Katherine Keller first became interested in comic books while working as a clerk in a bookstore. She perused copies of Spider-Man 2099, Morbius: The Living Vampire, and Uncanny X-Men to pass the time when the store was slow.
“Not only did I love the beautiful art, but the stories were equal to or better than most TV shows,” said Keller, a library technician at the Teacher Development and Resources Library. “I became a regular at my local comic shop, which is where I discovered and became hooked on Sandman by Neil Gaiman.”
Between classes at UNLV, Keller, ’96 BA English, spent her time discovering new comics and graphic novels at Alternate Reality Comics near campus. While there, she also met her future husband, store owner Ralph Mathieu.
As a University Library staff member, Keller has continued to champion open access to comics, books, movies, music, and other forms of artistic expression. She joined the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting First Amendment rights in comics, as a way of opposing censorship of comics and helped co-found the long-running independent web-zine, Sequential Tart, an homage to Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. She also has been involved with several panel discussions on comic book issues, including at San Diego Comic Con in July.
In honor of Banned Books Week (Sept. 25-Oct. 1), Keller discusses the CBLDF and how censorship has impacted the comic book industry.
What is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and how did you become involved?
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) began in the late 1980s as an ad-hoc response to the raid on Friendly Frank’s Comics, and formally incorporated in 1990. In a nutshell, the CBLDF exists to protect the First Amendment rights of readers, retailers, publishers, and creators when it comes to comics. The First Amendment protects comics the exact same way — and to the same degree — as it protects books, music, and movies.
I became involved in the late 1990s as result of the Winter brothers defamation suit over the Jonah Hex comics, Starbucks suing creator Kieron Dwyer for parodying their logo, and Michael Diana’s conviction for obscenity for creating his Boiled Angel comic. I admired the CBLDF for appealing all the way to the Supreme Court in the Michael Diana case, so I joined and have been an active member ever since. I was invited to join the board in October 2013.
How has censorship affected the comics industry?
We still labor under the limited and stigmatizing idea that “comics are for kids.” In the U.S., under the Comics Code Authority (CCA), comics became books suited to elementary- and middle-school readers. Not only did we lose EC Comics’ classic horror and mystery titles which were aimed at older readers, but the CCA also mandated what topics could be discussed and how to discuss them.
For example, under CCA rules from the 1950s through the mid 1970s, the “bad guy” always had to be caught and punished, law enforcement officials could never be corrupt, and topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, and LGBTQ issues were forbidden — except to say that they were bad. While some incredible and much-loved classic stories were told under CCA early rules, it was difficult to broach important social topics in a nuanced way under these restrictions. Many issues simply couldn’t be addressed.
When creators and larger comics publishers began to challenge that mentality, and underground “comix” and imports from Europe and Japan (which were not under the CCA) began showing up in comic book stores, there was a major backlash. Stores were raided and people were taken away in handcuffs for selling “obscene” comics — and we’re not talking about pornographic comics, but stuff that could legally be depicted in an R-rated movie or described in a best-selling novel.
How prevalent is censorship in the comics industry?
In the United States, major publishers self-censored until 2011, when the CCA finally became so irrelevant that it went defunct. It has been a few years since there’s been a raid on a comic book store, but that has happened. However, challenges to comics in schools and libraries are a regular thing, and in some cases, bannings remove comics from curriculums, reading programs, and library shelves. Internationally, in the past two years cartoonists and comics creators have been censored, charged with crimes, fined, and in some cases imprisoned, in places like Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Ecuador, Lebanon, and Malaysia — all for content that is not only legal here, but fairly mild by U.S. standards.
What impact does censorship have on readers?
Censorship is when your government (at the city, county, district, state, or federal level) decides what ideas you can be exposed to. Outside of slander, libel, and harassment, the knowledge generated by a vigorous and free-flowing “marketplace of ideas” is fundamental to our democratic institutions, but censorship is the opposite of that. Censorship is about dogma, orthodoxy, and indoctrination, all of which stifle the discussion and exchange needed for knowledge. Censorship closes minds and leaves us all a little less rich.
To put it in less abstract terms, think of books, movies, or albums that meant everything to you as you were growing up. They all contain some idea that somebody, somewhere finds offensive. Imagine how you and your life would be different if you had never encountered that artistic work because it had been pulled by authorities.
Imagine for a moment how the world would be different if Star Trek had never aired on the grounds that the mixed-race, mixed-gender bridge was against “natural law,” so the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) forbade it. We would lose all the works of art from creators it inspired and the contributions of women and minorities it inspired to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. We would lose all the technologies it inspired engineers to make real, such as that tricorder-like smartphone in your pocket.
That is the impact that censorship has.
Why is it important to be aware of censorship, particularly in terms of comics and graphic novels?
Because comics have been perceived as not “real” art and just casual entertainment aimed at children for so long, the problem is twofold. First, they’re often held to a much stricter standard than a similar book, motion picture, or audio recording. This is unfair, arbitrary, and unconstitutional. The second is the idea that it was just a mere comic that was lost, comics being a vehicle only for juvenile and trivial ideas, that nobody will really care.
The most frequently challenged comics and graphic novels have made multiple “best of” lists and have won prestigious artistic and literary awards. But even it it’s not an award-winning comic, it needs to be protected because censorship harms everybody.
The comics industry is small compared to the book, audio, and motion picture industries, and the forces of censorship typically start with us. The comics industry is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to freedom of the press and your right to read.
What are some additional resources where people can learn more about CBLDF?
The CBLDF website is the place to start. We have case files — Georgia vs. Lee is a doozy of prosecutorial misconduct, information about First Amendment freedoms, guides for travelers overseas, podcasts, and resources for educators, librarians, and parents.
The CBLDF also has booths at many comic cons, pop-culture cons such as Geek Girl Con, and the American Library Association’s summer and winter conventions. We will have a table at the this year’s Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival and will be doing a panel discussion called "She Changed Comics," our definitive guide to women who expanded the boundaries of free expression in comics.