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Comics are under attack. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund shows us how to fight back.

At NYCC, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund celebrates recent victories for free speech, while preparing for its most challenges to date.
Panelists at CBLDF panel at New York Comic Con
Popverse - Alex Jaffe

“It’s fair to say, for all of us, it’s been a busy year.”

That’s an understatement from Jeff Trexler, lawyer and interim director for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. For 36 years, the CBLDF has covered legal expenses and provided support for comics creators, publishers, and retailers against threats to their First Amendment rights. It’s an organization on the front lines of free speech, protecting the ability of comics as a medium to freely express challenging ideas. Lately, the struggle has become more perilous than ever before, as puritanical forces gather to censor texts on racial equality and sexual diversity on trumped up charges of obscenity.

Joining Trexler to discuss these challenges is comic retailer Jen King, Cayuga Falls collections manager Jack Phoenix, CBLDF digital editor Jordan Smith, former editor of Milestone Comics and Batman, current Executive Editor of Heavy Metal, and CBLDF board member Joseph Illidge, and one of the fund’s most recently elected board members, comics and animation writer Amy Chu.

Cropped image of Gender Queer deluxe edition cover, showing seated figure on grass, smiling with closed eyes, image is overlayed by a constellation motif, on the flip side of the cover, a figure wearing at tie die shirt running in a field of flowers

“I don’t want to say I’m here representing writers, but I’m waiting to get banned,” Chu says.

Victory in Virginia

Trexler begins this year’s annual panel by celebrating their recent ‘Victory in Virginia’: a CBLDF successfully defended lawsuit against Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir, a comic exploring nonbinary and asexual identity. The lawsuit accused the work of violating obscenity laws in its content. A book on the case, suitably titled Victory in Virginia, was available to attendees of this panel, and will be made available as a PDF online at cbldf.org.

“There’s a statute in Virginia that an attorney can bring an action against a book,” Trexler explains. “The case was brought against Genderqueer that it was obscene, based on seven pages taken out of context. It was clear from the accusation that he hadn’t read the book. He kept saying that there were multiple instances of children having sex. And every instance he pointed to was adults. And it wasn’t ‘hardcore porn,’” as the suit claimed, “It was reflecting on experience as a memoir. There’s no prurient interest or lurid depiction. To battle that is really really difficult. You’re fighting against somebody where the truth doesn’t matter. You’re fighting against a mirage.”

The Uphill Battle

Jen King agrees that it seems like the battle to defend comics is getting harder than ever.

“I spend a lot of time on social media, gauging the winds of change, having been in the industry for 30 years,” King says. “This is the first time I’ve heard language that people are attacking not just the content, but saying that graphic novels are not literature, that you can’t pick them as reading for school. That alarms me.”

Phoenix updates us on one of the most crucial fronts on the information wars, our libraries.

“We’re seeing a lot that’s not about the works themselves, but a larger cultural political issue, politicizing works to control people and narratives,” says Phoenix. “Comics are unfortunately a very easy target, [because] libraries were slow to come around to comics. Recognition in the past 20 years is a double edged sword, because with recognition comes targeting.”

Jordan Smith tells us how the battle against censorship has changed. “One of the biggest trends recently is a change from organic challenges, where a parent sees a book and goes to administration, to groups of large challenges by organized public interest groups. Instead of one challenge, we’ll see 50 or 100 books challenged at once across the entire school system. In the past year, there has been a rise in skipping the challenge process, and going directly to law enforcement on fake obscenity or obscenity to minors charges, trying to circumvent the process that’s in place for safety.”

Joseph Illidge, a comics editor since the 90s, provides some historical perspective.

“When I was working at Milestone, there were different parents groups and organizations going after creators for things that seemed offensive in the nineties. What’s happening here is that the same way the political media takes things out of context and conflates them to make an artificial truth, this argument”- Illidge here refers to the case against Gender Queer- “was based on taking seven pages out of a book and using that to make a statement.”

What makes comics so important to Illidge, and what should give them importance to all Americans, is that as he sees it, the medium of comics itself as we know it is an American invention.

“The evolution of the graphic novel is the story of 20th century America,” Illidge says. “An attack on the graphic novel is an attack on history. And that scares me.”

Amy Chu calls these attacks against books like Gender Queer as they are: “Deliberate misunderstanding for political gain.”

“Comics have always been a convenient target for this sort of thing,” Chu says. “For us as creators, the idea that we could be sued is scary.” Chu herself knows this all too personally.

“In high school, I was in a Title 9 case. I played soccer on the boys’ team. It became a huge court case, and I was 16 and I didn’t know. I thought Title 9 was very clear that if you don’t have a girls’ team, I should be allowed to play on the boys’ team. Ultimately I won, but I had to go to court twice to fight it. ‘You won, but you don’t get to play,’ they said. How is that legal? This isn’t for my protection, it’s for your own political gain.”

Why comics are targeted, and how to defend them.

The question is, what makes comics so vulnerable to these attacks? And other than showing up in court, what can we do to fight back?”

“There’s a misunderstanding about what a graphic novel is,” says Chu. “They don’t understand the medium, and there’s a misunderstanding of literary merit… We have very low literacy sometimes on what the medium is about. Like, when it was considered TV has no merit. Now we all know that’s not true,” Chu says, citing valuable public works like Sesame Street.

“It’s also very easy to take things out of context. All you have to do is take one visual snippet out of context and people can make up whatever they want. That’s why books get banned. You take one sentence or paragraph out of context and use it as ammunition.”

It’s not just a case of Virginia, either. “This is happening around the country,” Jeff says. “There was an attempt in the filings to redefine ‘graphic’ novel as ‘graphic’ as used in obscenity law.

“Never before 2020, never before Gender Queer, was there anything sexually explicit…” Jeff begins reading from the brief. The entire audience laughs in the blatant incredulity of that statement. “So,” Trexler adds sardonically, “Let’s hand it to Joseph from Heavy Metal.”

“That speaks to laziness and ignorance,” Illidge says. “Heavy Metal has been around for over 40 years. I knew as a kid if I bought it my Jamaican mom would kick me out of my house. As I was reading [Victory in Virginia] on the train, what stuck out was that this petition defined sexual exploration as a felonious act. That should scare the bejeebies out of you. The human race does not exist without sexual exploration! It’s part of the arc of all existence. That you could define that legally is insane. It is without sanity. To take the two meanings of ‘graphic’ and take it out of context, when the Hollywood Reporter talks about Superman graphic novels every other day… this doesn’t make any sense!”

But Illidge reminds us that as outrageous as this sounds to defenders of free speech, its attackers are equally outraged. “Just as this has become the tip of the spear for our fight, it’s going to be for their side too. When you talk about children's education, one of the most important aspects is art. It allows children to express themselves non-verbally. When you attack comic books, you’re attacking art. When you attack it in libraries, when you’re attacking young people, you’re attacking an important means by which children mature and express themselves. We will be stunting the emotional growth of our young people.”

As for what we can do: once again, the fight is in our librarians. Do what you can to support them. Take a look at the list of banned graphic novels and explore them, and become aware of these important stories that are under assault.

What’s At Stake

“We’re getting cases–this is only in the south,” Trexkler clarifies. “In my local school district. This is a huge issue in Putnam County, Rockland, and Westchester. There’s a new law in Missouri, and a similar one in Arizona, that makes it a criminal act to give a student Gender Queer. They want to put you to jail. They make an exception for ‘works of art.’ Which, in their mind, that phrase does not include comics.”

“It’s become so blatantly obvious as a tool of intimidation,” Jordan Smith adds. “In St. Louis itself there’s over 100 books removed. What’s most telling is that graphic novel adaptations are being pulled.” Books like 1984, and Brave New World, the irony of which should not be lost upon those banning them – and yet, which somehow is. Or, perhaps, is the point. “That should be distressing.”

It’s not just a bad time for libraries: it’s a dangerous time to be a librarian.

“I can’t overestimate how bad things are for librarians,” Phoenix says. “You have librarians being attacked, being fired... It's terrifying to be a public employee right now. What we would ask as far as what you can do is to show up and support them. Right now there are very organized efforts to sabotage schools from within, replacing board members with far right extremist groups to make these censorship movements policy, and fire librarians for ignoring them. Pay attention to local elections and find out how your school boards are appointed. Show up and make your voice heard. These groups are incredibly loud. And what you can do is be louder. These groups are relying on the apathy of good people to make these things happen. If you show up and say no, I have a right to read what I want, and my children have a right to read what they want, and you don’t get to decide what they read.”

Jen King tells us that it’s just as frightening a time to be a teacher. “Teachers are having to go through their curriculum and preemptively pull anything they think might potentially be a problem, or they could get arrested.”

“I am a conservative person,” King says. I am a church-goer. I teach Sunday school… but I believe that no book should ever be banned.”

The fight as it was, and the fight as it will be.

This may be an increasingly organized, and increasingly frequent threat within the American comics landscape, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. “CBLDF exists because of the litigation against comic creators in the 80s,” Trexler says. “There have been instances over the past years of people threatening to jail retailers for selling Gender Queer. We’ve had to negotiate with police and district attorneys to make sure that certain retailers didn’t get arrested. A case that doesn’t make the press is as important to win as a case that does, because we are keeping these people out of prison.”

And the fight is about to get even harder. For years, censorship laws have avoided regulating the sale and distribution of material through the internet because insufficient geolocation technology made those materials within local legal jurisdictions virtually impossible to track. But now, technology is catching up – giving censors more tools to strike down material they deem unfit to print and distribute

“How soon before you can take the rules of our world and apply them to the digital one?” Illidge asks. “I think it’s right around the corner”.

“It is, in fact, November,” Trexler answers. He delivers it like a joke, but he’s not kidding.

“It’s something we’re working on right now. We’re also fighting against algorithmic censorship. Paypal is changing its terms and conditions on November 3rd. One is a general sexual explicitness rubric, and one is if you have nudity you can lose all your payments. Or if you portray criminal activity, you can lose it all. If you’re doing PayPal payments on the metaverse, if you have an indie comic you sell online, you can lose everything. If it starts on PayPal, it starts going everywhere. They’re trying to find MindGeek liable for porn,” Trexler says, referring to the PornHub parent company. “They also sued Visa. They want to make Visa liable. Visa and Mastercard are looking into it.”

Trexler drives the point home for comic historians in the audience: “We celebrated the end of the Comics Code, but it’s drifted into the Digital Code. At least in the Comics Code you could portray criminal activity if the law won. If you portray criminal activity, period, you’re dead.”

From the audience, a circulation clerk for a comics library in Pennsylvania mentions that many among her own coworkers say they are in favor of comic censorship. How does someone fight against their own peers?

“This is an issue very important to me,” Phoenix, a fellow librarian, answers. “Sometimes, the call is coming from inside the house. It’s vitally important that these ethics and these policies are recognized by everyone. If moving up in your own organization doesn’t work, I recommend going to the state level, and if a challenge is formalized I recommend going to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in ALA [The American Library Association]. They’ve reported a 300% rise in challenges in the past year, but estimate that 85%-95% of challenges are NOT REPORTED. It’s very challenging, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do, but there is. And you have to use your voice.”

“Teachers and librarians call me and they’re scared,” Trexler says. “They’re scared of getting fired, of getting arrested. As a lawyer, I’ve helped whistleblowers and they’ve been fired as a result. How do we help these people?”

“You have to remember you’re not alone,” says Chu. “There is allyship. Cultivate relationships with those who support your position. There has to be ordinary members of the community and other nonprofit oraganizations who are on your side. The thing about technology is that it’s enabled single voices to have a lot more power. It’s created this issue where the loudest people have a disproportionate amount of power used in a certain way. It’s understanding how we harness that in our own community.

“I find students are not stupid, and kids are like ‘Oh, you won’t let me read this? We’re going to start our own Banned Book Club, and read this on our own.’ It’s a matter of recognizing it’s anti-democratic. We laugh at Saudi Arabian officials for destroying rainbow toys,” Chu says, alluding to a news story from this June. “But we’re not that far off here. We got elections coming up. It’s very easy to change the narrative. Find your allies.”

“If we can’t support people directly, it’s important to facilitate and amplify their voice,” says Illidge. “They count on our apathy, but they also count on our silence. Sometimes when things are brought into the light, it’s harder to swat it down. If said person gets fired, why did they get fired? And you start asking questions, and those questions become a conversation. We protect them by helping give voice to their cause.”

“It’s a weird perspective for me, because I don’t have people who decide what goes on shelves except for me,” King says. “To help my staff not feel fearful, I encourage them to take books home and read them. So when they’re selling to anybody, if they’ve read a book they can go, ‘There’s, as we say in our store, there’s ‘Ooh-La-La’ in this book.’” The most important tool to protect yourself as a bookseller is to know your product.

Why now?

One member of the audience asks the question which exposes the gorilla in the room: what’s changed in the past two years to make these attacks against comics more malicious, aggressive, and organized than ever before? Another audience member has the three-word answer: “The Supreme Court.”

“We’re losing a lot of rights protection in the courts in the past two years,” Trexler affirms. So we’re seeing a new push for that now that the overwhelmingly conservative appointees to the United States Supreme Court are in a position to strike down public rights.

Illidge has another reason in mind: rising notoriety of the medium. Right now, book publishing sales are so strong that they’ve gone up even during this recession. And one of the strongest performing categories is graphic novels.

“The mythologies of graphic novels are now known across different media,” Illidge says. “Everyone knows what Sandman is now. It’s because comics and graphic novels are being more widely distributed, that’s why now… We’re in NYCC. NYCC now matters. It’s an influential institution, and I imagine it influences the extension of the 7 train to get here. SDCC is a thing that media companies imprinted themselves on. We have achieved market saturation. It’s that we’re no longer niche, we’ve hit it. That’s why we’re there.”

“We should be looking at what is behind some of these measures, and I feel like all of this is coordinated,” Chu says. It’s a feeling which everyone present seems to share. “One individual suddenly has the money to get all these lawyers behind them? There is something going on. It’s always going to be some LGBTQIA+ content that’s under attack. Always try to look into who’s behind some of this.”

Phoenix expands Chu’s comments that it’s not just queer identity under attack, but identity itself. When it isn’t LGBTQIA+ content, it’s typically content which centers persons of color.

Closing remarks.

The talks then close with one statement from each of our panelists, before we rejoin the world to do what we can to support the medium we love, and the art it facilitates.

Jen King: “Read, and encourage reading.”

Jack Phoenix: “Support your libraries.”

Jordan Smith: “Check out the Right to Read Act.”

Joseph Illidge: “Visit your local library, say thank you, and how can I help.”

Amy Chu: “Reach out, form allyship, listen to people, and read more, because it’s very hard actually. Carve out the time.”

Jeff Trexler: “You all matter. Everyone of you matters to this fight.”

For my part, I’d like to leave our annual CBLDF summit report with this: the function of a censor is to enforce silence. The best way to fight censorship, then, is to use your voice.


Why banned books are the books your children should be reading

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About the Author
Alex Jaffe avatar

Alex Jaffe

Contributing writer

Alex Jaffe is a columnist for DC Comics, answering reader-submitted questions about the minutiae of comic book history. He also hosts the Insert Credit podcast, where he's been asking the smartest people in video games the weirdest questions he can think of since 2012. ReedPOP is Alex's place to write about Star Wars, his "vacation universe" away from DC, but he may be persuaded to occasionally broach other topics. A powerful leg kick makes this goon the meanest guy in the gang.

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