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Naughty Bits
By Karen Green
Friday January 4, 2008 10:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
People kept asking me, "Are you going to buy Lost Girls for the collection?"

Good question.

Well, first, was it erotica or pornography? Erotica's not a problem. Academic libraries are chock full of the stuff, either because it was produced by well-known authors—like Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus or Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer—or because it becomes an interesting subject for study in itself. Our online catalog lists 73 titles under the heading "Erotic literature"—and this is just the secondary scholarship on the stuff. I mean, erotica is…tasteful, right?

Then there's pornography. Some of what we have in our collections might, at certain times in American literary history, have been defined as pornography (I'm looking at YOU, Ulysses and Lady Chatterly's Lover). Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 that he might not be able to define what constitutes pornography, "but I know it when I see it." But the benefit of print pornography is that in some ways it's only as pornographic as the reader's imagination allows it to be. Once you add in pictures, though, the dynamic changes. It's more…explicit, if you will.

I decided I had to see it for myself, so I went down to Jim Hanley's Universe and unblushingly bought a copy. I brought it home and read it all through in one go. For my tastes, it was definitely pornography, in that the sexual activity got pretty boring after the first 15 minutes. But on the other hand, Neil Gaiman in his review of Lost Girls for Publishers Weekly, said "It succeeded for me wonderfully as a true graphic novel. If it failed for me, it was as smut. The book, at least in large black-and-white photocopy form, was not a one-handed read." Heh.

But what it was, besides being porn, and in addition to being a commentary on girlhood, on children's literature, on emotional relationships, on the passing of childhood, on the wonder and terror of newly-discovered sexuality, on war, on the birth of the Modern and the death of the ancien regime, on Edwardian erotic literature—and more—was an Alan Moore book. And if you're going to create a canon of comics/GN authors, then he's absolutely in it. Further, if you're going to collect the authors in that canon, then you have to collect their entire oeuvre. What's more, Melinda Gebbie's artwork was breath-taking: melding the gentle style of children's book illustration with Matisse-like Fauvism, the phantasmagoria of Beardsley's Yellow Book or Franz von Bayros, and more, ever-changing as it took its cues from the content of the tale.

So, it would go into the collection. But the decision-making didn't end there. Where in the collection would it go? Would I keep it in the open stacks, in the general collection of books that people can check out and take home? It's an expensive book for a graphic novel, though not for a scholarly work (now you know why all those starving grad students are starving), so that wasn't my concern. My concern was…well…what might happen to it.

Columbia University is a fine institution with an intelligent and upstanding student body and scholarly community, but not all of them have the same respect for books that, say, we librarians have. Our head of Collection Maintenance has STORIES, such as the ones about the two separate books that have come back with used condoms in them—and those weren't even erotica. If I was going to add Lost Girls to the collection, I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to have to check it every month to see if I'd need to replace it.


I had faced a similar dilemma when I added Tijuana bibles: art and wit in America's forbidden funnies, 1930s-1950s. "Tijuana bible" was the term applied to small, brief, pornographic comics using well-known traditional comics characters, film stars, politicians, what-have-you. They're eight pages packed full of social commentary and observation, and an amazing find for cultural historians. I just had to add this book to the collection, but how could I protect it? I surely didn't want it in our open stacks—which, though "open," are dark and full of hidden places—so I decided to send it to our Offsite storage facility, out of which it could be paged directly from its online catalog record.

I didn't think that was safe enough for Lost Girls, though. Offsite prevents books from being stolen, and associates a borrower's name with the book, but the book can still leave the premises, where anything could happen to it. I could specify that it go to Offsite and, if paged, be restricted to in-library use, but I was still afraid that it would be vulnerable. I talked to our Rare Books librarian—you remember her, the Silver Surfer fan?—and she agreed to place it in her collection. Now it can be read, but in a strictly supervised and well-lit research reading room.

Buxom heroines and occasional sexual scenes are hardly new to the comics world. But these two titles offer something far earthier and more visceral than what's been seen previously (you have no idea what I went through trying to find appropriate images for this column!). I don't have to worry about book challenges, the way public libraries do, but I do have to gauge appropriateness as well as protect the collection itself. I feel pretty good about the decisions I reached on these two titles. What do you think?

Previous article: The Origin Story
Next article: Convetional Comics, or, Conference Calling
Dagwood in All in a day's work
Author unknown
Tijuana bibles: art and wit in America's forbidden funnies, 1930s-1950s
New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1997
Dorothy gets carried away during the tornado, Vol.1, chap.7, p.6
Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie
Lost girls
Atlanta: Top Shelf Productions, 2006

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010



zensurfer (1 year ago)
Excellent article!
JGMadisonW (1 year ago)
I first read some of Lost Girls on loan from the Madison Public Library. I didn't think it inappropriate for a library, but I have to admit that my wife and I keep our since-purchased set in our locking chest along with other books and movies outside of the reach of our kids.
You were just right in noting how Melinda Gebbe's artwork meant as much (perhaps more) to the storytelling than Moore's characterization and commentary. I can't see it working as well with anyone else drawing it.
Beyond that, I have memories of being a 4th grader and stumbling across Our Bodies, Our Selves in the public library. Yes, I had to peek in on that one a couple of times. Library patrons are apt to find titillation in some unexpected places . . . as acknowledged by your colleagues STORIES.
johnadcock (1 year ago)
On the horns of a dillemma. The University of Alberta has the British Library collection of Victorian porn on microfilm. At first it was kept in a shelf in the public area. Not sure why but you now have to ask one of the staff for the film and have it brought to you. Much of the Victorian porn guarded so zealously, such as Grushenka, Memoirs of a Russian Princess, were recycled in paperback by Grove Press in the sixties and sold openly on Canadian newsstands.
Stone Mountain (3 months ago)
There's an interesting New York Times article about a Paris library exhibition dealing with much the same issues, although not just with comics-related material.

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