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Find more "Reframing the Narrative"
“The real question is this: ‘are comic books good or are they not good?’ If you want to raise a generation that is half stormtrooper and half cannon fodder with a dash of illiteracy then comic books are good. In fact, they are perfect.” Dr. Fredric Wertham’s sensational testimony in the 1954 US Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Comic books and Juvenile Delinquency set the tone and tenor for comics in the 1950s. Several countries, including Canada, had already passed legislation to include comics in the criminal-code obscenity clause, and other countries, including those in the UK, would shortly follow. Wertham’s testimony and that of other concerned citizens prompted the introduction of the Comics Code Authority to censor and modify comics content going forward.
While most today would not link comic book reading and juvenile delinquency as Wertham did, what’s notable is how many of the principal arguments against comics in the 1950s persist today and pop up in multiple direct and subtle ways in schools and libraries in our cataloging, our collection development, and our ideas of what constitutes “good reading.”
What were some of the objections in the 1950s against comics?
“What’s Wrong with Comic Books?,” published in 1956 by the Alberta Advisory Board on Objectionable Publications, is emblematic of many of the pamphlets, parental handouts, and community flyers that circulated among concerned citizens in Canada, the U.S., Australia, the UK, and elsewhere throughout the 1940s–’50s. “What’s Wrong with Comic Books?” built on ideas and points shared by Wertham both in his testimony and in his bestselling book, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth (1954). The Advisory Board lists six principal objections to comic books:
This pamphlet is viewable via the Internet Archive, and what’s interesting is the inclusion of quotes from prominent politicians, such as J. Edgar Hoover, alongside quotes from notable librarians, including Canadian children’s librarian Louise Riley. Carol Tilley, in her 2012 article on Wertham, also notes the library support of his work and findings, adding that Margaret Martignoni, director of children’s work at the Brooklyn Public Library, described Seduction as a “must read” for all educators and parents concerned with child development.
One of the crucial concerns for librarians and educators in the 1950s surrounded the idea that “all comics are detrimental to reading.” A push to encourage “good reading” initiatives became synonymous with anti-comics movements and many of these biases remain ingrained in society’s views on comics even today, particularly when it comes to educational value. When we talk about “good” reading in libraries and education, comics and graphic novels are continually excluded.
What are some pedagogical biases against comics today?
Part of these biases shows up in the way libraries and educators place value on “graphic novels” over “comics,” as if they are not synonymous. It may seem silly to object to a term that has served to legitimize comics in certain environments, including academia; however, that legitimization often serves to build a divide between the comics that are deemed worthy enough to be acceptable in educational spaces and the comics that are left behind, which are considered “too juvenile” or not “real reading” and unworthy of space on library shelves.
As Andrew Wang noted in his essay in Comics & Critical Librarianship: Reframing the Narrative in Academic Libraries, comics often hold a lower status and are marginalized in academic libraries, in particular by the way libraries choose to shelve and classify these collections. Furthering the idea that comics are a gateway to reading, academic libraries often relegate comics to leisure-reading collections, which in turn marks them as supplementary texts—reading that is not serious enough to be considered in research collections. “As the comic format continues to hold a lesser status in academia, newer comics are subjected to the same cultural marginalization faced by their predecessors,” writes Wang. Old notions of the value of reading both words and pictures, and particularly the assumption that reading pictures is less important than reading text, devalue comics as research texts, and can not only result in comics being marginalized on the shelves but also bleeds into other access issues, such as poorer catalog records and inconsistent collection development.
The idea that “most comics are inartistic” or that they are “detrimental to reading” may seem outdated, but unfortunately we still see this kind of conversation around comics today. In academia, while comics are showing up in library spaces, the way they show up is often uneven and based solely on the tastes and interests of selectors. Without a collection-development policy that mentions comics and budgets that are specifically devoted to collecting in graphic formats, comics end up unevenly distributed throughout general collections and are either relegated to popular or leisure reading collections or only selected in areas in which the selector happens to recognize the value of comics. If the science liaison is the only one willing to purchase comics, for instance, the library ends up with a strong science-comics collection and a lack of graphic representation anywhere else. Likewise, public libraries more often devote funding to comics in children’s and teen collection areas, while the larger adult collections budgets lack a comics mandate.
Another issue that affects access is inconsistency in cataloging or a consistent lack of detail in comics catalog records. ALA’s Graphic Novel and Comics Roundtable (GNCRT)’s Metadata and Cataloging Committee released its response to this problem in the form of a Best Practices for Cataloging Comics and Graphic Novels using RDA and MARC21 document in September 2022. Among its many recommendations and considerations for catalogers, the dense document details a benefit of cataloging comic issues and volumes separately (instead of lumped together under one serial record): the ability to assign proper creator information to each volume. As creators and contributors change across issues, connecting each creator—particularly artists—with each volume of a comic helps researchers and fans to trace work across an artist’s career. And doing so shows that libraries see the value in connecting these artworks.
Giving each work its own record also provides the ability to add more nuanced subject headings at the volume level rather than at the level of the overall series. At worst, catalog records for comics only include the “Graphic novels” subject heading, making the actual content for the work harder to assess. Since a May 2022 update in the Library of Congress’ Subject Heading Manual instructions for fiction comics, the limits for subject headings are expanded and, as a result, the Best Practices for Cataloging Comics document recommends catalogers “consider applying classes of person and individual character subject headings for works featuring characters from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds, and topical headings describing the lives, interests, and experiences of diverse groups of people. including more detailed description” to facilitate better representation and access.
Additional ways in which biased attitudes toward comics pop up include the persistent idea that comics are “for kids,” which often results in most comics collection-development budgets still relegated to JUV or YA departments. Additionally, school and other libraries might have comics earmarked only for reluctant, struggling, or emerging readers. Though no one might stridently say that comics cause illiteracy’ today, may schools and libraries do restrict comics reading (even nonfiction comics) for summer reading programs and school projects, emphasizing that children must “progress” in their reading. Finally, the intertwined relationship among comics, children, and ideas of harm persists—especially as evidenced in the large number of recent bans and challenges particularly targeted at comics such as Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Jerry Craft’s New Kid. While other text-only accounts discussing diversity, race, gender, and sexuality have also been banned, there is something particularly inflammatory and worrisome for critics about visual images displaying such topics.
All of the above attitudes stand in contrast to emerging interdisciplinary research that not only are comics “real reading” but they are also, often, superior to text-only publications when it comes to reading comprehension and information retention. As described in Carly Diab’s chapter in Comics & Critical Librarianship, comics in educational use can offer important avenues for teaching critical information literacy instruction. Through decoding and image/text analysis, students can learn critical information literacy skills, which are stressed in most educational curricula, yet many classrooms do not incorporate visual or multimodal tools, such as comics, to teach to these standards.
Given the long legacy that followed Wertham and the 1950s anti-comics movements, especially with the involvement of so many schools and libraries, we would argue that much of this current pedagogical reticence to fully embrace comics owes much more to a historical bias than many librarians and educators might realize.
And yet, in 2012, while examining Wertham’s papers at the Library of Congress, Carol Tilley discovered something that people had suspected but had never proven: Wertham falsified much of his research to serve as “proof of concept” that comics led to juvenile delinquency, sexual depravity, and illiteracy. While most of us would not link comics-reading and juvenile delinquency today, many librarians and educators do still link comics with lowered levels of literacy and perceived lowered standards of artistic value. In view of comics’ checkered history, we would encourage a reframing of the narrative around comics: Comics can be good for emerging readers and challenging for savvy ones. They can more fully represent the world around us and emotionally engage us in topics, building empathy. Next time you catalog, purchase, or consider comics for your school or library, reframe the narrative. Are any of your ideas about comics lingering ghosts from the 1950s?
Amie Wright is a PhD Candidate in History who studies comics censorship. Amie is the Chair of the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table Addressing Challenges Committee.
Lindsay Gibb is a journalist and collections librarian who works extensively with zines and comics. Her book National Treasure: Nicolas Cage is available through ECW Press.
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