Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.