Friday, March 28, 2008

Mr. Bad Example

This Saturday at 12PM Eastern on Pop Culture America with John and Dave on (click link at right), we'll be taking a long, hard abrasive look at the various aspects of our Popular Culture that are certain to rip our moral values asunder.

If we're lucky.

We'll have an in-depth examination of the scourge that is Reality TV, the surest sign of the end of Western Civilization as we know it.

If we're lucky.

We'll talk with Brian Fitzpatrick, Culture and Media Institute Senior Editor, about the systematic campaign by major media outlets to villify all that is good and just and right and nice and not bad.

And we'll discuss The Great Comic Book Scare of the 1940s and 50s and how those doggone comic books already destroyed the hearts and minds of America's youth way back during the Truman administration. Author David Hajdu's new book The Ten-Cent Plague meticulously details the cultural upheaval of the era, how it focused its wrath on funny books, and how a supposedly free nation became so terrified of four-color pictures, it resorted to book burning and censorship.

Which inspires me to relate a personal story:

When I was six years old, we lived in Imperial Beach, California, just outside of San Diego. My Dad was in the Navy and worked border patrol out of El Centro Naval Base. I had just entered the first grade after missing much of kindergarten due to surgeries and the first friend I made at school was a kid named Keith who lived about a mile away from my house and also attended Central School. We were unlikely friends: Keith was a quiet, serious guy with close-cropped dark hair and glasses, while I was a big, overbearing lout, trying too hard to make up for the lost time I'd missed in school the previous year. But we got along great from the get-go.

Keith would come over to my house after school and one of the first things I showed him was my pride and joy; my rather prodigious collection of comics kept in a wooden toy box with a padlock, as if I thought it probable that someone would break in and immediately swipe them. Hey, six year olds value what they value.

He hadn't ever seen comics before, which I found strange. I had become hooked on them during our long trip to California from Illinois, and enjoyment became addiction during the time I was convalescing the year before. I had lots of superheroes, mostly DC, with a few Spider-Mans and Fantastic Fours sprinkled in, along with a hefty selection of Harvey comics like Casper and Richie Rich and Hot Stuff, the Little Devil, who I related to more than any little boy should relate to an image of Satan. There were also a few Gold Key comics, westerns and movie and TV show adaptations with photo covers. Keith was mesmerized.

We would point out particularly cool panels and scenes to each other, read aloud some of the crazier dialogue. We would spend hours with them trying to draw the characters and scenes. Keith had a little artistic talent even at that early age; he could draw them free-hand. I had to trace. Almost all my comics had covers with indentations outlining the heroes made by the Bic pen against lined notebook paper I used to copy them.

There was a 7-11 not far from Central School and if I had a quarter or two (saved by not buying milk with lunch), I'd stop in on the way home and buy a couple of comics. Soon, Keith was doing the same.

Then one day while we were reading after school, the doorbell rang. I answered and Keith's Mom was standing on our front step, glowering at me.

"Is your Mother home?" she asked, not bothering to greet me.


"I'd like to see her."

I shrugged and showed her in. I'd met Keith's Mother before. One day, when she asked me what we had learned in school, I mentioned that I had discovered you could spell "Christmas" with an "X." For some reason, I thought that was neat. "Not in my house you won't!" she informed me. I hadn't spoken to her much since.

After she said her pleasantries to my Mom, she told Keith and me to leave the two of them alone. We dutifully retreated to my room, then immediately crept back down the hallway where we could hear what was being said. We knew something was up.

Keith's Mom had several of Keith's comic books with her, and she laid them out in front of my Mom on the kitchen table, like exhibits in a court case. She voiced her objections to the material, all the usual stuff about comics rotting your brain and being too violent and stupid. She talked about how they played only classical music in their house and read only the best books, and these ... THINGS ... certainly didn't qualify. Finally, she opined that I was a bad example for Keith and she was considering not allowing us to be friends any more. We looked at each other stunned. We didn't think we had done anything wrong.

My Mother listened to all of this, didn't say a word while Keith's Mom was talking. When the oratory ended, Mom looked Keith's Mother in the eye and said, "They're reading." She paused and let that sink in a little. "Do you know how much trouble a boy can get into if he wants? Our boys are spending their time reading. On their own. For fun. I don't care if the words have pictures next to them. Do you really want to discourage them from reading?"

Keith's Mom was taken aback. "But just look at these ..."

"I know what they are," my Mom said, "I bought most of them for him." Then she couldn't resist getting in a little dig of her own. "And John has the highest reading scores in his class."

Keith and I shot little grins at each other then; mine because I was proud of my Mom and his because he was glad to see his Mother rendered speechless for a change. We never heard any more tongue clucking about comics, though when I was at Keith's, the latest four-color adventures in hand, we would get the occasional disapproving glare. Though it's possible that's just the way her face was.

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