Comics, Censorship, and the Classroom

Blankets
Blankets by Craig Thompson

A while back my buddy Eric wrote an article about censoring comics for the classroom (not just that, but I’m summarizing). If you haven’t read it, go check it out; it’s well worth your time. He talks about how much he loves the book Blankets, but there is some nudity that prohibits him from using it in the classroom. Eric and I have been having this conversation for a while, and I have to say I’m torn. There is nothing more frustrating than reading a great book and realizing that my students would love it, but encountering something in the book that some might find objectionable. I’ve said before that when I have to decide whether a book is appropriate to recommend to a student, I use the Holden Caulfield Test: is this book any worse than Catcher in the Rye? Most books pass that test, and I tend to have no qualms about making those recommendations.

When it comes to adopting a book in class, however, I have been more unsuccessful. Here’s the thing, I no longer have to convince my bosses that comics are worthwhile. We’ve pretty much gotten them on board with the comics in the classroom movement, and luckily, they are very supportive of the work Eric and I have done. So, convincing people that comics can be just as valuable as traditional literature is no longer an argument I have to make. The wall I tend to hit is often the art. Whenever I want to adopt a comic book into our curriculum, I have to keep in mind “How easy will it be to take this panel/page out of context? Is there any graphic violence or nudity? What exactly is graphic? Doesn’t the term graphic novel sound kind of ‘porn-y’ anyway?” Then I think “would I want my kid given this book?” Honestly, when it comes down to it, who am I to make decisions on what another person’s child should or should not be exposed to? But then I looked through our district’s approved books list with the book-banner’s eye: Catcher (language, drug use), Gatsby (violence), Romeo and Juliet (sexual situations), Of Mice and Men (this one was actually challenged by the KKK…let that one sink in), and the list goes on and on…and on.  Many of the books that have been accepted as part of the Western Canon, and thus are considered integral parts of a student’s education, have been challenged or banned at some point, and yet I’m encouraged (nay, expected) to teach those. Why? Because people who’ve read those books decided that they were worth the fight, and that they were vital pieces of art. Further, these same people believed that those books were so important that they contained important life lessons that could benefit our students.

I Kill Giants
I Kill Giants

Well that’s how I feel about books like MausI Kill GiantsPedro and MeBlanketsStitchesWatchmenAmerican Born Chinese and even  Captain Underpants. The biggest push back I’ve gotten when talking to parents and other educators about comics is that the images can sometimes be graphic (no pun). And this is true; the thing I love about comics is often what works against it. Those images are static, and they allow the eye to examine them fully and deeply. Unfortunately, images are also powerful. The old cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words is used so often because it is accurate, and there is nothing more powerful than being able to point at an image and yell “Smut!” at a board meeting, because the eye lingers, and the image is not as open to interpretation as a word when taken in context…at least for some people. So why not offer redacted or edited versions of the books so we can use them in the classroom? If only Craig Thompson would just slap a bikini on his girlfriend in the one panel, my students would be able to safely enjoy his book. Or if Barbara had called her gym teacher a jerk instead of a bull dyke, by students would have been allowed to read I Kill Giants without worry. Maybe Eli Wiesel should remove all mentions of the Holocaust from Night so my students won’t be upset by the atrocities that happened in the work camps.Maybe all of this is true. But maybe I’m not the one who should decide what an artist should and should not do with their art. No matter what, the artist’s vision needs to be preserved, and if that means I don’t get to teach that text, then I don’t get to do it.

Much better.
Much better.

Or…or we can continue to get books in people’s hands. We continue to cajole and convince, finesse and finagle, massage and maneuver, whatever we have to do to prove that we are right, and these books need to be read. As great as it would be to be able to use any book I want in class, I also would not want to insult my students by offering them watered-down versions of important work. Does this mean that I would bring in the complete works of R. Crumb for my high school students to peruse? No. I am using my own personal filter, as subjective as that may be, to decide what is safe for my students to read. As a professional, I think I’ve earned the chance to show I can be trusted in that regard. But I understand the trepidation, so here is one thing I think we could use more of: a ratings system. Right now many publishers are already posting suggested reading ages on their websites and on electronic versions of their comics, and I think that’s a great place to start. However, as usual, the adults involved need to be the ultimate barometer and we need to be fair. As an educator I trust my instincts, and although I may be biased towards comics, I think I’m able to look at them objectively. In the end, I want my students to experience stories in all of their forms, and at their best. By excluding an entire genre based on ancient notions that it will corrupt young minds is misguided at best, and  in the case of censoring/banning books, dangerous at worst.

See? Now EVERYBODY'S happy!
See? Now EVERYBODY’S happy!

This brings me to my little announcement. I’ve been reviewing books based solely on what I think is safe for the classroom, and I think I’ve been successful in picking books that are more or less harmless. But I almost did not review Morning Glories because I was afraid that it just wasn’t right for students of a certain age to read. I decided to review it anyway because it’s just too good not to recommend. Furthermore, people who are uninitiated in comics often still have the bad habit of seeing something is a comic book and throwing it at a kid without reading it first. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to 1) start adding recommended age ratings to books I review, and 2) start reviewing any book regardless of “objectionable” material. I think it’s important to get a more honest dialogue going about comics, and I want to start that by sharing all of my reading habits, not just the PG stuff. I hope that by doing this, I can help get the word out about more and more comics. Let’s get more comics in the canon, and in the classroom. It starts with us. It starts with you. For more information about banned/challenged books check out the work the American Library Association is doing. This year, Banned Book Week will feature comics specifically. Also, help out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They support the First Amendment rights of comics artists and readers around the world.

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