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When I first saw the book Bad Little Children’s Books by the pseudonymous Arthur C. Gackley, flipping through it at my local bookstore,  I thought it was hilarious. The idea of taking classic mid-century Little Golden Books illustrations and updating them with modern woes and puking is just the sort of droll parody that hits a certain sweet spot for me (See also Lilleks.)

However, I guess I didn’t flip through enough pages, because this book will no longer be published because of jokes that, instead of playing on universal human behavior, strayed into racial stereotypes. PW has a full write-up, but the short version is that just over the last few days a firestorm of criticism was levelled at the book for its deeply unfunny elements, starting with Kelly Jensen on Book Riot:

In a culture which is hateful and violent against anyone outside of the Christian norm, particularly Muslims, who thought this was even an okay image to present in a book, humorous or not? This is the sort of harmful imagery and stereotyping that literally kills lives — and it’s not the lives of little white boys who are dying. It’s the lives of those, like the girl in the burka, who are impacted by disgusting “humor” like this.

Among the pages that were offensive these are most cited:

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Publisher Abrams and author Gackley tried to defend the book on the grounds of parody,  but that just didn’t fly. even when the National Coalition Against Censorship took their side. Gackley tried to explain it away:

By channeling the Archie Bunker-esque character of Gackley (his bio says he vanished some thirty-eight years ago), I was clearly commenting on the ridiculousness of biases, stereotypes, and intolerance through the prism of questionable taste and dark humor. This is nothing new—MAD Magazine, Richard Pryor, The Onion, Amy Schumer, The Simpsons, Dave Chapelle, National Lampoon, and South Park are just a few of the parodists, satirists, and social commentators using humor as their weapon to skewer harmful attitudes and biases.

While reviews of Bad Little Children’s Books have been overwhelmingly positive, I understand that one can become personally offended by any of the parodies (heck, even I find them offensive). The book is an “equal opportunity offender,” if you will. This was my intention and, as a longtime supporter of liberal politics throughout my more than forty-year career as an illustrator, writer, and humorist, the fictitious character of Gackley couldn’t be more different than me. The artistic statement that I tried to make in the book is to offend and, by doing so, to shine the uncomfortable light of day on bigotry, prejudice, and hate; in effect, to refuse to let those pernicious and undermining sentiments stand. That’s been part of my life’s work and what I hoped to achieve with this book.

But as criticism grew over the weekend, by Sunday, Gackley  decided to withdraw the book:

Although the author of Bad Little Children’s Books cited positive reviews of the book and called the efforts to have the book banned an act of censorship, by late Sunday night he asked Abrams to withdraw the book from publication.

The author said, “The book is clearly not being read by some in the way I had intended—as satire—and, more disturbingly, is being misread as the very act of hate and bigotry that the work was meant to expose, not promote. For this reason, I have asked Abrams to cease publishing the book.”

As Claire Fallon wrote in the Huffington Post, Gackley got mixed up with his targets:

The same holds abundantly true for dark parodies and vulgar spoofs for adult eyes only. It’s not particularly fresh or funny to reiterate widely held prejudices against certain groups, nor is it clear, at least in Bad Little Children’s Books, whom the target of mockery is meant to be. 

Indeed, among the other pages, the target is propriety or the tropes of white America:

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Nick Hanover summed up the many ways the book was unfunny at Loser City:

Who, exactly, is the target of this “satire?” Under the absolute most charitable of readings, it could be white America, for viewing even Muslim children as potential suicide bombers. But that charitable reading isn’t backed up by anything present in the image. All of the visual signifiers in the piece only serve as simplistic, surface level outrage jokes– the “Ben Laden” pseudonym, the young suicide bomber, the burka contrasting with more “normal” children’s clothing. The piece is clearly meant to make a “poor taste” joke about terrorists’ use of children soldiers, and it doesn’t subvert any audience expectations or make any profound statement on, well, anything. Even the intro itself admits its only real intent is to “cause the reader to say WTF?” which isn’t remotely satirical.

While Gackley’s identity hasn’t been publicly revealed, it isn’t too hard to figure out, especially if you look at some of the above images. I’m sure he meant well.  For a 112 page book (now sold on out Amazon and soon to be a collectible in some circles, I’m sure) there just weren’t enough of the good ideas that a few of the bad ones crept in.

Just writing this story fills me with despair. Will removing these unfunny, racist jokes really change a world where a black man lumbering away from a cop in terror can rightfully be seen as a deadly threat who necessitated termination? Or a world where hate crimes are up 115% since the election? If removing this book could help an intolerant world, it’s probably the right move.

I can see people angrily clutching their mouse right now and saying “Now I can’t even make jokes about anything any more?” But that’s a lazy way of thinking. Hanover is right, the jokes about little girls in burkas and bad Asian drivers WERE unfunny and offensive. A sly tension between bland children’s illustrations and unacceptable behavior is a bit funnier, but all humor is subjective, and only a few pages of racist-based crud ruined the entire joke.

That said, this level of blowback against what many saw as fairly innocuous humor has once again left no shock absorbers for our sense of outrage. If Bad Little Children’s Books was “disgusting” the next four years are going to be beyond exhausting and more like brutal psychological torture. And the outcome – the book withdrawn – sets up a 1-10 scale with no integers in between.  I’m not saying it’s the wrong outcome just that the ideological stakes are so high now that no one can ever say “You know, I was wrong, I’m so sorry,” and the other person says “I hope you learned a lesson. Do better next time. Let’s have a beer.”

Yep. The future’s so bleak I gotta poke my eyes out.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Grackley and Abrams COULD have chosen to say “You know, I was wrong, I’m so sorry,” but they didn’t. Because they still don’t believe they were wrong; they just think their hilarious joke has been spoiled by a bunch of uptight liberals with their identity politics.

    As a counterexample, you may remember a few years ago when Daniel Handler, emceeing the National Book Awards, made an unfortunate joke about an African-American writer and her allergy to watermelon. He quickly realized how badly he’d fucked up, apologized profusely, and even put his money where his mouth was with a substantial donation to We Need Diverse Books.

    I’d have a beer with Daniel Handler any time he wanted.

  2. Sadly, i see these kids of things as a desperate move by a struggling book publishing industry, Just feels like when you need a short term boost, you try to drum up controversy. I’ve worked in the publishing business, where “gift books” while conceptually vapid and have the complexity of a bad one line joke are a solid money maker, and they keep chasing that every year because they’re relatively easy and safe.

    I agree the “fire everyone!” mentality whenever something offensive or a mistake happens is a huge problem in our society right now. No one will take creative risks or do anything new in that climate. and the amount of specificity to what is ok and not ok to say is getting unmanageable to keep up with.

  3. and mission accomplished for the publisher. The entire print runs will most probably sell out now, thanks to the public controversy. They made some money but i wonder if they compromised anything in the process?

  4. It’s “equal-opportunity offender” humor. It’s not about punching up or down. It’s about windmill kicking Ryu and Ken style anyone within distance of getting hit.

  5. The tick tock image made me laugh. Your political correctness got you Trump, so maybe chillax a little. Also, Free Palestine!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Humour is what defines humanity and what has helped humans through dark periods in their history. Where humour dies (or is supressed or killed altogether), that’s where despotic regimes thrive. Democracy is about being free and freely being able to express ones opinions; may it seem humourous or in bad taste to others. This society should not aim to silence humour- that is clearly a sad and very dangerous move.

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