I mean Mr. McKean. You are a creator, and we don’t know each other. I mainly know your work from collaborations with Neil Gaiman, like when you drafted Mirrormask or made comics such as Mr. Punch. Neil has said you were a good friend, so I’ve assumed you are a good person and that if you do any problematic material it’s more of the kind that gets moral conservatives upset and not material that reflects devastating stereotypes.
Silly me. I should stop putting creators on pedestals. You and Jack Gantos are releasing a comic next year about a would-be Muslim suicide bomber who aborts his attempt to bomb a library when he sees people reading and desires that world. Oh, also he’s apparently illiterate. The title for this “kids'” book is “A Suicide Bomber Sits In The Library.” Abrams Books has tweeted a snippet:
— ABRAMS Kids (@abramskids) October 26, 2018
What were you thinking when you got this project?
I should not have to type that sort of book summary or title in 2018; this is a messed up premise, and I am saying this as an Indian woman raised Hindu. Creators like Marjane Satrapi and Amir Soltani and Khalil would tell you that this is not the story that would help publishing or the We Need Diverse Books movement. I don’t know Gantos, so I don’t know what kind of person he is, but I thought I knew you. You were the cool one, the one that brought Neil’s works to life. The Twitterverse has tried to explain why this doesn’t work. I hope I can provide my perspective here and summarize what others have said:
First, the image of a Muslim terrorist is a devastating stereotype. It’s formed the backbone for the Patriot Act and the loss of our civil freedoms. The “Muslim ban” happened because the people in power fear a bogeyman that they’ve seen in the shadows, and it caused deaths because people who needed to travel for surgery could not receive it. The excerpt on Twitter doesn’t help, where the suicide bomber doesn’t even have a name but is called “the suicide bomber”. Introducing this in the wakes of works like Persepolis, which was a memoir about the Iranian revolution that did not rely on stereotypes, is very behind the times and hurtful. You are teaching your readers to fear the kids whose families and parents are Muslim. That fear is not healthy; Hasan Minhaj talked about growing up Muslim after 9/11 and how it messed with his attempts to have a normal American childhood.
Second, illiteracy does not cause violence. If it were that simple, then violent individuals would not have Twitter accounts. Illiteracy means a lack of general communication with a medium that is greatly used—that is, books. Generally if a kid has not been taught to read, there are mitigating factors or reasons. You could have pitched a book about learning disabilities that may affect reading, without the racist connotations. You could have added a meta context that comics can be more accessible than regular book due to the illustrations adding visuals that words alone cannot provide.
Third, the premise implies that only the English books can redeem a person. False. English and Western books do not have that guarantee, and they shouldn’t. Colonialism has wiped out plenty of other stories and cultures we could learn. That’s not even getting into how many languages that the world uses, in various cultures, and how many stories and facts we cannot access. There are dozens of books in different languages that tell us different messages, including in Persian, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and Hindi. While a lot of books in English can form our reading mind, it doesn’t have to be the salvation of a stereotype that your author perpetrated.
Fourth, your saying that the main character isn’t illiterate doesn’t mitigate the other problems. It’s a racist premise, and one that is very flimsy. #Ownvoices creators have told better stories, and raised the standards in the comics world. You aren’t listening to the people who are speaking up, and you know better. You’ve been in comics for decades, so you ought to know this.
I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. It’d be nice if you said, “I am sorry for creating such a harmful premise and will do my best to reduce the harm.” But you haven’t said that yet, and neither has Abrams. I’m not sure what to think.
For those who want to get the bad taste of this story out of your mouth, I recommend all of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels: Persepolis, Embroideries, Chicken with Plums, and The Sigh. Sana Amanat introduced the Muslim Ms. Marvel to the world, and Asia Alfansi is busy at work on her graphic novel Ewa. And I hope, Mr. McKean, that you listen. You can do better. The world demands better.
Also, whoever approved this at Abrams Books, I hope you’re reading this too. We need to create a literary world that doesn’t enable this sort of harm. Like I said, you can do better.