Reflections on Banned Books Week

As Banned Books Week comes to an end, we’d like to join in this annual celebration of free speech and creative freedom by weighing in on Fantagraphics Books’ publishing philosophy as it relates to publishing the kinds of books that make the lists of banned books. The American Library Association listed three graphic novels in the top ten banned books in 2014, plus a prose book illustrated by Ellen Forney, which almost qualifies. None of them published by us, alas, but we keep trying.

We are proud to publish books that tackle divisive issues — from a graphic novel guide to abortion experiences to a manga series about trans youth exploring their gender identities. While there are adults who object to these books finding their way into the hands of young adults (or onto library bookshelves) we stand behind these books and their authors and believe that age-appropriateness is a conversation that can (and should only) be negotiated between parents/guardians and their children.

We take equal pride in publishing controversial work by mature cartoon visionaries such as R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Frank Stack, Spain Rodriguez, Charles Rodrigues, and many others whose work has been attacked or dismissed for decades by censors, and will, we anticipate, continue to be. These are uncompromising artists who require an uncompromising publisher. The work by these artists are obviously written and drawn for adults and while their aesthetic merits can (and should) be argued, we are unalterably opposed to any calls to censor them.

And, finally, we reprint the best comic strips and comic book work from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, a handful of which —because they were originally published in the less socially and culturally enlightened ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s— contain offensive racial stereotypes and views of womanhood. Since these are written and drawn by some of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century —Roy Crane, E.C. Segar, Floyd Gottfredson, Carl Barks, to name perhaps the most prominent— our editorial policy is to present the stories as the cartoonist drew them and not to tamper with, censor, revise, or elide the work. These serve both as archival editions as well as popular books and consequently we believe the work ought to be preserved as it was drawn by the hands of the artists.

In light of a recent concerns expressed online about one of Carl Barks’ stories that we published in our Complete Carl Barks Library — ironically or appropriately, depending on how you feel about Banned Books Week — it is worth pointing out that in the case of such work that can be enjoyably read by adults and children, in addition to presenting the work in handsome hardcover editions that are far too expensive to be bought by children, we take pains to contextualize any potentially offensive work within the book. In the case of Carl Barks’ work, each story is accompanied by a short critique, providing historical and aesthetic context. Barks’ (and Gottfredson’s, and others’) work occasionally contains images that are offensive to a contemporary sensibility (and should have been offensive when they were first published in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but weren’t), and we confronted this at length in the first volume of our Complete Carl Barks Library, Lost in the Andes, with an accompanying essay by comics historian and Barks biographer Donald Ault, who addressed the politically and racially fraught depictions of colonialism, Africa, and “savage natives” in the story entitled “Voodoo Hoodoo” head-on: when he describes how a character like “Bop-Bop”:

“[The character Bop-Bop]…epitomizes the racist stereotypes of the day: he is drawn with exaggerated lips and speaks in an exaggerated “negro” dialect straight out of the minstrel tradition….Bombie draws on a host of stereotypes, including his hulking size, his nose ring, and his simian hands… old Foola Zoola, is drawn with all the maniacal monstrosity of similarly racist representations of African witch doctors that remained largely unchanged from nineteenth-century cartoons in Puck and Life through Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams (1949).”

The original publication dates of the stories are also listed in the book and the essays frequently refer to the original publication date and the moment in American history when the work was drawn.

We believe that great cartooning throughout the ages should be published with the same respect to the fidelity of the work that great fiction is routinely accorded. We take comfort and inspiration from publishers who preceded us, such as Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, who published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when no English language publisher would touch it, or Barney Rossett’s Grove Press, who published Miller, Lawrence, Nabokov, and Burroughs in the ‘50s and ’60s, and fought prosecution after prosecution for their right to exist. We believe every bit as much in our authors’ works as Beach did in hers and Rossett did in his, and hope you do, too.

– Gary Groth