Charles Brownstein gives the same gift whenever a friend or family member’s child turns 10—a volume of Jeff Smith’s graphic novel Bone. It’s not a careless, one-size-fits-all kind of gift. Quite the opposite. As executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and a member of the steering committee for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week (Sept. 21-27), Brownstein is an expert in his field and a big fan of the book. He has also seen Bone removed from schools and libraries, something he can’t quite understand.
“Bone is a great story,” he says. “It just has a lot of really great things to say about coming of age, and it’s appalling that there are people that want to take away the opportunity for families to have those conversations about the material in that book.”
The book doesn’t seem a likely target for censorship. The three characters at the center of the story, Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone, are cousins in an epic adventure, far from their home of Boneville. They are innocuous-looking creatures, white and round, heavily influenced in design by Walt Kelly’s Pogo series. Their world is filled with inventive characters, beautiful and strange, and the cousins have to work together to make their way through it.
The Bone series is published by Scholastic, which will release Bone #1: Out from Boneville, The Tribute Edition next February to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Scholastic Graphix imprint. Brownstein calls the book “internationally beloved.” It was No. 10 on the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom’s 10 most challenged books in 2013; Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series and E.L. James’ erotic Fifty Shades of Grey have also made the list. Bone has been challenged in schools from Texas to Minnesota, in part because characters are sometimes seen drinking or smoking.
“The first [challenge] came about, that I was aware of, back in 2010,” says Brownstein, citing a case in which the CBLDF stepped in. “A Minnesota parent petitioned to remove the series from her son’s school library because she believed that the book promoted an image of drinking and smoking and undesirable lifestyles. Since then, it’s popped up on the most frequently banned book list in Texas, it’s popped up this year on the national list. It’s really something that has happened dozens of times at this point.”
“I don’t know why Bone is challenged as much as it is,” says Smith, who recently joined the CBLDF’s board of directors. “It’s a pretty traditional American all-ages comic.” He’s amused by some of the challenges, including one that took issue with violent content. “The Bones, if you’ve actually read the book,” he says, laughing, “their reaction to any kind of danger is just to run away.”
Pop culture has undergone a number of sea changes since 1954, when a consortium of publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and started developing the regulations of the Comics Code Authority. In a time when The Walking Dead book has inspired the hit series on AMC and an empire of merchandise, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when publishers voluntarily banned the words “horror” and “terror” from book covers. Under the Comics Code, books had to print a seal of approval on the cover. The seal was a symbol of self-censorship and protection—displaying it indicated the content had already been screened by the CMAA and contained no objectionable material.
“Publishers felt backed into a corner where they had to self-regulate or face government regulation. And so it was this business self-preservation tool that developed and that had an immediate, crippling effect on a broad variety of content,” Brownstein says. “I think it took a good 50 years to overcome the basic stigmas that the code imposed, that comics are a disreputable medium that is either suitable to the youngest or dimmest of audiences or to real malcontents or delinquents.
The code became decreasingly relevant through the decades as comics and graphic novels moved from newsstands to dedicated comics shops. But it wasn’t officially rescinded until 2011, when only Archie Comics and D.C. were still on board. The seal wound up becoming the intellectual property of the CBLDF, and they now use it in promotional and fundraising efforts. Brownstein considers the history of the seal a “teachable moment,” applicable beyond the purview of comics and graphic novels to media such as music and video games. “That story is still very much active, and we’re still in great danger of harming creative expression in other media,” he says. “And looking at the increases in challenges to comics and graphic novels, we’re not quite out of the woods in terms of being concerned about moral panic affecting our content even today.”
The CBLDF works on two separate fronts, helping to promote free access to books like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel in schools and libraries and fighting for the First Amendment rights of comics and graphic novels in court. Legal cases often end up centered around sexually explicit materials, often in the manga genre. Brownstein says the CBLDF has been dealing with “a freakishly large outbreak of attacks on summer reading” this year on the schools and libraries front, and on the legal front, “we’ve had about a half dozen so far this year of brush fires where individuals are facing investigation by authorities for the content of the materials that they’re browsing.” He reports the CBLDF has been able to keep all of the legal cases from going to court.
Part of the problem has been the perception that comics and graphic novels are just for younger audiences and thus not serious art. That attitude has changed, but there is still work to be done. “We need to treat comics as literature,” says Smith, “and they deserve the same First Amendment protection as any book.”
The CBLDF is also a sponsoring organization for Banned Books Week, which is spotlighting graphic novels in its 2014 campaign. They create materials for schools and libraries to educate people about censorship and comics. “We published a 16-page Banned Book Weeks handbook that has already exceeded 20,000 pieces in circulation,” says Brownstein. “And this outlines what the issues are behind Banned Books Week; it outlines some of the more frequently banned and challenged comics and discusses the case studies.”
The censorship discussion may have changed, but it is ongoing, and if there is one thing Brownstein would like the public at large to learn from Banned Books Week, it’s this: “That the freedom to read is an essential American right, and it’s one that should not be taken for granted,” he says. “Banned Books Week is an opportunity to increase our dialogue about freedom of speech and why it continues to matter to us in the modern era.”
Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer based in Boston covering the arts for Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, BDCWire.com, TheSpitTake.com and other publications.