Comics for the half-pints: What lights the fires of my little readers

Last time, we learned that comics were good for kids; yet I lamented the aging up of most modern comics and the dearth of really great kid stuff. But that’s just a relative dearth, my friends, and there have been many things that have caught and held the attention of my little ones, even Oldest Boy who (until recently) was a reluctant reader.

Representing readers who are 9, 7, 5 (and 39), here is the Scott family hit parade:

1. Runaways

This series created by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Adrian Alphona for Marvel is one of the first books Oldest Son asked for. At 8, he actually finished the first volume and sought out others I own. Though originally sold under Marvel’s “All Ages” line, “Runaways” has since lost that marketing demarcation because the stories and situations do trend a little older (but not too much).

The premise is one of those that’s-just-so-killer ideas that every writer wishes he had: When a group of bored kids discover that their parents are actually supervillains, they run away from home and try to atone for the sins of their fathers (and mothers). Vaughn created compelling characters on such a compelling mission that when he stepped away from writing duties, none other than Joss Whedon himself asked to take over.

Marvel originally made its bank with a comic about a teen superhero (perhaps you’ve heard of Spider-Man?), and “Runaways” honors those roots well with a set of modern kids from 8 to something less than 18. They’re sarcastic, bored, beset by teen ennui and heartache. When they start to get too mopey, a fight breaks out, a bad guy gets stomped, zippy dialog gets zipped, and things trip right along. A reminder: It’s still more a teen book than a kid book, and it may lead down roads you’d rather not walk with your kids. Sex is spoken of obliquely (though canoodling is practiced often), and a few characters are gay. This generally runs below the radar, except for one storyline in volume 7 that features one gay character struggling with an arranged marriage with a member of the opposite sex.

This is no problem for my household. “Runaways” meant reading and reading is good. Here are two Runaways covers that indicated just how much range and anything-goes glee this series is capable of. Is it superhero action? Teen drama? Chick lit? the answer: Yes.

One more piece of evidence. Just take a look at this gorgeous preview from one of the later volumes. With a real economy of image and word, you can figure out all the main characters: who’s lovelorn, who’s a doofus, who’s a leader, who’s a cutie-pie 8-year-old super-strong mutant with a penchant for cosplay kitty hats. These characters have always been characters first, superheroes second, and that’s just good storytelling.

2. Bone

How’s this for a great story:

1. Independent cartoonist self-publishes his own black-and-white fantasy comic.

2. Rather than bankrupting him, as the odds would dictate, the comic gains a loyal following and survives to be collected in 9 thick trade paperback books that sell admirably well for $20 a pop.

3. Years later, mega-publisher Scholastic takes an interest. They colorize the books, shrink them to digest size, cut the price in half, and market them like crazy to kids in stores and book fairs. Popularity goes through the roof.

Everyone should own a few copies of the “Bone” series based on the price-to-value ratio alone, let alone the delicious storytelling for all ages within. The story is part Tolkien-esque fantasy, part Walt Kelly “Pogo” comic strip. (I resisted these books at first because I thought they were a rip-off of my much-loved Pogo comics. Boy was that dumb.) Oldest Boy and I have enjoyed the whole series.

Writer-artist Jeff Smith strikes an incredible balance between fantasy storytelling — dragons, evil rat creatures, talking animals, medieval villages and the rest — with silly Sunday funnies. The hero, an amorphous white blob-thing called Fone Bone, is simultaneously cuter, funnier and deeper than Mickey Mouse himself. You can tell the original comics were self-published because Smith often takes pages to dwell on some small but gorgeous detail, some wee bit of action, or just some leisurely sight gag. Major publishers would never let this kind of fat go untrimmed, but in a “Bone” book, it isn’t fat, it’s luxury.

The story begins very breezy and light: the adorable Bone creatures get lost in a valley beset by evil creatures yet buoyed by funny, charming people destined to greatness. It begins to bog down in later volumes with magical-fueled plotting that makes up its own rules as it goes, but the story remains quite readable, and kids and adults alike find the characters too compelling to put down. They’re just too irresistible. The art is consistently amazing, switching at will between goofy Disney cartoon and breathtaking landscapes. Pages of panels will sometimes employ a movie-like “fixed POV” where the “camera angle” stays the same while small, almost insignificant details change from panel to panel. The effect is like watching a movie at times.

Through no coincidence, Warner Brothers is working on what may be a trilogy of “Bone” movies. Consider that a book that could give you ACTION …

… and BEAUTY …

… is also capable of clever COMEDY:

It should be a lock for a blockbuster.

3. The Incredibles

BOOM! Studios is ignoring conventional wisdon by being a startup company (founded: 2005) with a significant portion of its wares aimed at a kid audience. Thanks to a license with Disney/Pixar, it publishes several familiar character stories, including an “Incredibles” series by EIC and comix legend Mark Waid. “Licensed story” often means “cheap cash grab” or “boring, under-thought plot” but under BOOM! the stories are just as fun and smart as the source material.

You know who loves this? Youngest Daughter. (I’ve already mentioned she’s a sucker for the movie, that wonderful, discriminating little wonder.) BOOM! also released a successful Muppet Show title that (shh!) Youngest Daughter will find in her stocking this year.

4. Tiny Titans

Art Baltazar is responsible for 90% of the cuteness in the galaxy. Just look at his cast pic of the Tiny Titans, the shrimp-sized version of DC’s Teen Titans:

Awww! The Tiny Titans monthly comic is rather uncategorizable. Baltazar’s super-sweet art aims in two directions: at the ankle-biter set, as well as adults who can appreciate the irony and comedy of  turning angsty teens into kindergarten stick figures. The jokes split that difference, too, as one part Bazooka gum wrapper, one part deep inside joke. My boys liked the comic cuteness — it’s Twinkie-sweetness didn’t put them off at all; I think they totally got the humor behind it.

I don’t always get the DC inside jokes, but Baltazar and author Franco (he of the single name) remember their classic Harvey comics well enough that these super-light reads still have more in common with Richie Rich and Capser than a DC Comics superfan panel at Comic Con.

That’s not all

These are just what’s clicked in my house. There is more to choose from out there: the amazing classic Disney comics by Carl Barks still hold up — these are the old Uncle Scrooge adventures to strange lands, and man, they don’t make ’em like that any more. We’ve dabbled in more old stuff like Tintin and Asterix, though the jokes were either a little highfalutin or dated for Oldest Boy to connect with. (We’ll try again in a year.) And heck, even Archie, still exists in all his undead variations:

If you can’t find something to read, it isn’t Archie Comics’ fault. Youngest Daughter maintains a perpetual fascination with Betty & Veronica, though she remains a bit unsure about those oafish Riverdale boys.

The choices are there. Now, what are you planning to buy the little nippers on your Christmas list?

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