Comic Book Censorship: How Much is Too Much?

             In 1994, Mike Diana, creator of the illustrated magazine Boiled Angel, was convicted on charges of producing obscenity. Prosecutors stated that Diana’s work, which detailed things such as child molestation and date rape, “lacked serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” in comparison to works like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Picasso’s war painting “Guernica.”    Diana appealed his case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court where on June 27, 1997 they denied his petition for a writ of certiorari, and upheld the decision, ordering him to pay a $3,000.00 fine.  Additionally, he was told to undergo psychological testing, take a journalistic ethics course, and have no contact with individuals under 18 years of age; all of this was in addition to probation which stipulated that Diana’s residence could be inspected at any time to see if he was creating any kind of “obscene material.” (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 2011) As can be expected with a case like this, Mike Diana’s career as a comic artist was inextricably altered if not totally ruined.

            While this indeed is a very extreme and dramatic form of censorship in the comic world, it is only one of many instances of censorship. The beginning of modern-day censorship of comics seems to have begun in the 1950s when Dr. Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent where he alleged that comic books encouraged juvenile delinquency. True to the McCarthyist fashion of the 1950s, hearings were held to investigate the claims made in the book and a new Comics Code of Authority was introduced to regulate and prohibit such controversial comics. In response to this crackdown came the “Underground Comix” movement which began in the late ‘60s.   However, some of those comics still could not avoid prosecution for obscenity. Comics such as EC Comics’ Zap #4 that are now considered classics, came under fire during this time. (Alston, 1997) While the intensity of the crackdown on comics has certainly lessened over the last forty years, isolated events, such as the Mike Diana case, have continued to occur and to many avid comic book readers it may begin to beg the question: how much censorship is too much censorship?

            To many, it would appear that censorship of any type of art in a democracy such as America would be oxymoronic. But many proponents of comic book censorship argue that comics are meant for children and should thus, not contain any material that an adult would not consider appropriate for a minor. Opponents of comic book censorship think otherwise stating,

“…comic books are one of the most pervasive and influential media forms of 20th-century popular culture…A child could pick up a volume of erotica, yet no one will dare challenge Harper Books. The cold, hard fact is that there is no difference- comics are targeted because they are seen as vulnerable, less serious because they are read by children, and sell for less than three dollars. End of story.” (Anysia, 2009)

            The fact remains that, under the First Amendment, a comic book artist or any artist can create whatever they please based on free speech and it’s not  in any way their  responsibility to regulate what children read (although one could argue that there should be laws preventing the sale  of adult comics to children). Obscenity charges, however seemingly appropriate, push the boundary between regulation and violation of liberties. As well, the responsibility to control what a child reads, that is if children’s exposure to mature comics is the base of concern, lies mainly with parents. It is up to the mother and the father to speak up and tell their child what he or she can and cannot read. No comic book artist or retailer should have to play babysitter to a curious child that chooses to read material that is too grown up for them.

            To defend and protect the rights of comic book creators as well as retailers, publishers, librarians, and readers, organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) have been developed to provide legal referrals, advice, and other such assistance to people involved in the comic book world. Organizations like these exist primarily so that these individuals know their rights and how and when to assert them. Still, censorship of comic books is an issue that spans over various topics and interpretations and even the presence of organizations such as the CBLDF may not be enough assurance in the face of “popular opinion”  that wishes to rid its country of all that is deemed immoral at the cost of freedom.

~Jorie Goins

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