The fear of change: challenging preconceived notions of comics and manga

Jon Grunau, [email protected], News Writer

The opening months of 2022 saw an astounding rise in the number of calls to ban books and graphic novels at a rate never before seen in recent years. 

Book banning in America remains an old concept, with many novels targeted. The most famous examples of book banning include George Orwell’s “1984” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, along with many others. 

“This is not a fairly new topic. It’s been around since the 1950s and there’s always been criticism. People have always wanted to ban comic books,” said Anthony Ramirez, a Ph.D candidate at Texas A&M University. 

An El Paso, Texas native, Ramirez focuses his research on Latinx representation in popular culture and media, media representation of immigration and issues of the U.S/Mexico border. 

“What’s happening now with this discrimination and attempt to erase minorities of all different kinds of backgrounds is frustrating,” Ramirez said. “We want to find characters we relate to and mean something much more to us on a deeper level than just being cool. When you find a character who relates to you on much more of a personal level, it’s a lot better.”

Censorship of comics and manga doesn’t just encompass minority and LGBTQ themes, with many attempts to suppress or ban media critics and parents have found offensive or dangerous. An old example would be the multiple instances that the novel series “Harry Potter” was banned from schools following claims of promoting witchcraft. 

A more recent example, according to Ramirez, would be the flak that the graphic novel series “Maus” has received. Depicting the harrowing experience of the Holocaust, many critics are trying to cancel or ban the series due to claims of critical race theory. 

“It’s frustrating because if people were to actually read the comics or graphic novels, they would realize  you can learn so much from them,” Ramirez said. “I think people are just so closed-minded about certain subjects that they refuse to challenge their own pre-perceived notions.”

Even amongst all rising attempts to ban graphic novels, comics are on the rise as one of the most popular and lucrative forms of entertainment.

Since January of 2018, Marvel comic’s stocks shot up by 280.4% as of Jan. 1, 2022. At an all time high of 87.49 USD per share, Marvel comics and movies are more popular than ever before. 

Conversely, DC Comics have lagged behind in popularity, with stock prices falling by roughly 35% since 2018. While both companies are known as the largest producer of comic books in the West, there is one style of comic that has exploded in popularity in recent years, completely overshadowing most western comic book sales. 

According to retailers tracked by NPD, Japanese manga sales have risen by 25% on a unit basis in 2019. Western comics and Japanese manga’s popularity exploded in the last few years, leading to many indie writers finding their works on shelves.

When asked about the attempts to ban and censor comics and manga, Allison Jenkins of Comic Envy commented on the rising rising movement. 

“We are not for banning books, and we are in fact ordering all of the books that are under threat of being banned,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to back the libraries and schools who are under more fire than retailers like us.”

An employee of Comic Envy, Nick Vitali, commented last March on the importance of comics and manga to youth in America. Vitali elaborated on the importance of comics, mentioning the efforts Comic Envy takes to reach out to younger fans.

“It’s very important for kids to be able to read things at the age when these lessons are very pivotal to their growth and support system and how they see themselves,” Jenkins said. “A lot more indie books, even Marvel and DC, are branching out into these issues  older generations didn’t have to deal with.”

Local comic book stores and locations remain the most well-known and appreciated source of comics and manga in those areas, seen as more than just a place to purchase comics. 

“While you’re here you’re checking out other stuff you probably haven’t seen before and people you may not have met before,” said Mcneil Melvin last March, a long-time visitor to Comic Envy in Asheville. “It opens up your horizons for all kinds of stuff.”

Opening horizons and introducing people to new kinds of entertainment and ideas is very important to the overall belief of comic stores, with figures such as Allison Jenkins of Comic Envy and Alex Brown of Wyvern’s Tale stressing the importance of freedom of expression. 

“While us nerds don’t always have intersecting interests, we still stay connected and work with each other,” Brown said in March. “It’s important to have these spaces to connect and share our interests.”

Alongside keeping the community together and entertained with a love of comics and tabletop games, Vitali stressed  the importance he believes comic books have to youth.

“I love what it does for the youth in the area. It really brings them in, gives them a place of bright colors and smiling faces. A place to share these stories with their friends,” Vitali said. 

Ramirez said when it comes to sharing stories and lived experiences, there is no other medium that can accomplish the job quite as well as comic books.

“We have very important conversations about mental health and we have these conversations about how success looks to us,” Ramirez said. “We’re sharing our stories and telling stories in these lived realities.”

Ramirez was very clear on why it is so important  these stories remain open and accessible to the public instead of being shunned or banned. 

“It’s very powerful because people can relate to these stories. They’ve gone through these experiences and because of that, seeing a story about what they’ve gone through can be very empowering and therapeutic,” Ramirez said. 

He said everyone from every kind of background has a story to tell and learning about their experiences and life story remains one of Ramirez’s most important life goals. 

“People’s stories need to be told, and a majority of these people come from different walks of life with vastly different stories. They’re telling about their own personal stories and lived realities that are hopefully relatable to others,” Ramirez said.