Banned Books: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Title: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier
Author: Alan Moore; illustrated by Kevin O’Neill
Not to be Confused With: the movie spin off
Challenged At: Jessamine County Public Library, Nicolasville, Kentucky
Along with four other works for: “offend[ing] me in that they depict sexual acts and/or describe such acts in a way that in my opinion are contrary to the Jessamine County public opinion”

I saved this one for Banned Book Week because it definitely has the most dramatic challenging of any this year as evidenced by the fact that I knew all about it before I started this project. The ALA 2010 Banned Book List has this to say about it:

A petition with 950 signatures was presented to the board to overturn its collection policy. The petition specifically asked for the removal of four works on the grounds that “they offended me in that they depict sexual acts and/or describe such acts in a way that in my opinion are contrary to the Jessamine County public opinion” of what should be in a public, taxpayer-supported collection. The petition concluded the works constituted a public safety issue in that they encourage sexual predators… the graphic novel eventually got two employees fired for breaching library policies, the library director was threatened with physical harm, and the book was recataloged, along with other graphic novels with mature trends, to a separate but unrestricted graphic novels section of the library.

But the best part of the story, the part I knew about previously is that, “got two employees fired” part. Basically, about two years ago Sharon Cook, a library assistant, found League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier on the shelves and freaked out because there are drawings of naked ladies in it plus some strange 1984-propaganda-pornography that is supposed to be taken as a joke. After having her challenge denied, she decided to check it out and never return it for about six months, renewing it over and over so that it would never be on the shelves. Then someone put it on hold and, looking up the patron, Cook discovered it was an 11-year-old girl! After consulting with two colleagues, Beth Boisvert and Cook decided to cancel the girl’s hold and continue what they were doing. Nice. You can read a detailed article about the incident here and elsewhere, but here are my favorite parts of the Lexington Herald-Leader piece:

“Cook and Boisvert are not librarians. Generally, you must have a master’s degree in library science to merit the professional title “librarian.” The majority of library employees do not have an MLS. These paraprofessional positions go by a variety of titles depending on the library system.”(p2)
I like that this distinction is in no way important to the story, but is included anyway, maybe because it is the single most confusing thing about libraries and something I have to explain to people on a frustratingly frequent basis. Usually directly after saying “I’m getting a master’s in library science”

“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.” She then went through the proper procedure of challenging the book, something any patron can do. That required a committee, including Cook, to read the book. “People prayed over me while I was reading it because I did not want those images in my head,” she says.” (also p2)
Until now I was totally unaware that having people pray over you while you read something would stop it from getting into your head. I really could have used that while reading Twilight; sometimes I just can’t stop thinking about how Stephenie Meyer can be a frillionaire for perpetrating so many crimes against the English language.

The comments at the bottom of the article from people are also pretty amazing.

Anyway, all of this drama was why I was really excited to finally read the graphic novel in question. It’s possible that I missed a lot of it/did not really enjoy it that much because rather than reading the two volumes that came before it, I assumed my knowledge of the 2003 film titled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would be sufficient. Also, I did not care that much. Black Dossier is set in an alternate version of 1950s England, just after the overthrow of the Big Brother government described in 1984. Mina Harker and Allen Quatermain–who are immortal for various reasons–steal the dossier the government has compiled on the now-disbanded league and dodge their pursuers to escape to the magical Blazing World which can be reached through the North Pole. The Black Dossier contains the actual contents of the stolen dossier interspersed with the tale of Harker and Quatermain’s escape with it, which provides for an interesting mishmash of literary styles, since the dossier contains, among other things, comic histories, a lost Shakespeare play, government briefs, postcards, etc. I enjoyed all the small literary/historical references, such as how Emma Night (who later became Emma Peel of Avengers fame) was one of the pursuers, or how the dossier contained excerpts from a lost sequel to Fanny Hill.

I can also easily see why this work would be problematic. If you know anything about the original Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill (first published 1748), you know that it’s probably one of the most banned books of all time for being essentially prose pornography. Naturally, the excerpt from the sequel found in the Black Dossier is written in the same style with similar content to the original, except for the additions of some fantastical elements that herald Fanny’s involvement with the League. There are other instances of nudity, and an example of 1984-esque porn meant as a joke, but I can’t find anything that I would say “encourages sexual predators”. There is one scene near the beginning in which Jimmy, a James Bond analog, attempts to force himself onto Mina, but she and Allen Quatermain beat him up before he can get very far.

This book is shelved in the adult graphic novel section in the library I work at, and I don’t think I would put it anywhere else. Many people have the misconception that if something has illustrations or is done in a style that looks like a comic, it must be for children or teens, which is entirely not true and never has been. Especially lately, the graphic novel as a format has exploded in popularity with offerings on all subject matters for all different age groups. Would I recommend this book to an eleven-year-old? Of course not. Would I let my eleven-year-old read it? Probably not. Were Cook and Boisvert right to keep it out of her hands? Absolutely not. They aren’t her parents. They can’t tell her what she is and isn’t allowed to read. I wish more parents cared more about what their children are reading–but if a child checks something out that doesn’t meet with their approval, it’s entirely their fault. Libraries aren’t pushing sex, and we’re not the reading police. I hate when people think that just because they’re in the library, they don’t have to worry about being parents. Why is that? You don’t expect people in retail stores to just take over for you! Maybe it’s because we look like teachers. If your kid is being loud, throwing books, or trying to eat the computer keyboard, it’s your job to stop them, just as it’s your job to decide what your kid can and can’t read. Librarians are here to help, but we’re not going to parent for you. And you wouldn’t like it if we did. Because I believe everyone regardless of age should be required to read one challenged book a year and talk about it, and some of my colleagues (I’m looking at you, Barbara) believe in forced labor in lieu of library fines.

I have actually had kids decide the computer keys looked good to suck on. It’s like sending the flu a personalized invitation to your birthday party.

3 responses to “Banned Books: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier”

  1. I love this installment. The people challenging these books are such total histrionics.

  2. Caitlin says:

    Two things. I’m just curious, I’m not saying this is necessarily a good idea, but I want to know what you think. Has the idea been tried/ would it be ethical for children under the age of, say, 16 to have restrictions on their library cards not letting them check certain books out without a parent present like with movie ratings? I guess the question then becomes, who sets the ratings on books, and is that unethical.. I dunno?

    Also, thank you so much for introducing me to cute overload. Obviously this was an element that was missing from my life!

    • pladd says:

      Yes, actually, a lot of libraries have a similar system where children under a certain age have a special card and parents can decide which sections of the library they can check things out from. Most libraries include something in the fine print when parents get their kid a card about being solely responsible for their child’s reading anyway, but I the former allows for parental supervision when the parent isn’t actually present (although a lot of libraries also have oddly high ages for “You must be accompanied by an adult at all times”). The problems with these types of cards (I think) are:

      1) At what age does this stop being an issue? 18 seems absurdly high, especially since most high school students would need to check out adult fiction and nonfiction for school.

      2) It doesn’t at all restrict anyone’s reading within the library

      3) I’m vaguely uncomfortable with being implicit in restricting reading. Not that I think that every kid should be able to read whatever they want at any age necessarily but I really don’t think that should be MY decision or my job to worry about in loco parentis. Cards with special restrictions doesn’t really do that because the parent decides in the first place, but I don’t like setting that kind of precedent for parents who ALREADY seem to think I am supposed to take over as mom for them within the confines of the library. And, yeah, I have been known to tell kids to stop screaming/hitting each other with books/trying to steal the computer mice, but it pisses me off when the parent is STANDING RIGHT THERE.

      So I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea, but I do think it works in certain communities. Parental involvement in reading (or anything) is sort of my personal soap box, so it’s hard for me to get past my own issues about it, but I think in themselves they are not that bad of an idea.

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