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Question Tuesday: Challenges to Graphic Novels

As this is Banned Books Week, here at Question Tuesday I thought I’d put together some basic thoughts on what to do if a graphic novel is challenged in your library. This is not from a specific question from a librarian, but more a general response from years of being consulted about challenges to comics and graphic novels.

First off, consult with the resources available to you: Dealing with Challenges to Graphic Novels is a basic but informative document created by the American Library Association (ALA), the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). This is a great list of resources, with advice on how to deal with the press as well as sample questions and answers you might need to prepare when dealing with questions from the public.

The ALA has a long history of dealing with challenges to materials in libraries, but I want to highlight the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. This organization is one of the strongest voices for freedom of expression within comics, and they can provide a wealth of information and support for anyone defending the inclusion of comics, graphic novels, and manga in their collections. CBLDF frequently makes the news as they are involved in defending an individual’s freedom to read, including the controversial Christopher Handley case, and are currently aiding in the defense of a US citizen facing a minimum of a year in a Canadian prison for bringing manga across the border on his laptop. The biggest names in comics, including Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Gail Simone, Mike Mignola, and Jeff Smith, are staunch supporters of this group, and we librarians should make sure to reach out to the CBLDF for help when we need it. Their site does not yet include a list of handouts, but they do a lot of education and outreach.  I can guarantee that if you give them a call, they will be glad to help. The CBLDF staff understand the specific difficulties that can arise in defending graphic novels and comics as a visual medium that is misunderstood because of stereotypes and negative connotations.

I had the pleasure of meeting up with a number of the CBLDF’s staff at the most recent ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, and what struck me most is how much our mission as libraries and their defense of comics align. These are people who are passionate about a format they love and are determined to make sure that freedom of expression and freedom to read is maintained. Images, as we all know, provoke stronger reactions than the same events described in prose, and these guys are on the front lines in terms of defending an artist’s right to expression.

There are a few simple strategies all librarians should have in place for preparing for challenges to graphic novels.

  1. Make sure graphic novels are covered in your collection development policy. Some libraries have separate collection development policies for graphic novels, delineating precisely how the collection is maintained, while other institutions simply list graphic novels among the many formats and types of items they collect. How your library lists graphic novels is up to the individual wording necessary for each place, but make sure they are covered. Otherwise, like the librarians at the Marshall Public Library in Kansas who were caught without any collection development policy and met with a direct challenge to their graphic novels, you will have to create one in the face of intense scrutiny and controversy.
  2. Seek out reviews from outside the library world. If nothing else, outside reviews help collectors get an in depth sense of what fans and readers might think of a work before it is purchased, giving the selectors that much better an idea of what they’re adding before they have it in hand. Library Journal or School Library Journal cannot review every graphic novel out there, but many worthy comics industry review sources both in print and online do. These reviews are no less eloquent about the worth of a book, and until graphic novels are covered as thoroughly as prose work, we will have to turn to outside sources for reviews to defend titles against challenges. Some of my favorite in-depth review destinations include The Comics Reporter, Comic Book Resources and Comics Alliance (for mainstream superhero comics), The Manga Bookshelf (for all things manga and manhwa related), and Sequential Tart (for the female point-of-view.)
  3. Understand that images may provoke emotions and snap judgments more than prose will. This does not mean that you should cave to pressure about visual media, but think about graphic novels and your collection the same way you’d think about defending the films and television you collect, or the video games you collect. If a person objects to a particular image in a comic, consider how much of the total work that panel or page represents, and treat it as you might treat a challenge to a scene or phrase in a book.  Just because it’s visual doesn’t mean it’s not integral to the work nor without context. Sadly, it’s easier to flip through a graphic novel or comic and find something you might object to, and that is all the more reason that graphic novels and comics need to be considered in their entirety just as with prose works.
  4. Don’t think of a graphic novel challenge as being all that different from a challenge to anything else in your collection. In all cases of challenges, it’s important to keep a cool head, to consider how to educate supervisors, the challenger, and the public about the importance of the challenged work, and to gather together as many allies as possible. Most challenges proceed without public awareness, but it’s important to think about preventative measures like maintaining (in a public library) separate collections for adults, teens, and children and producing educational materials like flyers and bookmarks to make your population aware of what graphic novels are, how you’re collecting them, and what they can offer them as readers. Debunking myths and explaining away stereotypes can go a long way in defusing problems with comics and graphic novels.
  5. Keep an eye out for internal censorship. One of the last allowances in libraries that goes unnoticed is that images that offend are more likely to be quietly shifted out of the public eye to special collections or taken off shelves all together in response to a challenge or because someone fears a challenge is likely. We all like to believe this doesn’t happen in our library, but I can say that over the years of dealing with graphic novels, I have heard about more challenges about their content from within the library, from library staff, than from without. Be prepared to educate your colleagues as well as your patrons, and don’t get exasperated. Take it as a chance to further the format’s acceptance into the larger literary world.

I now open the question to our readers—what have you found works in dealing with challenges to graphic novels and comics in your libraries? What are your invaluable resources? Let us know in the comments!

The Good Comics for Kids Question Tuesday column is here to do one thing: answer your questions! To send in your questions for the next Question Tuesday, please go to our form here. We will endeavor to answer as many questions as possible in our weekly column. All questions are due in by Friday at midnight so we’ll have a chance to write up the answers for the next week.

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.


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