by KC Carlson
I often hate talking about comics for kids — mostly because I feel like I shouldn’t have to. I grew up in an era where virtually all comics were intended for kids (at least all superhero comics). Early in the Marvel Age of Comics, Stan Lee and the Marvel Bullpen made their superheroes a little bit more sophisticated by including more human relationships, showing that there were real people under the mask, and eventually telling more topical (and political) stories. This made all the difference in getting their fledgling line of comics noticed by a mass audience– even while facing seemingly impossible distribution problems. Although they were aiming for a slightly more mature audience, these comics still could be — and were — read by kids.
This is no longer so.
For better or for worse, modern superhero comics have mostly grown up with their readers (and creators), telling stories with more mature themes and content, involving increased violence and gore, sexual situations, psychological issues, and other myriad situations. Indeed, many of the most mature comics are clearly labeled for their intended audience. It’s been argued that it’s now a much different world and kids can handle a lot more than they could in the past. But for the last several years — maybe longer — it seems that most of today’s comic creators don’t even consider that younger readers may be a part of their audience. Most superhero comics today are peer-to-peer experiences, adults writing for other (hopefully) like-minded adults. Superhero comics for children and young teens have mostly been left behind.
I understand that both Marvel and DC have dedicated kids’ comic lines (and good comics they are). But I also know from years of retail experience that given a choice between a cartoony-drawn Batman and the sleek, mysterious version in his “regular” comics, nine times out of ten the kid will want the “real” thing. Part of it is the “forbidden fruit” aspect that makes it more appealing to kids. When I was a kid, I was buying comics off a magazine rack where Playboy and other exotic publications were just feet away from the comics (albeit, usually up high, and either wrapped in plastic or hidden behind cardboard blinders). Of course, I was intrigued by that — but I couldn’t buy them, because merchants knew not to sell them to me.
Kids will always want to read “up” from what they’re supposed to be reading. First, because it’s a challenge, but mostly they want to be reading the same things they see older siblings or parents reading. I remember struggling to read science fiction novels long before I was able to grasp advanced scientific concepts and other more mature situations in those pulpy reads. (Which made re-reading very enjoyable later.) And face it, how many times can you read The Little Engine That Could and The Poky Little Puppy before going insane?
As good as they are, I think the Marvel and DC kids’ books are only effective as entry-level books for extremely young kids. I suspect that adult fans/parents buy them for their kids and enjoy reading them together. Then those comics are presented to the children to keep — the proud parent attempting to share their love of comics collecting with their offspring. That most of the comics are based on cartoons the kids see on TV is also a big factor in getting them hooked.
But once you set kids loose in a comic book store, and they see first-hand everything that is available — assuming they aren’t totally overwhelmed — they’ll want the more mature, exotic “forbidden fruit”, and the game is over for “cartoony”. Kids know when they’re being talked down to or fobbed off with a sideline. They don’t want the “kiddie stuff” once they know what it is.
Which is one of the reasons why these books don’t do very well in comic shops — unless the adult customers are buying them for the above reasons, or for nostalgia, or simply because they are riotously funny, like the excellent Tiny Titans. Further, once kids find out that the Batman they’ve been reading isn’t the “real” Batman, how interested are they gonna be in continuing with the cartoony guy they’ve been reading? Kids aren’t dumb. With stuff like this, they know what the score is.
Not Enough Kid-Friendly Superhero Comics?
I think the real problem is — where are the superhero comics for 10-15-year-olds? There are certainly none at the New DC — but there could be. Concepts like Static Shock and the new Blue Beetle would be perfect for that age group, if DC wasn’t so interested in shock violence as a storytelling tool. There are four Green Lantern books — couldn’t just one of them be SF action adventure without body parts? And there’s a billion Batman books…
And how about something for girls? Girls would like superheroes if they didn’t have to put up with the Boys Only mentality that so many current superheroes are stuck in. Girls like superheroes, too. (I know. I married one.) And a lot of women (although not enough) are now creating comics.
Wonder Woman and Supergirl are tailor-made characters for young girl readers — yet the DC boy mentality has bent and twisted those characters so far from their original purpose — turning them into male-fantasy characters — that I often wonder if they appeal to anybody any more. Despite its general excellence, I cringed when I read the new Wonder Woman #1 — definitely not for kids. Any little girls that might accidentally stumble across it will probably be scarred for life when a horse is violently killed in an early scene. I think the only thing worse would be if they had killed a unicorn.
Many Marvel books are probably okay for younger readers, as many of them stick pretty close to typical superhero action. Although one has to wonder how much patience they’d have for Bendis-style yak-yak-yak talking heads or political and philosophical arguments among the mutants. I’m losing my patience with these books. Less gabbing, more hitting. (Okay, not really. But you know what I mean…)
I look at the massive success that non-superhero kids’ comics like Bone and Diary of a Wimpy Kid and others are having outside the direct market. The Big Two have frankly done a lousy job in getting the word out to younger readers about how great most of their classic characters are — having already skipped a couple of generations of young readers by not having comics available everywhere like they used to be. Granted, there’s great media awareness of the characters from movies and animation and other licensing efforts. But where are the comic books? Kids can’t drive themselves to specialty comic book stores, and chances are they can’t ride their bikes there either. (Do kids even ride bikes anymore? And if they do, are they allowed outside their own neighborhoods?)
Halloween is right around the corner. We give out comics, and we’ve found that our house is one of the more popular to visit because of it. (Kids from other neighborhoods come by specifically for the comics.) We used to have a big backlog of dupes to choose from, back when we were still getting comps, and it was pretty easy to find a pile of kid-friendly comics to give out. Of course, we always order a few bundles of the specially-produced Halloween comics that several publishers release, but we’ve found that a lot of the kids are disappointed when they get those. They inherently understand that the half-size format is not a “real” comic, and they’d much prefer getting a 10-year-old superhero book or an old Archie comic instead.
The problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to find current superhero comics that we can give away without freaking out the neighborhood parents if they happen to see them. Case in point: this year we’re going to have a bunch of unwanted DC New 52 #1 comics — but we couldn’t possibly consider giving any of them to to kids (or even the teens), due to the over-the-top violent and sexual content, despite how they’re labeled.
I also understand that Marvel and DC these days are relatively lean operations overall and don’t always have the resources to devote to solving the problem of getting appropriately produced comics into the hands of kids and young teens. But since both of these companies are now owned by big media conglomerates, they should be able to solve the problem. It’s hard to believe that Disney wouldn’t know how to get age-appropriate material into the right hands, and while Warner isn’t automatically kid-friendly, they sure knew how to market the hell out of Harry Potter. Warner wants the DC Characters to be the next big thing, “replacement” Harry Potter, but one wonders how they’re going to do that with much of the New 52 being on the decidedly mature side.
I just want some of the big-name superheroes that boys and girls are naturally attracted to to be suitable reading for them again. Is that so wrong? I know current comic creators want to write for themselves and their buddies, making superheroes for adults in part to justify their continued work in the field, but why can’t the kids (under 15) have some, too?
I understand many of the challenges involved in getting comics in the hands of kids. But then again, I keep hearing over and over about how the the number of people that read and/or collect comics is shrinking every day. Beau Smith just mentioned this last Friday in his excellent column about collecting back issues. Even the old near-mindless Hulk would probably understand that if you don’t keep trying to grow new readers by getting them when they’re young, pretty soon you aren’t going to have any readers. Like what is happening right now.
But then again, that old Hulk was beloved by kids. Do you think today’s kids give a fudge about a Hulk that’s having problems with his ex-wife and father-in-law and may not be as powerful as he used to be because he has daddy issues and other psychological trauma?
Yeah, I didn’t think so either…
KC CARLSON: Grumpier than usual. Root canal surgery will do that to you.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.