I attended a very interesting panel on comics and censorship my third day at ALA. Moderator Robin Brenner, YA librarian at the Brookline Public library in Boston and comic/manga knowledge extraordinaire talked with Brian Azzarello, Carol Tilley, Charles Brownstein, Gene Yang and Raina Telgemeier. I was in particular excited to hear from Carol Tilley, who if you don't recall, recently caused quite a stir by doing extensive research on Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, a book with a huge impact on the comic book industry, and found that he had falsified his research.
Carol Tilley started out by reading a letter from an 11 year old on why comics aren't making people do bad thing. It was a letter that had been sent to Fredric Wertham. Part of Carol's research involved finding the children who sent letters to Wertham. Carol gave some history of comics. She talked about how in the 1950s, most comics were not designed with children in mind, but rather adult males returning from war. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent linked comic book reading and juvenile delinquency. The book had a huge impact and crippled the comics industry. Supernatural beings, misbehaving children, bad language and more were no longer allowed. Many publishing companies folded completely, and there were much less comics and readers. And then it turned out that much of Wertham's research was either made up or taken from studies he had not done himself.
Robin asked the panel if they still run into this attitude, that comics are "bad" or leading the youth of American astray. Charles Brownstein, executive director of Comic Book League Defense Fund said that it's really only recently that comic are have gotten to a place where you can speak openly about the value they have. This was not accepted before. Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese and Power Up, noted that things are pretty awesome now compared to how they were before. Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile and Drama praised the book industry for allowing comics to become legitimate and for publisher taking on comics. There's still a lot of work to do though. Brian Azzarello, writer for DC on such comics as Superman and Batman said he use to have to explain what he did for a living and was met with confused looks. Now everyone thinks it's cool. There's mainstream recognition. Carol said there's still cultural prejudice against bringing in "floppies" - softcover comics - into the library. Libraries are better but there is still work to do.
Robin enquired if the authors on the panel have any kind of internal code of what they do or do not put into their comics. Raina says the code is her mother. Gene freely admits that he's kind of "prudy." "I haven't drawn a nipple yet, not even a male nipple." More seriously, Gene talked about when you have something, such as a nipple in your comic, that's going to be the focus for a lot of readers and everything else fades into the background. If he wants to make the reader notice something he makes the other stuff kind of muted. Brian's work is for mature readers, so he has less of a "code." He did mention that Wonder Woman, which he wrote, ending up on a YALSA list totally destroyed his cred.
The authors also talked about what they feel they still have to explain to people about comics. People don't understand the process that goes into making them, and how extensive and time consuming it is. Raina often has to try to explain to children why they can't have a new one right away. To a kids saying "I want it now!" she said, "Well, you also wanted to meet me, and here I am in front of you and that's slowing me down a bit." There's also a genre bias. When you say you make comics, people assume superheroes.
Carol discussed how she still has to explain to readers and librarians how "graphic novel" does not mean explicit. She thinks we should just call them comics. Charles said that people are incredulous that there are still problems and challenges in the comic book world.
Robin brought up how often the content of a comic book would be OK if it was in prose, but it's too much in images. People seem more nervous about it. Raina mentioned how it's easy to open a comic to one page and read it out of context and get upset. Images are powerful and immediate. This speaks to just how powerful comics can be.
For final thoughts, Carol asks librarians to make sure they know how to read comics, and when choosing comics, make sure they've read the whole thing. Understand they are not just for a particular demographic. Charles asks librarians not to discount people who bring challenges to comics. We shouldn't reject people who have a particular emotional response to something and should take the time to bring more understanding to the material. Gene says that sometimes people are annoyed because they think the reading level doesn't match the content level. Raina agrees. Drama has a second grade reading level, but it's not for second graders. Brian says he mostly hears from people saying how he's screwed up their favorite characters.