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VCU Libraries to hold comics contest exploring censorship of James Branch Cabell’s novel ‘Jurgen’

September 27, 2021
A graphic illustration of a head wearing a crown in black on a field of gold with the text
Created by Caslin Applewhite

VCU Libraries is inviting students from across Virginia Commonwealth University to enter its inaugural Jurgen Banned Art Comics Contest, in which students will create and submit single-page comics exploring the censorship of the 1919 novel “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell, the namesake of VCU’s Monroe Park Campus library.

The winning entry, which will be announced in March, will receive $1,000 and the opportunity for the comic to be published in print and digitally by VCU Publishing. Two runners-up will receive $250, along with print and digital publication. All entries will be considered for digital publication.

“Since its publication, ‘Jurgen’ has inspired all kinds of artistic activity: illustration, music, dance and drama,” said project manager Alice Campbell, digital outreach and special projects librarian. “VCU Libraries wants to encourage, challenge and inspire VCU student artists and storytellers to become the next generation in that creative response to James Branch Cabell.”

The contest asks participants — either individuals or teams — to create a single-page, vertical-format comic in the spirit of Sunday newspaper comics focusing on the events and issues surrounding the censorship of “Jurgen.” In early 1920, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice seized the printing plates and copies of the novel, and Cabell’s publisher and editor were charged with violating state obscenity laws because it was an “offensive, lewd, lascivious and indecent book.”

Following its censorship, many writers rose to Cabell’s defense, asking questions about art, society and morality, such as: Should there be different standards for “literature” and “pulp" magazines? Can art be obscene? Who is to judge? Are there topics — perhaps even dangerous ideas — that art allows us to examine? Is it right for private citizens to be enlisted for law enforcement? And, as 1920 was a time when alcohol was prohibited, and distribution of contraceptives and birth control information was illegal, how much say should government have over citizens’ private lives?

Cover of “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell
“Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell

“The suppression of ‘Jurgen’ raises so many interesting questions about public morality and art,” Campbell said. “A superficial response to the story might be something like, ‘That happened 100 years ago and we know better now. Censorship is wrong.’ But compare the debates people were having in Cabell’s time to our discussions today: ‘Can an artist say anything?’ ‘Who gets to decide what's acceptable?’ and ‘What do you do if you think a law doesn't represent the opinion of the majority of society?’ We’re not so easily shocked by sex in 2021, but we're still arguing about the effect words have on society.”

The comics contest coincides with VCU Libraries’ recent launch of a new web portal, “James Branch Cabell: Literary Life and Legacy,” which explores the censorship of “Jurgen” in detail. That project, as well as the contest, are supported by the James Branch Cabell Library Associates.

The contest will be managed by Alyson Piccione, a senior majoring in communication arts in the School of the Arts and the 2021-22 student editor contest.

“I’m excited to see what VCU students create for the Jurgen contest, especially since they can choose to work alone or in a team. It may seem a little daunting, especially with such a big prize, but my first success with my art was with a competition like this, and the opportunity gave me that boost of confidence you need to pursue art as a career,” Piccione said. “So, I’d like to encourage everyone —regardless of your major or year — challenge yourself, despite any reservations, if only for the possibility to see your work published and appreciated.”

VCU Libraries plans to hold its Jurgen Banned Art Comics Contest annually. Each year, it will be dedicated to telling the story of banned art, including books, music and film, and encouraging discussion of the complex relationship between art and society.

The deadline to enter is Feb. 21. For full submission guidelines and additional information on how to participate, please visit go.vcu.edu/JurgenContest.

VCU Libraries will hold information sessions on Zoom in the coming months for students interested in participating. The first information session will be held Oct. 27 at 6 p.m. on Zoom. Register at go.vcu.edu/JurgenContest.  

Article originally published by VCU News.

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