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Fun Home, Maus, and the Legacy of Indecent Comic Books

CBR logo CBR 5/14/2022 Drew Kopp
© Provided by CBR

Recently, there's been a sharp increase in both failed and successful attempts to ban certain graphic novels from schools and libraries throughout the United States. In late March, a Tennessee School Board's decision to ban Art Spigeleman's Maus for its "inappropriate" depictions of nudity and violence sent shock waves throughout the literary world and drew attention to similar attacks against other graphic novels. Most recently, a South Dakota School Board voted to temporarily ban Alison Bechdel's autobiography Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy after parents claimed that the graphic novel, which explores Bechdel's turbulent relationship with her closeted father, was "pornographic."

While the decisions to ban Maus and Fun Home have rightfully left many people shocked and outraged, they are not the first comics to be challenged over their content. Since the beginning of the comic industry, authors, artists, and publishers have had to contend with accusations that comics and the ideas they convey are "indecent" and pose a threat to the well-being of children. While many of the outlandish claims used to justify early attempts to ban comics have been widely discredited, they still influence how many people view the medium.

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The earliest recorded objections against comics were raised almost immediately after superhero comic books debuted in the late 1930s. In a somewhat ironic twist, it was educators who first raised their voices against the medium, arguing that comics could negatively impact children's literacy and literary tastes. Soon after, civic and religious groups joined the fray, expressing their outrage over comics' sexualized depictions of women and apparent "glorification" of crime. Linking all of these diverse opinions was the unifying (and to a degree, truthful) belief that comics challenged authority and the dominant ideological beliefs of the time.

The growing public resentment for comic books eventually hit a harsh crescendo in the mid-1950s when Dr. Fredrick Wertham, a renowned child psychologist from New York, wrote and published Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comics not only desensitized children to violence but were also the leading cause of the spike in juvenile delinquency that had been plaguing the post-war United States. While Wertham's research would later be discredited, the release of Seduction of the Innocent ignited a nationwide moral panic that drove several cities to outlaw the creation and ownership of comics and led to public book burnings.

Inspired by Wertham's sensational accusations, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency launched an investigation into the comic book industry, with several prominent figures from the industry being called for questioning by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. Fearing that the federal government would begin regulating comics, the industry adopted a form of internalized censorship through the Comics Code Authority, which drafted a strict set of borderline-puritanical guidelines that comics would have to follow to be sold in most stores. While some publishers rejected the Comics Code by going "underground," the CCA regulated the content of mainstream comics for nearly six decades until it was discontinued in 2011.

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While the CCA and its infamous stamp of approval have been history for over a decade, the stigma that inspired its creation is still alive and well. In recent years, comics and graphic novels have become extremely popular among younger readers, and the many talented authors and artists within the industry have used the medium to address issues related to war, race, gender, and the LGBTQ+ experience. Thanks to the medium's accessibility, graphic novels are often children and teenagers' first encounters with these topics, and there's ample proof that reading them has been a transformative experience for many of them.

Unfortunately, that same accessibility has placed graphic novels in the crosshairs of parents, politicians, and religious figures who oppose the ideas that Maus, Fun Home, and similar comics address. Frequently, these graphic novels, and the libraries and schools that carry and incorporate them into their curriculums, are accused of "preying" on vulnerable children by exposing them to graphic depictions of violence or controversial concepts like critical race theory. This occurs even if the overall stories themselves don't have anything to do with the concepts directly.

Driven by the belief that they're "corrupting" children, critically acclaimed graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer have been attacked by parents and political figures. Late in 2021, Texas State Representative Matt Krause demanded that over 850 books be removed from the state's schools and public libraries, illustrating how pervasive the belief that comics can be a toxic influence on children has become.

RELATED: What the Banning of Maus and V for Vendetta Tell Us About Comic Book Censorship

Although the explanation behind the recent challenges may be rooted in the current political divide plaguing the United States, the rhetoric follows many of the same beats that were used by Kefauver and Wertham to justify their attempts to snuff out the fledgling comic industry. Thankfully, while it's likely that objections against graphic novels that address relevant social issues and represent marginalized voices will continue, educators and young readers aren't going down without a fight. Comic book store owners have found ways to get controversial graphic novels into the hands of young readers, and Maus and other challenged books became bestsellers online as a result of the controversy surrounding them.

While Wertham's claims that comics would turn children into empathy-deprived criminals has proved to be untrue, he was correct when he argued that comics could affect the younger generation. Reading exposes people to ideas they may never have encountered in their daily lives, and literature's unique ability to put readers in the shoes of others has forced many to confront their own biases. By picking up a graphic novel, young readers step into another world, and they often return to their own existences with a more balanced understanding of the world around them.

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