Censoring librarians: In defense of two outraged Kentucky pepperpots

It makes for an excellent story: A conservative prig gets his or her undies in a twist about someone’s artistic expression, then makes a ruckus to get it banned. This ancient blood sport inspires stories such as the recent “Pirate Radio,” (where Kenneth Branagh tries to ban rock ‘n’ roll from the radio), and the BBC docudrama, “Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story” (about the British anti-smut crusader who had a corncob of moral superiority up her rectitude).

Joining the ranks this autumn: a pair of library workers in Kentucky who noticed some naughty, naughty pictures in the graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and conspired to keep it out of the hands of an 11-year-old girl. In their small protest, these two ladies  have decided to take on Alan Moore, one of the most influential voices in pop culture. It makes for an interesting battle, and an even better visual reference:

I’ve read Black Dossier. It is most definitely peppered with naughty, no question. It’s filled with other stuff, too: enough literary references to make an English major weep, and scathing criticism of society and popular culture. In other words, this ain’t exactly your perverted uncle’s stack of well-thumbed Juggs.

And even though, as a good liberal thought-thinker, I abhor censorship the way nature abhors a vacuum, I actually have a kind word to say about those kerfuffled little ladies in that Kentucky library.

First, some context.

What is this damnable book?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is written by the scary-smart (and also, possibly, just plain scary) British author Alan Moore, most famous for the graphic novel Watchmen, which Time magazine named one of the “100 Best Novels, 1923-present.”

In League, Moore imagines the characters of popular fiction living together in a shared universe of pulp adventure. The original volume teamed Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll, among others, into a team of crime-solving spies. It is the comic that single-handedly brought me out of my 20-year abstinence from comics. (More on that in a future post; but seriously, I can’t believe what a brilliantly told story this was.)

Even the cover requires annotations.

The original League; this motley crew finally convinced me that comics weren't as crummy and childish as I had remembered from my youth. Not by a long shot.

Each page, drawn with sketchy cross-hatching by Kevin O’Neill, is so densely layered with literary- and pop-culture-infused allusions, that culture scholar Jess Nevins has made an entire secondary career by annotating every panel.

Run-L.E.G., featuring Rev. Run Murray and Jam-Master QIn volume 3, Black Dossier, the titular League includes Orlando (Virginia Woolf’s gender-flipping immortal), Mina Murray (Dracula) and great white hunter Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines). Between the three of them, they get up to some rather randy business as they investigate a government dossier chock full of information about League members. The dossier itself is a character: Whole chunks of the book are actually sections of the dossier, sometimes printed on different stock, or made to seem like pages torn from a novel with hand-written notes in the margins.

A section about former Leaguer Fanny Hill, for example, is printed on thick, creamy linen paper:


One of the tamer images from the Fanny Hill section. Note the Lilliputians in the lower left, gettin' busy.

The original Fanny Hill first appeared in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland, 1748), which is considered the first prose pornography. But in Alan Moore’s hands, Fanny becomes an adventurer who sleeps with some of the most important figures in literature. In the image above, she spends an evening with Lemuel Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels) at the Admiral Benbow tavern (Treasure Island). Whenever Moore focuses on a particular book or genre, he writes with an uncanny imitation of the original’s style. In Fanny’s case, that means double entendre and artfully disguised prurience. Describing the scene above, for example, Moore has Fanny report: “(Gulliver) also demonstrated a device from science-crazed Laputa, to invigorate the tired skin, that I found endlessly delightful.”

Elsewhere, Moore lampoons George Orwell’s 1984 using a so-called “Tijuana bible,” the tiny pornographic comics from the ’20s and ’30s. (Wikipedia describes them pretty well, without showing so much as an errant nipple). In Orwell’s book about totalitarian rule, a government organization called Pornosec “produced booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.” Sure enough, Moore takes this line of reference from 1984 and creates one of his own Pornosec booklets in Black Dossier, right down to the cheap newsprint paper and the nonstandard 4″ x 6″ size of a typical Tijuana bible:

In 1984, even illict sex is compulsory.

The skinny little pamphlet, bound inside the regular shelf-sized hardcover. Note that the surrounding prose story is a dead-on imitation of a Keruoac-style beat novel, "The Crazy Wide Forever."

Was it doubleplusgood for you, baby?In the image at left (shrunken for your sensibilities, but totally clickable) , expressionless humans slave away on the assembly line even during a bizarre public coupling. Since this 8-page pamphlet parodies Orwellian propaganda, the offending male is apprehended by the last panel and subjected to a 1984-style “rat box.” The female salutes the arresting officers, who tell her in classic Orwellian, “Doubleplusgood work, informant Jane.”

Is it pornography? Well, sorta. This image is about as graphic as Black Dossier gets; the rest of the book is dotted with cartoon breasts and a full-frontal glimpse here or there. On the whole, it falls well short of obscenity. Properly defining obscenity in legal terms would require a team of law clerks communing with the ghosts of Supreme Court Justices Past — but the  common thread in the argument, provided by Justice William Brennan in 1957, is that for something to be obscene it must be “utterly without redeeming social importance.” Good luck proving that in any book written by Moore, one of the keenest social commentators since Tom Wolfe.

However you classify it, the cartoony sex in Black Dossier isn’t nearly as arousing as it is kinda boring.

So what did the librarians do?

Sharon Cook (on the left in the photo at top) had worked for four years in the Jessamine County Public Library in Nicholasville, Ky. (Neither she nor her co-conspirator Beth Boisvert hold library-science degrees, and the Lexington Herald-Leader calls them “library employees.”) When Cook first saw Black Dossier — shelved not in the juvenile section, but in an adult graphic novel section — she was appalled that children could easily mistake it for one of the other more mainstream and kid-appealing comics in the same section. So in fall of 2008, she checked it out. And renewed it, over and over, keeping it out of circulation.

This went on until Sept. 21, 2009, when an 11-year-old went to check the book out. No library policies forbade the girl from checking out the book; the onus is on parents to monitor children’s library use. As per standard procedure, the girl was put on a waiting list for the checked-out book — and when Cook attempted to renew the book, the system denied her.

After consulting with fellow employee Boisvert, the two of them removed the hold the patron had put on the book, so Cook could continue to check it out. Two days later they were fired.

So far, this is pretty cut-and-dried: Library employees object to material in a book, and conspire to keep it out of the hands of a person who has a right to read it. Case closed.

But something from the Herald-Leader story by reporter Amy Wilson surprised me:

Cook says she consulted with a manager at the library at almost every step in her decision-making process about the graphic novel. She says when it first came to her attention, “someone suggested we spill a cup of tea on it. Instead I checked it out.”

Well, I’ll be damned. It seems we always hear of how course society has become, how civility is dead, how discourse has been dumbed to the lowest common denominator. And for a moment there, that almost proved true when some junior Savanarola at the Jessamine County Library suggested they destroy an objectionable book. But Cook ignored that suggestion, and simply checked the book out.

She didn’t burn it; she borrowed it.

I’ve mentioned that I hate censorship, and I agree that Cook and Boisvert committed a terminal offense when they interfered with the patron’s hold on the book. But I hope everyone who has a stake in this debate takes the time to acknowledge that Cook’s first solution was nonviolent, respectful of property, and little more than honest-to-gosh civil disobedience.

We love civil disobedience in this country — the nonviolence of a Walgreen’s lunch counter sit-in or the stubborn insistence against moving to the back of the bus. Cook saw a book that crossed the limits of her morality, and instead of destroying it, she simply gamed the system to keep it out of circulation.

I don’t agree with Cook, but she’s won a measure of my respect nonetheless. And she should have the respect of every other book-reading, idea-loving, free-thinking philosopher for showing that just because a book can incite angry thought, it doesn’t have to incite angry action.

Sincere thanks, Ms. Cook. I wish you swift success in finding new employment soon. Just not in a library.


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12 responses to “Censoring librarians: In defense of two outraged Kentucky pepperpots

  1. Carol

    Did you know all the allusions you refer to in your above post, or does some of your knowledge come from Jess Nevins? I gotta say my head is spinning from all the references to other works you mention.

    Interesting take on civil disobedience. Wouldn’t last long in Oak Park–you can only renew an item twice.

    Would you want your hypothetical 11-year-old to read this book?

    • jdrewscott

      Believe me, I own the Nevins works and referred to them to read the books the first time, then again to write this post. I could barely tread water without ‘em. Each successive volume in the series gets increasingly dense in literary allusions … to the detriment of story, IMHO.

      As to my hypothetical 11-year-old: It depends on which of my three are being the hypothesis. Some will be more mature at 11 than others. All in all, if I have kid who has the chops to tackle a tome like this at 11, I believe I’d be thrilled. But he (or she) would have to withstand having frank and candid conversation with me about the contents — and what kid really wants to talk about dongles and jubblies with his dad?

      • Carol

        I’d kinda hope my hypothetical 11-year-old wouldn’t get very far into the book with its literary illusions and would merely glance at the naughty bits and be slightly confused and in no way want to discuss it with me. The whole process of experimentation and exploration and all that.

        Boy, am I glad to hear you refer to someone else and don’t just know all these literary allusions–’cause I feel I need a reference tome just to read half of your entries!

  2. Twenty one years ago, when I was eleven, I read Moore’s Watchmen. Not as sex-heavy as the book in question, but definitely sexual. And violent.

    The book made a huge impression on me. I’d always loved comics, but this was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was layered. It was frightening. It made me think in ways few books ever had.

    I loved the book so much I even lent it to my dad. Looking back it’s hard to believe I’d be so clueless, but it didn’t occur to me to think of the sex in the book as anything objectionable; I was too young to really be thinking practically about sex (though I was curious), and a lot of the more sophisticated gradations in the book of what was normal and what was kinky sort of went over my head.

    My dad was, naturally, scandalized at what I’d been reading, but handled it well. He carefully explained to me that sex and sexuality were complex, and …. Oh, I don’t remember. I was too embarrassed. But he didn’t take the book away, and I really appreciate in retrospect that it never occurred to me that he might.

    At eleven, was hungry for information, both about sex and about the adult world of complex moral questions and difficult situations. Watchmen was over my head, but in a good way; it gave me more questions to ask, and helped me build a more complex world view. It helped me start growing up. I was eleven. I was ready.

    • jdrewscott

      Exactly! Obviously you didn’t open the book with preconceived notions about the sex being potentially harmful to you. It just was. One more thing to encounter and to learn about.

      I read a comment on this controversy elsewhere that asked: Which is more harmful to a young reader: a risque image, or the attitudes of an interloper trying to keep her from seeing it?

      I’ll wager you get a lot more screwed up ideas about sex — about people! — when a self-appointed morality officer is wagging fingers in your face and demanding you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Uh, the figurative man behind the figurative curtain, I mean.

      Thanks for telling that story, Nora!

  3. Christine

    What disturbs me about the bits you posted from the book is not the sex, but the sexism. It really depresses me to think of the kids who are getting their ideas about sex from depictions like these, in which women are treated as science projects. (And btw, that line about the “device” sounds much more like Edward Gorey’s “The Curious Sofa” than Cleland’s “Fanny Hill”.)

    It would be great if the libraries had more and different views of sex that kids might look at, but they tend to carry only the mainstream publications, especially in small towns. If the 11-year-olds could also check out Lee Marrs’ “Pudge” comics when they get their Alan Moore books, that would be an eye-opening pairing, but guess what! Lee Marrs’ books are widely unavailable–you can find them at a few university libraries. (I wish there were more modern examples, but I can’t think of too many modern women comic artists who are really dealing with sex–anyone help me out?)

    • jdrewscott

      As a father of a 5-year-old daughter, I worry about the first images and situations she’ll encounter that will form her opinions of herself, of her body and of sexuality. A book like this would be a bad start; sadly, so many other media messages are creeping in already, that my worry of her picking up this book at 11 might well be a “horse has already the left the barn” scenario. Raising girls is a tightrope walk with only on-the-job training.

      About the images you see here: These are taken from the sections where Moore is holding up a mirror to the source material. In their way, the Tijuana bible and the Fanny Hill sections (among others) are just reflections of the stuff that has come before … in some cases, centuries before. In truth, I think Moore did them just to show off his depth of literary knowledge and mimicry skills.

      It may comfort you (or appall you, or neither) to know that in the pages of actual plot, most of the sex is conducted between consensual, strong-willed characters: Mina Murray, the sharp and self-confident leader of the band, and Allan Quatermain, her strong but clearly second-fiddle companion. Perhaps this is a more healthy view of sex? Or perhaps not: They seem to have an awful lot of it, and they reminisce frequently of roping in Orlando (in both his male and female forms) for a threesome.

      Also: Good call on the “Curious Sofa” similarity. I hauled out my Amphigorey and had a good chuckle at its teasing text: “They were soon joined by Donald, Herbert’s singularly well-favoured sheepdog, and many were the giggles and barks that came from the shrubbery.” Ha! I wouldn’t put it past Moore to throw in a Gorey allusion as well.

      Also also: Thank you for introducing me to Lee Marrs’ work. I had never heard of Pudge, and I look forward to seeing if my Evanston, Ill., library holds any copies. As to other women comics artist dealing with sex: Not a great list of examples, but the “Twsited Sisters” anthologies collect women creators with some frank (and sometimes painful) views of sexuality like Phoebe Gloeckner, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Julie Doucet.

      Here are two places to start hunting more modern role models:

  4. Christine

    thanks for the thoughtful reply! I agree about the “horse-has-left-the-barn” thing. I also agree that consensuality is very important, although whether the encounter in the Tijuana Bible story is consensual is arguable, since the woman is apparently a robotic tool of the government.

    “These are taken from the sections where Moore is holding up a mirror to the source material.”

    I guess I can see what you mean, except that the Fanny Hill drawing looks nothing like any 18th-century print I’ve ever seen–for one thing, O’Neill tends to give women the idealized, gym-toned, breast-implanted bodies, and knife-edge cheekbones, of 21st-century comic heroines, no matter what time period they’re supposed to be in. But I don’t get the impression O’Neill is too concerned with historical accuracy, and maybe it doesn’t matter, for what these authors are trying to do.

    However, it’s interesting to compare his Fanny Hill drawing to an engraving from the original 1766 edition (rather badly reproduced, but you get the idea–I guess if this goes online it might have to be prefaced with a nudity warning):

    The massive changes in ideas of feminine beauty over the decades really fascinate me.

    Thanks for the reading suggestions; I had heard of some of those works, but not all of them. I look forward to checking them out. For anyone interested in women cartoonists, I recommend Trina Robbins’ books on cartooning history.

    • jdrewscott

      No, thank *you* for the thoughtful reply. It’s clear you know your comix!

      That Fanny Hill image is a great find. Clearly O’Neill represents a different concept of femininity — and though his woman have different (skinnier, sandwich-needing) body styles, I think it’s clear he’s trying to replicate the chiseled look of a woodcut. The similarity succeeded for me to enjoy the reference — but I’m glad you found an original for comparison. Such fussy hair!

      Thanks also for the recommendation of the Trina Robbins book. In reading about it, I saw Alison Bechdel’s name, another good lead for our Master’s thesis on women cartoonists who deal with sex and identity.

      For anyone playing along at home, “Great Women Cartoonists” can be found here:

  5. Pingback: My awesome influence map « The Retort

  6. I guess what the librarian did isn’t all that different from me hiding Rush Limbaugh’s books every time I come across them in a Barnes and Noble. Still, I remember a boarder at our house giving me copies of ‘Elfquest’ when I was about twelve. There were some pretty sexy scenes in it and I was definitely curious and fascinated. Aren’t these experiences a timeless part of growing up and discovering about sex? Better to be introduced to it through well-written, thoughtful, nuanced storytelling which to my mind is much less harmful and perverting than half the stuff you see on reality TV.

    • jdrewscott

      How nice to see you here at my now oft-dormant blog, Abi. It prompts me to carve out a little more time for this neglected doodlespace.

      You make the most excellent point of all: It can’t be much worse than what’s already available on trash TV — or even teen radio! It seems every time I tune in to my kids’ favorite station (playing modern pop, and chart-friendly hip-hop) the lyrics make me cringe and hope that no one is listening critically. Everybody is always feelin’ sexy and crowing about the suggestive (or explicit) things they’re going to do with (or to) their romantic conquests (or complete strangers). Even the background music at our pediatric orthodontist’s office pumped a seemingly harmless & hummable pop tune that, when listened to closely, revealed how the songstress felt when “you touch me there.” It’s one thing to discover your sexuality in furtive glances at “Elfquest,” and quite another to have it continuously forced on you by the Sexualized Self Image Pusher that modern teen culture has become.

      How do I protect my daughter from that?

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