Oct. 19, 2023
‘Ink & Rebellion’ exhibit at VCU offers a journey through the history of censorship in comics
On display through the fall semester, the graphic presentation at Cabell Library connects the past to the present.
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“Ink & Rebellion: The Evolution of Censorship in Comics” features VCU Libraries’ world-class Comic Arts Collection through the lens of suppression and control of creative content.
With significant collections of comics and graphic novels – and a focus on histories of and stories by marginalized identities across all of VCU Libraries’ holdings – Special Collections and Archives is uniquely situated to establish a timeline of comics censorship. “Ink & Rebellion” traces a history of censorship in comics, from the establishment of the Comics Code Authority to the rise of underground comix, criminal censorship cases, challenged depictions of real-world events and contemporary graphic novel bans.
The exhibit, in the fourth-floor gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library, is on view during library hours throughout the fall semester. It opened Oct. 2 as part of Banned Book Week activities. Items on display are part of the larger Comic Arts Collection housed in Special Collections and Archives and are available for viewing and research.
“It's always worthwhile to discuss censorship, but this year the most challenged book in the country is a graphic novel, ‘Gender Queer,’ so it is especially important to look back at history and see how we got here and what led to this current state,” said Katharine Buckley, special collections and archives teaching and learning librarian. “Currently, we're witnessing a wave of challenges and bans in schools and public libraries across the country that target books, claiming material is inappropriate for young readers. These are similar claims that have been levied against comic books and graphic novels for the past 70 years.”
Along with Buckley, curators were Caroline Meyers, research and collections specialist, and Jessica Johnson, processing archivist, with assistance from student intern Heather Riley Winn. Exhibit design was by Sarah Clay, research and collections specialist.
“I hope students and visitors draw connections between the experiences they've lived through to the past – and that they feel inspired to learn more, create art or fight against censorship in their community,” Buckley said.
Some highlights of the exhibit
- One of the most significant holdings in VCU’s Comic Arts Collection, “All-Negro Comics #1,” was indirectly but effectively censored. Pioneering newspaper reporter Orrin Cromwell Evans created the comic book with partners and published it in 1947. The 48-page anthology comic is known not only for being the first comic by African American creators but also for its positive portrayal of African American characters — such as detective Ace Harlem and Lion Man, a college-educated, scientist superhero — in an era in which most African American comic book characters were racist caricatures. A second issue was planned and the art completed, but when Evans was ready to publish, no newsprint vendors would sell paper to him. He deduced that pressure had been placed on newsprint wholesalers by bigger comics publishers who came out with their own competitive titles centered on Black Americans.
- One of the most successful comic book companies was Entertaining Comics (EC Comics), specializing in horror, crime, science fiction and satire comics, such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “Mad.” Their stories often had shock endings and addressed progressive themes such as racial justice, nuclear disarmament and environmentalism. EC Comics were also some of the most controversial, and by late 1940s, they and other comic publishers had come under scrutiny.
- In the 1950s, a nationwide moral panic brewed as parents grew concerned about violent and sexual imagery in comic books. Concerns reached a head in 1954 when psychologist Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent,” naming comic books as one of the chief reasons for juvenile delinquency. That same year, Congress convened a hearing, requiring comic book publishers to defend themselves.
To avoid government censorship and address plummeting sales, in 1954, the Comics Magazine Association created the Comics Code Authority, a form of self-censorship. The comics that continued to be successful post-code were kid-friendly. The code’s restrictions on popular genres like horror and romance and the limitations it imposed on villains in superhero comics resulted in an industry dominated by lighthearted themes.
The words “horror,” “terror” and “weird” could not be used on covers, a direct attack on EC’s popular titles. By 1956, EC abandoned comic book publishing rather than bend to the demands of the CCA, but it continued to publish “Mad” since its magazine format allowed it to sidestep censorship rules.
- Restricted by the Comics Code Authority from producing the content that defined them, some publishers went underground. A group of artists in San Francisco began creating their own comics in the 1960s and 1970s. These underground comix were far outside the mainstream industry and thus free of censorship. Many of the comix depicted X-rated content such as drug use, sex and violence.
Underground comix grew in popularity and influence, representing a spirit of rebellion that was growing in the U.S. However, some underground artists, such as Robert Crumb, were determined to break any and all taboos and social norms. As a result, some material was irreverent to the point of depicting gratuitous violence, racist stereotypes and homophobic caricatures.
Underground comix broke many barriers in the medium: the first comic book created entirely by women, the first titular Black superhero, and the first gay and lesbian comic books.
- While the underground scene allowed creators to skirt the content guidelines of the Comics Code Authority, comics were still subject to the laws around distributing obscene material. The definition of what content qualified as obscene became more subjective after the 1973 Miller v. California Supreme Court case. Believing that comics were still for children and should reflect child-appropriate themes, law enforcement began prosecuting creators and sellers for obscenity. Underground and alternative comics were targeted. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund formed in response to legal charges and provided support to cartoonists whose First Amendment rights were challenged. The CBLDF still operates today, working in and out of the courts and advocating for comics in general.
- Graphic novels are popular censorship targets for representing sexual or violent images and discussing difficult historical topics. Graphic novels about the LGBTQIA+ community or involving such characters face additional scrutiny. These challenges are predominantly brought by conservative groups who find the themes inappropriate or offensive.
To explore the Comic Arts Collection, search VCU’s Comic Book Index. To view items, visit Special Collections and Archives on the fourth floor of Cabell Library. The department is open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome and appointments invited. To make an appointment for research help or to see particular items, contact (804) 828-1108 or email@example.com.
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