Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Popcorn Ideals – Why It’s Not A Bad Thing To Cuddle Up With A Hot Buttered Bowl Of Comics

I was given a copy of the first issue of a new comic series recently, “Darkness Falls”, published by The Healthy Aboriginal Network, and it got me to thinking about the value of discussing moral, ethical, mental health, medical and spiritual issues in comics, and by extension, in comic book movies. Admittedly, this had already been on my mind in recent weeks because of the theatrical release of “X-Men: Last Stand” and all the promo hype for “Superman Returns” and the accompanying resurrection of discussions of the Man of Steel’s philosophical implications.
For now, let’s put aside the whole debate about high vs. low culture, pop vs. the classics. Let’s not get into an epic, bicep-flexing, taunt-throwing, electrified slugfest about why the so-called elite lump comics as a body together, making no distinction between Wolverine and Maus, as they dismiss this nearly hundred-year-old art form as vulgar or scripted pose-offs, while extolling the pretentious dreck of Margaret Atwood and Louis Hemon. Let’s just treat comics and their movie spin-offs as pieces of our larger cultural tapestry.
Issue number one of “Darkness Falls” centres on a pudgy young artist struggling with life as he deals with bullying from teachers, fellow students and parents, as well as the harsh realities of existence on his first nation’s reserve. All of this causes him to question his self-worth and to consider suicide. During a tale spun by a native elder, the boy connects to his culture through a trickster spirit-turned-superhero who battles the evil phantom that preys on those who become lost, confused or despairing. In the end, the boy defeats the evil spirit and his suicidal feelings by declaring that he wants to live.
Right off the bat, I’ll tell ya this book has got some great art. The superhero and monster are standard fare, but it’s the vivid bleakness of the prairies at sundown that’s so perfectly captured as it both contrasts and compliments the brooding claustrophobia of a high school or household where you think everyone’s out to get you.
And the comic is to be credited for its cultural empowerment value. It’s important for youth of all cultures to see themselves positively represented in media, and this is especially true of first nations kids who must learn to hold on to their heritage as they deal with today’s challenges. Allowing the kid who’s seemingly the victim of a problem to step in and not only assist, but save his own hero by himself driving off the bad guy is an example more youth (from every culture) need to have more often.
Some may say, and rightly so, that the storyline itself isn’t terribly complex. That it’s the hit-you-over-the-head simplicity of dealing with tough issues that’s typical of Saturday morning cartoons, that it’s the light and fluffy, buttery sweet fare of movie theatre popcorn.
Admittedly, the reality is that suicidal feelings sometimes take a lot of councilling and soul-searching to overcome, and simply constructing a superheroic adventure around an elder’s story, all presented over the course of a single day in a single comic issue, probably wouldn’t be enough to work through a crisis.
And to be sure, this sort of treatment of “the big issues” is par for the course in comics. The cheap presentation of good vs. evil, of justice and social responsibility, friendship, loyalty and true love are played out every week in volumes galore of Marvel and DC. This is taken off the page and onto the screen in their movie adaptations, as we’ve seen recently with “X-Men: Last Stand” and its treatment of genetic tinkering and revision, social acceptance, pride in being what you are, revenge, self sacrifice and genocide.
Critics may argue this simplistic presentation of complex issues is harmful to youth, giving them a black and white view of a very grey world, or that it gives the impression that such issues can be solved quickly and relatively easily, or that a “good guy” facing a challenge can succeed by sheer force of being right and the possibility of failure is an empty fear.
I say there’s nothing wrong with comics or their movie spin-offs dealing with the big tough issues, even if they do it simply.
I’ve known a number of people over the years, and seen and heard interviews with others, who’ve said reading comics early on gave them important lessons on right and wrong because comics were an entertaining medium that was easy to identify with and the simple presentation of the morals within made them easy to grasp at a young age. As such, it’s eminently wise for aboriginal groups to get into comics to affect how those moral are illustrated and to present to youth the tough issues, such as suicide, which face some of them. They’re taking a widespread and youth-accepted pop culture medium and making it their own to present positive role models to their youngsters and to deliver messages that youth can get help with problems, that youth can empower themselves, and that there is hope.
But most importantly, I think the presentation of big issues in the comic format is valid because comics (like literature, movies, paintings, television, sculpture, music, theatre, photography – did I leave any out?) are ideally the beginning of dialogue, both internal and external, as well as entertainment. They are not, as some critics would warn, a closed system where a youth is fed an idea and never given the opportunity to explore it further. We all know that when kids lock onto an idea that interests them, or touches them emotionally in some way, they’re relentless in their pursuit of more information about it – especially now in the computer age. Whether they talk with friends, parents, elders or hunt down information on the internet or in a library, youth who want information usually know how to get it. Presenting issues such as suicide on a comic book platform is a way of getting kids thinking about how they can help themselves or others deal with crisis. It’s the creation of talking points where the youth can bounce the issue off of other people and perhaps get a deeper understanding of the issue and get directed towards sources of help. In an age where many adults complain about how hard it is to talk to youth, the wise person finds common ground or language – finds out what a kid is interested in so that they can talk with the kid about something that interests him in order to build mutual understanding, trust, and meaningful dialogue about important issues.
Maybe then, you might say that a better metaphor for big issues in comics is that of a salad, instead of popcorn, because it comes before the more complex and filling entre, as opposed to popcorn, which usually doesn’t come before anything else, unless you’re dining out at the local pub and the entre is 5 cent wings, and if that’s the case, it’s entirely possible (as a critic might worry) that you may not be having wings at all and the popcorn itself might constitute the entire solid portion of the meal. But I’ll stick with popcorn because to use salad for some reason leads me to soup, and that makes me think of Sean Connery’s line in Finding Forrester about “soup questions” which have to do more with obtaining information useful to oneself, instead of presenting ideas for discussion – although, you could argue they’re kind of the same thing. But I digress. I’m babbling.
I also like popcorn as metaphor for the big issues because the reality is that popcorn by itself is attractive, it’s a draw. How could you not like that combination of airy crunch, salt, and buttery sweetness (unless of course, you break a tooth on an errant kernel or choke on a bit of kernel husk – okay, I’m babbling again)? Go to any movie theatre or sports arena and you’ll see the popcorn stand keeps everyone, young and old, coming back for more. And what invariably happens when the popcorn they get is good? They talk about how good it is with each other. And when it comes to looking at, and hopefully later discussing, the big issues like suicide, that’s a pretty good start.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings or other problems, remember that you’re not alone. Help is available. Contact your local distress line, crisis centre, mental health office or councilling service to get help. Contact information is usally available in your local Yellow Pages or online.
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