Thursday, September 20, 2007

Seduction of the Innocent with EIGHTBALL!

You must have heard, by now, about the high school teacher forced to resign after assigning Eightball #22 to a freshman. If you haven't read about this fiasco, Heidi covers it pretty well over at The Beat.

The case concerns me on quite a few levels, not the least of which are that I am (a) a high school teacher, (b) heavily involved in a "comics in the classroom" movement, and (c) of the mind that Eightball #22, reformatted in hardcover as Ice Haven is not only Dan Clowes's most accomplished work, but it's by far one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. So my initial reaction to a dude losing his job (and possibly his career) over it is: yeesh!

But here's something that concerns me: the teacher assigned it to a 9th grade girl, independently of the rest of the class. Eightball #22 is a masterpiece, but it's a strange choice to give to a Freshman, and a strange choice to give to a single student as a make-up assignment for missed summer reading. The work is a sophisticated tapestry of shifting narrative perspectives and graphic styles. It's as much about comic book history as it is about the characters or the town represented in the story. It's not an ideal entry into the world of graphic narrative for someone who is unfamiliar with the techniques of the medium.

I think it's too "adult" for that grade level, but not because of the supposed sexual content, but because of the narrative fanciness. It's most salient virtue is its style, and stylistic analysis is not what Freshmen are known for. So it seems like a weird choice in that regard.

Yet I could see myself, in my younger and more clueless days, possibly recommending Ice Haven to a 9th grader who I thought was interested in the medium. Hell, I actually have an Eightball promotional poster hanging on the wall of my classroom (it's the one featuring Clowes's "Death Ray" character, from the cover of issue #23). So although I have never actually given out a copy of Eightball to a student, I might have made that choice once upon a time. I might have been the guy pressured into resigning.

But I'm not sure I understand why he resigned. I'm sure he had excellent reasons, but I can't imagine that I would resign if I were in that position, because I don't assign a damn thing to my students unless I know exactly why I'm doing so. If I assigned Eightball #22, which, in theory, could have happened, then I would have plenty of reasons for it, most of which having to do with the national standards for English Language Arts. If I didn't have a good reason for assigning it, then I would not assign it! I don't know why, exactly, this teacher assigned the comic, but he resigned abruptly, so that automatically makes him seem like he's afraid of any further investigation. It then makes the whole situation seem more creepy, and that begins to corrupt the whole situation. If this case draws national media attention, and it may have (or it may soon), then for the whole country, we'll end up with a really bad equation: "comics=perversion," or more specifically, maybe, "comics in the classroom=lock your doors and hide your daughters."

It's just a bad situation for everyone involved.

Yet here's something else I can't help but consider: What are these parents protecting their kids from by labelling Eightball as "pornography"? Do they live in the same world I live in? Because let me tell you something about my world: In my ten years of teaching, this is the FIRST YEAR that I don't have a 9th grade student who is either pregnant or a mother. That's right. Every other year, I've had at least one (if not more) 13 or 14 year-old student who was already a parent (or a mom to be) in my class. In a world like that, it's dangerously naive to think that Eightball #22 is a corrupting influence. That isn't to say that kids shouldn't be protected. That isn't to say that we shouldn't help to prolong innocence as long as we can. But in the world I live it, Eightball #22 isn't the problem.


Matt Jacobson said...

On a vaguely related sidenote, a PE teacher and myself are organizing a Comic Book Club at my school, and we're already trying to figure out how to weed out certain types of graphic novels.

We're also going to work with the kids all year and try to get a comic by the kids put together, which we'll get printed up for the school to read. It should be fun.

Marc Caputo said...

I wish that that I was more conflicted about this, being a teacher who loves comics. But I'm not - the guy was flat-out wrong to do this on so many levels.

I wasn't able to find how old the teacher was, but I am assuming he was young, less than 30. He'd only been there a year - what was he doing assigning something that he didn't have department approval on?

I'm also pretty certain that he didn't just go to the local comic store and pick the book up - he had to have some familiarity with Clowes. And if you know Clowes, there's fairly little of his work that is appropriate for a freshman. I'm not a prude - it's a fact. He writes for adults.

The kids at school overreacted, but , hey, they're kids. The father is a touch overboard, too, but hey, he's a father. Like me, too. I would freak if anyone but me gave one of my two daughters anything heavier than Johnny DC or Archie or Marvel Adventures stuff. The fact that he closed up shop so quickly struck me too, Tim.

In my first job, I worked at a Catholic Elementary school that was across the street from a comic store. The kids would see me there, but in school, I would never talk to them about comics. Even now, 15 years later, I'm in a public school - sometimes some of my colleagues who read comics give their old stuff to kids and I caution them to make sure there's nothing that could bite them on the ass.

I was toying with the idea of getting my 13-year old niece into Runaways - but I want to pore over them to be sure there's nothing that would make me look "weird".

Why? Because people still ghettoize comics. My collection includes Love and Rockets, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, etc. I have enjoyed them and continue to do so - but I would never even recommend them to my own family! That may reflect some of my own issues, but it also keeps me out of the newspapers.

Fisher obviously made a mistake - in this case a career-ending (or damaging) one. I'm sure his heart was in the right place - if he was preying on this girl, I don't think he would do so in such an overt way. But his head was off-planet.

Timothy Callahan said...

Except, Marc, that the texts used in English classes are PRIMARILY written for adults (or were originally written for adults).

Homer, Shakespeare, Alice Walker, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut--these are all authors who would be found in a 9th grade classroom, and is Clowes more adult (content-wise) than they are? I don't think so.

That's one of the inconsistencies that makes this case less cut-and-dried than you'd think.

And, I know what you're saying about your hesitancy to recommend comics, even to your relatives, but do you have the same reservations about movie recommendations? What's the difference, I wonder? (And that's more of a rhetorical question than an actual question, but if you have a theory, I'd love to hear it.)

Anonymous said...

Appropriate or not?

Eightball #22 by Daniel Clowes


Blue Bunny

Blue Bunny: I'm back in town, kids, fresh-sprung from prison!

Blue Bunny: I paid my dues! It's all about me this time!

(bunny passes people on streat)

Blue Bunny: Wha' choo lookin' at, doosh?

(blue bunny passes female on street)

Blue Bunny: Hey red, how'sabouta suck-job? I been living on state pussy for eighteen months!

Blue Bunny: That's alright for you then, bitch!

(bunny passes sign "now hiring")

Employer: Sorry, but the position has already been filled.

Blue Bunny: Who needs your shitty job? I won't starve!

(bunny passes old lade with purse in on the street)

Blue Bunny: Hand it over, grammaw!

Blue Bunny: GIVE IT!

Policeman: Hold it right there!

Blue Bunny: Yowsa!

Blue Bunny: You won't take me down!

Blue Bunny: I'm on my third strike!

(bunny shoots flamethrower into crowd of police)

Blue Bunny: I'll roast you all!

(bunny throws dynamite into crowd of police)

Blue Bunny: My excuse is I had a lousy upbringing!

(explosions all around)

Blue Bunny: Top o' the world, ma!

Blue Bunny: That's more like it! Eat shit losers!

This isn't the worst of what is in Eightball 22

- Two young kids have sex than kill another kid because he was gay and retarded, bury him in a hole, then piss on the grave.

- A man masturbates on a toilet

- A cave man killing another caveman and then rapes his mate.

The School Library Journal has rated this book for 10th grade or above, but who is the School Library Journal and what authority do they have to rate reading material for schools.

The real problem with this is the fact that a teacher gave this student this type of reading material after class as an additional reading assignment. This 13 yo girl was the was the ONLY one that received this material. The school had no knowledge of this as stated by the superintendent.

The teacher resigned in order to avoid a lengthy wrongful termination hearing in which he would have had to prove that his actions were condoned by the school board, which it has already been reported that it wasn't.

Charles Brownstein spoke all through the article and even wrote on blogs about this article that it is a grave injustice that a teacher resigned over assigning a Daniel Clowes comic. The CBLDF clearly feels that this course of events is completely innocent. Clearly, the CBLDF and Charles Brownstein have no problem exposing you children to this type of material and don't feel there is any need to approve reading material before handing it out to students.

What's next, shall teachers hold kids after class and give them additional assignments in the proper way to give oral sex, and than ask for a demonstration?

Where do we draw the line?

There is a reason why reading material is first approved by the administration before hand. This is not a censorship issue, no one is calling for censorship. A line has to be drawn on what material is used as reading, and once defined, that line should never be crossed, because we trust the school administration to follow through with the policy they create.

-A concerned parent

Timothy Callahan said...

Well, I'm pretty sure we draw the line BEFORE the oral sex practice. That's a pretty easy question to answer.

But, concerned parent, what exactly are you concerned about? The creepy, creepy implication of giving the comic as a "special" assignment, or the contents of the comic itself?

Anonymous said...

The fact that is was given to a female student after class as an additional reading assignment. (creepy implications)

The fact that the school administration had no knowledge of it.

I don't believe in censorship. I do believe in age appropriate material in children's classrooms.

By saying "they see worse in the movies and on TV" is the worst excuse in the world.

Understandably, there is adult content out there, and most of it is in plain site of our children. But a school is for learning and is not for entertainment. If the subject matter of a graphic novel is approved for teaching in a class, and it is described is a course outline, I have no problems with it.

This was not the case in this situation, hence the teacher resigning immediately. Had he felt justified, I'm sure he would have stuck around to defend his position.

Marc Caputo said...

After I had written last night, I had a wandering thought that may have merit or at the very least, humor.

I wonder what Clowes is thinking of this. On one hand, he may take the liberal line of "Don't censor my books, dude..."

On the other, he may be saying (and if he's 1/2 the curmudgeon/misanthrope he can be viewed at, I'd put money on it), "Just freakin' great. What's this moron doing giving my book to this little girl? Now some stupid journo is gonna drill deep into my oeuvre and find sruff like "Needle---- the Bug------" or "Why I Hate Christians" and it's gonna be Mike Diana all over again."

I don't recommend movies to family, either. But there is a difference. Movies and TV are much more prevalent and encoded into American pop culture than comics are. However, when I lend out my "Borat" or "Clerks" or something that is R, I always say, "Man, play this when the kids are asleep."

All of the writers you mentioned I am familiar with, but haven't read many of them in a long while (I teach Math). However, I believe that they approach their mature subject matter in a different way than Clowes. And again, I don't think that you can discount the effect of visuals accompanying the text, as in a comic. Many things that we read wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but if they were illustrated, WOW!
That MUST be taken into context as well when handing out something like that.

Bucky C. said...

Hi, I'm James Bucky Carter. I edited and wrote essays for _Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels_, a book that offers suggestions for how to use comics in the classroom. The book is actually listed in the New Hampshire Department of Education's recent document on 21st century literacy skills.

I think this discussion and the initial post that spawned it has been a very good one. On my own blog, I've written a reaction to the situation and offered some advice for teachers who might want to use comics in the classroom but are afraid to do so.

Here's my blog, if anyone is interested: