Home Conventions C2E2 C2E2 ‘21: Standing Up For What’s Right: The Fight Against Comics Censorship

C2E2 ‘21: Standing Up For What’s Right: The Fight Against Comics Censorship

A panel of librarians and legal scholars discuss the many recent challenges to comics, and how best to combat censorship.

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By Cy Beltran

Saturday at C2E2 is always one of the most packed days: school’s out, most people are off from work, and the majority of celebrities show up to the con. Because of this, it can be hard to get to everything you want by the end of the day and certain panels get priority over others. This is why I think a lot of people missed out on one of the most important panels of the weekend: “Prepare to Defend Your Comics/Graphic Novels/Manga and Anime,” dedicated to discussing comics censorship.

The panel, moderated by lawyer and CBLDF interim director (and occasional Beat commentator) Jeff Trexler, was an in-depth discussion between Kristin Pekoll, Ronell Whitaker, and Jarrett Dapier on censorship within the comics community. More specifically, it was a conversation about the way librarians and teachers are struggling to fight against the attempts at censorship coming their way from parents and the need for comics literacy to stand united.

(L to R) Jarrett Dapier, Kristin Pekoll, Ronell Whitaker, Jeff Trexler

After Trexler gave a brief history of the fight against censorship, Whitaker, a school administrator, summed up the basics of the battle in two parts. The first piece is that educators routinely have to fight for the validity of comics, with some groups not believing comics are real books (they are). The second part is that, after comics are accepted, some people then use those comics to show how they influence children the wrong way by “turning” them progressive. Pekoll, a librarian, brought up that Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe was recently banned by some school districts for allegedly doing just that. 

Dapier, also a librarian and a children’s author, said that for the people banning these books, there’s “an underlying trauma that the person is not processing, [so] they use comics as a scapegoat.” He went on to say that, just as with the 1950s and 1980s, we are living in a period of peak inflection and anxiety, and those anxieties are coming out against things that aren’t in lock-step with the more conservative values of America.

Dapier also tied this concept into accessibility and how transforming a work of literature into comics means that “more people might have access to [different ideas],” a concept that he said scares conservative groups across the country. In some cases, librarians and teachers have been threatened with arrest for sharing certain books, which Trexler clarified was because people were abusing outdated codes in the places they lived. 

As the panel went on, it became clear that the group was under the same general consensus about the issue, which Whitaker was able to articulate for the audience: It’s ok for parents to ban their own kid from reading books they’re not comfortable with their child reading. But that can’t apply to every kid in an entire district. That’s not their business and it isn’t their right to make that decision unilaterally. 

The panelists also discussed a couple recent incidents of censorship in the area. Dapier talked about how the hate group known as the Proud Boys showed up to a school council meeting and harassed a bunch of high schoolers. Pekoll brought up the story of a parent who was accused of pedophilia after they voiced their opinion against a book being banned. Pekoll told the audience that because of that, she believed the best way for books to stay in the classroom was for students to stand up for them on their own, regardless of how terrifying it may be.

Thankfully, there is a way to avoid comics being censored. Dapier said that school libraries should have an open process by which books are submitted for censorship. If those processes are not already in place, Dapier suggested that schools should implement them, so if a single administration attempts to pull a book outright from circulation, the district and their librarians can hold open forums with the people of the district to decide if the book will truly be pulled from shelves.

A woman in the audience commented that, as a librarian herself, it would be nice for graphic novels to have a rating system that would make it easier for librarians to decide what books are appropriate for their schools. Trexler explained the complicated system Marvel and DC currently have in place, since both companies have different understandings of maturity within their books. 

The panel debated briefly their opinions on that system and what should be done about it, coming to the conclusion that, while ratings are completely subjective (as with the CCA and the MPAA’s film ratings), it could be helpful for comics publishers to mention if there was explicit content in the books. But, as Dapier and Whitaker made clear, this wouldn’t be a full ranking system, but a warning for certain scenes in books that may be more appropriate for older readers.

Dapier recalled a time when he was supposed to read his book, Mr. Watson’s Chickens, to a group of students. The book features casual, positive queer representation, and Dapier was politely asked not to read the book at all because the school was worried about offending certain parents.

While many of the challenges to comics have come from the conservative side, the panelists also discussed how censorship can come from more progressive leaning educators. Some schools (and writers even) are self-censoring in attempts to avoid the potential for censorship in the first place. 

Pekoll cited that “82-97% of reports/incidents [of censorship] were not reported” in her school district. She also said that she used to get 3-5 complaints of censorship a week, but was now receiving 8-10 everyday. Trexler, winding things down, told the audience that in situations like the one Pekoll was dealing with it’s not just panelists, it’s not just experts, it’s all of [the audience]” that can help stand up to censorship

You can follow all of the above panelists at the following handles: Kristin Pekoll (@kpekoll, @oif on Twitter), Jarrett Dapier (@jarrettdapier on Instagram), Ronell Whitaker (@readingwithpix @wearelix on Twitter and @thecomicbookteacher on Instagram), and Jeff Trexler (cbldf.org and @cbldf on Twitter and Instagram)

Miss any of our previous C2E2 ’21 coverage? Find it all here!

Updated 12/15 to clarify some of Jarrett Dapier’s statements.

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