Graphic novels, which use comic-book like graphics and dialogue balloons to address sometimes adult themes, are the latest front in what has been called the library wars.
The Marshall Public Library in central Missouri recently pulled two such books from shelves pending formulation of an acquisition policy for new books after a patron filed a complaint.
Time reviewer Andrew Arnold called Craig Thompson’s 2003 Blankets, a 592-page illustrated semi-autobiography about straying from his abusive fundamentalist Christian upbringing, a “great American novel.” Another reviewer called it “stunningly effective.” Another: “a treasure trove of image and word, to be savored by those in the know and neglected by those who won’t appreciate its brilliance and beauty.”
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a memoir about her funeral director father’s death and closeted homosexuality, received worldwide acclaim after coming out this spring. A respected book columnist said it deserves the Pulitzer Prize.
Louise Mills, who brought both books to the attention of the Marshall library’s board and filed paperwork to have them removed, says they are smut.
“Does this community want our public library to continue to use tax dollars to purchase pornography?” she asked at a public hearing before the library’s board of trustees Oct. 4.
“We may as well purchase the porn shop down at the junction and move it to Eastwood,” Mills said, according to the Marshall Democrat-News. “Some day this library will be drawing the same clientele,” Mills said. “I sincerely hope the board will listen to the community. Let’s not contribute to the delinquency of minors.”
Such local squabbles are nothing new. The American Library Association says more than a book a day is challenged in schools and libraries in the United States. Famous banned books range from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to books by Judy Blume, Stephen King and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
The new twist is the genre, one of the fastest-growing segments of the publishing industry.
People who still believe comic books are mainly for kids worry that young teenagers will be unwittingly exposed to content that is too mature.
“My concern does not lie with the content of the novels,” Mills said at the hearing. “Rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community.”
Also, illustrating grown-up themes like faith/doubt and sexuality with drawings that can feature nudity or sexual content for some make them too hot for the local library.
Defenders of the books say that is nothing more than prejudice against a new style. Similar debates occurred when libraries began introducing new media like videotapes and Internet access.
Sales of graphic novels have tripled in the last five years, building their status as serious literature.
One, Maus, a Holocaust memoir by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese this year became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.
Amy Crump, who took over as director of the Marshall Public Library two years ago, added graphic novels as a way to build up the library’s offerings for young adults. After Mills complained, the library board decided to remove the books while a committee develops guidelines for selecting materials to be purchased for inclusion in the library’s collection.
Crump said she welcome the conversation, but some criticized the library for removing the books before the issue could be resolved.
“I just hope that no one decides to file the paperwork to protest the Bible being on the shelves at the Marshall Public Library,” Chuck Mason, editor of the local newspaper, said in an editorial protesting the decision.
“It contains sex, violence, adultery, lust, murder, greed, avarice and descriptions of lifestyles to which some individuals might object,” Mason said. “It just doesn’t have the pictures.”
The Missouri Baptist Convention weighed in with an article in the convention newspaper urging churchgoers to pray for the library’s board and e-mail them if they oppose the books. For good measure, The Pathway added: “In the summer of 2005, the library hosted a Pagan Pride Festival in a neighboring town. However, through prayers and the witness of a former pagan, the festival was a bust with less than 100 in attendance.” (Editor’s Note: Two weeks later the newspaper issued a correction, noting the library only allowed a flyer to be displayed but was unconnected to the festival.)
The Marshall Public Library scheduled a series of meetings to discuss and develop a new materials selection policy. A meeting scheduled Nov. 30 was canceled due to weather. Crump said in an e-mail the group would continue to meet Thursdays at 5 p.m. until the policy is ready for presentation to the library board.
This isn’t the first controversy over shelving graphic novels. Manga: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett was removed from several libraries in San Bernardino, Calif., for its treatment of adult comics that depict sex and violence.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that images, like words, are protected by the First Amendment as symbolic expression, those advocating removal of graphic novels say the issue isn’t censorship but instead what taxpayers are willing to fund.
“If it shouldn’t be on a billboard on I-70, it shouldn’t be in a public library,” one speaker said at the public hearing before the Marshall library board.
The American Library Association has endorsed guidelines for librarians that include separate shelving for graphic materials intended for adults and those for young adults and children and about how to respond to complaints.
The Marshall library board already updated its policies to encourage parents and children to use the library together. The policy said while library staff will respond with care and concern to children, the responsibility for their welfare and behavior ultimately belongs to parents.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.