Welcome, gals and pals, to another "Wednesday with Fishnets"! Today I'd like to talk about something that's near and dear to my heart: kids and comics.
More and more it seems like comics are meant for adults, and not for kids. There's a lot about that sentiment that worries me. How is the industry meant to be sustainable if we're not hooking new readers while they're young? Why should parents have to look so hard for a book that's appropriate for their child? Lots of stores, like the one I work in, have kids sections, but they're often super small and contain mostly Archie comics/strip reprints/TV show related comics.
Thankfully, a lot of superhero comics can be appropriate for younger kids. I've given Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man to tons of twelve year olds. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is another easy sell. If the kid is pushing 14, then I'll even hand over a copy of Runaways. There are plenty of boys and girls who do want superhero comics, and while it's getting trickier, it still is possible to find good books for them.
But what about the kids who don't like superheroes?
It can feel like the only non-superhero book for kids are the various Archie books or comic books related to cartoons like Adventure Time, My Little Pony, or Regular Show. And at the end of the day, sometimes you don't want to give kids another cartoon related thing, and I'll be honest, I have my own issues with Archie because I think it encourages poor relationships between women (why are Betty and Veronica always blaming each other when Archie is the two-timer?). So, what do you buy when the kid in your life isn't interested in capes but would still like to read comics? Well, let me suggest a few things:
1) Marvel's Oz Books (adapted from the original L. Frank Baum by Eric Shanower, art by Skottie Young)
Yes, most kids are familiar with the Wizard of Oz, but there is something really special about this particular adaptation.
First, Shanower and Young have not only adapted the original (and most well known) Oz book, pictured above, but they are working their way through the entire Oz series. So far, they have adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and The Road to Oz. They are currently working on The Emerald City of Oz. All told, that's six out of the fourteen Oz books! That's a whole lot of Oz!
Most kids only read the first book or see the movie, but there is such richness and wonder to be found in the Oz mythology, and Shanower and Young bring it to life with a passion that I wish was seen more often in mainstream superhero comics.
Shanower has been writing about the world of Oz for a long time, doing some work for IDW, as well as writing his own stories set in Oz and doing illustrations for other prose books. The result is that he handles Baum's original words with loving care and transforms them perfectly for the comic book medium.
He's certainly aided by Young's amazing and unique art style. Young's work is energetic and charming. He's got no problems coming up with designs for some of Baum's stranger creations like the the Kalidahs. The result is art that is expressive and rich with detail, and fits perfectly with Shanower's dialogue. These books are perfect for kids who love the Wizard of Oz or who are just being introduced to the land of Oz for the first time.
2) Smile (words and art by Raina Telgemeier)
What can I say about Smile? You know when you were in middle school and had braces and some days it seemed like your entire world was about orthodontia, but really it wasn't, but damn did it matter a whole lot. Yeah, this is a book about that.
But really, it's about so much more. This is a memoir piece by writer/artist/amazing lady Raina Telgemeier. When Rainia was in 6th grade, and about to get the normal braces that most of us have endured, she suffered a nasty mouth injury that knocked her two front teeth up into her gums. The result is that she had to have years of complicated orthodontia, and this is that story. The book is really a memoir of two things: one, the horrible process of orthodontia and all of the annoying things you have to go through; and two, being a kid and dealing with all of the sucky and good things that comes with it, like finding out who your real friends are and learning how to deal with bullies.
The thing I really like about this book is how normal it makes the process of orthodontia seem. I know for me, even though almost everyone else was going through it, I often felt totally alone in my braces woes. Who wants to go to school and talk about getting a mold done? Or how sucky tightening the braces feels? Or how you maybe cried buckets in the doctor's office because you were told that it was actually going to be another year before you got these damn things off? Telgemeier talks about these things, and for a lot of kids it's super comforting to know not only that someone went through the same bullshit you're going through, but that they came out the other side alright.
The year this came out it won a load of awards, including the Eisner Award for Best Book for Teens, which was well, well deserved.
3) Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things (words and art by Ted Naifeh)
Courtney Crumrin is the book that I wish I had been able to read as a ten year old who liked things that go bump in the night. The premise of the book is young Courtney Crumrin (who like many young girls means well, but can be a bit of a grumpy pain) and her parents move into the home of her mysterious old uncle Aloysius Crumrin. While Courtney's parents seem to be off in their own world of boring adult things (which mainly consist of getting the rich people in the neighborhood to like them), Courtney discovers that magic exists and that she can use it. She runs a little wild with it until her uncle Aloysius notices, and with him being a warlock and all (of course) he decides to teach her.
There's a lot of great characters in Courtney's world. My personal favorite being Butterworm, the goblin who lives in the woods nearby the Crumrin home. He's begrudgingly helpful, but is still quite definitely a nasty creature. His grumbling about one day just eating Courtney to get her to go away is always amusing.
Naifeh's real strength in this book is the character of Courtney. She's very much a young, preteen girl. She's a pretty good kid, but she can be bratty and selfish. She can even be down right mean. But at the end of the day she means well, and you see the character start to grow under he uncle's tutelage. I know for me, it could be a little frustrating when the hero of the story was always super good and noble. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Courtney though is just your every day preteen faced with a world where magic is real and the creepy things in the woods really does exist.
It's funny that I'm writing about the topic of kids comics on the day that Laura Beck published her article on Children's Books and the lack of POC characters (totally not planned), because she's absolutely right. I looked at the list I've given you here, and yes, all of the main characters in the three books above are white. I think you're even less likely to find a POC character in a kids/YA comic than it is in a picture book. That doesn't make these not good books, and that doesn't mean that all kinds of kids can't enjoy them, but it shows that even the comics geared at kids are part of the problem that Laura addressed. I thought about it, and I really can't remember the last time a non-superhero comic had a main character that wasn't white. The only one that comes to mind is American Born Chinese, and that came out in 2006. So, what do we do about that?
Of course, I don't have a perfect answer, but I encourage anyone who is interested in writing/drawing comics to create the kind of work they want to see more people getting interested in! Put it out there. Create webcomics, submit to publishers, work with a company like Image that publishes creator-owned work. Yes, we should encourage publishers to change, but I think a lot of it is creating the kind of comics that we want to see and that we care about. If the work is quality, there is no reason it shouldn't be published and shared- after all, that's how Brian Michael Bendis was able to introduce the character of Miles Morales, the half black/half latino boy who took up the mantle of Spider-Man in the Ultimate Marvel universe.
It's easy to shake our fists about it and complain, but if there's going to be good comics available for our kids, then we've got to put our money where our mouth is and make them happen. Not just for us, but for all the kids who would like to read comics, and for the comics industry that needs new readers in order to sustain itself.
(Comic at the top from Our Valued Customers by Mr. Tim!)