It started, as too many things do, with a children’s book that some people found offensive, and ended with a piece of legislation called Clause 28 that made it illegal to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship.” Amidst the protests to this proposed legislation, there was a significant contribution to the field of comics in the anthology AARGH!, Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia, which dared to protest Clause 28.
The children’s book that sparked outrage was Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin a Danish picture book translated into English that discussed homosexuality. The uproar began in 1986 when it was reported that the book was part of a school’s collection. The book itself won’t actually available to children but rather was purchased for the teachers and was available to be shown to older students in “exceptional circumstances” (which seems a euphemism for a student dealing with the homosexuality of a parent or loved one).
The availability of the book at all was seen as problematic by conservatives in the government. It was this moral panic, in combination with public funding of LGBT groups, and the constant escalation of the AIDS epidemic, that inspired Margaret Thatcher to go on television in 1987, and say the following in a public address:
“But it’s the plight of individual boys and girls that worries me most. Too often our children don’t get the education they need, the education they deserve. Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes cheated.”
It’s been 30 years since an insidious piece of law went on the books in the UK, Clause 28 was legislation designed to not to prohibit teachers from informing students about homosexuals throughout history, but to erase the concept of homosexuality from the classroom and society at large. In response to the proposal of such an amendment, Alan Moore, his then wife Phyllis, and their partner, Deborah Delano, joined together and created Mad Love, a publishing company that, together with some of the top comics creators, put together AARGH! and arranged for the proceeds to go to the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Action. All told, they raised £17,000.
Clause 28, also known as Section 28, was enacted on May 24th, 1988 and stated local authorities could not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” This wording was a response to the belief that Thatcher and her conservative party cronies held that children were being indoctrinated in school to believe “they have an inalienable right to be gay” but the vagueness of the legislation was especially worrisome. What is the promotion of homosexuality? Many felt that just acknowledging the existence of same-sex love, was perpetuating “the acceptability of homosexuality.” The idea behind Clause 28 was the complete erasure of homosexuality, as Moore put it “a real piece of Nazi legislation.”
Alan Moore half-jokingly told a college classroom in Northampton that because he “had access to a lot of famous comic book people [he] could . . . morally blackmail most of them” into contributing something to an anthology. The artists and writers who contributed were myriad, including, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Howard Cruse, Dave Sim, Robert Crumb, Mark Buckingham, Dave McKean, David Lloyd, Dave Gibbons, and many, many more. The pieces range from comic strips to bizarre dreams illustrated, from poetry to rhyming couplets of verse mimicking the cautionary tales for children popular in the late 19th century, and countless more forms of art and prose.
One of the standouts from the pages of AARGH! is Moore’s opening piece, a prose-poem, Mirror of Love, illustrated by Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. Moore uses a pair of identical, gender neutral, angelic lovers as the constants through the ages — “Always we loved. How could we otherwise, when you are so like me, my sweet, but in a different guise?” — as he winds he way from the time before language through history to the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 itself.
“Policemen claimed to speak for god, describing persons having AIDS as swilling in a self-made cesspit, while councillor Brownhills, a conservative, recalled an earlier final solution, offering to “gas the queers.” And Margaret Thatcher praised their forthrightness.
She let a clause pass into law that her chief minister for local government described as being aimed at banishing all trace of homosexuality: the act itself. All gay relationships, even the abstract concept would be gone, a word torn from the dictionary.”
That image and concept of the word ripped from the pages of the dictionary is revisited in Neil Gaiman’s piece From Homogenous to Honey, the title itself referring to the word “homosexuality” missing from the alphabetical list in the dictionary. Gaiman’s piece, illustrated by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham, follows a masked narrator as he walks the reader through the “improvements” to the “new universe.”
The removal of a concept from society is always fraught with potential problems. Where do we start?… The obvious place to start was with books. Repositories of ideas. Dangerous. Examine, please, a book which presents a positive image of inversion. [Narrator lights A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White on fire] That was easy. What then to do about something that contains a fairly sympathetic catamite? We take the character out. No real problem here. And Saki and the rest we consign to a bonfire of the ocean…
It’s no surprise that Gaiman begins his piece with the censoring and destruction of books. Not only is he the current co-chair of the CBLDF Advisory Board, but he is a life-long advocate of free expression who has frequently spoken out about the importance of free speech and standing up for First Amendment Rights. But in this comic, just destroying books is of course not enough to rid the world of the concept of homosexuality. The faceless narrator must then destroy music — “no more Bowie, No more Reed, bye bye Communards…And with Brian Epstein out of the picture, there never were any Beatles, were there?” — followed by theater, and then eventually all of civilization. “The world is a simpler place. We’ve taken out all the complications.”
There are too many great moments in AARGH! to catalog them here, and so many amazing references that to do it justice would take all day. And sadly, Section 28 passed regardless of the efforts of the many talented creators behind AARGH! and the scores of others who protested this homophobic amendment. Still despite this loss, AARGH! was still a success on two fronts. Moore himself was pleased with the anthology and its efforts, saying “we hadn’t prevented this bill from becoming law, but we had joined in the general uproar against it, which prevented it from ever becoming as viciously effective as its designers might have hoped.” And although AARGH! wasn’t the first benefit comics anthology, it was important to show that comics was a caring, inclusive industry, that could help change the world one panel at a time.
There are two more important things to take away from this moment in comics history. It is critical to never ignore any attempt to ban a book, no matter how small it may seem at the time. The book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin was not why the conservative party in the U.K. wrote and subsequently passed Clause 28, but it was part of a larger pretense, and that is why constant vigilance is required on the front lines of free expression.
The other thing to note when considering AARGH! as part of the larger comics history, is as a reminder to always fight for what you believe in. The media attention kept this piece of legislation from being a tool to jail people for writing about or talking about different sexualities. This anthology is a coveted artifact, still being discussed thirty years later. Even when you think that you’ll lose the fight, even when you think no one else cares or is paying attention – make the art you believe in and you’ll find others who believe in it too.