ALA 2009 Intellectual Freedom Presentation
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ALA 2009 Intellectual Freedom Presentation

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Text of my presentation at ALA Annual 2009 in Chicago. I was part of a panel on combating self-censorship, and spoke on the topic of Comics and Graphic Novels.

Text of my presentation at ALA Annual 2009 in Chicago. I was part of a panel on combating self-censorship, and spoke on the topic of Comics and Graphic Novels.

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ALA 2009 Intellectual Freedom Presentation ALA 2009 Intellectual Freedom Presentation Document Transcript

  • Good morning, everyone. When it comes tocollecting comics and graphic novels, much of thedifficulty i think people have stems from what I see astwo major stumbling blocks, prejudices even, thateveryone seems to trip over. This is basically whatI’m going to talk about. I don’t think I can offer awhole lot of advice that isn’t already out there; whatI’m really going to do is issue a couple of challenges,ones that are easier to get over than you might think.I believe that the key to a defendable comic collectionlies in shedding some of the attitudes still directedtowards comics, and according them the same respect asevery other book that we buy. Probably the most glaring issue when we begin totalk about collection development for comics andgraphic novels is, of course, the issue of the mediumitself. Unlike the other print areas under discussiontoday, comics are a largely visual storytelling mediumwhere much, if not all, of what is going on is notdescribed by prose, but pictured as art. And this iswhere much of the hesitation and consternation whenbuying comics comes from. Now, without going into alengthy scientific explanation, i think it’s stillpretty safe to make this one statement: pictures, byand large, have a much more immediate and arrestingeffect on human perception than descriptive text.We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a picture’s worth a
  • thousand words.’ (For our purposes here, I imagine wecould rewrite it as “A picture of one naked boob isworth a hundred pages of Zane.”) Well, said quote, asit was originally written in 1927, actually reads likethis: “A picture’s meaning is worth ten thousandwords.” I like this a lot better, because it paints amore harmonious picture. It says, at least to me, thatpictures and words are not so terribly opposed to eachother, that they’re just a different way of telling astory. And herein lies the point. I often find that a lot of my colleagues are prettyfreaked when collecting comics because of imagesportraying certain things that they wouldn’t be freakedby in a “regular” book. A great many of us have booksin our teen collections that describe adult themes,sexual situations, drug use, and violence. And we’lldefend the presence of these books in our collections,and most often rightly so. But many find it much moredifficult to accept showing these things as opposed todescribing them. My question, and my first challenge,really, is why? Is the violence in Steve NIle’s 30Days of Night any more horrific than that of DarrenShan’s Demonata series? The sexual situations inMelvin Burgess’ Doing It or Daria Snadowsky’s Anatomyof a Boyfriend are actually far more explicit thannearly anything I have in my comic collection thatmight be considered risque, whether it be Neil
  • Gaiman’s Sandman or CLAMP’s Chobits. And if we candefend these words, then we can defend art covering thesame subjects. Now, the second, and possibly less glaring issue,is the way comics are regarded by the majority ofpeople in the United States. While admittedly thingshave changed for the better over the last 15 years orso, comics are still by and large considered, well,many things. They are ‘just for kids,’ ‘junk,’ and ofcourse, ‘not “real” books.’ This is a knot that sitsin the American subconscious and has been sitting theresince 1954, when the United States Senate, with the aidof child psychologist Frederic Wertham, declared to theUnited States public that comics were responsible forevery depravity known to man, read only by theintellectually devoid, and possibly responsible for alljuvenile crime. The comic book industry at the time,in their infinite wisdom, folded like cheap suits andcreated the Comics Code Authority, one of the worstexamples of self-censorship you have ever seen. ScottMcCloud describes it well, saying the Code was like a“...list of requirements a film needs to receive a Grating was doubled, and there were no other acceptableratings!" Essentially, the entire industrycollectively said “OK, we’ll never again publishanything that’ll be remotely objectionable to anyoneunder the age of 12 ever again!” And the mainstream
  • comic publishers didn’t, not for a long time. Andhowever wrongheaded, the American public has believedthese things ever since. Even us. I see far too manyarticles painting comics as “something to hookreluctant readers,” with the implication that we’llmove them on to “real” books as soon as they’re ready.So where does all of this leave us? In terms of ourcollecting comics and graphic novels for our teenareas, it leads me here. Your collection development policy (and i do hopeyou have one!!!!) is there to act as a guideline forthe materials you buy, and also as a form of insulationto protect against challenges and censorship. Look atyour policy; does it include comics and graphic novelsin it’s language? It should! The generation of teenswe are working with right now are far more visuallyoriented than we ever were or are; and a fair majorityof them are now comic readers at some level. In 2008,comics accounted for 12% of my overall collection.They accounted for 39% of my circulation. The classicimage of the kid leaving with a stack of books stillexists, but there are now nearly always a few comics ormanga mixed in. I firmly believe that the samereasoning we use to defend the words in the books thatwe buy can be used to defend the art in the comics we
  • buy, and that should help deflect some of the fear ofimages. Now that being said, it is true that not everycomic belongs in the teen area. So how do we decidewhether to place a comic in our teen area or not? Thesame way we decide such things for anything else,really. Think of it this way. We have collections forchildren, for teens, and for adults. Why? Is itbecause everything in the adult collections isshocking, scary and pornographic? Of course not. Weput Ian McEwan and Maeve Binchy and Don Delillo in ouradult collections because they write books for adults.The same truth exists in the comic book publishingworld; there are many comic writers who write worksthat are intended for, and will appeal largely to,adults. Now, nearly every comic publisher and mangalicenser has their own rating system now for the booksthey publish. That’s nice, and often helpful, butdon’t use them as a be-all end-all method for decidingwhere to place an item. Appeal is a far more importantassessment tool than arbitrary publishers ratings, andreading the comics you’re buying is of paramountimportance. In the end, the same judgement you usebuying books should be used when buying comics, whichbrings me to my next point. While writing this presentation, I noticed thatthere were an awful lot of articles published in the
  • library world that seemed to run according to the sametheme. “You don’t need to know anything about comicsto have a graphic novel collection!” I beg to differ! While that may have been true 10years ago when libraries were first sticking their toesinto comic waters, I don’t believe it’s true anylonger. As I said before, comics have become almostfully integrated into the mainstream consciousness ofthe current generation of teens we serve. We owe themthe same diligence we show when collecting books whencollecting comics. And there is now a wealth ofresources for understanding the comic publishingindustry, as well as its authors, terminology and otherins and outs. This also means learning about manga. I don’t needto tell you how popular it’s become. I will tell youthis: manga is published in Japan, and Japan, folks,is not America. This is an art form being created by aculture whose attitudes, thought patterns and valuesets are quite different from what we’re used to here.They also regard, and have always regarded, sequentialart as equal to regular prose writing. And everyone,and I do mean everyone, in Japan reads manga. Itaccounts for upwards of 40% of their publishingindustry and there are titles published for anyone fromyoung children to adults. Again, this becomes aquestion of not only noting the publisher’s ratings,
  • but reading the books and learning about where theycome from. And also again, the resources now out thereare extensive. In a perfect future world, I believe we won’t havegraphic novel sections in our libraries, and sequentialart will be on the same shelves with all the otherbooks; you’ll find the Sandman books under Gaiman,right next to Stardust and Neverwhere. Our first steptowards that day begins when we shed our prejudices,and accord comics the same diligence, respect, and dueprocess that we afford every other material in ourcollections. So thats it. I know this wasn’t much in the way ofactual advice, but then as I said, the resources areout there - the real question is can you look at comicsas objectively as you look at everything else in yourcollection, and judge not through fear, but throughknowledge instead.