Since last week was technically Banned Books week, I’m a bit belated in celebrating but I wanted to take some time in Graphic Reviews to talk about some fantastic graphic novels that have been banned for one reason or another. All stupid, as cases of censorship generally are. Since 1982, the American Library Association has celebrated Banned Books week in the last week of September as a way of bringing awareness to challenges against the freedom to read which they consider a universal right. During this week, libraries across the country host events and displays making their patrons aware of books which have been challenged in the past. In almost every case, the books are banned because they are seen as a threat to younger readers, particularly teens. Banning books for this reason is remarkably short sighted since as Neil Gaiman put it when his Sandman series was challenged, “I suspect that having a reputation as adult material that’s unsuitable for teens will probably do more to get teens to read Sandman than having the books ready and waiting on the YA shelves would ever do.” In an effort to not only (belatedly) celebrate Banned Books week but also bring attention to some fantastic books, I’ll be looking at three of my favorite banned graphic novels and the reasons why they have been considered unsuitable reading material. So in no particular order, here they are!
Bone – written and illustrated by Jeff Smith
Bone is the story of three cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone who are run out of their home town of Boneville after Phoney Bone pulls one too many shady business schemes. The three Bones are drawn into the middle of a growing confrontation between a wooded village and the enigmatic Lord of Locusts who, along with its rat creature minions, is plotting something that appears to be less than savory. The story becomes a sprawling epic spanning nine volumes and is full of humor, action and heart. It’s clearly written at a juvenile/teen level and is near and dear to many younger readers’ hearts.
Unfortunately, Bone has faced numerous challenges due to the depiction of smoking and drinking by some of the characters in the story as well as charges of racism and horror. All of this is patently ridiculous. At no point is drinking or smoking celebrated or promoted, it simply exists. Because *gasp* some people actually enjoy doing those things. Their mere presence should not mean that they scar or inhibit the growth of younger readers. It’s an opportunity for parents to have a conversation with kids rather than just banning a great series based on the presence of something they don’t approve of. I also tend to side with Smith on the charge of racism: “I have no idea what book these people read. After fielding these and other charges for a while now, I’m starting to think such outrageous accusations (really, racism?) say more about the people who make them than about the books themselves.”
If you’re an avid comic reader, Bone may be a little tame for your tastes (depending on what you like) but it’s a cute, funny epic that deserves the adoration that it’s garnered since its release in 2005. If you want a fun little fantasy story that will make you laugh, go pick up Bone!
Maus – written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman
Maus is the story of a young man trying to learn about his father’s past as a Polish Jew who managed to survive the Holocaust. The story is written in alternate parts with sections dealing with the (sometimes rocky) relationship between the father and son and the father’s stories of the past. Besides being a challenging and heart rending read about a particularly terrible time in history, Spiegelman chose to illustrate the various groups (Poles, Jews and Germans) as different animals which adds an interesting perspective to the story and helps to make it an easier read than a more realistic portrayal really could have.
The fact that Maus has been challenged or banned is a punch to the gut. It’s like learning that the Diary of Anne Frank has been banned for being “too depressing.” (Horrifyingly 100% true) Maus was challenged by a Polish American reader at a library in Florida because he disliked that the Poles were illustrated as pigs. Apparently he believed that because the book made him uncomfortable, no one should be allowed to read it. This kind of censorship has always seemed to be height of stupidity to me. I don’t particularly like Rush Limbaugh but I’m not gonna run out and prevent anyone from reading his books. It’s particularly egregious considering the prestige that Maus has brought to the graphic novel world. It was one of the first graphic novels that caused a general audience to regard them more seriously and was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer in 1992. The fact that it was challenged is frankly a travesty.
Maus is one of those must-read graphic novel stories. Don’t care who you are or what your opinion of the medium is, Maus is an incredibly important story that deserves all the attention and praise it’s received. If you haven’t read it yet, it belongs on your TBR list!
Saga – written by Brian K Vaughn and illustrated by Fiona Staples
Saga is a brilliant science fiction epic that frankly has it all. Focusing on the forbidden love between two people from opposite sides in a civil war, it follows their struggles to raise their daughter and defend their little family from those who want to rip it apart as the traitorous union that they believe it to be. The series is certainly on the racy side and doesn’t shy from topics like sex, violence and homosexual relationships along with the more traditional star crossed lovers elements. Staples’ gorgeous illustrations bring the various planets and creatures to glorious life and it’s a story not to be missed by anyone who can handle a little violence and sexual content.
While I’m inherently against the banning or challenging of any book (because censorship sucks), I find this one more understandable than the previous two. Saga has been challenged (unsurprisingly) on the grounds of not being suitable for a teen age group due to the sexual content and violence as well as a less understandable desire to prevent teens from seeing anything even remotely homosexual. Again, this is one of those cases where censorship makes no sense. Feel free to provide parental guidance all you like to your own children, but it doesn’t mean you get to decide what every teen reads.
The sexual content and violence in Saga means that I can’t universally recommend it but it is one of those series that makes me wax lyrical. It’s a brilliantly written love story set against a backdrop of an intense science fiction civil war and pushes all kinds of uncomfortable buttons in the aim of challenging readers. The artwork is flat out stunning and it’s hard not to bubble over with enthusiasm every time I talk about it. If you get a chance and don’t mind the racier sides of the series, it’s definitely worth picking up!
As may have become obvious over the course of this article, I love Banned Books week. It brings to the attention of the general public just how stupid these attempts at censorship really are. The freedom to read anything and everything is something that everyone should always be able to depend upon and I’m damned proud of the ALA for always defending it. Censorship is an attack on the freedom of the individual and reveals an arrogance that will always astound me. While I’ll allow for parental guidance, the idea of prohibiting anyone from reading something really grinds my gears. It is an incredibly ineffective way of getting someone not to read something you don’t like and it completely eliminates all chance of conversation. Be okay with being uncomfortable, challenge yourself and go pick up as many banned books as you can get your hands on!
And if you want to check out more banned graphic novels, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has a full list here!