[By special request, a reprint of a "Tony's Tips" column that first ran in Comics Buyer's Guide in 2001.]
"Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."
- Warning on automobile side view mirror
This week's column is not a "me" column, though it will seem that way at the onset. This week's column is also not about comic books, though they may well be mentioned within its paragraphs. It is a column about events in the real world. If you'd rather read about comics, a quick flip through the pages of this newspaper will surely bring you material more to your liking. If you'd rather not read my take on these real world events, you'd best start writing those "damn liberals" letters to my editors. You presumably paid for this issue, so it's completely your choice.
I suffer from depression. I don't suffer as badly as many of my fellows. The worst of my suffering, which included two suicide attempts, is hopefully and thankfully behind me. I've learned how to deal with my illness, generally without medication, by focusing on what's not depressing in my life. Even so, there are those days when I wake up and have to push myself a little harder than usual to get through to the night.
Those are the days when I have to remind myself that my family and friends and community need me. Those are the days when I have to remind myself that my readers, if they don't precisely need me, certainly seem to enjoy my visits. Those are the fragile days when I have to work hard not to let things get to me.
Things do get to me. In the course of a morning's errands, I am going to see drivers speeding through red lights and stop signs as children walk to and from school. I'll overhear rude customers verbally abuse postal clerks and store cashiers as if those working stiffs were the architects of whatever insect-like disappointment had crawled up their posteriors and died. I'll see a dozen random acts of carelessness and meanness in the thirty minutes it takes me to drive my daughter Kelly to school, go to the post office, and pick up a gallon of milk.
Newspapers are equally bad for my mental health, but I can't do without them. I refuse to be one of those writers whose work is mere rehashing of the garish comics and trendy movies he's consumed in the last six weeks. My work does not satisfy me if it lacks any connection to the real world.
When I read the papers these days, I feel as if I am drowning in a sea of malice and stupidity. I read of politicians who push for legislation that cannot help but add new burdens to those who can least carry them. I read of politicians of the same stripe who actively work against the equality of all Americans, the protection of the environment, and the well-being of workers. I read of the "haves" who, from mansions and private jets and yachts, accuse the "have-nots" of waging class welfare against them. I read and I get angry. The anger gets me going.
(Do I have issues? I do. I have issues beyond the thousands upon thousands stored in the not-so-neat rows of comics boxes in my basement. Do not seek to disparage me with my issues, sequential art or otherwise. I embrace and revel in them.)
Stupidity? I read of a well-to-do Hollywood couple whose home dies in flames, but who are waken from what could easily have been their last slumber by their faithful dog. The Lassie-like rescue warms my soul for a moment and then I ask myself if they somehow neglected to stick a few smoke detectors in their manse, or forgot to change the batteries, or forgot to hire someone to charge said batteries for them.
(How often do you check the smoke detectors in your home? If you can't remember, put down this paper and check them right now. I'm not kidding. Do it.)
I read of American soldiers who perish because someone decided to skip some routine maintenance on their helicopter. Haste, which wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, necessary, laid waste to their young lives. I support our armed forces, always have, but we have to do what it takes to get smarter soldiers at every level of military service. Doesn't it bother you that CEOs of the outfits which make the weapons make more in a week than the men and women who use them in our defense will earn in years?
In St. Louis, a pack of stray dogs living in a vacant building next to a park had the run of an inner-city neighborhood. Calls to the city's animal control department didn't result in any action. As a result, a 10-year-old boy was mauled to death on a basketball court across the street from his home.
Malice and stupidity. Either can be life-threatening. When they connect, the potential becomes the likely.
In Santee, California, a bullied and desperately unhappy 15-year-old boy responds to malice and stupidity with more malice and stupidity. Ridiculed for his pale skin, small stature, and timid passivity, grieving for a best friend who had died recently, coping poorly with a move from Maryland to California, the boy brings his father's gun to school and shoots 15 people. Two of his victims, boys roughly his own age, are fatalities.
This is a tragedy that could and should have been prevented. The bullying of the shooter did not happen in secret places; it was common knowledge through his school and no action was taken against his attackers. Teens and adults alike heard him make "jokes" and actual threats about coming to school with his father's gun, yet no one alerted the authorities or even the boy's father. The morning of the shooting his friends even "patted him down for weapons" and urged him not to do anything crazy, but, for whatever reasons, they did not report their fears to the school. In the first two months of this year, reports made by concerned students in four different states (Colorado, Kansas, New York, and California) are credited with preventing similar tragedies.
Another element of the tragedy was the boy's easy access to guns, legal guns. His father kept several of them in a locked gun case in their small apartment.
But the final elements of this preventable tragedy were the after-the-fact and simplistic reactions of high elected officials to it. The governor of California called the shooting "an act of unspeakable evil." The president of the United States called it "a disgraceful act of cowardice." In typical sound byte fashion, they confronted a real problem with pulp fiction banality.
What was apparently "unspeakable" was some authority telling high school thugs to stop their bullying of this boy and who knows how many other students. What was and remains "disgraceful" is how our leaders, elected and otherwise, refuse to face up to a complex problem and offer solutions more far-reaching than they have been able to provide to date.
We cannot blame this tragedy on material things like trashy movies, violent video games, or even the plentiful supply of guns in our nation. We cannot label and segregate every kid who scans outside the "normal" range and further alienate them. And we can't ignore that our children's entertainments are becoming increasingly trashy and violent in the name of profit.
We need to face up to our moral responsibilities in a country whose leaders eschew their moral responsibilities on a nigh-daily basis. We need to teach our children and ourselves to respect all men. We need to raise our national consciousness so that we react sooner rather than later to tragedies-in-the-making, be they large or as small as one browbeaten boy. Equally important, we need to exercise reasonable restraint in our reactions so that a troubled child doesn't become a lost child. We need to talk to our children every day. We need to talk to each other.
Charles Andrew "Andy" Williams has been charged as an adult. While his age precludes him from getting the death penalty, if he is convicted of all charges against him, he could be sentenced to 500 years imprisonment. His childhood is over, as are those of his victims and fellow students. The students will go to their school knowing what has happened there, knowing that they will never again know the peace of "it couldn't happen here," knowing - we can only hope - that cruel and thoughtless actions can result in horribly out of proportion consequences.
"At his new school," the Los Angeles Times reported, Williams "came off as a quirky individualist who thrived in drama class, carried a monkey Beanie Baby and sometimes came to school wearing a Superman costume." He had a girlfriend back in Maryland, loved playing racing games on a Sony PlayStation, and skipped stones from the banks of the Potomac.
Williams is not a creature of "unspeakable evil," no matter how heinous his crimes. And if there is "disgraceful cowardice" to be condemned, we will find it in those who remained silent, silent in Santee, silent in our nation's capitol, and silent in my home town and yours.
Three more things.
One. Two days after the Santee shootings, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old girl shot another girl in the shoulder in their parochial school cafeteria. She fired two shots, one into the ceiling and one towards the ground. The second shot ricocheted and hit the victim. The shooter pointed the gun to her own head and began talking of committing suicide.
Another student, 14-year-old Brent Paucke, stepped forward and was able to persuade the girl to drop the gun. He did this despite his principal telling him to back away. He said he kept talking to the girl because he was afraid that more people would be hurt if he stopped talking. At the point of a gun, a 14-year-old boy showed more courage than a governor and a president.
Two. Last Thursday, my son Eddie came home from middle school and told me he'd been threatened by a fellow student. The other student was transferring to another school. Friday would be his last day at this school and he was determined to get into as much trouble as he could. His agenda included fighting Eddie, a gentle and goodnatured kid much smaller than he.
I called the school. My feeling was that, since this student was leaving the district anyway, the school should tell him to stay at home. The school didn't seem to want to commit to this course of action, but asked that Eddie stop in and chat with the associate principal in the morning. This was not terribly reassuring to me. All too often during my youth, I saw bullies breeze past authority figures, the onus clearly being on their victims to "deal with it." All part of growing up. Right.
I next called Eddie's guidance councilor. Schools protect the privacy of students, generally a good thing, and so, naturally, the councilor didn't give me any information on the student who'd made the threat. However, I detected a definite sigh when she heard the student's name. Were I given to speculation, I would guess she had heard the name before.
Before Eddie went to school on Friday, I told him to call me if, after talking to the associate principal, he didn't feel as if this matter would be handled in his best interests. As it turned out, the departing bully didn't come to school on Friday. And the associate principal assured my son that, had the boy carried out his threat, he would have left the school in cuffs.
Wrong answer. While not disputing the therapeutic values of punishment, the better approach is prevention. If Eddie had been beaten up that day, it would have done him little good to know his assailant was carted off to the police station for the couple hours it would have taken the bully's parents to come and retrieve him. Eddie would have been marked as "that kid who got beat up" and, sad to say, today's bullies have no more imagination than they did when I was a kid. Once you've been a target, you're a target for every punk looking for a little self-affirmation.
I know about this. I was the shortest kid in my class every year I went to elementary school. I didn't stop getting bullied and beat on until the day I snapped and took down a much bigger kid in the school playground. I knocked him to the ground, jumped on him, bashed his cretinous head on the pavement, and punched him in the face over and over again until Sister Mary Godzilla pulled me off him. The nuns were smart enough to understand what had just happened and never even called my folks. I was never bullied again in that school, but I did get sick and throw up on the way home. No 12-year-old boy should have to find out what I'd found out about myself that day. Even then, I knew there had to be a better way to handle this stuff.
Three. Yesterday, in my home town of Medina, Ohio, the police were investigating threats of violence at two schools. The mother of a son at Eddie's middle school had found a drawing in her son's belongings, a drawing of the school on fire. This other boy has a history of mental problems and is in treatment.
At one of Medina's elementary schools, the police investigated a report that a second-grader had threatened to bring a gun to the school. After talking with the child and his parents, the police determined the boy had no access to guns.
No action was taken by the schools against these students. As near as I can tell, the investigations were handled discreetly and promptly. Though there was no real danger, the threats did need to be reported and investigated. Given the choice, I'd much rather be asking "what if" than wondering "if only."
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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