Graphic Novels Bear Brunt of New Library Wars Over Access to Books
One of America's richest art forms suffers for seeming realer than other literature. But the war against "graphic imagery" is really a war against certain truths.
The current battles over what books are appropriate in public schools or libraries especially vex those who support an expansive culture of free expression—but who also understand political fights are inevitable when public funds support things parts of the public get angry about. The threat to expression from a decision by public librarians to not stock something or to restrict its access might be smaller than that from the state actively forbidding the availability of certain works anywhere.
Some politicians, though, lately insist on blurring the line between "public librarians making professional judgments" (even if under duress from an angry minority throwing vicious accusations) and using political force to restrict certain books because of their messages.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an official document earlier this year in which he straight-up advised citizens to bother local library boards to remove any material considered "sexually explicit" if in a children's collection (and to alert parents if any such material is available digitally), and to ask local authorities above them to order libraries to do so if that doesn't work.
Landry helpfully offered templates to help citizens gin up complaints about books to librarians and local and state officials. He even called on Louisianans to lobby the legislature to pass laws codifying his complaints about "sexually explicit materials." He's using his authority "to try to recruit citizens to change the law to give him more power to control speech. It's really shocking," says Jeff Trexler, interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Rather than being a mere executive branch official enforcing laws, Landry has made his office a lobbying machine to change laws and to encourage citizens to harass librarians over books they find objectionable—even naming nine books he wants them to complain about. (One-third of them are graphic novels, including Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a highly lauded graphic memoir about a lesbian cartoonist's troubled relationship with her gay father.)
Meanwhile in Texas, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause in October 2021 took it upon himself to mail school districts a list of 850 books, asking whether they were carrying them, and how much they paid for them (with the threat of investigations implied), with a further request they identify any book they carry that deals with, among other things, "human sexuality." The next month, Gov. Greg Abbott joined in with a vague demand that Texas school boards search and destroy undefined "pornographic or obscene material" in public school libraries.
As stated in an April 2022 lawsuit against the censorious library policies of Llano County, Texas, "the 850 books on the Krause List include famous and award-winning titles such as Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, as well as other fiction and nonfiction books related to sexuality, sex education, gender identity, racial equality, abortion, and teen pregnancy."
As that list indicates, while the concept of sexually charged material "harmful to minors" is in front of the new campaign against libraries, it's often, as the plaintiffs in that suit against Llano County argued, less a fight against objectively obvious smut and more "Viewpoint discrimination…censorship based on a government actor's subjective judgment that the content of protected speech is offensive or inappropriate" which is "the most pernicious and egregious type of content-based suppression."
These library fights are tied up with revived anxieties about race relations, gender roles and expression, and a frequently performative desire to protect children from actual sexual abuse or alleged "grooming." The American Library Association (ALA) found that "most" targeted books of the 1,597 titles challenged in 2021 were "by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ individuals."
PEN America noted in a detailed September 2022 report called "Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools" that 41 percent of banned books deal with LGBTQ characters or issues and 40 percent have major characters of color. In their estimation, only 22 percent "contain sexual content." One creator of a deliberately innocuous, in language and sex terms, 2019 graphic novel called New Kid about a black kid's experience, Jerry Craft, has nonetheless found his books challenged by aggrieved reactionaries, and temporarily removed from Katy, Texas, school libraries, for allegedly pushing "critical race theory." Craft insisted to the Washington Post he had to Google the term when he heard it.
The years 2021 and 2022, according to the ALA, saw the most public challenges to books' presence in libraries per year since they started tracking at the turn of the century. And PEN America estimates in "Banned in the USA" that "at least 40 percent of the bans counted in the Index of School Book Bans for the 2021–22 school year are connected to political pressure exerted by state officials or elected lawmakers. Some officials for example sent letters specifically inquiring into the availability of certain books in schools, such as occurred in Texas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina."
Lawmakers across the country have been taking the debate about books beyond librarians (who are, yes, also public officials using public funds) and putting their fingers on the scale with legal threats. They're also being pushed along by a squad of new citizen action groups, most prominently "Moms for Liberty."
Graphic Novel Fights Across the Nation
Missouri, for example, last summer passed a law imposing criminal penalties on library officials who let students see books with "explicit sexual material" which understandably led to hundreds of books being preemptively removed from libraries around the state.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's Jordan Smith observed that "the visual nature of comics and graphic novels has forced them to bear the burden of this bill. The standard 'works of art' [as an exception] seems only to apply to fine art. Graphic novels require the same consideration as prose when determining if they are a work of art and in some cases don't seem to be receiving that."
Indeed, Smith points out that graphic novel versions of famous prose works have been removed in cases where their sources have not, including "The Handmaid's Tale, American Gods, Crime and Punishment, and 1984. Yes, that 1984! Also removed from the school libraries were autobiographical and biographical materials, including Gender Queer, Fun Home, Maus, and A Dangerous Women: Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman."
Utah's May 2022 law H.B. 374 had already led, Smith reports, only a few months into the 2022–23 school year to "280 complaints about books….At the current rate, Utah has the potential of matching two-thirds of the challenges made nationally last year alone, a record-breaking year for book challenges in the United States." That law bans, Smith says, "essentially any depiction of nudity and/or sex. So regardless of the artistic value of the work as a whole, or intention of the work, the Miller Test [from the Supreme Court's 1973 decision laying the ground work for modern obscenity law] for obscenity is ignored; the book or graphic novel is automatically considered sensitive material and therefore unsuitable for any public school setting."
Under a bill that passed the Indiana Senate last month and is now being considered by a House committee, educators could face a Level 6 felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 2.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, for passing on "harmful" material to minors, with educational purposes no legal excuse. As Indiana state Sen. Jim Tomes told the Indiana Capital Chronicle, "I hope it's enough of a chilling effect that they will come to their senses, and have it upon themselves to see to it that for the kids entrusted in their custody, they will do their best to protect their innocence."
The Missouri law has not yet led to any prosecutions, which might be intentional, since the law's very existence has already helped to nix many of the books the lawmakers wanted nixed, without creating an opportunity for a constitutional legal challenge Missouri might lose. "The infringement of free speech and the patchwork nature of this bill leads me to believe it is in place solely to intimidate and control the material in the school system," Smith wrote in an analysis of Missouri's S.B. 775. Even without prosecutions, the CBLDF's Trexler said in March at a presentation at WonderCon in Anaheim, California, the law's very existence is designed to make "people to be so afraid of going to jail, for being arrested and having the stigma of being called a child pornographer."
And it's not like the new wave of laws about access to books never leads to legal action: According to PEN's "Banned in the USA," "criminal charges have been pursued against school officials and librarians in a number of cases in the past year. From Texas to Florida to North Carolina to Rhode Island, sheriffs have received complaints of the distribution of pornography in schools, among other charges. PEN America found at least 15 documented cases of criminal charges being filed or complaints being filled out regarding distribution of obscenity or pornographic material in public and school libraries during the 2021–22 school year."
Why Are Graphic Novels Particularly Targeted?
The most banned/challenged/removed book in America in the past two years is a 2019 graphic novel, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Yes, being a memoir of gender and sexual identity confusion by a born-woman who felt mostly asexual and not attached to either of the two standard gender roles painted a target on itself; but that it is a book-length story told through drawn images is central to why it is so often singled out.
Comics uniquely scramble the complex mental sense of abstraction necessary to the calm, measured, intelligent judgment of works of art or literature. Words, our minds seem to grasp, are not deeds or actions, are not the thing they discuss. But drawn images all too often perplex us into believing that representations of, say, sex acts are somehow the same thing, as fraught or powerful or damaging, as the acts themselves. (Kobabe's emotional journey is to some degree about her asexuality; the most sexual image is oral sex being performed on a dildo by one of her lovers.)
Trexler considers the Missouri bill essentially an "anti-Gender Queer" bill, insisting in an interview that "the bill's main sponsor very openly wanted to target that." One reason, Trexler thinks, is that the occasional disconnected shocking image from it or other graphic novels "plays well on YouTube and Twitter and TikTok" to gin up vital social media outrage to the benefit of the pressure groups pushing for more library restrictions.
Gender Queer had a major victory last August in Virginia, when a lawsuit to have it presumptively declared obscene in the state failed, for many complicated reasons related to the law under which the suit was brought, but partially because Virginia Circuit Judge Pamela S. Baskervill thought the plaintiff did not prove that the book was obscene under ruling U.S. doctrine, which requires a balanced consideration of the full work's possible "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." In a plaintiff's filings in the case, Trexler pointed out, he tried to revive old discredited psychology articles from the original 1940s anti-comics scare that implied that comics were inherently more psychologically damaging to children than prose books.
As Trexler explained in an email, "It's easy to dismiss this as a careless reference to long-dismissed research from the height of the mid-century comic book scare – which it is – but there's also something more significant happening here that we're seeing nationwide. Graphic novel challenges are using the contemporary concern for children's mental health as grounds for restricting access to books.
"Back in the '40s and '50s, the primary concern was that comics were turning kids into juvenile delinquents," Trexler says. "Now, it's avoiding trauma, preventing addiction, and keeping kids from suffering other psychological harm. A particularly telling example of this: when Leander, Texas school officials decided to place restrictions on certain books until students had access to a sufficient number of staff counselors."
Very old prejudices against comics as a form are thus being revived in this debate, "a perception that graphic novels are sub literate and that the fusion of word and image in a still picture in a graphic novel creates problems mentally," Trexler said at a panel at WonderCon. He considers the root of the current wave of library censorship and segregation of comics in essence "a battle not just against specific books, but against graphic novels."
The Skewed Politics of Public Morality
These moral arguments about innocence violated are political; the forced imposition of one group's will over the entire community that uses the library.
Groups like Moms for Liberty bringing to bear their national goals for restricting certain types of books can override any percentage of local citizens who prefer not to see books barred from their library, especially if they spook library professionals with accusations of being, in essence, sexual abusers of children by letting certain books remain in libraries, or in certain sections of one. (A March 2022 ALA survey found 71 percent of Americans oppose such politicized removals.)
PEN America finds in "Banned in the USA" that around half of successful book challenges in the 2021–22 school year were the result of such activist groups—not just disconnected upset parents—asserting that the new wave of library anger is "the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission." Most of these groups came into existence in the past two years, and they "employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about 'grooming' and 'pornography,' and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians."
Their actual effects are more often political in a more niggling way than the drama of men with guns dragging librarians away: often these new local and state laws or processes aimed at alleged library smut just gin up lots of bureaucratic creation of teams and councils and ex officio members responding to complaints by writing reports defending their belief that some given graphic novel is or is not tantamount to the crime of actual child pornography, with tons of busywork and endless public meetings for librarians and local officials, with the ever-present threat of being called a child pornmonger in local papers or civic meetings hanging over every interaction.
Even the most censorial parent must know that getting a work they object to out of a library, school or public, is no certain protection of their kids' innocence in our highly wired world where any removed book—or much worse—is a click away. But this whole movement isn't about actually eliminating children's access to the things they dislike or think are bad for them: it's about the civic signal that certain ideas held by certain people are just not welcome in their community, with ideas such as gender confusion, homosexuality, or that black people in America have historically and/or currently faced a lot of barriers of prejudice and abuse leading the pack of forbidden notions.
Comics uniquely disrupt subtle distinctions and allow you to not think about meaning, implication, or context; images make it seem like the thing is right there, hitting your retina not as a concept but as a felt reality. Drawn images can seem less like ideas—which they are, same as words—and more like a thing itself, whether delightful, disgusting, or feared. We know that it's not, when we think about it. Censors, trying mostly to keep certain ideas and ways of life out of children's heads, are given a useful weapon by this illusion of reality that comics convey more than prose.
As Moni Barrette, president of the ALA's Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable, explains in an email, some of the current war on comics is rooted in often silly category errors like believing that the term "graphic" in "graphic novel" just inherently means inappropriately intense sexual images, or that all comics are inherently meant for kids, even ones like Gender Queer which she stresses no competent librarian would have put in a children's section. (Surely the notion that nothing meant for adults should be in a library that also has sections for children is self-evidently absurd.)
But beyond confusion or prejudice about comics in general, these days "Comics written by or about LGBTQIA+ (often labeled 'sexually explicit' even if it's literally 2 queer characters existing in the background of a story) and BIPOC populations (incorrectly lauded as pushing critical race theory) and teaching students how to exercise their own political or bodily rights," Barrette says, are the ones most targeted. "Once you understand the much higher likelihood of any books being banned for including these topics, you start to see the full agenda behind the bans."