by Mark Bousquet
While the National Coalition Against Censorship’s recent headline, “Graphic Novels and Comic Books, They’re Not Just for Kids” feels anachronistic to fans of the medium, a recent complaint filed against Alan Moore’s Neonomicon (Avatar Press) at a public library in Greenville, South Carolina, reminds us that such reminders are still needed. Despite Neonomicon being correctly shelved in the adult section of the library, a patron recently filed an official challenge against the book after it was checked out of the library by her 14-year old daughter, even though her daughter had both a library card that allowed her access to the library’s adult material and her mother’s permission to take the book home. At the heart of the mother’s complaint is the common misconception that graphic novels and comic books are a medium only for children.
NCAC’s article reminds us of how deep and powerful the cultural designation of comic books as a medium solely for children is to some Americans. After their headline informs people that comic books aren’t “just for kids,” the article notes that “many of them contain the sorts of things you might not want a young child to see. Like video games, the market for comic books and graphic novels has a broader demographic appeal than 50 or 60 years ago.”
The Neonomicon challenge reveals a deeper danger than incorrect cultural assumptions, however, as the parent seeks the outright removal of the book from the library despite the library having taken proper steps to assure that only mature readers would have access to the material. Neonomicon was correctly shelved in the adult section of the library, the library correctly prohibits minors from viewing these materials without a specific library card that grants them access, and most troubling, the parent who filed the complaint even looked at and approved the book before the child took it home, telling Greenville’s CBS 7, “It looked like a murder mystery comic book to me. It looked like a child’s book. I flipped through it, and thought it was ok for her to check out.” Despite the library shelving the book in a restricted section, and despite the parent both allowing access to that section and approving the book to be taken home, the parent has still decided to blame the library. While her challenge is under review, all remaining library copies of Neonomicon have been pulled from the shelves, denying other patrons access to the material.
The NCAC succinctly and pointedly offers some advice for the challenge-issuing parent: “If your child does read, say, the dark and graphic work Neonomicon by Alan Moore, however, the answer may be to better track what he or she is reading. The answer should not be to call for the book to be yanked from the public library altogether. Especially considering it was already housed on the adult shelves because it is, you know, a book for adults.”
In 2006, NCAC, the American Library Association, and CBLDF created “Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians,” a resource guide for librarians on how to handle cases like the Neonomicon challenge. The guide notes that, “in theory, dealing with challenges to graphic novels is no different than dealing with challenges to print material. In practice, however, it is important to keep in mind that many people consider an image to be far more powerful in its impact than any written description of that image.” The NCAC offers the following general advice for libraries that have been challenged:
If responding to a challenge, focus on three key points:
Libraries provide ideas and information across the spectrum of social and political views.
Libraries provide choice for all people.
Parents are responsible for supervising their own children’s library use.
CBLDF, NCAC, and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression have joined forces to fight the Neonomicon challenge, and have co-authored a letter to the Greenville County Public Library’s Board of Trustees, arguing:
The book was appropriately shelved in the adult section of the library. The fact that it was withdrawn by a minor, whose mother had given written permission for her to borrow materials from the adult section, is no basis for removing the book—an action that infringes the First Amendment rights of adult library patrons. Indeed, the removal of the book during the review process is itself problematic, since any government suppression of material because of objections to its viewpoint or content transgresses constitutional boundaries. As a legal matter, the harm has been done, even if it is later rectified.
Stay tuned to CBLDF.org for future developments on the Neonomicon challenge. You can read the entirety of NCAC’s admonition that comics aren’t for kids here.
Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.