are clearly LGBTQ+ books. That is very clear. But they're also targeting comics and they often use images from comics and manga to make their case. 

In fact, eleven publications have been referred to the Australian Classification Board this year. All eleven of them are comics. They are, the six volume collected edition of The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, three volumes of Warrior Nun Areala Rituals created by Ben Dunn and published between 1995 and 2003, and Crossed Badlands 41 by David Hine and German Erramouspe, published in 2013. 

The ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics blog has all the information here about the decision taken by the board for The Boys (essentially, three volumes have been banned in Queensland and severely restricted in other states, the other three are classified as unrestricted M). The ACB's decision on Gender Queer was appealed and it's with the review board. They initially classified it as Unrestricted M (not recommended for readers under 15) in a decision announced April 3 but we're waiting on the final decision, which should be announced soon. 

Warrior Nun Areala Rituals is only available in one university library and Crossed Badlans 41, doesn't appear to be in any library in Australia.

We know why they're targeting rainbow and pride books. These radical conservative and religious individuals cannot accept people outside their narrow minded dark cave. Anyone who lives their lives beyond the strict and narrow confines of what they deem appropriate is attacked and it's a vicious culture war with devastating consequences.

The LGBTQ+ books they're targeting include picture books and non-fiction books for children. They talk about pornography, grooming and pedophilia, but it's all about erasing any mention of LGBTQ+ people altogether. They want them criminalised, humiliated and gone. We've seen this many times before. Including, as Spiegelman notes in the interview above, by the Nazis, who attacked LGBTQ+ people first.

But why comics? Why again? What is it that frightens them so much about comics? 

I believe there are various reasons but it all comes down to the incredible power this medium that we love so much has. The unique mix of words and visuals on the page, where the reader, not the creator or anyone else, is in total control of the reading process.

In fiction, there are no visuals but the ones you make in your head. In theatre, the actors are on stage telling the story. In film, you can pause an image but otherwise, the film moves at 24 frames per second. You are not in control as a viewer. 

But in comics, you have a unique mix of words and visual where you, the reader, are in total control. You can choose the reading speed. You may stay with a panel for a long time, or quickly glance at it and absorb what's going while jumping to the next panel. You can focus on one detail or move to the previous panel and back to that detail. You can focus on one panel or look at the page as a whole.

You may in fact, look at more than one space and time in different panels at the same time while putting all of that together in your brain and constructing the sequence in your mind. 

And then, there something else. Spiegelman mentions the power of the image and the mix of words and pictures and how, when they combine, something magical happens. Not only do they have bigger impact at the moment of reading, but they stay with us longer. They stick in our mind.

There’s something about pictures. Pictures go straight into your brain, you can’t block them, right through your eyes. You see it, you can’t unsee it. With words, we’ve actually got to struggle to understand the word before you can be puzzled or surprised or enlightened by those words. 

... So basically, it’s because pictures are so strong, it’s words and pictures combined, they’re actually stronger than either one alone. And it’s easier to take information in and study. Unlike a movie, comics stand still. Art Spiegelman 2023

There's also the issue of their high popularity. Comic book sales have been growing and growing in the last few years. At libraries, we can also see how popular they are and how they get kids hooked to reading. Those kids that fill their bags with junior graphic novels and manga turn into life long readers who read a lot and read widely. And life long readers are dangerous you see?

Reading is dangerous for these radical conservative and religious types, because people who read are, generally, more empathetic and better informed. They cannot accept that. The idea of an informed, empathetic community frightens them because they cherish and thrive in an environment of fear and division.

Parents, psychiatrists, teachers, librarians, we were all complicit and active in banning books and comics in the 1950s. There's no denying it and no escaping from it. Thankfully, I'd like to think, that decades later we know better. I'm glad that librarians and teachers are defending comics, graphic novels and LGBTQ+ books from attacks these days. 

Yes, there are still pockets of people in education and libraries who are still prejudiced against comics as a medium. But, graphic novels, as we like to call them these days, are far more accepted and available. We know, that this is a literary art form with wide appeal and merit that we must defend and advocate for. It's up to all of us, we all need to go to our kids school and our public library ready to fight for them.

Comics are also very high circulating items in libraries with a great return on investment ratio. Graphic novel collections are among the best performing collections at public and school libraries, particularly Junior and YA graphic novels. In fact, I was at a library recently and the Junior Graphic Novels shelves looked really empty and sad. I talked to a librarian there and mentioned that it looked like they needed more. She smiled and agreed with me. Then, she proceeded to tell me that about 70% of the junior graphic novels were out on loan.

This is common place in a lot of libraries. Libraries who have a dedicated junior graphic novels section that is current and up to date suffer from this kind of success. Stand around the junior graphic novels after school or on the weekend and you'll see kids empty the shelves and fill bags. The same goes for YA graphic novels. Especially, YA manga.

In libraries and schools, we must talk about the benefits of comics as a medium and their literacy super powers. Comics are multimodal texts, where the reader must use multiple literacies to decode all the elements of the text and make meaning. Here's an example, following and adapting The New London model.

Comics model efficient, economic and concise writing. You can't have long chunks of text, so every word matters. Perhaps, this is why they also have a high incidence of rare words per 1000, which is higher than adult books.

Sadly, challenges to books and attempts at bans are no longer something that only happens in the USA. They've reached Australia and we cannot be complacent. Every library needs a graphic novels champion and we have to be prepared.

So activate your brain. In fact, light up your whole brain and read comics. Because reading comics, as you decode words and multiple visual elements, putting them together to make meaning, more of your brain lights up. This is a joy they can't take away from us. 

Share books and comics. Advocate for them and advocate for LGBTQ+ books and people.

I'd like to talk about Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer but I, deliberately, chose not to, as the book is still with the Australian Classification Review Board. We can talk about it when the decision's announced. And when I do, I should also talk about The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. It's a comic for adults and it's now banned in Queensland, but the live action TV series adaptation is available. Total nonsense.

But this blog post is long enough for now. Time to sign and out and read a comic.

This blog post initially stated that seven publications have been classified in 2023 so far, this was wrong and has now been amended to eleven publications, all of them comics, with added information.