School is back in session, and that means censorship attempts are back en force as well. Kids’ Right to Read has tackled several challenges to summer reading selections recently, including on to Sidescrollers, a graphic novel by Matt Loux (Oni Press). The book about a group of slacker friends, was named one of the Young Adult Library Association’s top ten graphic novels when it was published in 2008. It was an option on a summer reading list at Enfield High School in Connecticut until a non-parent complained and the book was removed, despite the fact those who objected to the book had a number of other options for their children.
We spoke to the author Matt Loux, to get his perspective on the removal and on writing for a teen audience.
NCAC: What inspired Sidescrollers? What story did you set out to tell and who were you writing for (if this is something you considered)?
Matt Loux: Sidescrollers was inspired by my own slackerish social life when I was a teen, hanging out with friends during the summers after high school and college. In retrospect it was a great time of very little responsibility or expectations allowing the freedom to work at a crappy job and use the money earned on snacks, toys, and video games.
Sidescrollers is a fantasy version of those times drawing from our own conversations and running jokes as well as real events. Boots, the satan cat, was our friend’s cat who attacked us all the time, Brian really got destroyed at Street Fighter by a nine-year-old Asian girl, and a buddy of ours really peed in another guy’s gas tank (or claimed to at the time). I took these moments and sorta lumped them together with lots of pure fiction to make a fun slacker romp.
When I started writing the very first script for Sidescrollers (then called Perpetual Losers) I was in college around 1999. I was trying to write what felt natural to me and this period of my life was pretty much still going on so I figured it would be a good first comic. After I graduated I made a mini-comic of the beginning, which people liked, then after I did my first book with Oni Press I pitched it as a full graphic novel and they accepted.
The dialogue and situations in the book ring very realistic for a certain set of teenage boys– were you channeling you and your friends at that age?
Yes, but as I mentioned I started writing it during my late teens so I guess that’s just how I talked back then. I don’t swear nearly as freely these days. When I was working on the full Sidescrollers script for Oni it was maybe six years later but that sort of way of interacting still felt familiar. Writing natural-feeling dialog is very important to me. I work hard to achieve a comfortable flow in all of my stories.
Probably the most difficult was making the transition from the teenage boy dialogue in Sidescrollers to the Salt Water Taffy books, which is an all-ages series starring two kids. First I had to figure out how to write a script without swears or dirty references, and second, I didn’t really remember how kids talked.
I quickly discovered that no matter the age group, you must write what feels natural to yourself and the characters you created. When you start to really understand your characters and how they would react in situations, that’s when it all falls into place.
The book is rated older Teen, a ratings system that comics and graphic novels sometimes use– was there an editing process around the rating, did you and your editor work with an awareness of where those lines are drawn?
At the time Oni Press mainly did books that I would describe as 90’s indy comics. What I mean is they were not the sexed up boundary pushing ‘comix’ of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but diverse stories that were more like a quality movie, or TV show. Oni had yet to put out much in the kids comic genre but were starting to do more unique teen type books.
When we put out Sidescrollers it might have been when teens were really beginning to latch on to Oni, and based on feedback they implemented the older Teen rating so as to clearly identify my book’s more racy elements.
Oni never ask me to tone anything down either, in fact I remember my editor originally wanted to put more swears in it. It says a lot about the integrity of Oni Press that they would rather make a new book rating than compromise the creator’s vision.
What do you think about book ratings systems? Often it seems like while the idea is to use them as a guide, they can become prescriptive…
I’m OK with it. There’s nothing wrong with providing information for people. It can help a parent identify whether they think a book is appropriate for their child or not. From a creator’s point of view, it does force you to compartmentalize your story a bit, but that’s the reality of all publishing these days. It’s rare that you can just write anything with no thought of the demographic. Modern marketing departments would never allow it!
Did you ever think your book, or profanity in it, might upset certain parents?
Not for a second did I ever think of parents while writing Sidescrollers. This was a story for me and my peers. It was a silly, fun, unedited take on how real teens interact. This included language, sexual situations, and even crass and slightly inappropriate jokes. When writing comedy you have to be completely genuine or it will come across as trite.
I was very conscious of all this while writing but I also believe that the overall themes of Sidescrollers are positive and even uplifting. Friendship, happiness, standing against adversity, anti-bullying.
I also didn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously either. It is what it is and I don’t think there’s any harm in it. If I had changed a single idea based on fear of a parent’s possible negative reaction, the book would have died an immediate and mediocre death.
The challenge to Sidescrollers happened in Connecticut, your home state– did that surprise you? Why and why not?
It is funny that it all happened in the state Sidescrollers takes place in, my home state of Connecticut, but it’s the sort of thing that could have happened anywhere really. Connecticut does have a reputation as a progressive state, but there are pushy, overbearing people everywhere.
I understand how folks get sensitive to anything regarding their kids, but honestly no one has the right to say someone else’s child can’t read a book because you don’t think your own kid can handle it. What if they stopped teaching Romeo and Juliet in schools because some parent with no knowledge of historic context objected to the fact that Juliet is thirteen?
All that aside, I really think teens of high school age are beyond a parent’s control regarding their media choices. In my own experience, high school was a defining line between childhood and pre-adult. I started to better understand nuanced adult concepts and I was ready for them. And I certainly didn’t learn how to swear from a book or movie. It was from other students, and parents of course.