Banned Books, Questions of Genre, & (Re)Learning to Love Our Graphic Novels

I came across Lynn Neary’s article, “Too Graphic? 2014 Banned Books Week Celebrates Challenged Comics“, on WYPR’s website this morning, and couldn’t wait to share it here. (I’ve always had a deep fascination for all things to do with book-banning, as may be obvious from my URL: howlinghowl, a small tribute to my favorite (and once-banned) poet, Allen Ginsberg.) Neary not only gives a succinct and interesting look into the continued controversies surrounding the business of banning books, but also highlights some important changes currently hitting the graphic novel and comics genre. Namely, that graphic novels and comics are now being considered more and more as a branch of capital-L Literature (hooray!) and as works that can be used for educational and/or socially meaningful purposes (huzzah!).

Art, such as what we find in many graphic novels and comics today, isn’t something that can be neatly defined (no matter what our friends in the marketing world would prefer us to believe ;-p). I’m teasing in that aside, but only partially. I don’t mean to throw shade on my marketing pals, but we’d be naive if we didn’t admit to ourselves that, in large part, genres and categories exist because they makes things easier to package, organize, and sell. And really, this isn’t a bad thing either. Genres and categories and lists aren’t inherently bad–it’s only when they’re used to exclude and marginalize works of art that they become real problems. For years, artists have been punished for not fitting neatly into any one category or for seeming to fit too well into a category that’s poorly thought of or often misunderstood (such as, for a long time now, the graphic novels and comics genre). Because of how easily genres-labels like literary fiction, flash fiction, graphic novels/comics can be sub-labeled/packaged as “literature”, “trash”, “high literature”, “obscenity”, or “fluff”, it’s imperative that we, as readers (as well as artists), continuously revisit for ourselves how we’re using these terms and how we’re allowing them to act upon and influence our actions.

In appreciation and celebration of graphic novels and comics that I personally love, I’d like to provide a brief list here of some of my favorites, and ask that you please also share some of your favorites in the comments section.

Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf: A Sex Education Comic Book
This comic book is easily one of the best and most meaningful pieces of art that I’ve ever encountered. On its face, it sounds goofy–perhaps even salacious. But as soon as you crack the spine, you’ll realize that this work is actually incredibly gritty, honest, educational, painful, and beautiful. It’s a visionary compilation of comics and art submitted by people from all over the country (possibly the world) that tackle issues of sex and sexuality in a wide array of ways both funny and sad.
book-cover meatloaf

Mount Vernon Ink: Hippo Comics
I must admit that this is actually something of a personal project. I never contributed any art, writing, editing, or storylines to these comics. I was, however, the Service-Learning Liaison that worked to facilitate the relationship between Dr. Philip Troutman’s class (Serious Comix) and their nonprofit partner, Safe Shores: The DC Children’s Advocacy Center, when they were first getting things started. All the same, I feel compelled to share these student comic books here not because of my past affiliation with the course, but because I believe these comics serve as a fantastic example of what art can do for the world and especiallyof the impact that young artists can have on their community. You don’t need to be Neil Gaiman to make waves with your art.
brothers keeper

And speaking of Neil Gaiman…

The Sandman
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Gaiman for his beautiful The Sandman series. I’m a reader that came comparatively late to the world of graphic novels and comics, and so one of the most influential reads for me in this respect was The Sandman. It’s beautiful, fascinating, well-written, powerful, thought-provoking, eerie–the list goes on and on. If you haven’t read it yet, get over to your local bookstore now and get reading.
the sandman

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics is a terrific read not only for the insights he provides on the inner-workings of the art and industry, but for the inventive beauty and style that McCloud employs. McCloud proves in this work just how diverse an artform comics and graphic novels are and how they can be used for both educational and entertainment purposes.
understanding comics

Hark! A Vagrant
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, Kate Beaton, for these tremendous, feminist, literature-inspired comics. Your work is hilarious, cathartic, valuable, and well-loved.
hark a vagrant

Lumberjanes from Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Brooke Allen–I haven’t read you yet, but I love what I’ve heard and you’re next on my list.

So, whether you’re banned, challenged, or just a sufferer of genre-prejudice, hang in there! You’ve got readers out here who love you!

Further Readings:

American Library Association’s list of challenged and banned books

Comic Book Resources: List of 15 Feminist Comics

Banned Books Week

Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants getting challenged!


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