A Molehill Made Mountain: Manga and the Struggle for Shelf Space

Artwork & Illustrations, Censorship, First Amendment

By: Tommy Vinh Bui

The buzz of lights help fill the crevices of silence that bound from the walls of the Teen Section of my local library. The Teen Section is adorned as such. Brightly colored with ornate and eye-catching displays of the latest YA offerings. Furniture comfortable. Ambiance welcoming. A fine space to while away the afternoon.

Without fail, there’s usually a well-stocked graphic novel and manga collection in any Teen Section worth a mosey. It’s a shelf that demands a lot of eyeballs and finds itself well thumbed-thru. Pages crinkled and covers having seen better days. Testament to this genre’s enduring popularity to this particular demographic of youth transitioning to adulthood. There’s just something about the kerrang of Japanese kanji that appeals to the emerging adolescent mind.

But wading against the current of all the young adult adulation is a small yet vocal minority that excoriates the presence of manga in libraries. A noteworthy case of the cantankerous clamoring for its removal was in 2006 when San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus maintained that Paul Gravett’s well-researched Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics were unceremoniously plucked from the shelves of all San Bernardino County public libraries. The primary charge against the otherwise well-regarded book were the minute amount of sexually explicit images featured in a chapter about a subgenre of manga. A baffling case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by all estimations.

Gravett’s book holds much historical heft and academic merit and more than earns its few inches of shelf space. In terms of auspicious collection development policy, it ticks every box with gusto. The book was critically well-received upon publication for its thoughtful thoroughness and able analyses of manga from 1945 to the present. The book is impressive for its breadth and depth of study. Gravett explicates an ambitious range of topics and scrutinizes manga under a multitude of insightful and academic lenses. The sociological, cultural, and literary scholarship it exudes is impressive. The book also discusses the genre’s global influence and the economic powerhouse it represents as one of Japan’s major exports and cultural productions. It’s a stunningly accessible book that provides an exceptional primer to the history of manga for both the novice and dedicated enthusiast alike.   

But it was those few pages of controversial images that sent certain folks into a lather. The book was so much more than the content of a small section and the value of the book should be determined by the numerous other chapters that reveal so much more about this popular subject. Looking beyond those few provocative pages would reveal a book that explores a genre that is astoundingly resonant to young adults worldwide. Zeroing in on a few pages does a disservice to the otherwise overall quality and value of the book and is kind of a blatant charge contrary to a library’s steadfast mission: To serve all types of readers and bolster a diverse collection that appeals and reflects the complexities of the communities they serve.

Very much to the chagrin of advocates for intellectual freedom and champions against censorship everywhere, the book was pulled and made unavailable to any readers in that particular system. There’s really no two ways to argue what transpired: Information had been stifled and barriers erected to prevent it from reaching the public. An objectionable moral code was brandished and took aim at a library’s purpose of being equitable, accessible, and a space for clear-eyed discussion and thoughtful debate. Limits cannot be placed on the types of books the community may (and has a right to) have access to. Significant First Amendment issues are raised and the removal of the book represents an unacceptable failing to foster a robust and verdant reading community.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) mobilized and took action. To protect free expression, the organization pressed the San Bernardino district attorney to reconsider the decision to remove Paul Gravett’s book. A good effort mustered but more must be done to protect the reading rights of the community at large.

Solace can be taken in one positive from this perplexing debacle. The profile of Paul Gravett’s book has raised considerably and has likely stirred a renewed and invigorated interest in this particular subject. Nothing attracts more resolve to read a book than being told not to read it. I imagine that’s one perk of being a challenged book that can provide a small degree of comfort.

So the next time you find yourself in a library, indulge in a brazen and obstinately revolutionary act that’ll uplift libraries everywhere: Read a Sailor Moon.

Tommy Vinh Bui

Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.

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