Fun Home, Maus, and the Legacy of Indecent Comics


Recently, there has been a surge in failed and successful attempts to ban certain graphic novels from schools and libraries across the United States. In late March, a Tennessee school board’s decision to ban Art Spigeleman’s Maus as its “inappropriate” depictions of nudity and violence sent shockwaves through the literary world and drew attention to similar attacks on other graphic novels. More recently, a school board in South Dakota voted to temporarily ban Alison Bechdel’s autobiography. fun house: A family tragicomedy after parents claimed the graphic novel, which explores Bechdel’s turbulent relationship with her closeted father, was “pornographic”.

While prohibition decisions Maus and fun house rightly left many people shocked and outraged, these aren’t the first comics to be challenged over their content. From the beginning of the comic book industry, authors, artists and publishers have faced accusations that comic books and the ideas they convey are “indecent” and a threat to the good – to be children. Although many of the outlandish claims used to justify early attempts to ban comic books have been widely discredited, they still influence how many people see the medium.

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The first recorded objections to comic books were raised almost immediately after the launch of superhero comics in the late 1930s. In a somewhat ironic twist, it was educators who first spoke out against the medium, claiming that comics can have a negative impact on children’s literacy and literary tastes. Soon after, civic and religious groups joined the fray, expressing outrage at the sexualized portrayals of women in comics and the apparent “glorification” of crime. Connecting all of these diverse opinions was the unifying (and to some extent, truthful) belief that comics challenged authority and the prevailing ideological beliefs of the time.

Growing public resentment of comic books finally reached a harsh crescendo in the mid-1950s when Dr. Fredrick Wertham, a renowned New York child psychologist, wrote and published Seduction of the innocent, which claimed that comics not only desensitized children to violence, but were also the main cause of the spike in juvenile delinquency that plagued the post-war United States. While Wertham’s research would later be discredited, the publication of Seduction of the innocent sparked a nationwide moral panic that caused several cities to ban the creation and ownership of comic books and led to public book burnings.

Inspired by Wertham’s sensational accusations, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency has launched an investigation into the comic book industry, with several industry figures set to be interviewed by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver . Fearing that the feds would begin to regulate comics, the industry embraced a form of internalized censorship through the Comics Code Authority, which drafted a strict set of borderline puritanical guidelines that comics should follow. to be sold in most stores. While some publishers rejected the Comics Code by going “underground,” the CCA regulated mainstream comic content for nearly six decades until it was discontinued in 2011.

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While the CCA and its infamous seal of approval have been history for over a decade, the stigma that inspired its creation is still alive and well. In recent years, comic books and graphic novels have become extremely popular among young readers, and the industry’s many talented authors and artists have used this medium to address issues related to war, race, gender and the LGBTQ+ experience. Thanks to the medium’s accessibility, graphic novels are often children’s and teens’ first encounters with these subjects, and there is ample evidence that reading them has been a life-changing experience for many of them.

Unfortunately, this same accessibility has placed graphic novels in the crosshairs of parents, politicians and religious figures who oppose the ideas that Maus, fun house, and similar comic address. Often these graphic novels, and the libraries and schools that carry them and incorporate them into their curricula, are accused of “preying” on vulnerable children by exposing them to graphic depictions of violence or controversial concepts like critical race theory. This happens even though the overarching stories themselves have nothing directly to do with the concepts.

Driven by the belief that they “corrupt” children, critically acclaimed graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki This summer have been attacked by parents and political figures. By the end of 2021, Texas State Rep. Matt Krause demanded that more than 850 books be removed from schools and public libraries across the state, illustrating how the belief that comics can having a toxic influence on children has become ubiquitous.

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While the explanation behind the recent challenges may be rooted in the current political divide plaguing the United States, the rhetoric follows many of the same beats that were used by Kefauver and Wertham to justify their attempts to stifle the industry. nascent comic strip. Fortunately, while objections against graphic novels that address relevant social issues and represent marginalized voices are likely to continue, educators and young readers will not go down without a fight. Comic book store owners have found ways to get controversial graphic novels into the hands of young readers, and Maus and other disputed books have become online bestsellers as a result of the controversy surrounding them.

While Wertham’s claims that comics would turn children into criminals with no empathy turned out to be wrong, he was right when he claimed that comics could affect the younger generation. Reading exposes people to ideas they may never have encountered in their daily lives, and literature’s unique ability to put readers in other people’s shoes has forced many to confront their own biases. By choosing a graphic novel, young readers step into another world and often return to their own existence with a more balanced understanding of the world around them.

Cover of Batman #123

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