What's So Funny 'Bout Pee, Poop, and Underwear: The Controversy Over Captain Underpants
Viewing Captain Underpants for what it is -- a children's book -- Bill Gibron attempts to figure out exactly why Dav Pilkey's creation is number four on the ALA's Banned Books list.
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
He's faster than a speeding waistband. He's more powerful than boxer shorts. He's able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie and he's the defender of all that is pre-shrunk and cottony. Yet above and beyond all those peculiar powers, he is today one of the most controversial figures in children's literature. In 1997, author Dav Pilkey created one of the most unlikely superheroes ever to don a pair of tighty whiteys. Along with phenomenal success and millions of fans, Pilkey and his creation -- Captain Underpants -- have now found themselves in a maelstrom of notoriety.
The "novels" that make up the Captain Underpants series (along with a few activity books and spin-off efforts) are the fourth most frequently challenged books, as tracked by the American Library Association. Obviously, being a publishing pariah was not one of this author's goals when he entered and won a children's book contest while in college. Now, some two decades later, Pilkey finds himself the eighth most frequently challenged writer on the ALA list (between Maurice Sendak and Gary Paulsen). In the company of such literary luminaries as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and the infamous Judy Blume, it's hardly a real rogues gallery.
But for Pilkey, said rise to prominence amongst all those pissed-off parents and angst--ridden administrators is something new. Unlike fellow troublemakers J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, this self-described ex-problem child with ADD is a first time member of the literary lynch mob's most wanted. His career previous was well received, with the stupid rabbit sagas of the Dumb Bunny books, or the friendly blue Dragon of his pre-school tomes universally acclaimed. It wasn't until he moved into the world of toilets, and trouser-less adults that he found himself square on the hissy fit hit list.
Additionally, Pilkey is a rarity in that he, along with Sendak, are two of only three authors on the list being castigated for what are, essentially, simple illustrated children's books (the agenda based King & King is discounted for its obvious and openly gay theme). Certainly there are alarming elements in Pilkey's sophomoric world, but when viewed from both a critical and contextual standpoint, one can't help wondering just what all the censorship fuss is about.
The story of Captain Underpants' conception is quite charming -- if it is to be believed. Pilkey supposedly spent a lot of time in detention while a student, and he wiled away the hours creating his own comic books. It was here where he first developed a comic book based on a character called Captain Underpants, and it was here where he tasted some initial success -- if only among his fellow third graders. Years passed, and Pilkey, looking to add to his creative canon, decided to resurrect his childhood creation. The rest, as they say, is bestselling history.
Currently numbering seven installments, Captain Underpants is founded on a perfect adolescent boy's life premise. George Beard and Harold Hutchins are two best friends that spend a lot of time together. They're favorite pastime is -- you guessed it -- making homemade comic books, which they photocopy and distribute to their classmates at school. The hero of their tales is Captain Underpants, a fat, bald crime fighter dressed only in his underwear (and, sometimes, a red cape) who uses wedgie power and other heretofore unknown secrets of his magical cotton elastic waistband to battle evil doers with names like Dr. Diaper and Professor Poopypants.
In the first novel, The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997), Pilkey lays out the entire foundation for his underwear based bedlam. George and Harold are mythic troublemakers, and one of their pranks gets them in nuclear-heated hot water. Their angry, ornery principal, Mr. Krupp, discovers a way to blackmail the boys into being good. Such is their nature that George and Harold immediately hatch a plot to get out of their politeness plight. They decide to hypnotize Krupp into thinking he is the skivvies wearing warrior of their comic (this is kid logic all right) and before you know it, the educational administrator is strutting around town, battling a villain dressed in nothing but his nappies.
Of course, Captain Underpants is not really a superhero (at least, not yet) and George and Harold must find a way to thwart the threatened evil while protecting their principal and saving their skins. Part of the fun of the first novel is that the wee ones end up as the champions (unsung, but still valiant) and that no one flinches at the fact that an arch evil doer is running around in oversized Depends, making trouble for some Baby Huey look-alike in jockey shorts. Pilkey fills the work with practical jokes (George and Harold love to rearrange the letters on local signs), humorous homages to pop culture and lots and lots of silly, juvenile wit. George and Harold are never portrayed as delinquents. Instead, they are seen as inventive and imaginative kids locked into a stifling, scholastic environment that demands order over originality, conformity over creativity.
These themes will resonate throughout the rest of the Captain Underpants series, little hidden messages that many may miss. They are definitely present again in book number two, Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999). There is also a strange sense of deja vu emanating from the narrative. The set up is similar to the first book -- George and Harold are in trouble, their principal is returned to his hypnotic state to save the day -- but serendipity is now at play. Everything that George and Harold create somehow comes to life -- either through coincidence, or via some manner of karmic comic book synchronicity. The title terror, an unhappy accident when a science fair project "goes potty", is our first glimpse at the commode mode of humor Pilkey will come to rely on. Here, it is just part of an odd ideal. After all, one assumes watching a semi-naked man battling a killer lavatory is the height of preteen hilarity ... or psychological alarm.
Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds) (1999) is the last time we will see Captain Underpants in an almost non-puerile mode. Instead, Pilkey plows through some standard sci-fi fare as he creates a clever tale of alien invasion, angry lunch ladies, and some strangely somnambulistic grade schoolers. The extraterrestrials are all tentacles and teeth, and they also provide one of the final pieces of the Captain Underpants narrative. While trying to save their decidedly human hypnotized principal, George and Harold stumble across a quart of super power juice. Naturally, the faux superhero catches a swig or two, and before you know it, a true larger than life crime fighter is born. He is still controllable by the boys' mesmerism, but now the Captain can kick butt for himself.
So far so good, right? Pilkey is not flinging feces at the readers, or dealing in sophomoric extremes. Each novel builds on the next, taking elements from the previous books and adding to them to fill out each character and prepare us for the next installment. Captain Underpants is his own man, leaving George and Harold to act more like bystanders and less like incredibly lucky, death-defying superkids. The humor has been gentle and genial, with just a little hint of the hopelessly hoary. The Captain Underpants of the first three volumes is a crusader for non--conformity, and George and Harold are little boys in love with the art of anarchy. Sure it's being done in the name of fun and games, but our heroes are still little Hellions living out every third graders secret anti--social dreams and desires.
If one had to guess where the trouble started for Pilkey, the next Captain Underpants book might be a good place to look. With Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, the scatological starts to take over the series, practically from the first page. Our villain, with the incredibly goofy named of Professor Pippy Pee Pee Poopypants, is a scientist from a country where everyone has such silly names. The book is loaded with miscreant monikers like Ivana Goda De'Bafroom, Chunky Q. Boogernose and Porkbelly Funkyskunk. The narrative even has the crazy named scientist turned criminal forcing everyone to change their name to something equally stupid (and there's a nice chart inside the book so that readers can do the same) and some of the suggested combinations almost cross the boundaries of taste (Poopsie Diapersquirt?).
And it's not just the names. The reason behind Professor Poopypants' actions is based in blatant disrespect. The children in the book laugh unmercilessly at the man's name, and such sentiments go on for pages. It's not long before the ridiculing of another is celebrated, not censored. Pilkey is still providing the sound storytelling and inventive asides that keep his books from growing dull, but there is a real mean streak in volume four, one not present in the previous installments. One senses an author coming into his own, or a successful scribe now knowing that with success comes a limitless sky.
Yet another new kind of subversion arrives with Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. George and Harold are in a terrifying trickster mode throughout the book, and the level of chaos they create is mind-boggling. Between the shotgun wedding of Mr. Krupp and their hated teacher Ms. Ribble, the fake school memo (with the scheduling of such activities as Pick Your Nose Day), and the eventual calamity caused at the nuptials, there is more about practical joking in this book than the title terror.
The pandering piece de resistance however comes in the most recent books by the author. In this two parter, entitled Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battler of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets and Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers, Pilkey gives new meaning to the term "delightfully disgusting". The author is in rare form here, using his adept powers of description to pile on the mucus-laden details of his snot-based horrors. This writer really relishes reviling the readers, coming up with as many nauseating versions of sinus sauce as possible. He has obviously paid more attention to the booger basics than his overall story -- a whacked out tale of a machine that can meld any set of divergent elements together into a single entity, yet the fact that he expands the narrative into a pair of books shows that he really trusts his fans. He knows now they will follow wherever he leads.
The reasons why are simple. In essence, Pilkey in print is the class clown he always longed to be. He's the cut-up sitting in the back making fart noises with his underarms, and cracking up all but the most stuck up teacher's pets. His "novels" are really nothing more than picture books -- limited text, lots of cartoon capering, and the occasional gimmick (a rapid page turning procedure he calls "flip-o-rama") to break up the pace. His characterization is simplistic and his stories are basic boy's adventure tales supped up with a great deal of gratuity and some self-referential nods to their excesses (chapters are occasionally labeled as "graphically violent" or "incredibly disgusting"). Truth be told, the Captain Underpants books are postmodern merriment for the media savvy elementary school set. Pilkey speaks like and for his audience, tapping directly into their growing distrust of authority and free-associating sense of fantasy and fun.
Harry Potter this is not. It barely even registers on the Lemony Snicket scale. But for what it represents -- the childlike tendency to laugh at the inappropriate and the biologically suspect -- the Captain Underpants books are a hoot -- and it's easy to see why they're consistently challenged. There are certain undeniable aspects to these books, troubling particulars that must get most teachers, administrators and other authority figures good and angry. As with most children's product, Pilkey just wants to entertain. He's not out to preach, teach, lecture or inspire. He knows what kids like, and as usual, that dynamic flies directly in the face of people in power.
There are three main complaints about Captain Underpants and his anarchic adventures. First and foremost is the subject matter. George and Harold are portrayed as spirited little brats, boys of above-average intelligence more than willing to share their prankster secrets with the audience. Need to know how to deliver the tried and true "squishy" (a ketchup package/toilet bowl based surprise)? Want to spoil a fellow science fair entrants volcano mock-up, or get itching powder into the cheerleaders' pompoms? The Captain Underpants books are just loaded with these little tutorials in terror ... not to mention the ancillary jokes George and Harold occupy their time with. Pilkey takes the juvenile jester concept to extremes, and school districts understand all too well that boys of a certain age will mimic their heroes whenever possible. It's part of the process of growing up. So naturally, they don't want George and Harold becoming the new Terrance and Phillip of the peewee set.
Secondly, teachers and librarians have admonished the series for using slang, bad grammar, incorrect spelling and appalling literary form to accomplish its storytelling goals. Since George and Harold usually offer one to two "self-created" comic books per volume, we are always guaranteed a string of "poorlee speled wurds and cent-ences that no make cents". This is supposed to be cute, clever and indicative of the homemade, underage quality of our heroes' work. But it must give English teachers angina. How can they correct a student for his bad composition skills when he or she can pick up a copy of Pilkey's book and prove that there is a published source that verifies their literary faux pas. Granted, when writing the "novel" part of each book, Pilkey is careful not to confuse childhood innocence with out and out illiteracy, but his unsophisticated style and reliance on sloppy convention (cliché, formulaic turns of phrases) makes the Captain Underpants series a hard canon to celebrate. These are not badly written books -- they're just not prose by any stretch of an eight-year-olds imagination.
Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most incongruous of all the criticisms, is that Captain Underpants creates what one Marge Simpson might say is a dangerous amount of laughter. Believe it or not, people are mad at the books for making kids laugh. They argue that this giddiness causes belligerence in students, a sense of rebellion and insolence brought on by the cheek and childishness of the books. What the faculty and administrators of many schools who challenge the books are saying is that, because the kids enjoy them so much, because they instantly connect with the protagonists, the situations they are in, and are swept away in the humor and fun of the adventures, the children start to sense some inner freedom. Individuals their age are still developing a social sense. They cannot yet distinguish appropriate from inappropriate, and Pilkey's books amplify the unsuitable. Since anarchy is the inspiration, the books should be restricted
If you want to say that the books make boys rowdy, hopelessly imitating George and Harold in a veiled attempt at looking cool, you may have a point. But to challenge an entire series of books based on the concept that kids enjoy them is just plain irrational. Control and discipline are indeed problems in the educational system, but limiting access to something children love is bound to cause trouble -- and that most unmanageable of circumstances, the creation of forbidden fruit. Kids are reverse copycats. Tell them something is bad for them and they crave to imitate the 'something' you are dead set against. Making Captain Underpants a persona non grata at libraries around the nation will only push him into the background of school life. He will still be there, causing all the trouble, yet you will be helpless to influence or control it.
What the smart instructor should do is teach the books. That's right, require that kid's read them, write reports on them and discuss them in that most dreaded of all educational experiences -- the oral presentation. All juvenile psychology aside, Pilkey's works seemed poised for dissection and analysis. Why give kids books that they'll despise when you can assign the latest Professor Poopypants extravaganza -- and then use the grammatical flubs, inappropriate behavior, and sketchy subject matter for discussions on literary form, manners and suitable comic material. Heck, why not go for broke and nurture a child's natural love of the irreverent, inappropriate, and immature. Yeah, they may want to imitate it the minute you explain it to them, but eventually they will find the correct place and the context in which to implement such impishness.
Sure, it sounds all touchy-feeling, and reeks of a lamentable liberalism that often pushes us so far beyond the three "R"s that everyone has more or less forgotten what that triplet of consonants stands for (not that each word in that couplet is spelled correctly, actually). And no one is arguing that Captain Underpants should replace sentence diagramming, lessons in ethics, or a sense of dignity or decorum. Yet to have these books bandied alongside works that are far more disturbing (though technically they are not all being lumped together based on some similarity of purpose or problem) is a joke in and of itself. For all his references to poop, pee and the potty, Dav Pilkey just wants to make kids laugh and have a good time.
Besides, his latest creation will be keeping many a librarian up at night. Destined to become the next great Satan in the world of children's literature, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby is everything the Captain Underpants books are not. The hero of the graphic novel (supposedly penned by our Underpants comic creators George Beard and Harold Hutchins) is a super-powered infant who always seems to have a load on. His sidekick is a flying dog, and his arch nemesis is ... a human turd. Indeed, the entire story revolves around a toddler in huge Huggies defeating a piece of crap wearing a deputy's star (he was Deputy Dangerous before turning into a full-sized log of feces). All the jokes are about poop. Almost all of the illustrations revolve around poop. Captain Underpants makes a cameo, but Pilkey obviously wants to tap directly into the toilet with this tome -- and he certainly succeeds.
In reality, Captain Underpants and his Pamper-wearing spin-off are necessary evolutionary steps in a child's sense of humor. Situated somewhere between riddles and the ever--present lure of older, off-color amusements, these books should be viewed as instructional guides to growing up. Kids can't stay young forever and neither can their sense of fun. Dav Pilkey doesn't want to undermine their spirit or complicate their sense of self. He just wants to make them laugh, and he knows that jokes about bodily functions are funny. If they don't learn about it now, tweens will be cruelly bombarded by it once they reach the demographically desirable age that all of today's pop culture seems to be geared toward. Better that they grow in their appreciate of offal now, before they learn it out on the street. That's a thought that's really nasty.