Education Matters: Fighting comic book censorship


Some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated panels at this year’s Comic-Con were sponsored by CBLDF – the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Censorship of comics and graphic novels continues to demand much of CBLDF’s time.

CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein said in the “Comics Censorship” panel that he regularly sees pushback against content, and the trend lately targets identity censorship, mostly LGBTQ – namely, who wrote it and what it’s about.

Events have also come under fire, he said, citing opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour where drag queens in full dress read stories to small children in libraries, schools and other educational venues [].

Drag Queen Story Hour began in San Francisco and is now offered in other major cities around the country. The intent is to promote tolerance and make reading entertaining for young children, but protesters see it differently.

CBLDF is defending transgender author Lilah Sturges who was scheduled to read from her book series titled Lumberjanes, when the Leander, Texas public library canceled her appearance just two hours before it was to begin.

The sudden cancellation was deemed discriminatory, as was the demand that Sturges submit to a background check when no other authors at the library’s readings were.

Brownstein mentioned other challenges, some in schools where teachers have assigned their students to read graphic novels that have come under fire from parents.

After the widely acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home was assigned to a senior English class at a high school in New Jersey, the school was sued by a group that alleged the book was obscene and damaging to minors. Brownstein said the case was eventually dismissed.

Fun Home has been the target of numerous censorship attempts across the country.

In Irving, Texas, Love Is Love was one of many graphic novels assigned in a high school social justice class, but was the only one that was challenged. Brownstein said no one contacted CBLDF when the challenge occurred, so the book was banned.

Three anti-education bills recently proposed in Florida would have placed penalties on teachers and librarians for providing minors with access to “controversial” books, required bible studies in public schools, and allowed challenges to science (specifically evolution). All three bills failed, said Brownstein.

Panel members at CBLDF’s “Take PRIDE in Comics” discussed why comics centered on LGBTQ issues and characters are being targeted so frequently.

Brownstein said identity censorship rose beginning in 2013 to 2014 and has climbed ever since. He said it’s all about control, fear and love – parents who love their children and don’t want them influenced or exposed to gender and sexuality issues, as unfounded as these concerns may be.

“Representation matters,” Brownstein said. Panelists agreed that it was critical for readers to see representations of different gender identities and sexual orientations in the media, including comics and graphic novels.

In the 1950s, so-called “deviant” content was forbidden in comics. We’re now in a Golden Age said one panelist, with challenges still remaining.

“Challenges are often a sign of growth,” Brownstein said, adding that there’s a need to approach those protesting “with an open hand rather than a closed fist.”

The message was clear: Understanding their worries and biases, and helping to dispel them with education and tolerance, will go further than insults and impatience.

Making learning fun

CBLDF’s “Making Great Comics Programs for Schools and Libraries” panel offered tips for librarians and teachers on how to integrate comics into mainstream learning.

Ideas included making a mini Comic-Con in classrooms and having students create their own eight-page comics.

Katherine Keller, a CBLDF board member, said she offers training to teachers on how to teach comics. Teachers, she said, “are not properly prepared if they don’t know how to incorporate comics into their classrooms.”

Several panelists noted that comics can help English language learners improve their language skills. Keller said one man told her that comics “make learning to read English so much more fun.”

Another panelist suggested Stephen Cary’s book Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, which he said is useful for helping learn Spanish. The promotion for the book states, “Comics are a natural for second language development.”

Several audience questions focused on how to respond to challenges to comic book usage for education.

“The best defense is a good offense,” Keller said. “Make sure there’s a policy in place that can defend the choices teachers make.” Be prepared in advance for potential controversy, she said.

Diana Learned, a librarian in San Jose, said they create talking points for staff in anticipation of questions and complaints.

Candice Mack, managing librarian for system-wide young adult services in Los Angeles, said staff should be able to answer why certain programming is being presented. Last year she said they offered Drag Queen Story Hour and were prepared for complaints but received only one.

Comics into the classroom

CBLDF’s panel “Teaching with Comics” offered ways to integrate comics into the classroom, expand on lessons, and encourage student participation.

Panelists had many suggestions:

 For teachers reluctant to see the educational value in comics, the March graphic novel trilogy by U.S. Congressmember John Lewis provides a first-hand account of the civil rights movement in a unique way that reaches audiences of all ages.

 Comics encourage reluctant readers.

Visuals can be a gateway for understanding prose.

Readers can see expressions on images that convey meaning.

 Fine literature can be accessed by slow or reluctant readers, those who may have been stigmatized before but in graphic novel classes can feel safe.

Somewhat difficult literature can be understood easier through comic book form, including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, mythology and other stories.

For teachers who struggle with differentiation and the need to reach all students in the classroom, from the gifted to the slower learners, graphic novels can even the playing field and reach all levels.

The medium is good for English language learners and students on the autism spectrum.

 Social and emotional skills are improved.

Visuals can assist learning. It’s hard to describe with words a 17th century French gown, but it helps if students can see it illustrated in a graphic novel.

One panelist said there’s a need for more graphic novels addressing such issues as body image, sexuality, suicide, racism, LGBTQ, and other sensitive subjects.

Another said that, for parents who believe comic books will dull reading skills, they should understand that it’s just the opposite.

Some book recommendations by panelists that can enhance classroom learning include:

A Game for Swallows, about growing up in war-torn Lebanon (teaches kids empathy and social skills)

Human Body Theater, about the biology of the human body

Olympians, book series about mythology

Maker Comics, a DIY series about guides for fixing a car, baking, costume making, and other projects

Shadow, about life in Afghanistan

 Maus, a book about a Polish Holocaust survivor that employs postmodernist techniques and is considered one of the greatest graphic novels ever written

Language of comics

According to CBLDF, there is little difference between a comic book and a graphic novel. Physically, graphic novels come in a book format, while comic books are shorter and are published in a magazine-like format.

Both utilize the same language of comics, which is the use of words combined with pictures or images to tell a story.

The organization’s website [] offers a plethora of resources for students, educators, librarians and anyone interested in comics and graphic novels, including lists of books of interest to students.

In particular, the Read Banned Comics Handbook is a publication that lists banned comics, advises ways to report and fight censorship, and suggests how to celebrate Banned Books Week.

CBLDF, formed in 1986, is a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. Its mission is to protect the First Amendment rights of comics creators, illustrators, retailers and publishers.

— Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at