Neil Gaiman on Censorship and the Perception of Comics as a “Gutter Medium”

In the upcoming Winter 2014 issue of Index on Censorship magazine, political cartoonist Martin Rowson interviewed long-time free speech advocate and CBLDF Advisory Board Co-Chair Neil Gaiman on issues of censorship, comics as a gutter medium, and how graphic novels and literature are still thriving by shocking the mainstream today.

With entertaining stories of their own personal experiences with censorship, death threats, and general public outrage over their works, Gaiman and Rowson reassure us that comics are definitely still alive and well and are continuing to impact the societies in which they are consumed. As Gaiman points out in a podcast of the interview, “As long as people are getting upset, a medium is not dead.”

In the interview, Gaiman vocally celebrates the mainstream perception that comics are a “gutter medium.” Unlike other artistic forms, comics’ blended visual nature warrants a unique outlier position between high literature and low-brow mediums that inspires people from all walks of life to think, engage in discussion on particular issues, and converse about the world around them. “Comics get power from being a gutter medium,” Gaiman says, and it is this power which has allowed comics to become both a serious point of social controversy and an inspiration for social conversation. For Gaiman, comics have played a unique role unlike any other medium in public discourse and that has made the form a target for censorship and regulation, but also something that people have celebrated and used as a vehicle to motivate social change:

Comics, because of the capacity for offense that an image can give, will always have one foot in the gutter… [P]ictures cannot be ignored. They sit there in your head… Comics are a target in a way that literature cannot be a target because the truth is you can grumble about, say Hilary Mantel’s Margaret Thatcher short story, but in order to have an opinion on it, you have to read the story, and the act of reading is going to change you. And it is an act that is considered, it is going to take days, it takes time… The act of shocking people, upsetting people, or rabble-rousing people about an image is as simple as showing them an image or a portion of an image. You don’t even have to show them the whole picture to get them upset, and you can get them upset in all sorts of weird directions.

From Wertham, to Manara, to his time on the board of CBLDF, Gaiman talks about the freedom afforded to comics by being a “baser” form and how that freedom has led to cases of censorship, book banning (and burning), and what Rowson describes as an overall “suspicion of the visual.” Censorship is by no means a topic to be praised, but as Gaiman points out, “those types of threats will always be there” and it is those threats that keep people talking and ultimately the form alive and part of the social consciousness. As Rachel Jolley, editor of Index and contributor to New Statesman, cautions:

Banning things gives them more power and mystique than they had previously.  Tell someone they can’t see something, and you can be sure as soon as you do they will be far more motivated to seek it out and find out about it than they ever were before.

What we must keep in mind, though, in the battle for freedom of speech and expression is that, though this is a very public battle, there will always be obstacles in the form of individuals who wish to censor and suppress. Gaiman says:

The people who are looking out for your best interest and want to save you from the things contaminating you mind, they are out there and determined to save you from anything, and popularity to them generally means nothing.

Although these individuals are ultimately bringing attention and focus to the subjects they desire to suppress, their accusations are always clear and concise, albeit often generalized and pulling from roat rhetoric. This being said, the actions that advocates for free speech take must constantly be evolving and creatively changing in order to combat the “greater good” discourse that we see time and time again and that is so easy for the public to swallow. As Gaiman, Rowson, and Jolley point out, though we have that power of the image on our side. Comics, graphic novels, and cartoons are ideal mediums for our type of activist work because they have the ability to reach all form of people and in many respects can transcend global and linguistic boundaries unlike the word. For Jolley:

Cartoons [are] the valve of opposition in nations where little opposition can be heard or seen. Sometimes cartoons get in under the wire, where a written article would have been pulled, or never even written… Humour is a leveller, a chance to bring those with massive power down to size, or blow them out of proportion, comedy with a kick is something that those with no sense of reality, or with an inflated sense of their own importance fear.

You can listen to the podcast with Gaiman here. With creative, intelligent, and focused individuals like Gaiman, Rowson, Jolley, and so many more in our corner, advocacy groups like CBDLF can continue their important work defending the First Amendment and fighting against censorship and regulation. As Gaiman reminds us, although comics are a “shocking” medium with a “capacity for offense,” it is also a medium that importantly continues to make people think; “shocking is a lot less interesting than making people think, because thinking has long term effects.”

CBLDF celebrates those creators and activists around the world who continue to produce materials that not only poke fun at social injustices, but also enable individuals from all walks of life to engage in critical thought about the world they live in by opening discussions that expose the ridiculous and demonstrate and propagate explicitly the necessity of free speech and expression.

Get in the Spirit of Giving! Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF! When you support CBLDF’s Spirit of Giving drive, The Will & Ann Eisner Family Foundation will make a contribution of $2 for every donation and gift order placed on CBLDF’s website, and they will contribute $10 for each new membership and $5 for every renewing membership made by December 31!

Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!