Rise in book bans concerns comic book writers



Midtown Comics on West 40th Street. Photo by Lauren Dalban

Amid an increasing number of book bans taking place across the country, independent comic book writers find themselves vulnerable to the same kind of censorship.

Similar to novels that tell the stories of Black and Brown communities and LGBTQ people, comic books with these themes are being targeted and marked as appropriate for children.

In an effort to generate more support for their work, a number of comic book authors participated in Comic Con, the convention at the Javits Center last month, where cosplayers, actors, illustrators, writers and long-time comic-book fans gather.

But beyond the all-day exhibition of fun and fandom, some authors who participated have a broader mission. In a genre that isn’t historically diverse, a number of comic book creators from diverse or marginalized communities want to expose audiences to titles that feature people who look like them.

“It was less about me looking at the story and saying, ‘I need more Black people,’ and more about me saying ‘I want to see stories that I can relate to,’” said San-Diego based writer Jasmine Walls, who attended Comic Con. Her newest comic “Brooms” was just published.

“I want to see settings that seem familiar. I want to see historical fantasy that feels like my family could have been there,” she said.

All across the country, the number of banned or challenged books is increasing. The American Library Association has documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles, an increase of 20% compared to the same time period last year.  The ALA also reported an increase in challenges to materials in public libraries this year.

Walls’ comic-book, about a group of witches in 1930s Mississippi who participate in illegal broom races, incorporates aspects of Black history and queer themes.  

I wanted to represent the people who kind of get forgotten. The people who live out in the country in a way that wasn’t tragic,” said Walls. “I wanted to make a story that made us the heroes, made us the voices of the stories, and we got to have happy endings.”

Walls wasn’t the only author at Comic Con who showed work about marginalized communities. 

Kate Glasheen, who identifies as non-binary, wrote and illustrated “Constellations,” a new graphic novel that came out in August. The book is inspired by Glasheen’s past experiences with substance abuse and tells the story of a non-binary teen’s struggles living in upstate New York during the 1980s.

Glasheen is aware that the book’s subject matter could make it a target. Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic novel “Gender Queer,” dubbed the most banned book of 2021, faced a number of challenges due to its explicit exploration of a young nonbinary person’s struggles with sexuality and gender identity.

“There’s this kind of idea of contagion almost, where if people can stop people from seeing a thing or hearing about a thing, then people will never be at risk of becoming this thing,” said Glasheen. “And it’s not how it works.”

According to PEN America, over the course of the first six months of the year, a third of the unique titles that were banned were stories featuring characters of color or addressing issues of race and racism, and 26% of them have LGBTQ characters or themes. 

During Banned Books Week last month, New Yorkers gathered at public libraries across the city to discuss subject matters and books that are being censored. At a panel discussion at Midtown’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, Rosa Caballero-Li, who manages the city’s public library collections, said she fears that children are internalizing book bans as an erasure of their experiences.

“When somebody tells you, you can’t have access to that book, they’re telling you that person doesn’t exist and it’s not right for you to exist,” said Caballero-Li.

The panelists, who also included librarians from Queens and Brooklyn branches, discussed the ways in which successful book bans jeopardized the diversity of library collections. 

Nick Buron, chief librarian at Queens Public Library, said book challenges can target librarians who face conflict and intimidation from people who oppose certain titles on the shelves. In some cases, a librarian might reject future works from certain authors just to avoid causing an uproar.

Queens-based writer Matt Miner who co-edited an award-winning anthology, “Young Men In Love,” participated in Comic-Con. His book features a variety of illustrated stories, including his own, which depict love between gay men.

“They ban these books and I think they’re doing a disservice to children who need both books to feel a connection, to feel less alone in the world, to know that it’s not just them,” said Miner. 

“They’re not weird. They’re not wrong.”