If you haven’t read Lord of the Flies, then I apologize because what follows is the book’s ending. But I figured that its 50+ years old and most people have read it in school, so I could use it to prove my point.
Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a ﬂeeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood—Simon was dead—and Jack had. . . . The tears began to ﬂow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the ﬁrst time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with ﬁlthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.
The ofﬁcer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.
Recently, a small literary controversy erupted after an article about Young Adult fiction (further referred to as YA fiction) by Meghan Cox Gurdon from the Wall Street Journal’s Book Review. As tends to be the tradition of more conservative writers (as I believe Gurdon is from her writing), she opens with a story of some random, everyday person from middle America who wishes for a better time. The woman, Amy Freeman, is unable to decide on a book for her 13 year old daughter, finding her choices to be “all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” And while I would agree with her, Gurdon takes the thought farther with the classic assumption that YA fiction today is “darker than when you [the Baby Boomer adult] were a child, my dear.” That’s where the Lord of the Flies quote comes in. Have books really gotten worse? What of books like Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What about Fahrenheit 451, one of the books recommended on the WJS website, in Gurdon’s article. The classic book burning novel, which features scenes of (SPOILERS) self-immolation, murder of innocent people and the main character burning a man alive with a flamethrower. But its a classic book, so I guess we just ignore that.
This article was of special interest to me. A few days before it was posted, I was having a conversation with my comic book supplier over at the Comic Book Box. I had brought up something that has long since bothered me. The Sonoma State Library has a solid collection of comics on its shelves. The Complete Sandman, the vast majority of Ultimate Spider-Man, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Charles Burns‘ Black Hole (all books I should have written about ages ago). But the books are divided into two areas. Sandman and Blankets are on the top floor among the literature and non-fiction; Ultimate Spider-Man and the like are in the Juvenile section. The weird thing is, the Juvenile section is also where you would find classic Grant Morrison books Animal Man and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (this image is a bit graphic). I remember the first time I saw Arkham. I was in the fourth grade and I flipped through the pages. I didn’t even read the text and it freaked me out. It isn’t a kids’ comic by any stretch of the imagination and that is what I was discussing at the comic store. After further research, it came out that SSU’s Juvenile section is actually K-12. So, there is an appropriate audience that would see this book, but that range is high school aged and older high school at that. What about the kid who is just looking for Teddy Bear Picnic? In that regard, I do agree with Gurdon on the matter of knowledge of what our kids read and being aware of what is out there. These books are not meant to be placed next to an I Can Read book. I concede that point, but at the same time, and Gurdon would not agree with me on this: these are still important books. Animal Man is part of the same movement that brought us Sandman and Arkham Asylum set up the idea that eventually became Heath Ledger’s “You know how I got these scars” line.
Since 1986, comics have become increasingly more violent and darker; more adult. That was the year that Dark Knight Returns and Watchman were released. We’ve seen characters like Spawn and The Authority hit the stands in the past few decades. The 90s saw the rise of the Grim-n-Gritty phase of comics, where characters like The Punisher and other violent heroes saw a surge in popularity. Ideas like what Gurdon brings up are just as prevalent in comic books as it is in Young Adult fiction and it is because of the same fallacy. These books are supposed to be for a certain age group, and as a result of that, have certain expectations. The news can show all kinds of horrific images, tell terrible stories, monger fear. The world we live in can be a bad place and that is not hidden from the general public. But then, people like Meghan Cox Gurdon are shocked when YA fiction features comparably dark subject matter. And how do you create a captivating super villain when new young readers grew up in the post 9-11 world. What could be scarier than a man with a bomb strapped to his chest and nothing to lose? When reality becomes darker than fiction, then new threats and villains must be created. Giant typewriters cant cut it anymore and I believe that is the point being missed in the opposing argument. We don’t live in the Cold War anymore, it isn’t sexy Cloak & Dagger espionage and occasional nuclear threat. Today, a shoe can blow up a plane.
What makes Gurdon’s article so compelling is when it is read in conjunction with the response from prolific Native-American writer, Sherman Alexie. Alexie and Gurdon come from two different walks of life, which probably explains why they are on opposite sides of this debate. Alexie’s best point is when he goes back to his youth on a reservation.
Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?
“Wow, you are way, way too late.”
You don’t need to go too deep into comics history to see the battles between parents, comics and content. Despite books like the ones I have already mentioned, despite the literary prestige of a good chunk of graphic novels, comics still are viewed as kid’s stuff. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham released his book, Seduction of the Innocent, a book that hypothesized that comic books were a major cause of juvenile dilquency. Mainly citing the books by publisher EC Comics, as well as taking a few shots at the questionable relationship between Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, Wertham and his book created a fervor in America. It was literally the same debate we’ve experienced recently with video games and Jackass, with a fear that children would imitate what they read in these stories. Comic books were burned and EC was more or less put out of business. And to top it all off, the comic industry created the Comics Code Authority, the self-censorship entity that was still in place in comics until earlier this year. After Seduction, comics went from this…
As much as the comic book community enjoys the Silver Age of comics, the period following the Wertham fallout, it should be pointed out that the highest level of popularity comics during this time does reach the levels of circulation that comics enjoyed prior to the censorship, before a line was drawn in the sand as to what was appropriate. The Golden Age, the pre-Seduction Age, we had heroes fighting in WWII. An almost infinite amount of heroes beat up Hitler and the world was on the brink of collapse and comics weren’t afraid to reflect that. But during the Silver Age, during the time where African-Americans were putting their lives on the line for equality, when we young men and women were dying in Vietnam and TV brought the horrors of war into America’s living rooms, Batman was being turned into Bat-Baby.
Censorship is rarely based in anything other than fear. Fear for the children, fear of effect, fear of not understanding what is being read. Is it coincidence that America has banned some of the best written American literature, especially when the national average reading level is about 8th grade? On top of that, censorship allows for responsibility to be passed off. If comics are self-censored, then what reason do parents have to check up on what their kids are reading? And if parents arent aware of what their children are reading, then they wont be able to discuss the subject matter with their children. Perhaps some people prefer that. Meghan Cox Gurdon seems like she would rather censor the darkness in the world rather than allow young adults discover it within the safe zone of fiction. The stories on the news, articles on the internet, that is the real world. Tactile examples of horrible people doing horrible things and the thought of such terrible people living in the real world could freak a kid out. Osama bin Laden, even dead, will be a more haunting figure to me than any super villain. But with bin Laden, the conversation that could be had about him, about his motives, is shrouded in the real people he killed. If I want to use bin Laden to discuss how a man can commit such crimes, I have to use real life people. I have to dwell on real life victims. Or, I could have the same discussion on the same subject matter and use Magneto. Fiction, yes. But he can serve the same purpose in discussing the idea of evil in the world. And just because something isn’t used in fiction, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.
Even if you take out all the bad stuff in fiction,the “depravity” as Gurdon calls it, that will not suddenly mean that it will vanish in the real world. If you don’t write a story about a teenager who cuts themselves, that wont stop the kids who are doing it. Take out the drugs and kids will still do drugs. You could write a story about the perfect nuclear family and that won’t erase the memories some teens have of being abused by one of their parents. Being a parent is about teaching your child about the world. It is about creating as healthy a view of the world as possible. But look at a newspaper, hell, pick up the Wall Street Journal (after you read your copy of the Press Democrat), and see that the world isn’t sunshine, rainbows and Judy Blume. Gurdon seeks to teach responsibility, but she also hopes for a world where there is nothing to be responsible for; a world with nothing controversial. Gurdon speaks of the differing views of censorship at one point, discussing “those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as ‘banning.’ In the parenting trade, however, we call this ‘judgment’ or ‘taste.’” But she misses an important component. Taste is determined as much by what one likes as it is by what one does not. Without these books, without the various content and their varying difficulties, there is nothing to determine their worth. At the end of the day, these books, the YA fiction and the comics in the Juvenile section at SSU, should still be available. If we learned anything from Wertham, censorship can nearly kill an industry. And, at the end of the day, as much as parents can use wisdom and common sense to help their children, they will never understand the childhood struggles of their kids because it is not the same childhood, it is not the same time, it is not the same world. I think, to conclude this piece, I should let Mr. Alexie have the last word.
“[N]ow I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”