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COMICS, SEXUALITY, AND THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
With Louise Mills, Charles Brownstein, and Alan Moore
By Kurt Amacker
October 11, 2006
Blankets by Craig Thompson
© Craig Thompson
Tonight, at 7:00 p.m. Central time, the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees will convene to vote on whether or not to remove two graphic novels from their shelves BLANKETS
by Craig Thompson and FUN HOME
by Alison Bechdel. Louise Mills, a resident of Marshall, filed the paperwork asking the board to remove the offending books. I took it upon myself to call Mrs. Mills to hear her reasoning. And, no less than Alan Moore and Charles Brownstein Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund were kind enough to comment in defense of BLANKETS
and FUN HOME
in this week's COMICSCAPE
. For next week: e-mail me your comments on the Marshall verdict. Check Newsarama tomorrow for the board's decision. E-mail me at email@example.com
The term "pornography" carries a lot of baggage. Few would hesitate to call a video of a 500-person orgy pornography. Even classier works like LOST GIRLS
deserve the term, by the author's admission. Objectionable or not and regardless of artistic quality, I feel confident labeling a work porn if it primarily arouses and titillates. Though you mince definitions forever, I know that BLANKETS
and FUN HOME
Last Thursday, October 5, the MARSHALL DEMOCRAT-NEWS
quoted Mills at a meeting of the board from the night prior: "My concern does not lie with the content of the novels, rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community." Following that, she stated, "We may as well purchase the porn shop down at the junction and move it to Eastwood. Some day this library will be drawing the same clientele...I sincerely hope the board will listen to the community. Let's not contribute to the delinquency of minors."
When I spoke to Mills personally, she emphasized, "Wednesday night was packed. There had to have been over 150 people there. The overwhelming majority agreed that we do not want to support books coming into our library with sexual illustrations." Indeed, according to the MARSHALL DEMOCRAT-NEWS
, less than one quarter of the 20 attendees that spoke before the crowd supported keeping the books on the shelf without restrictions.
I read BLANKETS
last year in a single sitting, consumed by its touching, realistic portrayal of Craig Thompson's life as a young man in an evangelical Christian household. FUN HOME
chronicles Alison Bechdel's youth in rural Pennsylvania, living as both a young lesbian and the daughter of a closeted gay funeral director. I haven't read it yet. But, if it makes you feel any better, Sean Wilsey of THE NEW YORK TIMES
, called it "a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own."
I asked Mills how she defined pornography and how BLANKETS
and FUN HOME
qualified. She answered, "The illustrations are sexually explicit. When you show someone in a sexual act in an illustration, that's pornography." She also emphasized to me that she didn't object to the mere presence of sexuality in those stories, but felt the visual depiction thereof rendered them unsuitable for a public library shelf. She said, "If the board truly listens to our community, then at a minimum they'd put these books behind the counter so that you'd have to be 18 to check them out."
Most libraries only allow adults to borrow PLAYBOY
after presenting identification, in a similar setup to what Mills proposes. And yet, while BLANKETS
and FUN HOME
depict sexuality, neither comes close to the level of explicitness one usually associates with porn. I know that, at least in the case of BLANKETS
having not read the other work it doesn't even match PLAYBOY
for graphic content. None of the images therein elicit the arousal that separates pornography from artistic depictions of sexuality. In fact, upon perusing the Marshall Public Library's website, I discovered they carry both a collection of Rembrandt's paintings featuring a few nudes and even some sex, I'd venture and Olivia St. Claire's book, 203 WAYS TO DRIVE A MAN WILD IN BED
, complete with line drawing illustrations. And yet, they remain on the shelves, available for all to see.
No legal definition for pornography even exists, though laws governing the distribution of indecent, sexually explicit material certainly do. By "indecent," think graphic depictions of genital contact designed solely to arouse. However, few would consider BLANKETS
or FUN HOME
indecent, just as they wouldn't find a Rembrandt painting really hot. In the case of BLANKETS
, at least, it features a couple of tasteful depictions of adolescent sexuality, including cuddling, making out, and masturbation. Both scenes are very discreet, with slight nudity. Admittedly, BLANKETS
features one slightly more graphic scene where, as children, Thompson and his younger brother start a fight that culminates in them urinating on each other in bed. Far from some kind of sick golden shower fantasy, it depicts the unsavory uses children sometimes make of their bodily excretions. Anyone with kids can attest to such incidents. As Alan Moore put it to me, "BLANKETS
is an incredibly heartwarming human document not talking about sex so much as it is talking about...human attraction...Most normal people said it was touching and engrossing and that it brought back a lot of those feelings that a lot of us can remember from that period. I don't remember anyone saying 'Page 123 was really hot.' You'd suspect that someone coming away from BLANKETS
with that idea could find a bus ticket arousing."
Moore continued, "Presumably, what they are saying is that any depiction of sex in any context whatsoever is wrong and pornography and, therefore, meant only to arouse and have no redeeming worth beyond that. Thus, any depiction of any sexual scene must not be socially acceptable. That would rule out every work of literature, including the Bible, which is unutterably filthy in some passages." Please note that Moore stated us such prior to my conversation with Mills, in response to the whole of those in favor of removing the books.
In response to that very sentiment though not to Moore directly Mills stated, "I realize that some people say that it's okay or they want to clarify the level of pornography or say it isn't at all, but I don't think that pictures really add to their story. In both books, you can get the picture without the pictures. I would never care to see this sexual act or any other."
If the images alone present a problem, the library should probably reconsider 203 WAYS TO DRIVE A MAN WILD IN BED
, along with a host of art books, or NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
back issues. I can't see how reading either of the works in question could really hurt a child, though they might find them boring in comparison to YU-GI-OH!
Mills commented, "I know people will say this is minor, and that there's worse stuff than this on TV. I know you can choose not to watch something. But, a child in a library can't choose not to take something in once they've seen the image. It attracts kids because it's a comic."
I asked Mills how the works in question might affect a child and she answered, "It could be different for anyone."
When similarly asked how the works in question might affect someone, Moore answered, "They might think, 'That looks kind of fun. I hope I can have a girlfriend and, one day, we might have sex.'"
The problem remains that both images and text constitute free expression under the law, particularly in works that don't qualify as indecent or "adult entertainment." Then again, I wonder if a child would suffer more from the images in BLANKETS
or FUN HOME
than from the text in the Marquis de Sade's JUSTINE
, since textual descriptions of sex don't appear to bother anyone. If one worries that BLANKETS
will influence children, they ought to consider reigning in Vladimir Nabokov's LOLITA
or, yes, the Bible next. Though, to give due credit, Mills doesn't want the books banned by law. She simply feels that if the majority of taxpayers don't want to support the inclusion of the book, the library should heed their wishes. She stated, "If the library board truly listens to the overwhelming majority of the community that spoke out, they will at a minimum restrict the book. If they vote to do nothing and have it catalogued as is, they didn't listen to their community." Indeed, the Marshall Public Library's Board of Trustees can vote to eject the books or restrict them. But, both titles apparently deserved inclusion initially, and popular offense hardly stands as the pinnacle of literary analysis. Plenty of great books have been burned by well meaning mobs.
In my estimation, a couple of problems remain with even restricting the books. First, it ignores the fact that bookstores and comic shops sell both titles unrestricted. Any child desperate to read either title can buy them easily enough. If they weren't interested before, they will be now. Second, declaring the books unsuitable for children places a value judgment on material not legally indecent. The government can tell you to withhold porn from children, but it can't do the same to a comic with light sexual content. Though the Board of Trustees can vote to restrict the books, it would do so in defiance of the spirit of free speech that the public library system has upheld for so long. Third, reserving the books for adults could deny the very people that stand to benefit most from the memoirs teenagers. The Marshall Public Library even lists BLANKETS
as a young adult title. Someone had the right idea.
Executive Director Charles Brownstein of the CBLDF and Arts Program Director Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to Anita Wright, president of the Board of Trustees for the Marshall Public Library. In it, they stated, "Whatever arguments might be advanced to justify denying minors access to non-obscene sexual content are inadequate to deny adults access to legal materials. As the Supreme Court has repeated on numerous occasions, 'The level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox.'" Granted, this fails to address the alternative of restricting the book to those under 18, but refer to the last paragraph.
But, Mill feels that no one stands to benefit from even these tasteful depictions of sexuality, stating, "Anytime a woman's body is exposed so explicitly like that, it degrades the woman. It takes lightly what's meant for one person her husband. Any of that degradation...can be taken in many ways. Pornography is a stepping stone to physical abuse."
When I spoke to Brownstein, he stated, "As a citizen, [Louise Mills] has a right to stand up for what she believes is appropriate for her community, just as her community, and the world at large has a right to stand up for what they believe is correct under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment...we believe that the books are valid free expression and should be available to the library's community, but we respect that each community must make their own determinations on what is appropriate. Naturally, we hope that the books remain in the library, and hope that the dialogue that has emerged has helped educate those following the story about the literary value of the books at issue, and of the First Amendment rights those books, and other books are entitled."
He also stated, "Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on attempts to censor content that alleged to be 'harmful to minors.' These range from state and federal legislative attempts to censor the Internet and video games; create standards that would ban anything 'harmful to minors' violence being sold without labels; and regulate the sale and display of books and magazines that are protected for adults, but supposedly, 'harmful to minors.'
He continued, "While all of these things are happening in many different quarters, the common thread is a rallying cry to protect children by censoring content. The common finding on the side looking to censor content is that parents alone cannot completely monitor the media consumption of their children and so the government needs to step in. The CBLDF and our allies in the First Amendment world tend to believe that the government has no business censoring protected content that is sold responsibly."
Public libraries cater to a range of demographics and tastes. Doubtless, I could find something that offends me on the shelves at the Marshall branch either in pictures or text but I would never dare to call for its removal or restriction, unless the library decided to carry actual porn. As a child, I checked out ELFQUEST
volumes from the library, which featured sexual situations and brief nudity on par with BLANKETS
. I like to think I turned out all right. While the Board of Trustees at the Marshall Public Library has the right to remove or restrict BLANKETS
and FUN HOME
, they would do so in a censorious spirit that caves into mob rule. Outside of legally indecent material, parents have the ultimate authority over the comics their children read. To suggest otherwise asks the library to censor two books with tasteful sexual content not unlike that found in other titles on its shelf.
For their time and contributions to this week's COMICSCAPE
, I'd like to thank Louise Mills, Charles Brownstein, and Alan Moore, to whom I give the last word: "Anybody that reads this story should read the books in question and see if their prurient interests are aroused, or if they get engrossed in the human relationships. If you came out of BLANKETS
thinking there was anything sexually wrong, you should probably talk to someone and get help. The idea of taking it off the shelf is laughable. If you told me they'd taken Robert Crumb off the shelf, I'd think it was ridiculous. But, I'd understand a little more why they'd done it. But BLANKETS
is heartwarming and completely innocuous. It is very sweet." The Spinner RackBy Al Brown and Kurt Amacker Al:
In honor of last week's column, which went poorly, it's our goal this week to...not suck as bad. What can we say about last week? We do this thing every seven days. Sometimes we get bored and decide to try new things. And sometimes it doesn't work. Uh, at all.Kurt:
I still cry myself to sleep thinking about Celebrity Jeopardy. Al:
You know what else doesn't work? Casting an African American woman as Jessica Jones because you can't handle interracial love.
This is a cop-out. Bendis handled the interracial romance between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones with grace, good taste, and aplomb. This just reeks of Hollywood's usual failure to try anything that might slightly offend more than five people. DARK HORSE COMICS Blade Of The Immortal #118 (MR)
$2.99 Coffin Art Of Vampire Hunter D SC Slipcase Edition
$39.95 Escapists #4 (of 6)
Hooray for Escapists,
which is really turning out great. Mutts Pvc Set
$14.99 Old Boy Vol 2 TP (note Price)
This is indeed the (continuation of the) comic book adaptation of the staggeringly awesome Korean film of the same name.
Seriously, if you haven't seen that movie yet...wow.Kurt:
Here's a shameful secret: I bought it a year ago, and I haven't watched it yet. Forget Marshall, Missouri here comes the hate mail! Scarlet Traces The Great Game #4 (of 4)
$2.99 School Zone Vol 3 TP
Wouldn't it be more like "SLOW DOWN TO 20 MPH!" Star Wars Legacy #4
$2.99 Who Fighter With Heart Of Darkness TP
Who's on first? DC COMICS 52 Week #23
I love the idea of this series, and I think everyone agrees that it got off to a hot start. Nearing the halfway mark, though, I'm finding myself suffering from exhaustion. And I'm not seeing a whole lot of tie-in between this series and the "One Year Later" storylines in the other major books. Maybe it's just my short attention span, but I'm bored of Black Adam.Kurt:
I called Black Adam to ask what he thought about the situation in Marshall. He said you're a tool. Absolute Sandman Vol 1 HC (MR)
Mom, if you're reading this, my birthday, wedding anniversary, and Christmas are coming up. You've got three chances. Seriously, this has the first 20 issues of the series, so you won't have to buy 11 more Absolute editions. Batman Legends Of The Dark Knight #211
$2.99 Batman Strikes #26
$2.25 Cartoon Network Action Pack #6
$2.25 Densha Otoko Vol 1
$9.99 Desolation Jones TP (MR)
I know this book has been slow in coming, but it's really worth it. I'm blown away every month. Buy this and you won't have to scream in anguish at the end of each issue, like I did. DMZ #12 (MR)
$2.99 Fables #54 (MR)
$2.99 Fables Special Edition #1 (MR)
Includes a preview of Fables: Nights of Snowfall.
Hell, it's only a quarter.Kurt:
Is it true that Snow White doesn't shoot first in this version? Firestorm The Nuclear Man #30
$2.99 Gen 13 #1
Absolutely my most-anticipated book of the week. The mighty Gail Simone reimagines one of my favorite teams, the 90's castoffs Gen13
(last seen totally blowed up in a nuclear holocaust). I am IN. Y'all better not skimp on the cheesecake, though.Kurt:
I love cheesecake especially when they put chocolate shavings on it or cherries. Good stuff. Gen 13 Var Edition A #1
$2.99 Gen 13 Var Edition B #1
$2.99 Green Arrow #67
$2.99 Green Lantern Corps #5
$2.99 Infinite Crisis Companion TP
Is this really just a really bad girlfriend? No, it's a collection of all the Infinite Crisis Special
one-shots. Since Villains United
was the only one of these that didn't suck, I'm gonna go ahead and not buy this.Kurt:
Next week, look for Infinite Crisis: Life Partner
! JLA Classified #28
$2.99 Mad Classics #11
$4.99A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the worst of times and the even worse of times! Screw everything! Mad Magazine #471
$3.99Ladies' Home Journal:
Did I tell you what my husband DIDN'T do tonight? Let me just sit right down and tell you what that no-good, lying... Martian Manhunter #3 (of 8)
$2.99 Next #4 (of 6)
$2.99 Rokkin #4
$2.99 Tales Of The Unexpected #1 (of 8)
David Lapham (Stray Bullets; Batman: City of Crime) and Eric Battle (Batman; awesome last name) do the Spectre. I'll check it out on the strength of a backup feature starring some castoff DC characters (Tracie 13, Primate Patrol, Captain Fear) so obscure they don't even have their own Wikipedia entries. Now that's obscure!Kurt:
Lapham usually does a great job infusing superheroes with a surprising level of humanity and realism. Tales Of The Unexpected Var Edition #1 (of 8)
$3.99 Tom Strong Book Six HC
$24.99 Whos Who Mystery Box Set Series 2
PI Women Of The Dc Universe Supergirl Bust
Awesome, is it really just her boobs? $45 is a lot for something this small.Kurt:
We were supposed to stay away from this kind of thing, but okay: "Wow, just her boobs? I know what I'm doing this weekend! Yuck, yuck!" Worldstorm #1
As you may know, the above Gen13 #1
is part of a complete revamp / relaunch of the Wildstorm
universe, with talents like Gail Simone and Grant Morrison on board. This one-shot is a preview sort of thing, with a couple of original six-pagers, meant to stir up interest in the whole project. I find that these are nearly always unsatisfying, personally.Kurt:
Have you ever picked up one of those preview books with teaser stories and felt like it was worth your time? Seriously, it takes me a few issues to pass judgment on a series, not six pages. IMAGE COMICS Bomb Queen Vol 2 #1 (MR)
I gotta say, I read the entire first volume of Bomb Queen
(yeah, all four issues) and unless you're really, really into thongs - like, to the exclusion of everything else - it's just not very good. Cyberforce #6
$2.99 Cyberforce Ww Philly Top Cow Store Exc ED #3
$5.00 Elephantmen #1 Pencil Var CVR 2nd Prg (PP #735)
With guest appearances by Joseph Merrick and David Lynch. Emissary #5
$3.50 Invincible Vol 7 Threes Company TP
$14.99Chrissy and Janet:
Where have you been!? Liberty Meadows Vol 3 Summer Of Love TP New Ptg
$14.99 Pirates Of Coney Island #1 (of 8)
By Rick Spears (Teenagers From Mars
). In this issue: sliced-up eyeballs and a girl gang called The Cherries. And, I assume, pirates. Worth a shot. Red Warrior Assassin For Thieves World GN
$12.99 Rising Stars Untouchable Reader Set
I dug Rising Stars
up until September 2001, when J. Michael Straczynski turned it into his soapbox rant against the Bush administration. Then, he concluded the series a couple of years late with the superheroes taking over like it was a good thing. Sam Noir Samurai Detective #2
$2.99 Spawn Collection Vol 2 TP
$29.95 Tomb Raider Set
$10.00 Umbra #3 (of 3)
$5.99 Untouchables TP
$16.99 Witchblade Wolverine One Shot Cgc Graded 9.8
You know, I love Wolverine and everything, but do you know what I love even more? My dignity. MARVEL COMICS Annihilation #3 (of 6)
$2.99 Ares God Of War TP
This Michael Oeming mini was better than I expected it to be, and worth checking out just for the scene where Ares lights himself on fire and catapults himself into an enemy army...but word on the street (by which I mean the Internet) is that he'll be joining the Avengers soon, which should make you either more motivated or less to buy this.Kurt:
I adapted the light-myself-on-fire-and-catapult-myself-at-my-enemies tactic years ago. Other than the scar tissue covering every inch of my body, it works great! Captain America Winter Soldier Vol 2 TP
$14.99 Civil War Front Line #7 (of 11)
$2.99 Magician Apprentice Collected Edition
$3.99 Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four #17
$2.99 Marvel Masterworks Amazing Spider-Man Vol 8 HC Var ED 68
I love color and everything, but I think I'll just stick with the Essentials. Marvel Masterworks Amazing Spider-Man Vol 8 New ED HC
$49.99 Marvel Milestones Legion Monsters Spider-Man & Bro Voodoo
Brother Voodoo? Al already ordered, like, five of them. New X-Men #31
Chris Yost and Craig Kyle wrap up their first year on New X-Men
by...killing someone. Again. I know there were too many characters before, but...Gawd, guys.Kurt:
If Marvel keeps killing them at this rate, it'll just be the X-Man. I don't mean Nate Grey, either. It'll probably be Wolverine. Powers #20 (MR)
Gotta say, for me this once-groundbreaking series started going downhill the minute it moved to Icon (actually, maybe a few issues before that). Now...well, there were naked women on at least half the pages of the last issue, and Bendis appears to have fired whoever it was that used to fix his awful grammar. And it's boring. Pulse Vol 3 Fear TP
$14.99 Punisher #39 (MR)
Does this come out biweekly or something now? Not that I don't love Frank Castle and everything, but Marvel's really cranking this one out. Red Prophet Tales Of Alvin Maker Collected Edition
No one who isn't a Chipmunk should be named Alvin.Kurt:
Did anyone actually like that show? It's three singing chipmunks in a world full of people and no one freakin' notices? And who really wants to hear Blondie sung by a guy that's been huffing helium? Spider-Man The Other TP
$24.99 Stan Lee Meets Dr Strange
The fact that last week's Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man
didn't completely suck doesn't make me any more inclined to keep reading these one-shots. But as long as we're talking about Dr. Strange anyway, did you check out last week's Dr. Strange: The Oath?
That was awesome.Kurt:
I did, and it was indeed awesome. I haven't washed my hand since Brian K. Vaughan shook it at San Diego Comic Con over a year ago. There's some green stuff growing on it now. Thunderbolts #107
$2.99 Ultimate Power #1 (of 9)
The Squadrom Supreme comes to the Ultimate Universe. Bendis and Greg Land do the honors. This is one of those books where I'm pretty sure it'll be lame, but I know I'm gonna buy it anyway. I hate when that happens.Kurt:
That's been the story of most of my comics reading since I was a kid. Ultimate Power Ink Var #1 (of 9)
$2.99 Ultimate X-Men #75
Two questions: Who was it that decided the world needed Ultimate Cable? And will someone kick his ass?Kurt:
Why not go straight to the guy that created the original Cable? Uncanny X-Men #479
$2.99 Wolverine Enemy Of The State Complete Edition HC
Hey, Marvel guys? The hardcover that collected Runaways Vol. 1
was only 25 bucks. What gives with the price tag?Kurt:
They clearly needed to make up for the ass-kicking low price of the Runaways
collection. Man, did that book rock. Wolverine Origins #7
I know the guys over at Ain't He Huge News don't like this book at all, but I really dig it. Somebody finally realized that Wolverine's spent his whole life killing people and, well, he's not a nice guy. Wolverine Origins Quesada Sketch Var #7
I'm still not buying this. I'm outta here. Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.