The childishness of comics, or: Hey, Kids! Comics aren’t just for you any more

A recent University of Illinois study supports what I already knew to be true: Comics are just as useful as books to foster good reading habits in kids.

Here’s my hero, professor Carol Tilley:

… and she says:

“Any book can be good and any book can be bad, to some extent. It’s up to the reader’s personality and intellect. As a whole, comics are just another medium, another genre … If you really consider how the pictures and words work together in consonance to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.”

This is great news for dads like me who need ways to engage a reluctant reader (or who just, you know, like seeing kids be happy when they read). But it’s no surprise either. Comics are just like any pretty medium that can catch the eye, and pretty things always make children stop and gawk.

There’s just one problem: the variety of comics available for kids is teeny weeny compared to picture books, chapter books, video games and Disney Channel sitcoms.

Where did all the kid stuff go?

If you want to make a comics fan cringe, tell him, “Hey, didja know comics aren’t just for kids anymore?” Yeah, no kidding, pal. Comics haven’t been for kids for about 25 years.

Sure, they used to be. Under the Comics Code Authority (a ’50s era self-censorship stricture the industry foisted upon itself to avoid government regulation), comics were restrained by a preachy, black-and-white morality. The result was pure goofy kids stuff. But those kids who loved it grew up, and their comics followed suit, bringing along murder most foul, torture, rape, pillaging and … social issues. You know, characters could be gay and stuff.

(For posterity’s sake: Note that independent comics have a long history of doing all this and more. But R. Crumb’s butts-and-shrooms fixation of the ’60s and Will Eisner-esque hard-knock biographies of the ’80s were never considered great early-reader material anyway.)

The fact remains, though, that comics are a compelling medium for kids — superhero comics even more so. After all, that kid-to-comic loyalty is what made the industry viable to begin with. Art Spiegleman, the living legend of comics who gave us the Maus graphic novels, recently edited a volume of classic pulp-era comics, and in a recent interview he captures the nostalgia-fueled love comics fan have for their funnybooks:

“Comic books were considered the most disposable ephemera, yet clearly those who grew up with them cherished them,” Spiegelman said. “It seems like some of the most important literature for children in the middle of the 20th century is in these comic books.”

That’s some love, right? Yet comics has precious little to offer its younger readers these days. Why? It’s tough to be a competitive medium when:

A.)  Parents and other media gatekeepers still dismiss you as “disposable ephemera.” That is, until …

B.) … those gatekeepers reconnect with you expecting a nostalgic visit to their youth, but are shocked by the density and adult themes of modern fare.

C.) Comics companies put out “all-ages” books intended for younger readers that wither and get canceled because the market can’t support it. The young readers are out of the habit of reading you!

Not all is lost. My young readers and I have found good comics as more companies and creators get experimental with attracting young eyeballs. Author Michael Chabon (I’ve geeked about him before) has come around to the same way of thinking. In 2004 he gave a fairly famous address at the Eisner comics awards where he lamented, “Children did not abandon comics; comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children. … Now, I think, we have simply lost the habit of telling stories to children.” Strong and cynical, but he’s come around a bit since then;  in a recent interview he said:

Since I gave that talk – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure – tons of cool stuff has emerged. When my kids go to the comic book store … they find all kinds of cool stuff. … Even the Big Two (Marvel and DC), seem to be putting out a fairly consistent line of titles aimed at younger readers. And there’s all kinds of cool independent books as well.

I like his point about how a lifelong love of comics can loop back into the creation of high-quality material:

I think all of the popular media I grew up enjoying were sort of mature mediums in the sense that they were being created by people who had grown up loving the stuff to begin with. You know, that can be a blessing and a curse, and some things can get overly fan-ish and vanish up their own posterior orifices, but it can also be a recipe for really savvy and multi-layered kinds of storytelling.

I agree, and my kids and I have enjoyed some savvy, multi-layered comics for kids. Next post, I’ll illuminate some of our collective favorites. Stay tuned, and keep your Christmas shopping list handy.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The childishness of comics, or: Hey, Kids! Comics aren’t just for you any more

  1. Brian

    Funny you should mention this.

    I was in Seattle last week for work and one of the guys who knew the area took us to this cool store: Fantagraphics. Comic books, graphic novels, vinyl records. Funky place and at 2pm on a Wednesday we had it to ourselves.

    I was looking for something to bring back from the trip for my kids. My son is 13 and into comics & manga. I asked the owner and he pointed me toward this book called “Barefoot Gen #1: a Cartoon Story of Hiroshima.” Created by a survivor. Made for kids. From a Japanese perspective. Fascinating – I hemmed and hawed over it, not able to decide. I thought my son would definitely dig it but was on the fence about some of the post-blast images. Was he still too young?

    I ended up putting it back on the shelf and getting him something else. Maybe when he’s 14, I told myself.

    When I mentioned it to my wife later, she was shocked at the subject and couldn’t believe it was for kids. But the drawings were so cool. And all the stories about the people being told before the blast were very interesting, including sections telling the parallel story of the atomic bomb invention and military strategy going on in the U.S.

    That night I had the most vivid dream about trying to survive a nuclear blast. Couldn’t have been more real. I wondered if my son would have had any such experience.

    And a quick shout out to the Sardine comics: I picked up one for my 7 year old daughter and we’re having fun reading it every night. Short little chapters. Big colorful drawings. Perfect for her – she’s totally digging it.

    Got my wife a vinyl of the Beatles White Album for $11.

    Check out Fantagraphics if you’re ever in Seattle with some time to kill.

    • jdrewscott

      I’ve heard good things about Barefoot Gen, for the very reasons you said: A well-known tragedy told from a surprising point of view. Like Spiegelman’s “Maus,” comics offer a surprising and engaging entree into events that might be too dark to contemplate in a documentary or movie. Comics can abstract ideas while still remaining concrete.

      Good call on “Sardine,” too. Illustrator Joann Sfar has a sketchy, cartoony style that’s perfect for simple storytelling. I particularly like “Vampire Loves” — though it’s a tad more grown-up (read: weird) than “Sardine.”

  2. Pingback: Comics for the half-pints: What lights the fires of my little readers « The Retort

  3. nathaliedls

    Go comics! I’m not sure how to accurately critique this, but I’ll be keeping watch of your writing! Keep it up.

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