Case Study: Neonomicon

Neonomicon, the Bram-Stoker Award winning series from Alan Moore and artist Jacen Burrows, was challenged at a library in Greenville, South Carolina. The book was shelved in the adult section of the library, which is generally restricted to minors unless they have parental permission. A 14-year-old girl who had permission from her mother checked out the book. After asking her mother about a profane word used in the book, her mother looked at the book and filed a complaint. The book was challenged for sexual content, which the mother described as “pornographic,” and is currently unavailable to library patrons for review.

Neonomicon collects the four-issue miniseries released by Avatar Press in 2010. The book incorporates Lovecraftian horror into a murder mystery. It received the first-ever Bram Stoker Award for “Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel” earlier this year.

Carrie Gaske, the mother of 14-year-old Jennifer Gaske, displays a common misconception about graphic novels in explaining why she let her daughter check out the book. From CBS 7 on Your Side, the Greenville CBS affiliate:

Recently, the teen found the book, “Neonomicon”, in the library’s adult section and thought it would be a real page turner. Kids above the age of 13 can check out books in the adult section, if they have their parents’ permission. “It looked like a murder mystery comic book to me,” recalls Carrie Gaske. “It looked like a child’s book. I flipped through it, and thought it was ok for her to check out.”

Gaske’s incorrect conclusion that the book was intended for younger readers resulted in a challenge that pulled the book from library shelves:

[The library system's executive director, Beverly] James says the library system has never used a rating system, and it’s up to each parent to read between the lines, and decide what’s appropriate for their child.  Gaske has filed an official challenge to the book.  For now, the system’s two copies in circulation have been pulled from the shelves while a committee reviews the content.  “I’m definitely going to have to review every book they read more from now on,” says Gaske.

CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression in sending the following letter to the Library Board of Trustees at the Greenville County Public Library:

Dear Board Members,

On behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund we strongly urge you to keep Alan Moore’s Neonomicon in the Greenville Public Library. This book has reportedly been challenged by a member of the community who claims its “sexually graphic” images make it inappropriate for the library.

Removing this book because of objections to its content is impermissible under the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, the Constitution does not permit “officially prescribed orthodoxy” which limits what people may read, think, speak, or say. The fact that we are confronted with images and not words does not make a difference—the courts have ruled that images, like words, constitute symbolic expression and are protected by the First Amendment.

Neonomicon is a horror graphic novel which explores themes present in the works of fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, delving into complex issues of race, crime and sexuality. Moore and artist Jacen Burrows use the visual nature of the graphic novel medium to more fully examine the subject matter found in Lovecraft’s original work, achieving a commentary both on Lovecraft and on the horror genre itself. The authors deliberately disturbing depictions of sexual violence are included as a critical comment on how such subject matter is handled elsewhere within the genre. The book recently won the Bram Stoker award for “Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel.” Its critical acclaim testifies to its artistic value which is aided, not eclipsed, by its sexual content.

Alan Moore is one of the most influential and acclaimed authors in both the graphic novel category and the larger literary culture. His body of work includes Watchmen, which Time Magazine named one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. His works also include the graphic novels V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and Lost Girls, all of which have enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim. Neonomicon continues Moore’s explorations in appropriating classic literary characters and themes in the service of post-modern storytelling. It is an essential work by an author who is indisputably a master within his field.

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.

The book meets the criteria that form the basis for the library’s collection development policy. Removing it because of sexual content not only fails to consider the indisputable value of the book as a whole, but also ignores the library’s obligation to serve all readers, without regards to individual tastes and sensibilities. If graphic violent and sexual content were excluded from the library because some people object to it, the library would lose ancient and contemporary classics, from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

We strongly urge you to respect the rights of all readers to read and think freely, and to reject the notion that the views of some readers about the value of literature, or its “appropriateness”, maybe imposed on all. By keeping the books on the library shelves you will demonstrate respect for your readers and their choices, for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public, and for the First Amendment and its importance to a pluralistic democratic society.

Please consult NCAC’s resource “Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians” (http://ncac.org/graphicnovels.cfm) or contact us if there is anything we can do to help.

Sincerely,

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
President
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Charles Brownstein
Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

You can view a PDF of the letter here.

At the time of this writing, the book is still on hold pending review.