Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Banned in Canada

I chose to attend “Banned in Canada” partly because all of the girlie, food-related events were taken (I really, really like food), and partly because I was interested in fleshing out why an author’s work should or should not be banned in Canada. Author Howard Chaykin’s most controversial work, the “Black Kiss” series, is not my cup of tea (what can I say, erotic vampires just aren’t my thing), but I wanted to examine why it was banned through the lens of free speech and Canadian legislation. 


Black Kiss reportedly violates subsection 163(8) of the Criminal Code, which means it dominantly displays “the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence.” Considering the theme of the work is, as Chaykin put it, “sexually insatiable vampires,” it is little surprise that it violates the obscenity provision of the Code. Chaykin also explained that the 1st issue of the series, published in Toronto, was censored, not due to depictions of a sexual nature, but because of a language issue; the content was deemed child pornography.


After hearing Chaykin describe his work, I gather his intent is not to shock and awe, but to marry darkness and humor. His aim is to “annoy people” with his work. I sensed that he finds stock comic book characters mass-produced and boring, and looks to inject real life into his prose. His passion is storytelling, so he focuses on narratives first and the visual expression of them second. It follows that he desires any “titillating” nature to his work to be secondary to the actual storyline. Chaykin applies the same quality of narrative to his erotic comics that he does to his non-erotic comics. Visual storytelling is his gift, and by all appearances, he excels at it. For him, comics are a “synergy of pictures and story.” When asked about the perception of comics as adolescent in mainstream thought, Chaykin suggests mature themes in comics are just real-world meat and bread. He labels adults who want moral comics “ephemeral” and “ridiculous." He explores the idea that comics can get away with more controversial content because they depict drawn images rather than real people, though he seems to disprove of comic books solely comprised of pornographic images, with no real story behind them—true to his focus on narrative content.


At one point a member of the audience asked why Black Kiss II contained a theme of duality, of male vs. female, black vs. white. He answered that he loves the concept of a “secret identity” and finds himself ever-evolving to keep up with the trends in his work. He reinvented his life at age 13 by teaching himself to subdue his New York accent. This duality is a current flowing through his work, which he describes as “deadly serious, casual mischief,” preferring that it be dirty and funny.His idea of a likeable superhero is not Batman as he is depicted now, but a superhero who is constantly overpowered and outnumbered, because the underdog is rooted in reality.


I must admit, I felt an ounce of embarrassment when I realized I was likely the only one in the room who didn’t actively read comic books (I attribute it to my lack of imagination, and maybe a childhood void of creativity, but I digress). I was heartened at the joy on the faces of attendees who were devoted comic book consumers delighted to hear a beloved writer speak. Unexpectedly, the event gave me a glimpse into the world of comics and why people appreciate them. The idea of narrative blended with images is not one I had given much thought prior to the event, but I can see the potential and place for such a medium. I also, rather naively, assumed comics held much more appeal for adolescents, and was pleasantly surprised at the smattering of generations present to hear from Chaykin. Though I would have preferred more discussion around free speech and boundaries on obscene material in Canada, I still found something to take away from this Writer’s Festival event. (Who knows, maybe I’ll pop open a comic book on my next commute: vampires not welcome.)