Should we ask questions about age-appropriateness when we consider comics and graphic novels?

I found Kyle Baker’s graphic novel to be “graphic” in more than one way: certainly graphic in the pictorial sense, but also graphic in its depictions of violence, anger/hate, and bloodshed.

Concurrently with this course, I’m taking a course on dystopic literature.  To round out the genre, we considered Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games because the instructor wanted our class discussion to dip into the implications of this genre for a young adult (YA) audience.  I couldn’t help but thinking about the textual and pictorial differences of reading vs. viewing The Hunger Games as I read/viewed Nat Turner.

In a newspaper article about the collaboration of Collins and Gary Ross, the director of film adaptation, Collins and Ross explain that it was important to them for the film to be viewable by Hunger Games fans as young as twelve years old.  A tall order, in some instances: the novel depicts scenes such as an arrow piercing a child’s throat, and the child drowning in his own blood as he attempts to dislodge the arrow.  I don’t recall if or how the film depicted this moment, but I do remember having a queasier feeling in general as I watched the film than I did as I read the novel.

So, what’s the difference between reading a scene like that and viewing it?  When I was growing up and testing the boundaries of PG-13 and R-rated films—as well as novels such as Stephen King’s—the world presented to me two “truths” that I’ve always thought are irreconcilable.  On the one hand, I was told that my imagination was more powerful than anything I might see depicted in a film.  On the other hand, I was told to be wary of scary films because those images would “never go away” and be “burned into my mind.”  Okay—but if my imagination is more powerful than my eyes, aren’t I better off watching The Exorcist than if I were to read it?

The answer, I think, has something to do with innocence lost, but that’s another essay entirely.  The interesting thing is that, with Nat Turner, we both see and read about these horrific murders.  For me, I’d say the images were harder to swallow than the text, though the text didn’t go down easily, either.  This graphic novel is PG-13 at best, though I’d be one of those overprotective parents slapping an R-rating onto it.  Part of what I’m reacting to is the violent imagery; but also, the themes and issues taken up by this text are really intense.  Asking someone younger than 13 to grapple with faith-based violence, slavery, and child-slayings is a bit much, I think.

And yet—as Baker points out in his preface—we ask children to face these issues all the time in history books, though we do so highly ineffectively (perhaps because the true story of Nat Turner’s rebellion is a bit mature in content for school-aged children).  So I wonder, then, who Kyle Baker imagined as his audience for this graphic novel—and how different his authorial audience is from his actual audience.

The reason I mention young adult literature at all in this post is that I think one of the things working against comics/graphic novels as texts/artworks worth incorporating in the classroom is that, stereotypically, these texts/artworks are consumed by young people.  And yet, (at least judging by the tweets/posts so far) I think we all got something out of reading Nat Turner.  Similarly, I think the dystopia course benefited from including the YA novel—though I nearly, I admit, dropped the course when I saw a YA novel on a reading list for a graduate-level literature class.  Oh, the blasphemy!  But the class actually ended up conducting a pretty academic, thoughtful discussion about the text (and that has not always been the case with some of the more “grown-up” texts we’ve looked at so far).

As far as our other readings for this week, I wish I’d read them first—particularly the McCloud, as I think it would have helped me “tweet” more thoughtfully/educatedly about Baker.  But, speaking of age-appropriateness and audience, there was this moment in the Nodelman that was perhaps the most bizarre moment in our course readings so far this semester.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but my jaw dropped at the appearance of the word “rape” in the middle of an essay about “the pleasures of children’s books.”  Not only am I not sure what that Langer quote even means—I get that there are three narratives and that three is less harmonious a number than two—but I think Nodelman does a crappy job of unpacking his quote to relate it to his own essay.  Three competing narratives equals rape how exactly?  Like, gang rape?  Like, what???  It’s so unproductive to trivialize the subject of rape, never mind how surprised I was to see Nodelman/Langer trying to use rape as the anchor of a metaphor about artistic communication in, erm, children’s books.  I agree with Joy’s critique of these essays in that, unlike the McCloud, these writers only bring in a select few images to accompany what they’re trying to express in text about images.  But as far as this moment in the text goes, all I can say is thank god it wasn’t rendered pictorially.

2 thoughts on “Should we ask questions about age-appropriateness when we consider comics and graphic novels?

  1. Professor Sample

    Very good points here about YA fiction and film (and by extension, comics). A central question among scholars who study YA fiction is why there is such a predominance of dystopian/post-apocalyptic settings in contemporary YA.

    As a side note, I’m glad you didn’t drop your dystopic literature grad class when you saw there was a YA novel on it. YA fiction tackles very heavy themes and certainly qualifies as serious literature.

    1. Liz MacLean Post author

      I’m glad too! Thanks very much for the reading recommendation — I feel like I wasted too much of my youth on The Babysitter’s Club, but I’m glad my eyes have been opened to the fact that it’s never too late to read YA.

      As far as considering literature pedagogically, I imagine teaching a graphic novel would probably require similar coaching/context-building as teaching a YA novel would, at least for some students (like me) who would need some help tearing down their preconceived notions of the genre.

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