I was looking through the picture books in the back of a bookstore where I sometimes work, when a woman came over with her son and slid out one I had snorted at earlier, Pete Sanders’ What Do You Know About Bullying? With Illustrated Storylines. And she said something I knew someone would, “Oh, it’s a comic! Isn’t that cool?
No, It’s not cool.
It’s not that I disagree with the message. Bullying is something we need to talk about. It’s the assumption that the medium is appealing to kids regardless of the content.
When I was little, I felt fooled by didactic picture books and comics. They remind me of desperately feeding my animation jones watching Davey and Goliath Sunday mornings. (Davey and Goliath now adds depth to my Moral Orel experience). But long, long ago, in the glorious heyday of educational filmstrips, children would’ve been shown What Do You Know About Bullying? frame by beeping frame. That sounds kind of cool, but that might be a matter of the medium. I expect didacticism in a filmstrip; I don’t expect it in a comic
Unfortunately, some adults liked all that, or they’ve isolated the experience in their minds along with paste-eating and dookie jokes they used to find hilarious. The saddest thing about the European Union-sponsored comic, Troubled Waters, by Dominique David, Rudi Miel and Christina Cuadra Garcia, is that the EU really did think it would appeal to young people.
Available in 23 languages, Troubled Waters is about a feisty, nationally, ethnically and politically unspecific European Parliament Member, Irina Vega, who promotes pollution control and water rights legislation. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous corporation schemes. But this isn’t Chinatown. Turns out that a comic just doesn’t convey the thrill of parliamentary life. Worse yet, turns out there’s a real life Irina Vega and she’s not a less than hopping School House Rock character; she’s a porn star from Barcelona. Kinda takes the shine off educating the kids about the Euro-Parliament’s co-legislating powers. Poor civics-minded MEP Irina Vega just can’t compete.
In his introduction to the American Civil Liberties Union’s graphic novel, Defenders of Freedom, Executive Director Anthony Romero’s avatar says, “We are not trying to disguise a civics lesson in a comic book…. These are real issues and we need real people to defend freedom. Real people, like you and me. No capes or shields. No supernatural powers, just our voices and our actions.”
But, suspicion about them aside, there are capes and superpowers in both stories. Matthew K. Manning and Mark Badger’s “A Question of Obligation” concerns a Daredevil-ian quandary between being both a crime-fighting superhero and a civil liberties lawyer. Jimmy Palmiotti and Rick Burchett’s “Blue Collar” is about a man assaulted by a cop for Driving While Black. The Defenders—not to be confused with The Defenders—use their powers to make the cop realize his issues and fess up to violating the victim’s rights.
Romero should’ve followed his instinct. “Blue Collar” doesn’t clunk along like “A Question of Obligation,” but the mix of superpowered fixes and real world problems make the resolution—the cop’s realization that he’s acting out, for example—insubtantial and saccharine. I can see how recent comics with social and political content inspire the people at the ACLU. Their press release mentions Marvel’s Civil War and Maus. They’ve commissioned work from Art Spiegelman. In the end, though, the graphic novel leaves me with the taste of Necco hearts in my mouth. I hate to be shallow, but discovering Irina Vega’s alternate life was way more entertaining.
I can’t say that about Mike Mackey and Donny Lin’s Liberality For All. Billed as the “First Conservative Comic Book” at the publisher’s website, Liberality For All is presented by Mackey as a hypothetical scenario. In a world where Al Gore became president and the “Coulter Laws” have made conservative talk radio a crime, former Fox News host, current cyborg Sean Hannity runs The Freedom of Information League (“F.O.I.L.”), an underground voice of resistance to rampant extremist ultra-liberalism. By 2021, President Chelsea Clinton and Vice-President Michael Moore have surrendered governance to the United Nations. Only Hannity and the “bio-mechanically enhanced” G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North can prevent UN Ambassador Usama bin Laden from nuking America. For me, the saddest part of this comic is not its pernicious and paranoid fantasy of an enemy within; it’s that Sean Hannity’s the hero. Though choosing Hannity reveals a hidden sincere inspiration, an actual enthusiasm, I’d much rather it was all about G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy wouldn’t coyly hide behind satire. His propaganda would be upfront.
As for doing good, pamphlets, informational websites and TV PSA’s might be better. There are certain kinds of information I’m happy to receive in the form of a 4-color fold out letting me know that emergency exits are located at the front and rear of the compartment. I’m more interested in the entertainment value than the morality or the meaning, which is cause for quiet reflection. My response is exactly why people with messages to convey, a desire to reach the youth or to influence the culture choose comics. Still, I can’t help wanting to see G. Gordon Liddy battle his arch-nemesis, Spanish porn star and Euro-parliamentarian, Irina Vega over clean water legislation.
These are real comics and we need real people to write about them. Real people, like you and Carol Borden. She doesn’t use capes or shields or supernatural powers to do it.