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My first memory is of tearing the monster's arm off.
I had crossed the sea to the hall of these warriors who were being terrorized by a nocturnal beast, boasted over mead that only I could slay it, pretended to sleep until the monster crept in to devour a warrior—and when it came to seize me I leapt up, seized its massive arm in my grip of steel, and held on as we battled through the hall, smashing the wooden walls with our fury, until at last in desperation it tore itself loose of its own limb and fled, bleeding and screaming, mortally wounded to its lair in the fens.
Quite a feat for a five-year-old.
When I was old enough to go to kindergarten, my mother went back to college to get her teaching credential. She hadn't had a lot of high culture in her own upbringing and she made sure that I was more fortunate: she tacked prints from the Metropolitan Museum to all the walls in the house and read classic literature to me at bedtime. She tried Stevenson's poems, Gulliver's Travels, Chaucer's Reynard. It all rolled off me. If I hadn't asked her about all this decades later, I'd never have known. The only one I remembered was Beowulf, with its pagan, barbarian monster-slayer of a hero.
He was a terrible role model. He didn't do any of the things we want our children's heroes to teach: didn't discuss solutions with the group, didn't think first of the safety of others, didn't try to catch the monster without harming it. He bragged, he bullied, he killed,and he even let his allies be devoured to further his plan. Yet, it was Beowulf I wanted to be, and Beowulf I became. I made my mom read it to me over and over, and I caught her when she tried to glide past the most gruesome parts ("The demon clutched a sleeping thane in his swift assault, tore him in pieces, bit through the bones, gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh ..."). I carved scenes from his battles into my Playskool blocks with a ballpoint pen and rearranged them in every possible narrative order. Running naked from the bath across the polyester carpet I thumped my skinny chest and roared, "Foe against foe, I'll fight the death!"
I was no warrior in real life. I was a mama's boy. I liked to play in the house and the backyard, liked kids who were my age but not when they got too wild. The prospect of kindergarten terrified me, and so did knowing that my mom was going to be away from home much of every day. But at home, in my own world, I could tear a pillow off the bed with a "rrrrrrarrr!" and see the monster Grendel fleeing in terror.
"You were an adorable barbarian," my mom said, helping me dig through a box of my childhood artwork. I found a yellowing pad covered with stick-figure warriors grimacing and flexing their muscles—loaf-like bubbles protruding from line-thin arms—at toothy monsters. I remembered striking that pose—and how strong I felt. Then, with a mock sigh, my mother added, "But I did so want you to be cultured."
As it turned out, I did grow up fairly cultured—or civilized, at least. I was as cooperative, bookish, and conscientious as my parents could have wanted. But I carried that monster-slaying hero inside me the whole time. First as fantasy: Beowulf gave way to King Kong, then Batman, then James Bond. As I outgrew fantasies, he became a scholarly interest. At one point, I quit college for a series of intensive workshops and study tours with Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. By my thirties, I was building a reputation as a historian and analyst of popular culture, and among my books was The Comic Book Heroes. That book excited comic book editors enough that they invited me to try writing superhero stories myself. I did, and I turned out to be good at it. Soon I was writing for heroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, creating new heroes and helping adapt them into video games, cartoon series, and action figures, writing action screenplays for Warner Brothers and Fox. Apparently that hero was still alive in me.
Even in becoming a superhero writer, however, I consciously resisted what I saw as the crassness and violence of cheap entertainment. I downplayed fight scenes and stressed intellectual content. My comic books earned citations from parent councils and anti-defamation societies. I mentored kids who wanted to write and draw comics, and I worked hard to meet my readers and learn what they were getting out of my stories. That's what led me to a comics convention in Chicago in 1994 and to a conversation that turned my relationship with action heroes in a whole new direction.
The line of autograph seekers, mostly teenage boys, had finally moved through. I was leaning back for some shoptalk with the other writers at the table when I saw her. She looked about thirteen, bespectacled, plainly dressed, grimly shy, a girl I'd have expected to be reading an English fantasy novel or diving precociously into Jane Eyre. She was standing about thirty feet away. Staring at me.
"Can I help you?" I asked. She lurched over to me as though some invisible parent had a hand on her back. "Are you Gerard Jones?" she asked. I looked at the name tag on my chest and feigned surprise: "Well yeah—I am!" An old convention trick meant to make the kids laugh, but she kept her eyes fixed on me without a glimmer of emotion and said, "I just want to tell you that Freex is, in my opinion, the best comic book ever."
Freex was a writer's nightmare. Readers liked my subtle characters and challenging ideas but complained that my stories were too mild. They wanted extremes of emotion and wild fight scenes like those in X-Men. Freex was my effort to give them that without lowering my standards. I loved my idea: teenage runaways, cut off from the world by their deforming superpowers, who form a sort of street gang for mutual protection. I cared about teenage runaways, knew people who worked with them, wanted to capture their struggles in super-heroic form. I was excited about trying to mix naturalistic teen dialogue with ferocious battles on the city streets. But my scripts just wouldn't work. I couldn't get the character scenes to flow smoothly into the fights. The heroes' rage felt forced. The violence felt gratuitous. I'd never devoted much thought to what makes fantasy combat work or why it spoke to me in my own youth. I was too uncomfortable with rage and violence. I couldn't feel what my Freex should feel. I began to make peace with the thought that this just wasn't a story I should have been writing. The readers seemed to agree with me: sales were dropping, and not one fan had mentioned it at the convention—until this girl said it was the best comic ever.
I asked her why, and as she talked about Freex, her shyness dissolved. Her name was Sharon. She lived in a small Wisconsin town with her parents, whom she loved, and she had friends, but there was no one who really shared her interests. She read a lot, both comics and real books. She insisted that her life was perfect, but I thought that she protested too much. I sensed constraint, timidity, a depressed quality, a tensely contained anger—feelings that resonated with my memories of my own thirteenth year. She loved the Freex for the variety of their personalities and their clashing emotions. I expected her favorite to be the shy Angelica, but she preferred Lewis, the charismatic jock-leader whose anger made his body lose form. I said, "It sounds like the character development scenes must be your favorites."
"No!" she said. It was the most animated I'd seen her. "It's the fights!"
"The fights?" I asked. "That's where you can see the feelings they have for each other," she said. "The way Michael goes crazy when he thinks Angela's in danger. OrVal's angry at Ray, but then she instantly turns her anger against the villain instead, so you know she really cares about him." She paused to find a word. "That's when you see their passion. And their passion is what really makes them powerful!"
I asked her what she felt in those scenes. "Well," she said awkwardly. "I'm them when I'm reading about them, right? So ... I'm powerful." And that, apparently, was as deep as she wanted to go into her own feelings. She thanked me again for Freex, and she left.
Sharon made me take a hard look at my own biases. I'd seen fight scenes as a necessary evil to induce kids to read the more valuable contents of my stories—but now I'd made the most meaningful contact with a reader of my career through the fights. The characters, plots, and themes mattered, but the truly affecting, truly transformative element of the story was the violence itself. The violence had helped a timid adolescent tap into her own bottled-up emotionality and discover a feeling of personal power.
I felt uneasy with that: what message was I sending kids like Sharon? I ran the question by my friend Anne, an English professor and a widely published authority on changing images of gender and the body in mass culture.
"Look," she said. "You touched that girl's life. You gave her something that means something to her. And that's as valuable as anything you can do."
Then Anne told me about her own adolescence in the 1980s: painful home life, estranged from her parents, drinking and jail at thirteen, a suicide attempt, out on her own at fifteen, fistfights, petty crime, crashing with friends in tough inner-city neighborhoods. What spoke to her at the very worst of it was pop culture: angry punk, death metal, Goth style, violent horror movies. "Not much I'd defend now as 'good,'" she said. "But when things felt absolutely black I discovered this stuff, and it showed me I wasn't alone with these feelings. I had words, or at least images, for what I was feeling. And I found other people who were into them. When I was in a club or a movie or listening to a tape with my friends, I didn't want to kill myself any more." Some of the others in her group drifted to dead ends, but she was one of several who formed punk bands, played with Goth-inspired art and stories, and found their way to college.
"The main thing that drew me to college was the community I hoped I could find of people with similar interests," she said. "It was partly the music and the rest of the 'junk culture' that showed me there could be communities like that. I don't know where your comic book might take that girl at the convention. But that 'passion' she mentioned is part of her life now. It's in her memory. It'll always be there, and somehow it'll keep coming back, and it'll give her something."
Sharon gave me something, too: a new career. I returned to my studies of American culture, but now with a focus on what aggressive fantasies mean to young people and what roles they play in personal development. I found that shockingly little had been written about it. For all the decades of psychological research attempting to prove that entertainment violence makes children more aggressive, or desensitizes them, or distorts their views of reality, very few studies have asked why they love it or what good it might do them. Hardly any, in fact, have even asked when or why it has a negative effect or how potential negative effects might be ameliorated. Bruno Bettelheim had summed up a great deal of psychiatric research on the benefits of violent fairy tales in his Uses of Enchantment, but even he had dismissed mass entertainment out of hand—even though the fantasies, the themes, and the violence of that entertainment often echoed fairy tales and even though it obviously resonated powerfully with millions of modern children.
So I interviewed psychiatrists, pediatricians, family therapists, teachers, screenwriters, game designers, and parents. I read the research. I asked children and teenagers what stories, movies, songs, and games they loved and what they meant to them. I dug back through my own growing up. I watched my son as he tackled the challenges of toddlerhood, preschool, and elementary school, choosing fantasies and entertainment to help him along the way. I gathered hundreds of stories of young people who had benefited from superhero comics, action movies, cartoons, shoot-'em-up video games, and angry rap and rock songs. I found stories of kids who'd used them badly, too, and others who'd needed adult help to use them well. But mostly I found young people using fantasies of combat in order to feel stronger, to access their emotions, to take control of their anxieties, to calm themselves down in the face of real violence, to fight their way through emotional challenges and lift themselves to new developmental levels.
During those same years, however, criticisms of entertainment violence became steadily more intense. The news was replete with stories of teenage violence (even though juvenile crime rates were dropping rapidly), and many of those stories drew connections between the crimes and movies, songs, or video games. The boys who killed their classmates and themselves at Columbine High School were discovered to have loved the video game Doom, and its influence soon dominated speculation on what might have influenced them. Congressional committees excoriated the entertainment industry. Prominent psychologists testified that video violence had been proven harmful to children. In March 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged doctors to monitor their young patients' exposure to media violence and warn parents of its dangers.
That same month, I found myself addressing a roomful of psychiatrists about Pokémon. I wasn't expecting to come out of it very well liked.
As adults were debating the dangers of the media, the schoolyards of America were being swept by the most intense and most universal kid craze I'd ever seen. And it was a true product of kid culture. I began hearing about this strange universe of battling pet monsters from preschoolers and middle schoolers, boys and girls, computer nerds and blossoming jocks, months before the Nintendo marketing machine caught on to what it had. I was fascinated. This new world was noisy and combative, but it was also warm and fuzzy and funny and infernally complex, and kids were weaving it into every sort of fantasy and game. When Viz Communications asked me to help adapt the Japanese Pokémon comic book and comic strip franchise to the American market, I jumped at the chance.
My unusual position as a creator of superheroes, an analyst of children's entertainment, and an American interpreter of that global fantasy fad landed me on NPR's Fresh Air, explaining the Poké-phenomenon to puzzled parents nationwide. On the basis of that interview, the Southern California Psychiatric Society invited me to deliver the keynote address at its 2000 conference on "Violence and Society." Although I'd been supported in my research by enthusiastic psychologists and psychiatrists, I was still under the impression that the mental health establishment as a whole condemned entertainment violence. Now I was about to tell a roomful of veteran mental health professionals stories illustrating the positive effects of cartoon mayhem. I braced myself for a rough question-and-answer period at the end.
One of the powers of stories, however, is to remind us that people rarely obey generalizations. We may view an abstraction—"psychiatric opinion" or "media violence"—as threatening, but stories of people wrestling with the fears, pains, and challenges of life bring us back to our own realities. Anxiety gives way to empathy, and suddenly we're not speaking in recycled newspaper headlines; we're discussing the endless individuality and unpredictability of human beings. The people at that conference, having spent their careers listening to stories, understood that well, and when my speech ended I found myself launched upon one of the most exhilarating conversations I'd ever known.
One child therapist related his own rewarding uses of Pokémon action figures with young patients. Another said that his concern was for children who didn't have the chance to talk through what they'd experienced in the media and that "what you've demonstrated here is how beneficial any media experience can be in the context of constructive adult attention." An especially enthusiastic psychoanalyst said, "We're so afraid of aggression in this society that we haven't been able to talk intelligently about it. You're doing for aggression what Papa Freud did for sexuality!" "You've made one little boy very happy," said a psychiatrist who'd come with her husband, another doctor. "We haven't let our son watch shows like Pokémon, but I think we will now."
Excerpted from Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones. Copyright © 2002 by Gerard Jones. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted November 17, 2009
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