Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Open Letter to the Woman Who Wants SANDMAN Banned From Her College

Last night I signed onto Facebook to find that a friend had posted this article:

 I read it and I’ve been furious ever since. It seems a 20 year old woman named Tara Shultz, a student at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California took an English course focused on graphic novels (the modern term for comic books, in case anyone isn’t familiar), a course which included in its material Neil Gaiman’s wonderful series Sandman, which was originally published under DC Comics’ Vertigo line (a line aimed at adult comics readers) from 1989 to 1996. Poor Miss Shultz was absolutely shocked to learn that the graphic novels which were the subject of the course, including Persepolis, which is, after all, a memoir of growing up during the Iranian revolution (which means it contains—gasp!—depictions of violence which are based on real events), feature graphic illustrations and plot elements she found upsetting and disturbing, which was probably exactly what the creators of the works in question intended (not in a malicious way, but because that's how effective stories are told). And now she’s feeling traumatized, and, as so often happens in today’s far too easily offended world, this young woman, with the help of her parents, is protesting the teaching of these books at her college. Yes, that’s right, instead of simply avoiding something she doesn’t like, she wants to prevent the teacher from teaching about them and her fellow students from learning about them. What a great example of someone missing the point of education!
So here I sit, fuming over this because it’s just so very, very wrong. I need to express my feelings about this. I really need to let it out. To do that, I’m writing an open letter to Tara Shultz and posting it here on my blog. Chances are she won’t see it. And, if through some twist of the wonderfully connected internet age, it does find its way to her attention, it probably won’t do any good, considering what she’s already doing. But I’m posting it anyway because I’m so tired of people thinking being offended gives them the right to rob other human beings of potential knowledge or entertainment or experience. Here goes.    
Dear Miss Shultz,
That didn’t work out the way you thought it would, did it? You took a college course in comic books (and yes, they’re all comic books whether you also use the term ‘graphic novel’ or not.) And you were expecting, as you said, “Batman and Robin.” But that’s not what you found because, as you now know, this amazing art form that combines words and illustrations to form a unique type of narrative is not, by any means, limited to the superhero genre or other subjects originally intended for children. Why would it be? It’s just another form of storytelling, and, as with film or prose or theatre or opera, there’s no built-in limit on what sort of tales can or cannot be told using it. So what really happened here? An experience at an institute of education took an assumption you had and shattered it, revealing the truth about the subject you’d signed on to study. The last time I checked, that’s what’s supposed to happen when one takes a class. Otherwise, what’s the point? So you should be happy to have learned something and been shown that comics, like any other art form, have an infinite number of possible uses as an outlet for artistic expression. Now, to be honest, I haven’t read Y: The Last Man or Persepolis, although I would like to at some point (there’s never enough time for a reader to read all the good stuff!), so most of what I’m saying here is my reaction to your attempt to hissy-fit your way into Sandman being, as you so mercilessly put it, eradicated from the system.

I’ve read Sandman, all of it, and most of the related material that came after the original series, and many of the other works by its writer, Neil Gaiman, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring works of storytelling I’ve ever encountered, comics or not. It can make you laugh, cry, fear, smile, think, hope, cringe, and nearly burst with the sheer volume of wonder Mr. Gaiman managed to stuff into the series (with help from many of the best artists in the comics industry). Sandman has won a World Fantasy Award and been praised by people with names like Harlan Ellison (does his work offend you too?). It is certainly not, as you said in what the article about you makes me think is your usual ineloquent, judgmental manner, “garbage.” No, it’s far, far from garbage. Sandman is a beautiful tapestry of stories that touch upon all the essential elements of the human experience as the author masterfully wraps his metaphors in a richly imagined fantasy universe. Sandman examines dreams and their relationship to the human soul and tells the tale of Dream (or Sandman or Morpheus), who is, along with his siblings, Death, Despair, Destiny, Desire, Destruction, and Delirium (who used to be Delight, one of the Endless, who are all, to put it one way, incarnations of some of the basic conditions of human life and thoughts. They’re sort of like a pantheon of gods, but not quite. It’s been a few years since I’ve reread Sandman, but the mere thought of that masterpiece of storytelling fills my mind with a pageant of its best points, like its portrayal of Death as a comforting, witty, sympathetic, lovely character; the perfection of the story “Ramadan,” which appeared in the series’ fiftieth issue and was beautifully drawn by the great P. Craig Russell; the breathtaking moment when the enormous sea serpent appears, brilliantly timed at a page turn (one of those neat little tricks that the masters of the comics medium know how to use) in “Hob’s Leviathan; the Shakespeare-related tales scattered throughout the book’s run; and so many other memorable moments that have stuck with readers for years after they’ve read them. Yes, Sandman is good, so good, in fact, that I’d put it on the list of the greatest storytelling feats of the late twentieth century, in all media, not just comics! This is an important work that should probably be taught in every college in one course or another.            

So here we are, with you upset by something you read (I hate to tell you this, but upsetting things happen. Just wait till you get out into the adult world. Trust me, it will make being offended by a comic book the least of your worries), and now you’re hell-bent on changing the options other people have about what to read, what to teach, what to experience. You’re acting like a spoiled child.

You have no idea how the world works, and you have no idea of your proper place in it. How dare you try to decide what others get to read, what others get to learn, how artists and writers should express themselves, and what audiences should get from the works of those writers and artists? How dare you assume your personal dislike of something and your readiness to be offended by art and literature (which Sandman certainly is, and thousands, perhaps millions, of those who have been affected and inspired by it will attest to that fact) gives you the right to expect that your tantrum will result in the opportunity being taken away from others to read such works and maybe, hopefully, be changed by the experience? Who are you to attempt to limit the experiences of your fellow students, your fellow explorers of this life we all live together? These are human beings—curious, motivated, creative, living, breathing, important, wonderful, unique human beings who are spending time and money to gain the best education they can. Many of them wish to broaden their view of the world, and understanding the art that flows from the minds of writers and artists is a part—a very important and precious part—of that education, of that noble attempt to appreciate every aspect of this world and those who inhabit it. And you think you have the right to place limitations on how and when and what those people are allowed to learn? Are you really trying to do something on that level of evil? Yes, I called it evil, and I stand by that statement. Demanding that books be pushed out of the reach of those who wish to read them, for no other reason than that YOU find them offensive and upsetting is, at the very least, selfish and arrogant, and, at worst, an act of unspeakably foul intellectual terrorism that has no place on a college campus, no place in a nation that values freedom, and certainly no place among any group of human beings who respect each other and the right of all of us to experience the fruits of creativity and learn from each others’ artistic endeavors.   

When good, honorable, open-minded people don’t like something, they make a choice to avoid it. And they allow others to make their own choices. Nobody’s forcing you to read those books. You have all the freedom in the world to drop the class and take a different one. You don’t like the contents of the materials? Fine, it’s your right to dislike something. Then CHOOSE to have nothing to do with Sandman or any of the other books in question. Walk away. But don’t try to force your choice, your taste in literature, your personal opinions (and that’s all they are, opinions) onto everyone else. You want to get upset and offended over a book? Nobody will stop you. You want to go home and cry to your parents about words and pictures on pages making you feel uneasy? Go right ahead. But DO NOT come charging back to school, assisted by your Mom and Dad, and demand that those books, those experiences, that part of an education, be taken away from your fellow students as if those books were not worthwhile expressions of human creativity but matches that must be kept out of the reach of children.     

Maybe in the world you WISH existed, books (and comics, movies, plays, etc.) would contain nothing but sunshine and joy and happy endings. But there aren’t too many stories out there in any form (at least the ones adults read) that don’t contain some sort of conflict or problem, and, yes, those conflicts and problems can often involve upsetting events and ideas, and violence, and sex (and I absolutely hate that we live in a world where sex and violence get mentioned together so frequently, as if an act needed to assure the continuation of the human race is somehow as bad as acts that involve us destroying each other), and pain, and heartbreak, and confusion. Now here’s the great secret you may have missed along the road to college if your life has been as sheltered and sanitized as it seems it must have been if you think you can just wish some great books out of the curriculum. Are you ready for this? I hope so, because it’s important. Stories contain unpleasantness because art is a reflection of life (dressed up in fantastic details, of course, but inspired by life nonetheless), and LIFE itself contains all the conflicts and pains and horrors that so upset you in the art it inspired.

So how about this for an idea? Instead of running around screaming and trying to ban books, why don’t you look at life and reality. I mean really, really look at it, and find things that are truly worth being offended by! Don’t protest the stories; protest the realities that inspire the darkness therein. Wars are being fought and blood being spilled right now in dozens of nations. Diseases are ravaging people and need to be cured. Children are being abused and people are living in slavery and poverty. Religious fanatics are blowing up people who don’t call an invisible being, for whose existence they have no solid evidence, by the same name. We have racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying. Yes, it’s a cruel and nasty world sometimes. And that cruelty and nastiness is, as is only natural, often reflected in our art. What you need to learn to do is embrace the creative products of humanity’s minds and hearts, both its light and its darkness, and laugh because of it or cry because of it, but, by all means, embrace it, enjoy it, cherish it. And balance your awareness of that with your awareness of the world’s real problems. And once you see both sides of the coin, find a problem that really needs solving. If you so desperately want a worthwhile cause to fight for, then stop trying to ban books and go do something useful that will really make the world a better place.

Good luck in life, and may your future be a more open-minded one.

Aaron Smith

P.S.  And to Neil Gaiman, if you happen to read this somewhere on the internet, you have my sincere gratitude for all your stories. 

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