Comic books have a long, storied history when it comes to censorship. Initially a disposable medium for children, comics would gain popularity with soldiers during World War II. A growing adult readership led to more mature, insidious content. However, it was not until 1954 that comics were truly put under the cultural microscope with the release of Fredric Wertham’s questionably researched book, Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that the medium promoted violence, drug use, sex, and other “criminal” behavior—particularly superhero and horror comics. In response to Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code Authority was established as a way for the industry to seemingly police the content being released. Today, most major publishers have dropped the Comics Code altogether, but plenty of comics and graphic novels still elicit outrage and moral panic. Most recently, a Tennessee school district banned Art Spiegelman’s Maus on the basis of what it deemed to be inappropriate language and imagery—a decision that has, if nothing else, generated even more interest for the Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel about the cartoonist’s complicated relationship with his Holocaust-survivor father. It’s difficult to envision an American culture in which there are no longer comics and graphic novels surrounded by controversy, but until we get there, play your part by checking out these five exceptional banned books.
Saga—a grand, sweeping sci-fi adventure—wears its Star Wars influences on its sleeve. Conceived during author Brian K. Vaughan’s childhood, Saga chronicles a ragtag group of misfits that travels the galaxy in hopes of escaping an intergalactic war. There is also a healthy dose of graphic violence and sexual content. Despite the moral outcry from some, this sci-fi epic has remained one of the most consistently brilliant (and highest selling) comics of the past decade. Vaughan is no stranger to having his books banned, so more on him in a bit.
Okay, at first glance, Ms. Marvel and Persepolis seem to have little in common, but hear me out. While former is a fun teenage superhero adventure and the latter a memoir of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, at the heart of each comic is a young woman struggling to find her way within a society (and family) that upholds restrictive gender and religious norms. Whether you know Ms. Marvel from the recent Disney+ show or have followed her adventures in comic form, Persepolis is highly recommended if you want a fantastic female protagonist.
In an era in which so many fairytales and folktales have been Disney-ified, it’s easy to forget that children’s stories have traditionally been exceptionally dark and gruesome (you know how The Little Mermaid really ends, right?). In the case of The Graveyard Book, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed young adult novel of the same name, it was considered way too dark for a middle school library. If you like your fiction to dabble in the supernatural and fantastical, The Graveyard book is a must-read. As a bonus, the book was illustrated by P. Craig Russell, an alum of Sandman—another banned comic from Neil Gaiman.
Once again, we have a coming-of-age story that drew the ire of parents. This One Summer follows the adolescent Rose as she visits a lake house with her parents. Although it’s usually a fun, carefree experience, this summer, Rose’s parents can’t seem to stop fighting. On top of that, Rose and her friend, Windy, find themselves looking into a rather adult world that involves new and complicated things like mental illness, sexuality, and drugs. For some, these depictions are too adult, but if you can get past that, there’s a moving, relatable story about how difficult and bittersweet it can be to leave childhood behind.
We return to who is perhaps the Michael Jordan of banned comics, Brian K. Vaughan. Before it became an ill-fated series on Hulu, Y: The Last Man was one of the most exciting, insightful, and often shocking comics on the shelf. After every male on Earth instantaneously dies with the exception of young escape artist Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, the duo go on a globe-trotting adventure to look for answers. As Yorick soon learns, the new world he finds himself in is far from the male fantasy some might expect. Filled with plenty of violence, sex, and profanity, Y raises plenty of questions about not only gender roles and sexual identity, but also the institutions that hold our world together—or that we think hold our world together. If you feel that The Walking Dead is too dragged out and directionless, Y: The Last Man is the fast-paced, focused apocalyptic road trip story you’ve been waiting for.
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