This piece is inspired by a famous poem by pastor Martin Niemöller, a survivor of Nazi Germany. In this brief, poetic essay, he describes how he failed to stand up for one group after another as the Nazis came for them, because he was not a member of that group. It begins, “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.” Finally he laments, “Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
While the censorship of comics is in no way equivalent to the Holocaust or the political oppression that led up to it, the same principle of apathetic compliance and creeping tyranny applies. Censors come first for the easy targets, the unpopular material that few people are inclined to bother defending, perhaps even agreeing with the censors’ disapproval.
This was how Fredric Wertham went after comics in the 1950s, pointing out material that seemed obviously harmful by the standards of the day, especially to children. By the time the Comics Code was set up, whole genres of comics had been effectively censored, and the content of those that were left was limited to things that were appropriate for pre-teen children… according to conservative, authoritarian standards. To “protect the children”, comics for adult readers were banned from the mainstream marketplace.
It wasn’t just the publishers, the artists, and the writers who were harmed. It was the readers.
Censors today are operating the same way. They start with “protect the children”. For some this motive is sincere… albeit misguided in applying it to imaginary children as much as to real ones. For others it’s simply a desire to keep ideas they disapprove of out of the public eye, and this is how they get that started. As in the past, in addition to working through the laws, they work at the distributor/retail level: instead of the old newsstand distributors, now they’re getting things blocked by folks like Amazon and Apple, denying adult readers to choose for themselves. Either way, they won’t stop with their first steps; they will – as always – keep going with each “success”. And eventually they will censor something that you want to read. By that time, it’ll be too late for you, too.