Now, here's something perfectly nasty and unpleasant for the holiday season! In the 1980s, Pacific Comics pushed the horror envelope with TWISTED TALES, an anthology series featuring the work of Bruce Jones, who often featured themes of intolerance and social inequity. These themes reached their apex with "Banjo Lessons," a story that foregrounds racism in some startling and unsettling ways. Pacific Comics obviously realized that Jones' story would provoke controversy; in an editorial, April Campbell tried to preempt negative reader response by arguing that story served a purpose by "portraying bigotry, not for the purpose of promoting it, but to remind our readers that it not only has existed in the past, but it exists in even more insidious forms today." Yet, the sensational aspect of the story calls that purpose into question. The letters column of the next issue featured several responses to the story, most in support. However, one reader argued that the cannibalism in the story "obscured the point" and suggested that "it's stated motives [may be] a bit suspect." This raises the question of horror's ability to illuminate social issues without becoming complicit in the social ills it purports to condemn. Just watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and you'll see what I mean. Re-reading "Banjo Lessons" now makes me uneasy because its portrayals might have made more sense had it been written in pre-Civil Rights America. As a document of the 1980s, the servile nature of the title character seems out of place and raises damning questions. Does the animal metaphor raise empathy or merely become degrading? Read on, and judge for yourself.
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