“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is as tired a phrase as it’s counterpart, usually dispensed as advice for writers: “Show, don’t tell.” No one much disputes these statements; they’re sound advice and widely accepted. These statements are probably repeated by many of the same people who are quick to dismiss comics as low-brow, frivolous rags enjoyed only by nerds, because, you know, they’re not “real books”. But, if a picture truly is worth a thousand words, if a writer should truly aim to show instead of tell, then a comic book ought to be considered the fulfillment of humanity’s storytelling aspirations. I recall hearing an interview with crusty comics legend Neal Adams, in which he postulated that if you asked the greatest writer in the world to collaborate with the greatest painter in the world, the result would almost definitely be some form of comic book (I’m not sure of the source here; I think the interview in question was from the documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.) He’s not likely wrong, but why, then, are comics continuously having to argue their merit and legitimacy?
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, in his 1954 anti-comics treatise Seduction of the Innocent, asserted: “Comic books are definitely harmful to impressionable people, and most young people are impressionable.” Calling for actual legislative action to keep comics out of the hands of children, he pinned juvenile delinquency and other degenerate behaviour on the medium. With shocking insensitivity, he even stated, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”
People rallied to Wertham’s incendiary rhetoric. In his book The Ten-Cent Plague, which does a superb job of detailing this chapter in comic book history, David Hajdu recounts:
Churches and community groups raged and organized campaigns against comic books. Young people acted out mock trials of comics characters. Schools held public burnings of comics, and students threw thousands of the books into the bonfires; at more than one conflagration, children marched around the flames reciting incantations denouncing comics. Headlines in newspapers and magazines around the country warned readers: “Depravity for Children — Ten Cents a Copy!” “Horror in the Nursery,” “The Curse of the Comic Books.” The offices of one of the most adventurous and scandalous publishers, EC Comics, were raided by the New York City police. More than a hundred acts of legislation were introduced on the state and municipal levels to ban or limit the sale of comics: Scores of titles were outlawed in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and other states, and ordinances to regulate comics were passed in dozens of cities. Soon, Congress took action with a set of sensational, televised hearings that nearly destroyed the comic-book business. Like Janice Valleau, the majority of working comics artists, writers, and editors — more than eight hundred people — lost their jobs. A great many of them would never be published again.
In the intervening years between then and now, a Comics Code Authority was imposed to regulate content, and was only dissolved as recent as 2011. While the rhetoric being spouted in opposition to comic books might not be as incendiary as Wertham’s, people still single out comics for their depraved content. Earlier this year, a student at Crafton Hill College in California protested the inclusion of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, vol. 2: The Doll’s House, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man in a course which, according to the college’s website, “is the study of the graphic novel/comic books as a viable medium of literature presented through readings, in-class discussions, and analytical assignments.” The student’s reason? “I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.”
Controversy follows Fun Home wherever it goes, it seems – Duke University students also protested the book this year, with one white, cisgender conservative male student hilariously stating: “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind. It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.” In both cases, one might worry about these students’ academic future, when their reading comprehension seems to be as poor as it is. While the Crafton student could simply have read her course description for fair warning that she might be expected to delve a little deeper into the medium than Batman and Robin, Duke’s conservatives were very directly warned by the university itself, which provided a disclaimer upon assigning the book: “We do understand that the novel may make some readers uncomfortable. It may create arguments and conversations, which are important to a liberal arts education.”
Brian Grasso, that same white, cisgender conservative male Duke student, however, singled out the fact that it was a graphic novel: “I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it.” In the op-ed which he provided to The Washington Post defending his position, Grasso props up his argument, in true red-blooded American conservative style, with a verse from the Bible: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (That’s Matthew 5:28, for anyone keeping track.) Thus, Grasso asserts, it would be sinful to look at Fun Home, which in Grasso’s words, “includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex.” In a previous life, I studied religion, albeit for a very short while, but nevertheless, I am always happy to debate the semantics of Bible verses; I’d like to point to the pretty significant adverb in that particular verse. The sin isn’t simply looking – it’s looking lustfully. The woman is not described; Jesus doesn’t tell us how much or how little she’s wearing, or even whether she’s a cartoon drawing or not, because these details are irrelevant. It’s not the woman who is doing any wrong, it’s whomever is looking lustfully at her.
I have read Fun Home, and it is not a sexy book. Anyone who chooses to view the book as pornography will probably be disappointed, because, as pornography, it’s not very good. As literature, it might not be perfect either, but its flaws have more to do with the detached and unnecessarily erudite viewpoint, and nothing to do with the depictions of sex. It contains depictions of sexuality, sure, but it is not intended to arouse or titillate – any scenes of masturbation or oral sex are actually rather plot relevant. To summarize: Fun Home is a memoir of Alison Bechdel reconciling her own sexual identity with the revelation that her father was a closeted homosexual his entire life. It would be a difficult story to tell without content that will make many people uncomfortable; indeed, I’m sure Alison Bechdel herself was not wholly comfortable while living through many of those experiences.
A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, but there’s a caveat. No matter how good a prose writer might be at showing, rather than telling, the written word will always betray a perspective – it will manipulate the reader into knowing how the described characters, actions or events are meant to be interpreted. In prose, it will be clear if, say, sex is being described to the reader for the sake of titillation, or if instead it is meant to illustrate a key moment in a character’s self-discovery. In a comic, there will simply be a picture of people having sex. Comics, then, are asking more of their readers, because a picture can only do so much to tell you what you’re meant to think about it, which means you might have to (shudder) do some of your own thinking.
This, I think, is what frequently places comics at the center of controversies. If a reader is unprepared to think creatively and/or critically to do their part in interpreting a comic as a meaningful narrative, that reader will instead probably assess the work based upon whatever assumptions they’re using as a framework. These assumptions might include: any nudity denotes pornography; comics are about superheroes; superheroes are for children. If you’re expecting an Adam West and Burt Ward style Batman-and-Robin romp, but instead get a profanity-laced apocalyptic narrative in which every man on earth but one is eradicated by an unknown disease, you’d be right to be shocked. Where you’d be wrong, though, was to expect Batman and Robin in the first place.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund provides a list of comics which have been banned or challenged throughout the United States. On this list, a cause frequently cited as the reason for the controversy is simply that a book is “unsuited to age group.” Among the books challenged for that reason: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga. What I wonder: what age group, precisely, did these individuals assume these books were meant for? Despite Sandman being published by DC’s mature-readers imprint Vertigo, and the rating (“M,” for “mature”) on the cover of Saga, people still see fit to challenge these books, based on their assumption (evidently without any further research) that all comics are for kids.
(If your child wants to read comics, don’t worry! Saga is not the only option – there are plenty of great comics that are actually for children.)
In observation of Banned Books Week, I would encourage you to read one of my favourites from CBLDF’s list: Craig Thompson’s Blankets. In CBLDF’s defense of the book, they describe it as “a young man’s coming of age in a rural, evangelical society. The book addresses topics of faith, abstinence, love, responsibility, and commitment from the point of view of a faithful young man who must make critical choices about those topics at the entry to adulthood.” In this strikingly gorgeous book, Thompson himself has to reconcile and reconsider his own views of what is wrong, dirty or sinful, and I think it’s a book which has the power to provoke the same self-reflection in its readers.
Just don’t expect Batman and Robin, and while there is some nudity and sexuality, don’t expect pornography either.