We’re facing a dangerous, violent new age of comic censorship

A back-to-back image of Gender Queer and a Proud Boy member.
Images via Maia Kobabe and Anthony Crider (CC BY). Remix by Ana Valens.

This story features explicit sexual images from a graphic novel.

Before Marvel was acquired by Disney and DC began creating blockbuster movies for HBO Max, both comic publishers dealt with a villain far more sinister than Magneto, the Joker, or Lex Luthor: Censorship. During the mid-20th century, anxious parents, child psychologists, and politicians alike banded together against the growing medium. Comics were too sexual and too violent, censors argued, and needed to be purged from youth’s hands.

Gradually, the comics’ moral panic caught on. During the 1940s, comics were burned en masse. The U.S. Senate took up the question of comics’ relationship to “juvenile delinquency,” and in response, the Comics Code Authority emerged from within the industry to get a grip on seemingly offensive content coming out from publishers. The CCA ended up suppressing comics that showed “disrespect for established authority” as well as “profanity, obscenity, smut,” and “vulgarity” in any form.

From those days, mainstream comics were sent into the dark ages, with stories “populated by dopey superheroes” and “tame romances,” the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund notes. Comics for adults were forced into the underground, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that mainstream comic publishers began tackling mature topics once more.

For most casual comic readers, the mid-20th century moral panic over comics seems like a relic of the past. Graphic novel and manga sections can be found in indie and corporate bookstores alike, many of which offer works that deal with complicated political and philosophical issues, such as V for Vendetta or Neon Genesis Evangelion. But now, we’re facing a growing age of censorship against comic writers and artists again, especially targeting Black and brown voices, queer artists, and trans creators. And this time, artists aren’t facing threats to their right to free speech from senators or psychologists. Now, it’s from their own neighbors.

A queer flashpoint

A controversial scene from Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer
Image via Maia Kobabe

Gender Queer, a trans autobiographical graphic novel by nonbinary comic artist and writer Maia Kobabe (who uses e/em/eir pronouns), has faced a growing censorship campaign in school board meetings across the United States. The controversy revolves around Gender Queer’s depiction of Kobabe’s sexual coming-of-age: The book shows eir relationship with masturbation, Hellenic-inspired artwork based on one of Kobabe’s earliest sexual fantasies, and some of the follies e experienced while trying strap-on oral sex for the first time.

One mother, who admittedly didn’t read the book, learned the memoir was available at her Texas school district’s library and felt “sick and disgusted” by Kobabe’s depiction of queer sexuality. She later turned to Twitter and declared that her local school system was infested with “a ton of leftist teachers, librarians, and counselors” who are heralding in social change that’s “going after our kids,” the Texas Tribune reports. A New Jersey parent similarly condemned Gender Queer for “using inappropriate sexual material,” while one Washington parent demanded criminal prosecution against local school officials for offering a book that features “graphic pornography to include pedophilia.”

School board meetings have become increasingly polarizing battlegrounds for the left/right political divide around the United States, with the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” recently unpacking how disagreements on COVID policies in Bucks County, Pennsylvania ballooned into parents claiming there are demonic presences infiltrating schools. Social media groups and chats provide the opportunity to mobilize parents who are generally politically aligned, paving the way for right-wing radicalization over time. Gender Queer is the latest victim of this phenomenon through a growing disinformation campaign around the book’s sexual material.

To be clear, Gender Queer’s sex scenes are incredibly tame, even by coming-of-age comics’ standards. Each of them is focused more on Kobabe’s relationship with sex and sexuality as a nonbinary person, a running theme throughout the book. See for yourself in the gallery below. (Warning: The gallery includes NSFW images.)

For homophobic and transphobic adults targeting queer comic creators, this is not new ground. Alison Bechdel’s coming-of-age graphic novel Fun Home similarly faced calls for censorship from school curricula for its depiction of lesbian sex and masturbation. CBLDF expressed support for Fun Home at the time and has also defended Gender Queer’s inclusion in school districts, warning that “removing books such as Gender Queer based on the demands of the few violates the First Amendment rights of students, parents, and others in the community.”

But respect for the First Amendment may be at odds with parents’ anxiety around Gender Queer, especially after criticism against the comic took a far more extreme direction in a Chicago suburb. On Nov. 15, parents showed up at a Downers Grove school board meeting to call for Gender Queer’s removal, and “roughly 10 Proud Boys” appeared in attendance to support the parents, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Proud Boys proceeded to taunt teens supporting the book’s inclusion in their own school district’s libraries, calling them “pedophiles” mid-meeting, students told the Sun-Times.

The Proud Boys are a hate group (as designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center) known for spouting “white nationalist memes” and hosting rallies that descend “into violent street riots where members openly brawl with counterprotesters,” as the SPLC reports. It’s alarming that members of a hate group would be allowed to disrupt a school board meeting on a queer coming-of-age book, especially because, according to the Sun-Times, several of the Proud Boys who attended have violent pasts. The leader for the northern Illinois chapter of the Proud Boys was at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the capitol and was arrested and charged with battery at a rally against President Biden (the charge was later dropped). Another was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest after allegedly “aggressively” driving his vehicle toward protesters and brandishing a knife at participants.

One 18-year-old student who spoke during the school board meeting claims a man called him a pedophile during the meeting, then drove up to him in the parking lot after and continued harassing him. That man, a 31-year-old, was the same Proud Boy associate previously arrested at the BLM protest. He appeared to have no immediate connection to the school district.

A scene depicting gender anxiety during Gender Queer
Image via Maia Kobabe

The Proud Boys turning up at a random school board meeting to intimidate teenagers is a harrowing sign for comics’ censorship. Not just is it wildly inappropriate (and rather condescending) for grown adults to harass teenage students who want Gender Queer in their school libraries — it’s also a sign that the school board anxiety around comics like Gender Queer is growing. School board meetings will continue to be battlegrounds for censoring creators, and if the Proud Boys are any indicator, right-wing parents are more than happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with a violent hate group just to make sure marginalized comic artists are kept out of their schools.

What chilling effect will this have on students? Teenagers who stand up for their right to read and enjoy the artwork they would prefer are now being told to sit down and shut up by people who aren’t afraid to use violence to get what they want. And for queer teens who are seeking out material like Gender Queer to better understand their own life experiences, what messages will these kids learn from Proud Boys showing up at their school district’s meetings — that it’s better to hide your queerness, lest you be called a pedophile by a violent grown man in a parking lot at night?

“Politics have never caused division in the school setting before,” one student told the Sun-Times. “But it kind of fell apart after the board meeting.”

Comic censorship is entering a dangerous new age, one marked with disinformation campaigns and violent suppression against queer readers young and old alike. Don’t underrate what this moment represents for comics’ future. Censorship is here, and it’s creeping in any way it can. The only solution is to resist these calls for school bannings and protect students and creators speaking out for their right to free speech — lest this moment end in yet another mass comic burning.