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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Graphic novels


I love comic books. LOVE. I love cartoons too--but some of them are not for kids. South Park, anyone? Family Guy? Adult Swim? We get it - just because it has drawings in it does not mean it is for children.

I happen to also be a big fan of graphic novels intended for adult consumption. Here’s a great one by a guy with three kids.

But this year, my fifth grader came home carrying A People’s History of American Empire.

This is A People's History of the United States in comic book format. This is a tough history book by Howard Zinn about how the United States perpetrated war crimes, used torture, and in general, how terribly our great country has behaved as we created our expanding nation. An important book, right? Some might say. 

Probably great for a smart high school junior or a college freshman on a debate team. Certainly should be required reading for politicians and grad students of American History. But my kid had just turned ten when he hauled this thing home from his school library. He still wasn't allowed to watch PG-13 movies. And on his way home from school, clearly traumatized, he is telling me that he didn’t eat during lunch because he found this drawing of a soldier cramming a funnel into another man’s mouth and pouring water into it.

“It was our soldiers that did it, mom,” he says, stricken. "Our soldiers!"

"Yes," I reply, carefully. "Every country has done horrible things in the name of justice, defense, or war, even us."

“The thing is, I’m just not sure I still love America like I used to.”

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and I must have used about two thousand to try to talk my son into at least some semblance of national pride. I'm not sure I succeeded - the book's message is very strong: America has done dreadful things to expand its "Empire."

So, because it was a graphic novel, my ten year old “got the point” of this very adult book. But to what end? He had no context of "badly taught, one-sided history" with which to compare.  If the evening news is sensationalist, how much more sensationalist is it to take a deeply-thought nonfiction book and make it pulpy with lots of violent drawings? 

Other than to make more money, is there any reason to turn a great book like this into a comic? Surely the intent could not have been to make torture accessible to a much-younger reader?  What sticks in a child’s mind is not the words, it is the images.

If it is too hard for a kid to read without pictures, maybe the concepts are still too hard. I was against Reader's Digest editions of the classics being assigned in schools (I'm for reading books in their original), and I'm equally against this "graphicalizing" of books that were intended as scholarly works. I'm not at all against adult content graphic novels in general - there just needs to be some way to explain to schools that just because it's got pictures it doesn't mean it's age-appropriate for small kids.

I'm not a book censor. I think all books should be available to all people, but I do think that some visual content might not be age-appropriate to some kids. My inner artist and my inner parent are at war. Any ideas? Am I being a ridiculous control freak?

Now I'm going to go have a huge cup of coffee and go work on my fiction so that the images are striking enough that someone wants to make a movie of them.

/bangs head on desk.


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