Family Issues

Soundbite: Gerard James

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Would-be censors have long posited a monkey-see, monkey-do relationship between media and audiences. Violent images create violent kids, they warn.

Comic book writer, screenwriter, historian, and parent Gerard Jones upends that thinking in his new book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic). In his view, the violence depicted in comic books, cartoons, and video games helps far more kids than it hurts. As a lonely, angry 13-year-old, writes Jones, "the character who caught me, and freed me, was the [Incredible] Hulk: overgendered and undersocialized, half-naked and half-witted, raging against a frightened world that misunderstood and persecuted him."

Jones has authored two previous books and countless comics, including Green Lantern: Mosaic, The Trouble with Girls, Batman: Jazz, and The Shadow Strikes. His latest project is the nonprofit Media Power for Children. "Our mission statement isn't written yet," he says, "but we'll be talking about the ways kids can use media to empower themselves, to use a cornball word." Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke to Jones in September.

Q: How can fantasy violence help children?

A: Fantasy gives kids a world in which they can be everything that real life doesn't let them be. That can be a tremendous relief, a great way to leave behind the tensions of having to behave and compromise and negotiate your way through life all the time. It also helps satisfy curiosity about what life might be like without all these constraints.

Fantasy worlds let children create a proxy self–through a superhero, say–who's more powerful than their real selves. Since kids always have and always will feel somewhat powerless in this world, that proxy self is very energizing, helping them deal with reality when they close the comic book.

Q: Why are we so uptight about violent images in popular culture?

A: We're trying to control and eliminate real violence in society, and that's a good thing. But in our zeal to do that, we go after everything that resembles violence or seems to glorify it. We forget that one of the main functions of fantasy is that it enables you to take your antisocial desires and dispel them outside of the real world.

Q: Are there any TV shows or video games that are off-limits to your own son?

A: I do believe in creating filters for younger kids, not because media will teach them to be criminals, but because it can add additional stresses, pains, and confusion to their lives. I wouldn't let my 9-year-old son play Grand Theft Auto III. Kids learn gradually about how the adult world works. I don't need him to learn about gory street crime or oral sex all at once through a shock-value video game.