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.)
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.
In 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:
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 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.