By Gabriel Neeb
They’ve been popping up since the mid-2000s. A few people with signs telling us that the sinners are going to Hell and that we should repent. Maybe not the same people, but usually the same sentiment, and sometimes they change the signs.
A couple of times at this convention, they brought bullhorns to tell us to accept the Lord Jesus Christ. The muted sound of this even drifted across Harbor Boulevard and made its way into Room 4 for the panel “Banned Comics: Old Problems in New Forms.”
Inspired by the ethics of Will Eisner, moderator Danny Fingeroth welcomed Comic Book Legal Defense Fund founder Denis Kitchen, Pasadena College of Art professor Michael Dooley, BONE creator Jeff Smith, New Kid creator Jerry Craft, and interim CBLDF director Jeff Trexler to discuss the censorship of comics in the United States in 2022. Fingeroth began the panel by stating that comics are under a threat not seen in decades.
Jerry Craft agreed. His graphic novel New Kid won a Newberry Award–the first graphic novel to do so… and it made news. Not for that, but for a possible Zoom session with some of the students in the Katy, TX school district. Jeff Smith has found that his series BONE has been one of the most “challenged” books in the last few years.
Fingeroth asked the panel if censorship had changed? Kitchen began answering this by saying that it used to originate from the religious right but now it was coming from the progressive left. This provoked an immediate response from Jeff Trexler. The CBLDF has been seeing cases of people, usually teachers, getting in trouble for teaching underground comics icon Robert Crumb’s material. Smith agreed and noted that right-wing efforts have been far more insidious and organized than anything from the left. As Smith had spent yesterday on panels with librarians, they’d told stories about how much they’re under attack. Trexler reinforced this by discussing Virginia’s efforts to ban books considered “gender-queer” titles not just in schools, but for commercial sale in nation retailer Barnes and Noble. He mentioned this as he was scheduled to file a brief in opposition to Virginia’s law.
The right is using the age of potential consumers as an impetus to propel these laws through a questionable reading of the Ginsberg vs New York decision from 1968 as a way to describe obscenity. The panel then turned to Jerry Craft’s experience with Katy, Texas. Craft was scheduled to give a talk via Zoom to school children on New Kid. However, in the weeks leading up to it, reports started flooding in about “problems” with the material. How this could be as Craft made efforts to keep New Kid family friendly so everyone could read it. Then the school board canceled the Zoom session. To their credit, they then read the book, decided it was not a harbinger of CRT (a common right-wing target), and rebooked the Zoom session for a later date. In the meantime, a petition against New Kid gathered 400 signatures. The response petition gathered 3000 signatures.
At least then. Craft noted that right-wingers are, more and more, finding ways to get themselves on the school boards where they can make these decisions. Moving on, Fingeroth asked if graphic novels are treated differently than prose. Trexler replied with a simple “Yes.” He’s seen a few instances where the graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was banned, while the original novel was unmentioned. Kitchen mentioned that, historically, comics were seen as something that “rots your brain.” Trexler agreed but noted that comics are targeted because they’re being used more and more as teaching tools.
Which leads us to Zoom.
Trexler posited that with a lot of instruction happening online, comics became more of a target as parents could actually see the instruction up close. It’s more than that of course. Smith recounted some of the reasons used to attempt to ban BONE, “political viewpoints” and depiction of tobacco use, but also noted that some cases of attempts to ban books like March or New Kid are outright racism.
The question of what to do closed out the panel. “FIGHT BACK!” The solution isn’t as simple as making a donation to the CBLDF or the ACLU, but getting involved in local elections and meetings. Many of the enemies of free speech even treat or wilt when asked, “Have you read it?” by some of the librarians under siege by right-wingers. As Kitchen said, “Censorship is censorship no matter where it comes from.
Head to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website here.
Miss any of The Beat’s earlier SDCC ’22 Coverage? Find it all here!