In this column I’m going to discuss a statement that is frequently used nowadays – that comics ‘aren’t just for kids’. Because, while this statement is undoubtedly true, I’m not sure if this should be the case – at least not entirely. Before you raise up your torches and pitchforks, let me explain…
The extent and variety of comics published today is outstanding, with companies such as Image, IDW and Boom publishing smart, consistently entertaining books that span a range of genre, including crime, horror, science fiction, fantasy and everything in between. Image, in particular, has transformed its line beyond recognition from the superhero excess of the early 90s, producing a range of thought provoking, idiosyncratic titles. Many of the most successful titles produced by these publishers are for mature readers, and rightly so, allowing the creators the scope and leeway to produce the work that best conforms with their intended vision.
Which brings us to superhero comics. More than any other area of comics, this is probably where the ‘not just for kids’ defence is most frequently used. Whether it’s responding to a public perception that all too often uses the 60s Batman TV show as a reference point, or whether it’s trying to convince sceptical friends and colleagues of the quality of our favourite titles, it’s tempting to downplay perceived childish elements in favour of more mature themes or scenarios. This is where I worry that, with the best of intentions, we may be heading down the wrong path.
The idea for this post was prompted by a friend who was looking for Nightwing comics for an 8 year old to read, who was interested in seeing what adventures Dick Grayson had once he stopped being Robin. Surveying the recent Bat titles, nothing seemed suitable, and with DC’s latest mega event involving the kidnapping, brutal torture and possible death of Dick Grayson, who could disagree? My concern is that by trying to legitimise our love of superheroes as adults, we’re in danger of locking out the next generation of readers. It’s obvious that young children still have a great affection for super heroes – just look at the number of small boys wearing Spider-man or Batman related merchandise. But if they watch the cartoons and buy the toys, where are they to go next? There are a whole swathe of superhero titles currently being published, starring recognisable characters, that I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving to an 8 year old child.
The frustrating thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Pixar films for example, function on two levels, and are equally entertaining for both adults and children. You can have violence without gore, romance without sex and danger without a needless body count, and how often would this be to the detriment of the story? Sean Howe’s recent book ‘Marvel Comics the Untold Story’ illustrates how this has long been the case, with writers in the 60s and 70s slipping in references and themes that appealed to a segment of the audience but did nothing to affect the enjoyment of younger readers who took the story at face value.
There are some superheroes who the all ages rule shouldn’t apply to. The Punisher for example, kills bad guys; to pretend otherwise would be to miss the whole point of the character. Characters like Spider-man and the Fantastic Four are a different matter however, and I don’t think there’s any need for their stories to be inaccessible to younger readers.
I’ve seen the argument that younger readers have shows such as Marvel Superhero Squad and Teen Titans Go, but I believe this self-inflicted fragmentation of the fan base is ultimately a bad thing. Marvel potentially has three stages: the younger reader stage with Marvel Superhero squad and the like – largely self contained stories; the bulk of the line which is marketed at teenage plus; and the Max titles which are aimed at mature readers. I’d be interested to see how many readers progress from the ‘junior’ titles on to Marvel’s regular line, as the difference in tone and emphasis is huge. The Max line is also a strange beast. While some titles take full advantage of the label’s possibilities, others just seem like regular MU stories with the addition of some flesh and a few random swear words.
The issue of young readers and comics is a huge one, with no easy answers. Access to comics is a big one, with price and format another debate, but in the end I think that so much of it comes down to content and that’s a battle that I think super hero comics are losing, with many of the wounds self inflicted.
I’m not trying to rubbish superhero comics or negate what people enjoy about them. I’ve been a Marvel Zombie for years, with 95% of my comic reading being superhero related. But I really do think that in the desire to prove to the world – and perhaps to ourselves – that superhero comics are adult and sophisticated, we’ve forgotten that superheroes are figures of wonder, and for no greater group than for small children. Look at the recent pictures of Batkid in America, or the photographs of smiling children attending the recent BGCP all ages event. The audience is there and they want to read and explore this wonderful, crazy super hero world. Shouldn’t we welcome them in and make them feel at home, instead of closing the door?