Irresponsible Pictures

Paul Gravett’s Manga pulled from library shelf

One of the best books ever written on the subject of manga, Paul Gravett’s Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics(Harper Design International) has been removed from the shelves of the San Bernadino County Library System after a parent complained about illustrations depicting sex acts. Her sixteen-year-old son had checked the book out and was disturbed by the graphic nature of some of the material presented.

After the Victorville branch initially declined to remove the book from its holdings, which was shelved appropriately with the adult holdings, Bill Postmus, Chairman of the San Bernadino County Board of Supervisors, intervened on the family’s behalf. County library officials obligingly led Postmus through the library’s reconsideration process that led to the book’s removal. Gravett’s book will still be available to county patrons via inter-library loan.

The way I see it, there are three primary ironies at work in this situation.

The first is that the offended parent’s point – that all graphic novels aren’t appropriate for all audiences – is a central part of Gravett’s thesis as well. (Hell, it’s suggested by the illustrations on the cover, with Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy zooming into danger on the front and a sultry cat-girl from Miwa Ueda’s Peach Girl in lace-up, high-heeled boots on the back.)

Of course, Gravett takes a much more expansive view of that diversity of content and audience appeal than certain individuals in San Bernadino County. Gravett uses Tezuka’s ardent wish – that manga transform from a kiddie diversion to a medium that offers a rich diversity of material for readers across the lifespan – as a guiding principle and goes on to illustrate the ways that Tezuka’s dream came true.

And yes, one of the manifestations of that dream’s realization is manga that features energetic fairie-squirrel congress and the varied opportunities for men with two penises. But those manifestations also include heroic princesses, senior citizens enjoying their golden years, office workers rising through the ranks, and lengthy examinations of fishing and pachinko.

In proving his point so comprehensively and illustrating it so thoroughly, Gravett has inadvertently led to that point sailing right over certain readers’ heads. The illustrations in question aren’t included with prurient intent, but that distinction was lost on people who weren’t sufficiently interested in the subject to see the comprehensive approach in context.

The second irony lies in the teaching moments that have emerged from this situation. There seems to be only one – Postmus’s newfound understanding of the process to remove books from a public library system. There’s filth on them there shelves, but not to worry; you can get it yanked if you complain loudly enough.

I’m not sure we really needed another example of the convenience of community standards as a substitute for parental responsibility. And it’s entirely possible that, had the parent in question reviewed the book prior to her son trying to check it out, she’d still have sought its removal. While San Bernadino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski indicated in the Hesperia Star that Gravett’s book had been borrowed about 125 times in its year on the county’s shelves without incident, this outcome might have been inevitable.

Dawn Rutherford, Chair of the American Library Association Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee, suggests that “it would have been good at the time of the complaint for the librarian to complement the mother on how well she has raised her child, that he can recognize and acknowledge things that he is not comfortable with or mature enough (or doesn’t fit into their belief system) for, and agree that this is not appropriate for teenagers, which is why it is kept in the adult section. But maybe nothing would have helped.”

Rutherford is very invested in communicating the idea that there are graphic novels for everyone. “A new strategy I am adapting is to promote series that are specifically for adults, such as Y: The Last Man, Fables, andWalking Dead, and compare them to HBO series such asThe Sopranos. These are alluring, but definitely for adults, with the occasional mature teen who might appreciate them. At the same time you could show something likeBabyMouse, and compare it to Saturday morning cartoons. Giving folks clear comparisons to a medium that they already understand makes it easier to explain. And should remind them that parents ultimately must decide what is good for their child.”

At the risk of sounding like a member of Team Comics, I do have to voice my disappointment at how little of the public discourse in San Bernadino County has focused on the larger issues involved. This could have been an opportunity to communicate the idea that there are graphic novels for readers of every age group and interest. Instead, it’s fallen into the familiar won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children formula.

And while it’s one of the more prominent examples, it’s hardly the first.

Katherine Kan, who in 2005 became the first librarian to serve on the Eisner Awards Nomination Committee, works as a freelance consultant for BroDart, a distributor specializing in libraries, and is all too familiar with this kind of scenario.

“Manga, American graphic novels, and Spanish-language fotonovelas have been targets of some conservative attacks in different communities; this situation in San Bernadino County is not the first time people have challenged books,” Kan said. “What I find much more disturbing is the politicians’ attitude that they’re going to ‘clean up’ the libraries in San Bernadino County to make them ‘safe’ for children.”

But librarians, cognizant of the increasing demand for manga and graphic novels from their patrons, are developing strategies to keep branches informed.

“Most librarians are also mindful of possible content issues, and so they often post questions on various library listservs, asking for title recommendations, what would be good for younger teens, for middle school, even for elementary school,” Kan said. “Book distributors that serve libraries are increasingly creating selection tools for libraries that answer such questions.”

The final irony is perhaps the most palatable. The parties in San Bernadino County, by removing Gravett’s book from their library, have probably done more to raise awareness of its existence as a resource than all of the publisher’s previous marketing efforts combined. It would be interesting to see how many requests for inter-library loan the branches receive for the book now that more convenient access has been denied.

I’ve never entirely subscribed to the notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I think this might be a case where negative attention could build a worthy book’s profile in positive ways. As I noted when I initially reviewed it, Manga is an excellent, readable piece of pop-culture scholarship that can provide illuminating reading for anyone interested in the category, whether they’ve got piles of digests at home or have never even seen an episode of Sailor Moon. (Gravett’s more recent work, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, is also excellent and makes an equally compelling case for the diversity and creative vitality of the medium.)

On balance, though, it’s undoubtedly a loss. A fine and useful book is a little harder to find. An institution dedicated to providing resources to the public has been branded as irresponsible and placed under increasing scrutiny by the mysterious forces of “community standards.” And a chance to send the message that manga and graphic novels can be for everyone has been squandered.

Sometimes, irony sucks.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the outstanding commentary and tracking of this story that’s being done by Brigid Alverson of MangaBlog. I’d also like to thank Gina Gagliano of First Second Books for recommending so many excellent sources of people who work with manga and graphic novels in libraries, and John Jakala for providing an extra set of eyes. I gave them back, though.)