The banning of classic Maus and V For Vendetta comics from American schools raises a number of alarming questions about censorship.
Since his removal from the curriculum of a Tennessee school board, the discussion about Art Spiegelman’s Maus has been rampant, with many worrying about the implications of such excessive censorship and Spiegelman himself expressing concern that it is a “harbinger of things to come”. This coincides with a similar ban in Texas schools which saw Alan Moore and David Lloyd V for Vendetta banned with 850 other books (including a volume of Y: The Last Man and a graphic novel adaptation by Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale illustrated by Renée Nault among others).
Since their commercial heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, comic books have always had to deal with censorship in one form or another. A wave of controversy over violence and sexual content in comic books led to the creation of what became known as the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954. Although the current ban may share some similarities with the Panic morality that led to the creation of the CCA, the political and social contexts are different and seem to be rooted in something much closer to this V for Vendetta and Maus (intrinsically anti-fascist texts) against which we were warned.
The History of the Comics Code Authority
Censorship of comic books has a long history, and in the United States, is normally tied to concerns about their suitability for children. The most famous and widespread example of mass censorship occurred around 1954, shortly after the Golden Age of comic books, when the medium had reached a commercial peak and 80 to 100 million comics were sold monthly. Due to their popularity, the artists behind the books were able to explore different ideas and genres, resulting in a wave of horror and crime comics. These comics often featured graphic content, causing concern among state and religious groups and resulting in the publication of The Seduction of the Innocents by Fredric Wertham.
Wertham was a psychiatrist who worked in Harlem, treating juvenile delinquents, all of whom he noticed were reading comic books. Despite their mainstream popularity, Wertham believed the comics were the reason for these children’s aggressive behavior. His book made many unsubstantiated claims, including a claim that Superman encouraged violent behavior by teaching children that they could solve all their problems through violence, and that depictions of Batman and Robin encouraged same-sex relationships with children. . The Seduction of the Innocents paved the way for widespread cultural hysteria, leading citizens to participate in the public burning of comics and Wertham to claim that comics were “more dangerous than Hitler”. This was all happening during the McCarthy era, and the US Congress responded by pressuring comic book publishers to oversee the content of their books, which led to the creation of the Comic Code Authority.
Although imposed by publishers, the code still acted as a draconian censorship that severely restricted the stories the comics were allowed to tell. The rules included cracking down on nudity and violent content (which led to Catwoman and Two-Face not being used in Batman comics for a number of years), stories that only involved good triumphing over evil, authority figures still respected, and content that endorsed “the sanctity of marriage” (which excluded depictions of couples homosexuals or divorce). A by-product of religious puritanism, the CCA helped creatively dilute the medium of comics for several years, regulating the medium to the superhero genre and perpetuating the idea that comics were only for children.
Despite restrictions imposed by The Authority, the medium was revitalized during the Marvel Comics boom of the 1960s. In an ironic twist, Stan Lee and Marvel were asked by the Nixon administration to produce an anti-drug comic leading up to 1971. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-97 by Lee and John Romita, which was printed without CCA approval. The rise of alternative comics or “comix” also surfaced around the same time and dealt with adult themes that ignored many of the Authority’s restrictions. Over the years, the code would undergo various relaxations of its rules before finally being more or less completely abandoned in 2011.
Why recent bans are different
Although the rationale for the recent removal of Maus of the school curriculum in Tennessee and the ban on V for Vendetta and Y: The Last Man in Texas seem to bear a resemblance to the hysteria that led to the creation of the CCA, the socio-political contexts in which they reside are very different. The Authority was born at the time of McCarthyism and dealt exclusively with comics. The current bans seem to have a much broader reach in a cultural climate that has seen these works lumped together with other books, as comics are treated as serious literature thanks to the work of creators like Moore and Spiegelman.
What is particularly interesting is the fact that the two Maus and V for Vendetta are naturally political texts. While Maus is a genre memoir about the Holocaust and V for Vendetta is a fictional tale about an anarchist revolt, both books deal with themes related to fascism and authoritarianism. In 2014, Russia banned Maus due to the presence of the swastika on its cover during a crackdown on all things Nazi paraphernalia, even though the comic is one of the most anti-fascist works in all of fiction. In 2020, China also banned the film adaptation of V for Vendettaand although no official reason was given, the Guy Fawkes mask from the comics and film was worn by many Hong Kong protesters during the 2019-2020 unrest.
While the reason for removing the books from Tennessee schools is due to the belief that doing so will make students “uncomfortable”, many of the books are written by members of the LGBTQ+ community and deal with issues related to the race and sex. When CCA was first introduced, comics were still in their infancy and seen as children’s entertainment that did not deal with social and political issues. Since then, however, the two Maus and V for Vendetta were considered difficult literary works that deal with political subjects in a mature way. This is an incredibly concerning development, given how both books are anti-fascist and deliberately warn against limiting free speech and restricting artistic expression, as well as what can happen when these issues go unchallenged.
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