School Shootings: The View from a Comic Book Written in 1999 and Re-Read in 2014

Author’s Note: This is disturbing. School shootings and violent deaths of children under discussion. I hope the fact that this subject even exists makes you angry and upset whether you agree with my points or not. Also contains discussion of teenage depression and mental health crises.

I wish desperately that this entry were irrelevant to any issue that could possibly exist today. I wish to dedicate this discussion to all of those who are survivors, and non-survivors, of the kind of hopelessness and senselessness discussed here.

Let’s go back in time to 1999, to late April. The worst school shooting in American history (at the time) had just occurred, and the nation was reeling, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Only, that’s the nature of tragedy, isn’t it – its randomness, the fact that we feel so helpless in the face of it. Writer Warren Ellis judged, quite correctly, that this combination of emotions, mixed with a dose of “horror is other people,” would make for a spectacular Hellblazer issue. At the same time, Marvel Comics had already announced their bold initiative, dealing with teenage deaths in as many series as possible in the upcoming month, and printing the covers of all their series in plain black for one issue (I will never forget walking into Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr, PA and seeing the wall of black-covered comics to my left, a couple of weeks later).

DC Comics refused to publish the issue, perpetuating (in part – it was already brewing, to some extent) Ellis’ departure from the title. I wondered, at the time, what he’d had to say, and imagined it would hit home. A year later, I found out I was right when I managed to get my hands on black and white scans, read them in my dorm room, and wept for about an hour.

That was a scary time to be both a geek and a teacher in training. Students were being suspended from school for carrying comics in their backpacks. The “video games cause violent behavior” street-corner soapbox became a pulpit-and-microphone, with news coverage. There was talk of including intrusive investigation into personal hobbies and interests in the certification and background check process for new teachers, to ensure that “potential threats” among schoolchildren wouldn’t be overlooked in our country’s halls of learning.

At the same time, part of me wished they were right, even if I knew they weren’t. I wished it were just the comics, or the video games, because it would mean it was just one thing, that there was a magic wand that could be waved, some, dare I say, X-factor, that could be added or subtracted to fix the violence and safety issues and make our schools better places. I knew then that it wasn’t so simple, and I had high hopes that would be understood.

I didn’t realize how deep the nation’s misunderstanding of our teenagers really ran.

I also didn’t realize, until I reread the issue very recently after ten years of teaching experience, just how much Warren Ellis understood. Because damn, that is one of the finest issues of Hellblazer ever written, now that DC Comics has finally had the guts to go back and publish it as part of the “Shoot” trade paperback under the series title Vertigo Resurrected. It stands the test of time better than I think anyone hoped it would. I wish everything written in it had turned out to be wrong.

For those who haven’t read it, a brief summary: a woman named Penny Carnes (who only appears in this issue) is tasked with analysis of video and audio material of incidents of mass violence, to search for common factors. The one item she finds in multiple videos is the presence of our protagonist, John Constantine. She is startled when he turns up at her office but he reassures her that he intends her no harm. He explains that he has been at the scenes of several of these crime scenes in the aftermath as a favor to a recently bereaved friend looking to make personal sense of his own loss. When it becomes apparent that Carnes’ work has not given her any real insight, he becomes angry and points out that the common denominator in all of the incidents is a sense of desperation and meaninglessness in the lives of both the perpetrators and the victims.

The first point “Shoot” brings home lies in its very summary: note the complete lack of anything remotely supernatural. This is a comic about supernatural horror, but in this case, nothing supernatural could be remotely as terrifying as the facts, so Ellis made the smart decision and left them alone.

The second point I see in “Shoot,” which I have never seen made anywhere else, is the conflation of school shootings with other forms of mass violence, not just gun rampages but others as well. There is a clear reference in the comic to some of the mass religious suicides that occurred in the 1990’s. I don’t think I’d ever thought of them as symptoms of the same societal illness, and I appreciate that Warren Ellis doesn’t try to say they’re entirely the same thing, because they’re obviously not, in a number of ways. But he does point out, correctly, that they do have certain commonalities, lying in a cultural illness.

Constantine’s rant at Carnes is one of the greatest sequences in Hellblazer, if not in all of American comics. I’m just going to quote it here, though without the visuals I can’t do it full justice:

“I see kids in a schoolyard in some dead-end hole of a town in some asshole county in some crumbling state with no education and no hope and no future and they’re waiting. They’re just standing there. Born into a life that’s already slid out of view. Looking forward to turning out just like their mommies and daddies. Life already lived for them. Life in a world mommy and daddy couldn’t be arsed to build properly, a world that makes no fucking sense. A world where kids actually go to special classes to learn to recognize real emotions and body language because they were raised by the television. They’re only kids, for Christ’s sake. This is the best response they can manage to the insane fucking world they’re in.”

I know I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that about America’s teenagers in 1999.

I was a student teacher in 2002 the first time I noticed a student with long, bleeding cut marks on her arm. My first year of teaching was the first time I actually had a student come to me to say, “I need help. I think I might hurt myself if I go home by myself today.” It was only one year later after that, that I had a student in my classroom publicly threaten to hurt others, in a manner that brought in the FBI, among others, and it turned out to be a good thing it was reported. My fifth year of teaching was the first time I had a student whisper to me at graduation, “I wouldn’t have survived high school without your support,” and mean it – the proudest moment of my career to date. My seventh year of teaching was the first time I lost a student to a drug overdose, possibly deliberate.

This is all far, far too common. Our nation’s teenagers lead incredibly difficult lives, with traumas they should never have to experience. This occurs against a backdrop of a mechanical system that, except in very good cases, seeks to churn out productive members of society in a specific set of molds. Let me be clear that this is not a condemnation of public schools; private, charter, homeschooling, etc., all other models are just as bad about this, except in the best of situations. And obviously those situations exist, or we’d be much worse off than we are. There are wonderful schools of all kinds, and wonderful homeschooling parents, out there. But the vast majority are falling through the cracks of a system that isn’t honoring them as individuals, in spite of the best of intentions of the people working in that system, whichever type of system it may be.

That sense of being a cog in a much larger machine, is something of which numerous students have spoken to me over the years. I think it’s the single most dangerous thing about our current system, and the most insidious effect of our current plague of over-testing. It’s the one thing that brings together the cases of the isolated and estranged young people who perpetrate some cases of school violence with the cases of popular and successful young people who perpetrate others. And the scariest thing is that there’s no way to fix it. I mentioned over-testing, but eliminating standardized tests today wouldn’t fix this, even if it might help. Lowering class sizes this instant wouldn’t fix this, though it might help. Giving teachers professional respect and professional salaries and giving schools sufficient resources overnight wouldn’t fix this, although it might help. Rearranging our priorities concerning education in this country with the wave of a magic wand wouldn’t even fix it, but it might help. It would take a combination of all these things, plus a concerted effort on the part of every single person involved in raising our young people, plus more things that in all likelihood nobody’s even thought of because the environment for them to show up properly has never really existed, for this problem to be fixed in its entirety – and it’s getting worse, as we spend time focusing just as much on the guns as on the people, arguing with biased and bought research whether it’s better to arm everybody or to arm nobody, when the guns are frankly not the only issue at hand.

And, with some delightful exceptions, we waste our time talking about single issues in sound bites and 140-character microblog entries, trying to find that one thing that will make the problem go away, preferably without raising our expenses.

To quote “Shoot” again, from just a little earlier in the issue: “You’re all looking for something to blame when you should be looking out the window. I mean, it’s typical, innit? You’re looking for that one thing to subtract out of children’s lives to make it all better. Take out the videogames, the funny music, the food coloring, kids won’t shoot each other anymore. You’re not looking at what’s on these tapes.”

You know, it’s generally a bad thing when you read any hyper-political issue of any comic nominally in the horror genre, fifteen years after its publication, and think, wow, that issue was downright prophetic.

So, is the situation hopeless? Should we all just give up, because we haven’t solved the problem in the last fifteen years? Of course not.

Talk to your local community about the kind of schools and community centers you want to see. Offer your help and support where you can, when you can – every little bit helps.

Be one of those concerned individuals who works with young people in some way, even if indirectly – if you don’t have time to volunteer or money to donate, see about getting your workplace or organization to offer internships, or service opportunities, or even summer work on some very basic level. Get our kids involved in something better, let them see that there’s more out there than just more of the same.

Get out there and fix it. Get involved. Vote, for crying out loud.

And hey, taking a little action might help you feel better about things in the long run. And if all of us took just a little action, on a local level, just imagine what the world might look like, not too long from now.

Maybe we can help more of these kids decide it’s worth finding out.

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