Monday, November 8, 2010

Negotiating the Minefields of Political Correctness

Pencil rough for p. 65 of Big City Otto. This is the version you won't see in the book with offending lyrics, keg-shaped GatorJuice container and the pending-lawsuit logo still present.
This was one of those weeks where you really wonder whether it’s all worth it.

I never pick up my pencil to draw thinking, “What would a kid like?” Instead I trust in my inner twelve year old and simply put those things down on paper that make me laugh. As a result I sometimes forget that I’m doing a comic that’s ostensibly for kids.

I think comics can work at a number of different levels and, like the animated films we see in theatres, are filled with bits and references that only an adult audience is going to get. But for some reason we set the bar a bit higher for children’s books, probably because they have to run the gauntlet of administrative approval in order to get into schools, rather than simply the court of public opinion. But I’m also very aware that I am the product of a different generation, growing up on a steady diet of Bugs Bunny cartoons and Asterix comics. So my compass for negotiating all of this may be a bit rusty.

I don’t blame my editor, who's the best of the best. In this case she’s merely the messenger for an industry that is concerned over possible lawsuits or books being rejected by certain markets. She suggests these should be my concerns as well, (which they are not) and says the worst part of her job is when she has to come to authors with these sorts of requests. In the end it’s a fine dance between the publisher’s needs and what I feel is right for the book. But sometimes the comments continue to baffle me.

For instance, here are a few things I learned this week:

1. Gangstas aren’t gangsters.
I actually almost get this one, but I was still surprised when any direct reference to “gangstas” wound up on the cutting room floor. I’m no fan of gangsta culture and believe that it is wreaking a terrible toll on disenfranchised black urban youth and should not be glamorized or re-enforced. But in my comic I honestly thought I was satirizing white suburban youth who emulate the culture, and am ancient enough to still believe that satire can be a powerful force for good. (See previous post, Alligata Gangstas). But I guess ten year olds might not get satire, although I’m suspecting more likely it's adults without a sense of humour.

2. No drinking allowed!
Loose women have never been my forté so at least I avoided that pitfall! And even I knew that Otto is an innocent at large and probably shouldn’t be seen indulging in under age drinking. But I hadn’t realized that even oblique references to drinking must be expunged, even when the binging is on energy drinks and junk food. (Maybe you have to be fifty and a victim of clean living before you can contemplate the fact that binging on junk food can lead to hangovers!) So the keg-like container for the “GatorJuice’ becomes a giant pop bottle and next-day head aches become tummy aches, and slowly I can see that all references will have so completely disappeared that what I thought was a relatively innocent joke will be lost! Sigh. Deep breath …

In a pathetic attempt at rebellion I drew the line at ridding my junk-food-hung-over heroes of their “queasy bubbles” over their heads, arguing that they weren’t only cartoon short hand for inebriation but also for tummy trouble.

3. … Or smoking!
I found out that good guys can’t smoke and apparently this can extend to bad guys if the audience is perceived as being too young. Big Al was able to keep his cigar, (it was suggested that it not be lit but I happen to like drawing smoke) and I honestly think that his stunted growth makes him a poster child for NOT smoking. But you won’t see any sign of a cigar on the book cover. Non-negotiable I’m told.

I could go on, but these were a few highlights. Threat of lawsuits, real or imaginary, have already seen my arch villain, “The Man in the Ten Gallon Hat”, become the “Man with the Wooden Nose”. And probably none of these changes on their own are going to make or break the success of the book. But bit by bit they do chip away at the original cohesive concept and do, at the cost of not alienating any markets, end up creating something that’s less than it could be. And in the end we’re left with a degree of self-regulation that maybe gets so good at anticipating the market’s response that it stops taking the chances one needs to take to create something of value.

Not that I’m trying to do important art here. But fo' shizzle, jus' 'cause I’m drawin' talkin' elephants don’ mean my book's fo' ankle biters! I just happen to like drawin' talkin' elephants, dawg.

Next week (or sometime in the future):  A cautionary tale about the Comics Code Authority and its effect on the North American comic industry.


  1. Bill--I hear your frustration and have also experienced the filtration system of marketing. It does put constraints on the flow of imagination to keep thinking as you create, "Can I get away with this?"

    I think the book is going to be a stunner all the same.


  2. I think we all do in the world of publishing. Right?
    I'm really good with all of this, Monica. Merely an on-line rant. I should simply get used to which side my bread is buttered on.