Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Killing Monsters

Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones. Basic Books, 2002, 261 pages, $15 US.

Brief overview of content:

Gerard Jones writes about the significance and the value of fantasy violence for children, whether they are five or twenty-five. In addition to participating in the comic book and fantasy industry, he also runs workshops at schools where students tell stories in verbal or visual formats. He discusses their works as art and as an expression of what they think and how they feel about what's important to them. He has also read extensively and interviewed many professionals and authorities in the field of children's entertainment and development. The book that emerges from all of this looks at fantasy violence from many different angles and perspectives.

He discusses what children really seek in fantasy superheroes and pop culture: being strong and discovering who you are. He engages in the many venerable studies that link entertainment violence with increased aggression, debunking the results with very convincing arguments. He analyzes children's interest in toy guns as a manifestation of the cross-cultural desire to have a tool to fight something greater than themselves (like a spear or bow and arrow to fight animals in some cultures or magic wands in most cultures). He examines how the role of women in fantasy has changed dramatically, from being objects of desire and/or protection to being heroes in their own right. Throughout the book he discusses the line between fantasy and reality, especially how this is blurred by the desire of modern media (both entertainment and news/information) for sensationalism (which began in the 1800s!). He provides parents with various ways to help their children in dealing with real and fantasy violence by modelling (showing how you react as a thoughtful adult), mirroring (affirming who they are and what they desire and how they use story-telling and play to process their experiences and feelings), and mentoring (helping children take control and allow them their reactions, intervening when necessary and with care). Finally, the most important thing is for parents to be involved in a conscious and conscientious way with their children, talking to them about their fears, their desires, what they did that day, everything.

Copious notes for each chapter are found at the end of the book as well as a thorough index.

Author overview:

Blurb from the back of the book: "Gerard Jones's previous books include Honey I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream and The Comic Book Heroes. His work has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, and other publications. He is also a former comic-book and screen writer whose credits include Batman, Spider-Man, and Pokemon, and whose own creations have been turned into video games and cartoon series. More recently he has developed the Art & Story Workshops for children and adolescents. Jones is the founder of Media Power for Children and serves on the advisory board of the Comparative Media Studies Program at M.I.T. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son."


1. Read cover to cover vs. consult as needed.

The book doesn't really deal with specific issues like, "what do I do if my child is addicted to Pokemon?" so it isn't going to provide solutions. It is fascinating throughout and I recommend going cover to cover. It is longer than most books I've read for this blog and did take me a while to get through it. The book is totally worth the investment of time.

2. Readability.

The prose is easy to read. He makes his points with arguments and examples from his research and experience with children. He definitely employs the art of storytelling to advance his thesis which makes him more engaging.

3. Helpful to a parent?

Reading this book makes a father or mother engage in a more in-depth way with issues around fantasy violence and its effects on children of all ages. As long as you come to it with an open mind, the experience will be very rewarding, even if you don't agree with the author.

4. Did we use it?

This isn't the sort of practical book for specific actions. It's more for general awareness of issues around fantasy violence, toys, and play, encouraging parents to be more open to how the children truly value them. Often, people have the knee-jerk reaction that violence is bad and my child should not be into that kind of stuff. I plan to make my wife read it so we can discuss it. Hopefully we'll be done in time to buy appropriate Christmas presents for the children!

Sample text

For a lot of young people, unfortunately, the wall between the fantasies they crave and the world they're asked to participate in has been raised too high. One of the forces that's built that wall has been our efforts to banish aggression and violence. We draw such a sharp ideological and social line between what's "good for us" and what's "junk" dealing with make-believe power and violence that some kids feel that they're in an either-or conflict. They don't have cues to show them how to build from their power fantasies and become more powerful in reality, and they feel that the world of fantasy entertainment is the only place that is safe and welcoming.

That line is reinforced within the media itself, where "educational" and "commercial" producers have drawn into two warring camps. Anna Home, OBE, the head of children's television for the BBC during its most adventurous years, has described the art of programming as "walking a tightrope between what children want to see and what adults think they should see. If one errs, it's far better to err on the side of what the children want. Unfortunately, the powers that be rarely let one do so." Attempts to integrate the two can produce good results, but they tend to founder when physical conflict enters the picture. The Fox network once tried to fill the "educational" portion of its programming with an intelligent action cartoon, Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century. It was a smart show, produced by very conscientious creators at Dic Entertainment. Two children's media authorities, Drs. Donald Roberts and Dona Mitroff, made sure that every action scene demonstrated the superiority of brains to brawn, showed the hero turning his opponents' force back at them, and never depicted serious injury or death. But when the episodes were reviewed by the Annenberg Foundation, which advises producers and the FCC on educational content, every pratfall by a villain, every exploding evil machine, every deft judo throw, was blasted in the report as "violence." The show did reach the air, in a somewhat different form and with different people attached, but an opportunity for a major research foundation to reconsider what "violence" might be, an opportunity to bring the "official" version of what's good for kids together with what kids really like, was lost. [pp. 224-225]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Catholic Media Promotion Day

As part of the Catholic Media Promotion Day, I blogged about my favorite Catholic media on my other blog. Rather than just cut and paste it over, I thought I go even easier on myself and post a link to it. Sorry I'm not more ambitious!

Though now that I think about it, all this typing is probably taking a lot more time than cutting and pasting would have taken. In the words of Homer Simpson, "D'oh!" Okay, that's only one word. I suppose I could have typed "As Homer Simpson says..." Editing the last sentence would take even longer than typing all this other verbiage, right? Maybe I should just get some more sleep...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Whose Side Are You On?

Jacob's ashes hidden by his hair
Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for Catholics to abstain from eating meat and to fast. Fasting means having at most one full meal and two other smaller meals which would not equal the quantity of the full meal. Also, no snacking in between meals is allowed. The call to fasting applies to Catholics from 18 years of age to 59. So Jacob and Lucy are exempt and had their regular meals and snacks today.

For me it was no big deal until the morning snack. Jacob had a big blueberry muffin that he couldn't finish. He said, "Daddy, you finish my muffin." This sort of offer is pretty rare; I would have loved to take him up on it. But I couldn't because I was fasting. I politely said no. Jacob insisted. I tried explaining fasting. Jacob didn't seem to understand.

I had confirmation of his lack of understanding during his afternoon snack. He had some graham crackers with apple juice. Again, he didn't finish his crackers and offered me his leftovers. I was sorely tempted but I resisted. I tried explaining again. He kept insisting until he was distracted with the thought of drumming.

Just whose side is Jacob on, anyway? I hope you have fewer tempters in your house than I have in mine!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Grandmama's Birthday

While at Grandmama's house this weekend, we celebrated her 77th birthday.

Jacob and Lucy were pretty enthusiastic to be there. Lucy was so excited she didn't want to take a nap. I had to resort to the old standby--driving her around town until she fell to the soothing power of riding in a car. Shamefully, I rewarded my own virtue by getting a milkshake at the Burger King drive-thru. She did eventually succumb. The day was rainy and cold so I didn't dare to return to the house to transfer her to a bedroom. Surely she'd wake up and be more grouchy. Finally we parked in Grandmama's driveway until she was awake.

We had another great dining out experience, this time at Cracker Barrel. From the kids menu to the wall decoration to their cousin Autumn, plenty of entertainment was on hand. The food was also served quickly. They split a chicken strip kid's dinner. Jacob kept asking for apples from the moment we sat down, so the side was apple sauce. He ate only two spoonfuls before tiring of it. He ate the chicken like a champ, until we gave him a corn muffin. That became the favorite dinner food.

Maryellen hatches an evil plan!
Until we went back home for presents and cake. We'd bought a Bailey's Irish Cream Cake at a bakery on the drive to Grandmama's. Anticipation was strong for this cake. Assuming they'd baked all the alcohol out of it, we let Lucy and Jacob have some. But before we started eating it, Aunt Maryellen had a little chat with her nephew and niece. The conversation went something like this:

Maryellen to Jacob: You're so cute, I'm going to eat you all up!
Jacob: No!!
Maryellen: Okay, then I'll eat Lucy all up!
Jacob: No, you shouldn't eat Lucy all up, you should eat the CAKE all up!

That seemed to settle the matter. We all had an appropriately sized slice of cake.

Maryellen was actually a big help.

The picture of contentment

Lucy's cake made it mostly in her mouth or the immediate vicinity, though as you can tell from her fingers it was her fault:

The picture of happiness

Jacob started telling or guessing everyone's ages. When he was asked about his own age, he said he was three, but in October he'd be "four four." We couldn't figure out why he kept insisting on this until we saw Grandmama's cake.

Let the record show I did not put the candles on the cake.

We had a great time visiting Grandmama and look forward to the next birthday celebration.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Max Brooks vs. Max Brooks

Yet another dual/duel review, this time pitting Max Brooks against himself! I guess we know who the winner is going to be for this one, eh? This match-up is a show-down between the “Recorded Attacks” section of Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (hereafter referred to as TEXT) and the graphic novel version of it called The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks (Hereafter referred to as GN) Let’s breakdown the similarities and differences between the two so we can properly assess which one is the winner.

The most obvious similarity is the author is the same man, Max Brooks. The GN is black and white (a popular choice with zombie comics) as is the TEXT. Both books document the history of zombie outbreaks from 60,000 B.C. to nearly the present day and prepare the reader for the events Brooks covers in World War Z. The stories are nearly identical, except...

The most obvious difference is that the TEXT covers many more events than the GN does, which makes sense. As told in a comic, any story is going to have a much higher page count than in an unillustrated text like the TEXT. Of the 61 stories in the TEXT, 12 survive in the GN. I suppose I could pit the 12 TEXT stories against the 12 GN stories to give my review the oft-desired “level playing field.” But that seems unfair, for the other 49 stories have good qualities and the 12 are visually evocative and have certain advantages when told in a graphical format. Consider these two examples:

TEXT tells of a 60,000 B.C. cave painting that may be a warning or a description of a zombie attack: “On the wall is a painting of a human figure, hands raised in a threatening posture, eyes fixed in an evil gaze. Inside its gaping mouth is the body of another human.” (p183) Compare that description to its depiction in the GN:

Which is creepier to you? For me, the GN version is more unnerving in its specificity--the narrow, uneven slits of the eyes and the frowning shape of the mouth. The text seems so generic by comparison.

Here’s another example from the TEXT speculating about a 17th century A.D. ship discovered at sea with no crew and the hold full of undead African slaves chained to the floor. The discoverers of this horror sank the ship. Brooks speculates:
“...the unfortunate slaves would have to have endured watching their captors devour or infect one another after their slow transformations into living dead, the virus having worked its way through their systems. Even worse is the awful likelihood that one of these crewmembers attacked and infected a chained slave. This new ghoul, in turn, bit the chained, screaming person next to him. On and on down the line, until the screams were eventually quiet and the entire hold was filled with zombies. Imagining those at the end of the line, seeing their future creeping steadily closer, was enough to conjure the worst nightmares.” (pp. 200-201)

In contrast, the GN speculates that one of the slaves was sold (mistakenly or deliberately) to the slave traders while infected and the disease spread through the crew and the cargo hold at the same time. This time I found the GN less horrifying because it seems less likely that the chained slaves could bite each other across the aisle and it seems less likely that the crew would get infected. The GN did have the unnerving payoff of seeing the zombie slaves from the sunken ship walking away on the sea floor.

TEXT (or any text for that matter) relies on the imagination of the reader to fill in the graphic details. Sometimes this is effectively accomplished, as in the creeping doom of the slave ship or in another story where Japanese zombie killers are trained in part by spending a night in a room full of moaning zombie heads (the killers either succumb to or master their fear). Both TEXT and GN acknowledge that a detached zombie head has no moaning ability (without lungs and such) but say it is more the psychological horror of rows upon rows of undead eyes watching and teeth snapping that is the true test. TEXT better suggests the terror than GN shows it in this case, making for a more compelling story.

On the other hand, the GN forces the reader to confront abominable acts being committed in their specificity. Zombies are really rotting to pieces and tearing chunks of flesh off people. The artist may have a more fiendish imagination than the reader and show the reader what he or she wouldn’t think of on their own. The artist here, Ibraim Roberson, does a good job of not being gratuitously gory, only presenting what is needed to drive home the horror of the stories told. The gore isn’t an end in itself. Here it serves to raise the stakes in the story, making a victory more triumphant or a defeat more devastating.

One strength of TEXT is the interweaving of the stories. Some of the zombie outbreaks have sequels of a sort. The Japanese zombie killers are too efficient, leaving World War II Japan without any zombies to exploit as weapons. So when they found some in Manchuria, they attempted to exploit them with bad results. Some of the Manchurian experiments were seized by the Soviets, who also tried and failed to develop them as weapons, leading to the destruction of a Siberian town. Having different stories related makes for more interesting reading and gives a sense of a well thought out and constructed history leading to World War Z.

Boosting intellect may not work out
So if the storyteller is equal and the stories are more or less the same, the discerning reader needs to look to those differences to make an evaluation. If the reader doesn’t want an imagination boost or especially graphic considerations, TEXT is the way to go. If you want a more visceral horror experience, GN is the way to go. For me, TEXT was more enjoyable just for the greater sense of history and number of different stories. I enjoyed GN and its enhancements of some of the stories, but I’d choose to re-read TEXT over GN. Which is not to say that I won’t re-read GN. TEXT wins by a nose (hopefully, an uninfected one).