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Genre case study - Graphic novels and other books

Books are rarely classified

Unlike films, printed material such as graphic novels or books do not have to be examined and classified before they are supplied to the public in New Zealand. This means that they are only classified when they are submitted by an enforcement agency (such as Customs or the Censorship Compliance Unit) or by a member of the public.

Graphic novels and other print publications can be classified as Unrestricted, Restricted or Objectionable (Banned).

Public concerns

Mostly, graphic novels have been submitted by members of the public.

Under section 13(1)(c) of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, members of the public can submit publications such as graphic novels for classification. They have to get the permission of the Chief Censor to do this - usually by explaining why they think the publication needs to be classified.

This is how four graphic novels came to be classified: members of the public came across them in public libraries and were concerned that young children might get them off the shelf. They thought that the content was not suitable for young children and that a restriction was necessary.

Classification considerations

Graphic novels are examined using the same classification criteria as for films.

The classification criteria set out in section 3 of the Classification Act is applied to all publications submitted for classification. So, when the graphic novels were submitted for classification, the Classification Office had to take into consideration whether they dealt with things like sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence.

It was also important for the Classification Office to think about the likely audience for the graphic novels, the impact of the printed medium, and whether the publications had any merit, value or importance. These graphic novels were given the following classifications:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol IIR13: contains violence and sex scenes

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol II is a satirical sci-fi comic written by celebrated writer Alan Moore (author of V for Vendetta). It is the second volume of a planned six-issue series. The vividly illustrated series is set in an alternative universe based on mythology and literature. This volume is set in 1898 and the characters are all taken from 19th Century literary fiction. It starts when aliens, about to be defeated on Mars, escape and invade the Earth. British military intelligence enlists the aid of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to defeat the aliens.

The person who submitted this graphic novel to the Classification Office felt that the pictures which showed sexual activity were not appropriate for children. In its decision on the graphic novel, the Classification Office noted that:

The publication is an imaginative and vivid sci-fi comic or graphic novel. It is highly satirical, and often farcical and outrageous in manner. The comic has been created by a leading exponent of this art from and is intended for mature contemplation and amusement. However, the comic format has traditionally been aimed at, and is popular with, children and young persons. This publication contains occasional images of frank sexual activity and is likely to introduce children to sexual concepts they are not at a developmental stage to deal with. Combined with a few images of horror and strong violence the comic is likely to disturb and confuse younger readers.

Nevertheless, comics in this format are often of educative value for older students and in this instance may introduce them to distinguished literature. Considering these elements, the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good unless restricted to its intended readership of persons over 13 years of age.

Office of Film and Literature Classification Decision

Classification Office's R13 classification decision for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II (PDF, 155KB)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II book cover

Even more decadently filthy, gothic and thrilling than its predecessor... a ripping yarn.

Times Education Supplement


R13 classification label
R13: contains violence and sex scenes

Ghost WorldR16: contains offensive language and sexual themes

Ghost World is a graphic novel by American cartoonist Daniel Clowes which tells a story of teenage angst and growing up in small-town America. The eight chapters follow two inseparable teenage friends, Enid and Rebecca, through the period at the end of their high school years when they try on new identities and, rather unwillingly, face their futures.

The member of the public who submitted Ghost World to the Classification Office thought that it was a "great story" but that it had "a lot of adult content" and was not suitable for children. Of particular concern was a section about a paedophile. This person found this part of the story shocking and sickening.

The Office applied the classification criteria to this graphic novel and said:

Its dominant effect has strong elements of warmth and humour and it has considerable artistic merit. Nevertheless, its availability to children or young teenagers is likely to be injurious to the public good. The sexual content is strong, varied and extensive....

Young readers do not have the knowledge or maturity to deal with sexual material at this level. The potential for a negative effect on the development of sexual attitudes is high. While the extent and nature of Ghost World's sexual content demonstrably justifies restriction, it is also noted that young readers who are unfamiliar with the highly offensive language used throughout the comic may be confused and even disturbed by its constant and often aggressive use, particularly in conjunction with equally strong sexual references.

Office of Film and Literature Classification Decision

Classification Office's R16 classification decision for Ghost World (PDF, 164KB)

Ghost World book cover

While the vocabulary here is raunchy, it is accurate for the characters. These realistic 18-year-olds don't always talk nice and don't always act nice but they do have moral fiber underneath their tough-girl exteriors... This is a book with distinct appeal to urban high school students, but it's certainly not for their younger brothers and sisters.

School Library Journal


R16 classification label
R16: contains offensive language and sexual themes

Older teenagers and adults

Comics, manga and other forms of graphic novels have been popular with both adults and young people for decades. However, a lot of people still think that because these are 'cartoon drawings' they are suitable for (and aimed at) children. Fans of this type of publication know that this is often not the case, with many graphic novels containing sophisticated narratives conveyed through violent or sexual imagery. The Classification Office encourages places like libraries to keep their graphic novel collections in their Teen or Adult sections (rather than the Children's section).

Other printed material

Sometimes books are submitted for classification by enforcement agencies or members of the public. Most of the books that are classified deal with crime (such as drug manufacturing) or contain explicit sexual material - these books are generally classified as R18 or Objectionable (banned). However, each year we classify a few books with a lower age-restriction, such as R13 or R16, or as unrestricted.

Mihi: Collected PoemsUnrestricted

This book contains 174 pages of selected poems by New Zealand poet Hone Tuwhare. The poems are divided into eight numbered sections each containing up to 22 poems, most of which are one page long. The sections are sorted into un-named themes some of which are clearly evident such as death and dying, lands afar, love and romance, whanau and whanaungatanga, and relationship with the land. Many of the poems bring a distinctly Māori perspective to experiences, but there are also layers of political and emotional response to multicultural and working class concerns, and to human rights issues.

The person who submitted this book for classification was upset with the sexual themes and offensive language in the book. She was concerned that the book was being used in schools and that young people's attitudes towards sex would be negatively affected by the poems in the book.

In classifying Mihi: Collected Poems, the Office noted that the book had significant literary, artistic, social and cultural, and educational merit. The author is an acclaimed New Zealand poet who has been published since 1958.

The works convey the passion the author has for his world. They demonstrate his distinct and effortless humour which is clever both in its simplicity and in its capture of the bawdiness in the vernacular of the working man. The context of the poetry and the clarity of the poet's tone and passion mitigate the effects of the sexual references and imagery and the limited use of some offensive language.

The book's unrestricted availability is unlikely to injure the public good. The book is intended for a mature audience. A reader with the maturity to read the poems is likely to have the maturity to deal with their contents. Readers must also make a conscious decision to engage with the book and the usual browsing behaviours will influence their choice to continue to a more comprehensive level. Unlike a film, a book of poetry does not make a sudden and colourful impression on naive viewers. This book requires a level of engagement with the text that would make it of little interest to children.

Office of Film and Literature Classification Decision

Classification Office's Unrestricted classification decision for Mihi (PDF, 193KB)

Mihi: Collected Poems book cover

He was arguably the most sensual of New Zealand poets; his verse by turns earthy, colloquial, musical, graceful, exquisite, intimate. His poems have a conversational rhythm, and are often addressed to specific people. He retailed stories like a bibulous medieval friar, and wrought love lyrics into comic anecdotes of sex and sensibility.

Almost a cabaret artist at times, a monologist by choice, he used an enriched imagistic language which drew on a jumble of influences: Catullus, Lorca, the Confucian sages, the Beats, the argot of the street-kids, Māori mythology — and in particular, early on, the cadences of the King James Bible, the only book his family had at home when he was a child.

The Poetry Archive

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