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A Comic Book As Weapon In The Fight Against Bullying And Suicide

by Julien Beyle in Films & Books , 04 april 2012


Since a few years there is, especially in the United States, increasing dismay over gay teenagers committing suicide because they can’t take the horrible teasing and bullying anymore. The case of the eighteen-year old Tyler Clementi in particular appears to have opened many people’s eyes. Before he took off for university Tyler came out to his parents. His father is said to have been ok with it and supported him completely, while his mother basically rejected his sexual orientation.

This doesn’t really say anything about the real sentiments of the parents though; some people take longer to digest certain news than others. Anyway, they stated in an interview with “People Magazine” after Tyler’s suicide that he had informed them about his sexuality two days before he left for Rutgers University and that they’d both told him that they loved him.

So it seems it wasn’t his parents’ reaction that caused his distress. However, he was subject to harassment in cyberspace. His roommate Dharun Ravi had taped him kissing another man with a webcam and invited his friends via twitter to join Tyler’s next sexual experience.


In October 2010 the controversial gay writer Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller started the project It Gets Better which aims to inform GLBT teenagers via modern media, especially YouTube, that their lives will get much easier.

It Gets Better is dedicated to Billy Lucas, a fifteen-year old boy from Indiana, who, in the same month as Tyler did, hung himself; and so did Asher Brown (13), Raymond Chase (19) and Seth Walsh (13).

After he read the news about Billy’s suicide Savage wrote in his column “Savage Love”: “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”

He recorded his own video message and posted it on YouTube because, even though Billy could not be saved anymore, there “are lots of other Billys out there — other despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future — and we can help them.”

Meanwhile an avalanche of people have added videos to the project, amongst which a lot of prominent people: On the 21st1 of October 2010 already, president Barack Obama recorded a video and on the 4th of December of that year European Commissioner Neelie Kroes added her message “It Gets Better Europe.”

It Gets Better can count on support from many directions. For 2012 the calendar “The Men of the Stacks” appeared, in which male librarians offer a very different image of their profession than usual stereotypes, and all proceeds go to It Gets Better (check http://menofthestacks.com). It’s not said that all or most of these librarians are gay, but it’s of course mainly gay men who respond to the news of bullying leading to suicides.

Comic book artist Charles “Zan” Christensen writes in his preface for his book “The Power Within” about Tyler’s suicide: “Most gay people can remember vividly how difficult it was to be a gay teenager. Because those experiences stick with us, tragedies like Tyler’s are even more devastating to hear about. We know the feelings he was feeling all too well.”



The main character of “The Power Within” is the thirteen-year old Shannon, a boy harassed by his father and schoolmates to act differently from how he wants to. When he goes to school his father tells him to change his clothes and rinse the color from his hair. At school two sporty types immediately yell out “pretty shirt” followed by “sissy alert... boop boop boop booooop...’

In his imagination Shannon transforms into a super hero and bashes their heads in. This remains a fantasy but he does stand up for himself. Just as a teacher tells him he could prevent this bullying by not standing out so much, he sees a black boy whose extravert behavior seems to work positively. During class he draws a cartoon of this boy as a super hero.

When Shannon is harassed in the toilet block later again it’s this black boy who comes to his rescue. Shannon imagines them both as super heroes battling the bullies together and he finishes his drawing adding “I totally ♥ my hero.”

Two bullies steal the drawing from his locker however and distribute copies of it all over school. Now, even his protector turns on him: “Just because I don’t want to beat you up doesn’t mean I want to marry you!”




Shannon’s world collapses and he goes to a bridge planning to jump off it. When he stands on the edge however, his inner super hero takes over and he decides not to jump.

Huddled on the bridge he finds a card his best girlfriend had given him from a gay support group called “You are not alone,” which he had rejected before, saying: “I’ve got enough problems without people finding out I go to gay meetings.”

Under this drawing in the comic book it says: “It gets better,” and on the last page we see Shannon a few years later – now a cartoonist – saying: “I promise.”

In spite of the serious content script writer Charles “Zan” Christensen has not made a preachy book and Mark Brill drew cartoonish, expressive characters for “The Power Within.” The book also includes a number of bonus pages with other comic artists adding their own vision on Shannon’s experiences. All proceeds from “The Power Within” go to It Gets Better.



 







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In the New Issue of Gay News, 314, October 2017

















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