On February 24th, a 14-year-old high school student in Rio Rancho, NM, checked out a copy of the 2003 collection of Gilbert Hernandez’s award-winning ‘Palomar’ stories from his school library. After returning home, Catreena Lopez, his mother, looked inside the book and found images depicting what she would later describe as “child pornography” and “child abuse”. Ms. Lopez complained to TV news station KOAT, who took those complaints to the school officials, who agreed it was “clearly inappropriate” and were already trying to ascertain how the book had made its way into the library system in the first place when KOAT’s story aired on the 26th. The fate of the book, at that point, was very much in doubt.
You can see the entire KOAT piece here. Do yourself a favor and watch the video; a lot of the comments further down will make more sense that way.
On March 2nd, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund released a statement against the KOAT piece and the school district’s apparent capitulation to the accusations without an internal review. On Monday, they sent a letter, co-authored with the Kids’ Right to Read Project, to Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland in defense of “Palomar” and the district’s own policy of reviewing challenged material. The full letter is available here.
Last night, Kim Vesely, spokesperson for the Rio Rancho school district, responded to my inquiries by email that “a committee review of the book is being held next week per district policy. The book is currently out of circulation pending the committee review.”
In addition to the school, I reached out to the CBLDF, Fantagraphics Books (the publisher of “Palomar”), and KOAT to try and get a better understanding of what happened and what’s at risk both in Rio Rancho specifically, and in a wider context. My request for comment from KOAT has not been acknowledged, but both Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics and Charles Brownstein of the CBLDF were very quick to respond.
(Note: these interviews were done before the announcement of the committee review. Also, Brownstein was not able to comment on the Rio Rancho case specifically as it is still ongoing.)
Eric Reynolds, Associate Publisher, Fantagraphics Books
Given how long Fantagraphics has been publishing comics, and your mission to publish comics challenging the conventional wisdom of what the medium is capable of, it’s no surprise you have had to deal with incidents like this before. What’s your response as “Palomar”‘s publisher, and have you found these type of incidents happening more or less often as the years go by?
Eric Reynolds: I feel like these types of challenges occur less frequently these days because there’s less of a “Gee whiz! Comics are for kids! BANG! POW!” mentality. There’s a growing acceptance that comics do not equal juvenilia. But I suspect that Charles will tell me that’s flat-out wrong.
My response as the publisher is that anyone who would attempt to characterize PALOMAR as child pornography is inherently stacking the deck, and I’m disappointed that this market’s local media was all too willing to eschew its responsibility to report the truth if it makes for a more controversial story.
Some would say having a book pulled from one library’s circulation doesn’t mean that book isn’t still available through other means. Why is having “Palomar” stocked in a high school library such a thing to get upset about, one way or the other?
ER: I don’t much care whether Palomar is in one particular library or not, but I do care about one rogue parent bypassing appropriate channels to remove it, instead escalating via a media that was all too enthusiastic in egregiously mischaracterizing the content of the work, fueling community outrage with flat-out falsehoods. It’s unproductive for everyone involved.
There is no marking on the “Palomar” book cover (that I can tell) about the material being for mature readers. It looks like Fantagraphics did away with that for L&R somewhere between the end of volume 1 and the start of volume 2. I can guess the reason, but was that a specific decision and why?Continued below
ER: Do you think literature like the Tin Drum, the Kite Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, or Beloved should have content warnings on them?
Since this whole situation is based around what is or isn’t deemed appropriate for young adults (since it was in a high school library I’m not going to say for ‘children’), and librarians are on the front lines of what that means for their community, what sort of resources does Fantagraphics provide librarians to help them make decisions about adding your material to their libraries?
ER: We currently provide our distributor, W.W. Norton, with age range guidelines for all of our titles, and Norton also provides additional resources. I honestly couldn’t tell you if that was the case when this book was acquired for that library’s collection.
Charles Brownstein, Executive Director, CBLDF
Most people think of the CBLDF as operating solely within the boundaries of its title, as a way for comic-related defendants to have financial support in legal cases. In situations like community actions (such as library challenges against comics) or things where there is no actual courtroom/law/specific defendant involved, how does the CBLDF come into play?
Charles Brownstein: CBLDF’s mission is to protect the freedom to read comics by fighting censorship and providing education in the service of sustaining that freedom. Much of our work involves defending readers, retailers, and creators in matters related to prosecutions, as you observe. But for years we have increasingly been active in fighting censorship in schools and libraries in cases involving comics, or relating to cases where the freedom to read comics could be reduced. That’s because these are the environments where censorship is on the rise. As an organization dedicated to the protection of free speech, we have an obligation to preserve the First Amendment protections in place to ensure library and education professionals are able to serve their communities.
Does the CBLDF have to be invited? And if so, what sort of things do you do to try and increase your profile outside the general comics community, since many of these challenges may be against libraries or institutions that carry comics but might not be aware of a resource like the CBLDF?
CB: CBLDF is a sponsoring partner in the Kids’ Right to Read Project, which actively monitors and responds to First Amendment emergencies relating to book censorship in schools and libraries. In partnership with KRRP, we work directly with affected communities in both behind-the-scenes and public fashions by providing information and advice. We also write letters of support in cases where books are threatened. We don’t do this work to raise our profile, we do it because it’s urgently needed, and part of our job. However, the increasing frequency of these challenges, and the many successes we have had in this area are raising the profile of this work.
Having books pulled from library shelves usually involves some type of procedural process (submitting requests, review boards, etc.) but in many cases outside media or community pressure can cause those steps to be skipped. Is part of the CBLDF’s goal to make sure those processes are followed and with as much information vs. prejudice as possible? If so, how successful do you find those efforts to be, given that you are an outside organization?
CB: It’s vitally important that libraries have formal policies for challenges and collection development, and that those policies are followed. Following these policies is all the more important in cases where media attacks are involved. Comics have a legitimate place in contemporary libraries and schools, but are more vulnerable to attack than other kinds of books both because images are easier to take out of context, and because there is still a diminishing, but lingering stigma that the medium is of low value. Good policies indicating how content is selected, and how challenges are heard are a powerful guiding force in situations where challenges occur, particularly when they are contentious or public.
On your website you have a good amount of educational resources already available, but one of the things you mention is the need for volunteers. Since CBLDF resources (not just money, but reach and people-power) are limited, and money seems to be tight all around, can fans donate their time and expertise? And how would someone without a specific educational degree go about lending their knowledge of comics as First Amendment-protected work to CBLDF causes in a way that best helps your organization?Continued below
CB: The CBLDF often needs volunteers to assist us with executing our fundraising work at our NYC home office and at conventions. It’s also helpful when people spread the word about the work we’re doing, and share information on censorship issues happening in their communities.
“We Are Not Entitled To Our Opinions”: A Commentary
I’ve had this Harlan Ellison quote on constant repeat in my head since first reading about the challenge. From “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” #6:
“Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing. It’s just bibble-babble.”
Catreena Lopez is entitled to her opinion that “Palomar” is unsuitable for her child since, presumably, she knows her child. I’m not here to say her son has to read “Palomar”. It’s an adult work with adult themes and situations. Some kids his age can handle it, others can’t.
But her opinion that “Palomar” was pornography because it had drawings of people having sex? Unacceptable.
If she’d have simply the same amount of time to research the book on Google as she did to slap a Post-It note on every offending page, then she would have learned enough about the book to, at the very least, realize no one thinks it’s pornography.
And that’s not to say that Gilbert Hernandez is incapable of pornography. His “Birdland” series for Eros Comics (a former imprint of Fantagraphics) is very much mainstream, adult-on-adult pornography and labeled as such. (See what I did there? Research. Background. Understanding.)
Her opinion no student at Rio Rancho High School should have access to “Palomar”, including those 17 and over who would legally be able to see it if it were literally translated into an R-rated movie? Unacceptable.
Her opinion that she should take this to the local news instead of following library procedure and submitting an official challenge? Unacceptable.
KOAT exploiting the majority of their audience who still think of comics as (1) strictly kiddie pablum, (2) excuses for grown-ups to dress up in weird costumes and check out from reality, or (3) Trojan Horses of moral corruption against our children?
Thanks to them, here’s the information forming their opinions about “Palomar”/Gilbert Hernandez/comics:
- “Palomar” contains sexual imagery and situations.
- A devoted mother was so convinced it was child porn she annotated the book and took it to the TV news to get the word out.
- KOAT can’t show any of the images from the 512-page graphic novel because “they’re sexual and very graphic”. Not just the ones Ms. Lopez so diligently marked with the aforementioned Post-It notes; ANY images from the book.
(Interestingly enough, the actual voiceover transcript says KOAT had to “blur a lot of the images”, which would imply they WERE planning on showing interior images at some point. But the actual broadcast simply lingers on the outside of a 512-page compendium of take-our-word-for-it child porn; a graphic novel, indeed.)
We don’t need misinformation like that getting out because it takes an already sensitive issue, douses it with gasoline, and lights a match while telling the gathering crowd it hopes nothing bad happens.
Here’s what they could have learned:
- “Palomar” won Kirby (think proto-Eisner) and Harvey awards during its original serialization in 1986, 1989, and 1990. These awards were in non-art-specific categories, either Best Writer or Best Continuing Story.
- Gilbert’s overall body of work won him a PEN Center USA Award in Graphic Literature in 2013. Other PEN award winners include Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and James Baldwin.
As angry as this has made me over the past week, the fact that there will be a committee reviewing the book does give me some solace. Per district laws, the committee will be made up of “the superintendent or designee as chairperson, eight other persons to include three members from the community and four educators, and a library media specialist from the appropriate level.” Their informed opinions will decide “Palomar”’s fate in their high school’s library, and given the overwhelming amount of available evidence that it is a work of serious merit, I feel they will come to the right decision to retain it.Continued below
The rest of us aren’t so lucky.
We rarely get to have “objective” and “unemotional” (from the school district’s own description of the review process) weighing of facts about comics. Because for all our talk about finally be accepted and gaining the respect of popular culture, we are still inundated with so many of these First Amendment challenges to the medium we love and those who practice it, that we’ve become numb to them. Every time one pops up on our newsfeeds, we check to make sure it’s not where we live and go back to our tweets, blog posts, and status updates. The only reason I gave this one even a second thought is because I’m a big fan of Gilbert’s work.
It’s easy to tell ourselves we’ve made it; that we can relax. Movies BASED on comics are grossing billions and billions of dollars. TV shows BASED on comics are breaking ratings records. This country loves everything BASED on comics. But comics themselves, the wellspring that all these ideas flow from and the single most versatile information and storytelling medium ever created, are still guilty until proven innocent.
It’s just one book, we say. It’s not like you can’t still buy it somewhere, we think. But every challenge that succeeds in taking a book off the shelf or out of circulation literally diminishes us. If it’s not “Palomar” today, it was “Watchmen” and “Fun Home” and “The Dark Knight Returns” yesterday. Or it’ll be someone yelling about “Ms. Marvel” for showing Muslims in a positive light tomorrow, or Kevin Keller in “Archie” comics teaching children to accept a ‘deviant’ lifestyle, or some other such nonsense.
Whatever book you cherish, character you love, thing you can’t imagine living without, I guarantee you there is someone out there looking to lock it away because they think it’s dangerous. And they’ll convince other people to go along with them because no one will know otherwise.
And there’s nothing we can do to stop them.
Let’s keep it real; there are ALWAYS going to be people like that. But we can take away their help. We can douse their fiery rhetoric, not by silencing their voice, but by amplifying our own.
You’re doing this already, whether you realize it or not. You read comics, in most cases with a degree of attention and comprehension rivaling most tenured professors and lecturers. You’re reading a site that gives you background FOR comics to (hopefully) give you an understanding OF comics.
Don’t pass up an opportunity to share that knowledge. Blog posts. Dinner tables. Bus rides. Comic films and TV show discussions don’t count. Too easy; push through and get to the GOOD stuff. The stuff that started it all. And by that I also don’t mean it has to be old comics. That new book just out today that blew your mind? Share it with EVERYBODY. (Caveat: just don’t be a dick about it; enthusiasm is nice, fanaticism can be scary.)
- They’ve been looking out for First Amendment rights for over 25 years.
- Even if you don’t care about that, they have cool swag! Tons of your favorite creators give them autographed merchandise or exclusive goodies or do charity auctions/raffles/etc. where you can give to a good cause AND get awesome stuff in return.
- Fun Fact: Nothing shuts down an irate geek’s attack of “You’re not fan enough” on a cosplayer or female fan faster than whipping out a CBLDF membership card and replying, “Oh yeah, fanboy? I love comics so much I’m willing to fight to make sure even YOU can read them. Are you fan enough to do THAT? Where’s your card?”
We’ve seen what can happen when misinformation runs rampant. But despite the world reminding me on a daily basis that facts won’t always win an argument, I have to believe informed opinions will make a difference. For “Palomar”, that committee will include nine informed voices who will hopefully drown out Catreena Lopez’s uninformed one.
I’m doing my part to make sure people stay informed.
What are you doing?