Jungles & Graveyards & Boy Scouts, oh my…Maniacal Ramblings and Notes on Raising a Youth Army

Yes, yet another Gaiman-related post; look, it’s not my fault the man’s been taking over the world lately, and quite frankly I’m not complaining. First off, there’s the Coraline musical coming in May (with music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt, book by David Greenspan). Then there’s the Coraline movie, directed by Henry Selick (of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach) with voice talent provided by all kinds of amazing people including the most excellent John Hodgman, Ian McShane, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. And now there’s the (maybe-not-totally-official) announcement of a live-action version of The Graveyard Book…and that got me to thinking about the old Disney Jungle Book movie, and Kipling, and Boy Scouts. It’s not as weird as it sounds; allow me to explain…

There’s an old joke, attributed to various people:

Q: Do you like Kipling?
A: I don’t know—I’ve never kippled.

The Graveyard Book is basically Gaiman rewriting Kipling for the largely-unkippled masses (“the-Never-Been-Kippled?”). As he points out in his acknowledgements, the two volumes of the work are “remarkable…if you are only familiar with the Disney cartoon, you should read the stories.” I’ve read the stories, which certainly are remarkable; I also have a distinctly uncool weakness for the Disney version, though it takes all sorts of liberties with the original material. Its charm derives mainly from a stellar array of voice talent, the highlight of which is the inimitable George Sanders: not only does his Shere Khan rank among the best animated villains of all time, but THE MAN PLAYED MISTER FREEZE on T.V.’s beloved-but-not-by-Pablo Batman. (Well, actually he played the Mister Freeze #1—the character was also played by Eli Wallach and Otto Preminger in a case of The Good, The Bad, and The Straight-Up Awesome).

But I digress…

In the process of reading up on The Jungle Book, I came across quite a few interesting factoids (oh, how I do love factoids). For example, Kipling’s books were adapted into a Belgian comic book series called “Man Cub” (Petit d’homme), set in a post-apocalyptic world in which, according to Wikipedia, “Mowgli’s friends are humans rather than animals; Baloo is an elderly doctor, Bagheera is a fierce African woman warrior and Kaa is a former army sniper.” Sounds interesting, right? As with most things in life, they had me at “post-apocalyptic.” Too bad my French is terrible, but I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read it.

Even more interesting, however, is the connection between Rudyard Kipling and Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement. Baden-Powell, a British army officer and adventurer, was (not surprisingly) an inveterate Kipler—the man probably Kipled all over town, sometimes even Kipling until the cows came home. And so, when he decided to launch an organization aimed at developing the urban, working-class youth of England into upstanding, moral members of society, he thought to himself, “What better to inspire these slack-jawed miscreants into fine, upstanding citizens than the story of a feral child raised by wolves in the jungles of India?”

(Not that I have a problem with feral children—most people I like grew up as feral children—or might as well have, anyway. I myself was more or less raised by nuns, which are a lot like wolves, but with sharper teeth and less maternal instinct). And so Baden-Powell contacted Mister K. and received permission to adapt the stories and characters into motivational tools for the Cub Scouts, who continue to use some of those elements to this day.

All of which got me to thinking: it’s only a matter of time before Tor.com starts recruiting its own geek army to run things after we get to the post-Apocalypse—otherwise, what are we even here for? And we might as well have a junior auxiliary so that we can inculcate the kids good and early into our the Ideology of Awesome. Let’s face it: the Scouts have been around for (literally) a hundred years. They’re getting a bit crusty and outdated, hearkening back to a time when neckerchiefs were considered the height of fashion (not to mention jodhpurs, pith helmets, monocles, and whathaveyou—admittedly, I may be confusing Baden-Powell with this guy, but you get the point).

George Orwell famously called Kipling the “prophet of British imperialism,” and his work is definitely dated by its politics, steeped in a time when Brittania was doing an inordinate amount of wave-ruling. There’s no denying that the man was a genius, but I can tell you from experience that a few of his stories are nearly impenetrable to anyone who does not possess a pencil-thin mustache, an abundance of White Male Privilege, and a special-issue Freemason’s decoder ring.

Then there’s Baden-Powell himself, who’s frankly kind of an odd duck. On one hand we have his contributions to youth education…on the other we have his, er, interesting political opinions. We’re talking about a man who wrote in his diary about spending all day reading Mein Kampf, pronouncing it a good read but complaining that Hitler wasn’t proactive enough about implementing all of his great ideas…yeah. Wow. And for the record, B-P was also a big fan of Mussolini and fascism in general at certain points in time. Suddenly those Boy Scout uniforms seem a little less adorable and a little more terrifyingly fascistic, don’t they?

So, to review, Boy Scouts = Jodhpurs, British Imperialism, bad facial hair, misguided opinions about fascism.

It’s a new century—hell, it’s a new millennium, for that matter—time to reevaluate the moldy, crust-covered, mildly pro-fascist values of yore. According to statistics I just made up, children feral and non- are far more likely to be raised by robots than wolves nowadays (I’m counting TiVo here, for the record. Also Roomba). In The Graveyard Book, Gaiman shifts to ghosts and the undead, which works way better for our current climate—what’s hotter than zombies and vampires right now? Nothing—kids love the dead. And quite honestly, I can think of worse people than Neil Gaiman to inspire a youth movement. He’s a Brit living in the U.S., just as Kipling was, but whereas ol’ Rudyard got himself mixed up with a freaky Hitler-loving neckerchief addict, Gaiman’s already got a pre-formed army of fanboys-and-girls, not to mention his friendships with a veritable constellation of artists, authors, musicians, and generally cool people to draw upon…

The Graveyard Book is the new Jungle Book—I’m saying why not take the connection to the next level and start our own civic-minded organization? Maybe one with a little more imagination and a bit less intolerance, a little less Norman Rockwell and a little more rock and roll, a little less khaki and a lot more eyeliner involved…I personally think Alan Moore would make an excellent scoutmaster. Tori Amos? Best den mother EVER. Jonathan Coulton can strum “Kumbaya” by the campfire (or maybe “Skullcrusher Mountain“). And Dave McKean can design our new (Stephin) Merritt-badges…(see what I did there? I just earned my atrocious pun badge—it’s that easy). Let’s ditch the neckerchiefs for feather boas and make Sandman art out of popsicle sticks, macaroni and glitter. C’mon people—we’ve already had one revolution in the last week, and the geeks are now in control; it’s high time we started having some fun…

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