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Rejection Week: Bottom banana plays second fiddle

In 2009, DC Comics hit me with a surprise. Wednesday Comics was a serialized newsprint comics broadsheet that hit stands once a week for 12 weeks. I blogged giddily about the joy I took consuming it, and even had my son take a picture of me reading it, just to demonstrate its scope:

I want to apologize right now to DC for wearing a Captain America shirt for this shoot.

Wednesday Comics was a real gamble on the part of DC. It resurrected serialized storytelling from the era when newspapers had comics of substance, and it did it with an investment in A-list talent. The whole project is so daring, I decide I want in. And I want to do it daring style. I learn that the whole shebang is the brainchild of DC art director Mark Chiarello, and I know just what I want to pitch him. In my mind, Wednesday Comics is so awesome, it will surely spawn a sequel, and I think that sequel should star Detective Chimp.

Um, that would be D-list comics celebrity Detective Chimp. He’s, you know, a chimp. And he solves mysteries. Because he’s, like, a detective. It’s all very comics-logic, and if you’re not on board with that description, then, brother, I’m not sure you’re at the right blog.

You’ll notice that the original Wednesday Comics unfurls into a broadsheet equivalent to eight pages of content. I reason that I can win Chiarello over if I combine my story pitch with a mock-up of an actual issue of Wednesday Comics. Do I know that there will be a sequel to this project? No. Am I choosing a marketable character? No. Am I approaching the right guy to launch my future career as a comics writer? Considering he’s an art director, probably not.

But if you can’t believe in something stupid, ill-conceived, star-crossed and wholly unlikely, what can you believe in?

So I did it. Exactly what I said up there above, I did that. I made the mock-up. I filled it with chimp jokes. I fashioned a mock comic strip using stick figures … including a stick figure chimp … wearing a deer stalker. I consulted with the staff at Blick’s for the ideal paper and pens to execute my vision. I practiced the ideal fold, and brainstormed ways to fill it with the right content.

And this is what came out:

See how the front and back covers perfectly mimic the real thing? I'm banking here on the "just so crazy it might work" school of logic.

Just like an issue of Wednesday Comics, there's an ad inside the first fold. My ad happens to be for the Detective Chimp Agency, rather than a Kia Soul or Robot Chicken as in the source material.

Unfurled now in all its glory, you can see the giant cover letter on the left, and the giant meta-comic on the right in which Det. Chimp and his assistant, Batson, solve the mystery of who should write his comic advenures. J. Drew Scott of course! (You get that Batson-is-Watson joke, right? That's Billy Batson, the shazam-shouting Captain Marvel who's assisting Chimp. Oh, man this thing works on SO many levels.) Note the use of an original word-math puzzle in the lower center, which I created to tease how I thought Wednesday Comics could go even further into its newspaper roots. Add pencil puzzles!

Once you build a mock broadsheet comic of those proportions, you can’t just mail it. You’ve got to keep the sizzle sizzlin’ on your comix fajita. After repeat visits to my local Paper Source, where the staff soon began to think I was just nuts, I pieced together the knowledge I needed to fashion a crude portfolio to house my creation:

Yes, they had just the right brand of monkey-themed bookcloth.

The mock-up tucked neatly into the custom protective corners (cut from banana-colored envelopes. On the right I pasted a quick salutation and an offer to meet with Mr. Chiarello at the upcoming Chicago Comic-Con.

Well, once I had gone this far, it seemed cruel just to shove this into a UPS sleeve and sling it into a busy editor’s in-box. No, I knew I wanted my submission to be seen on his desk — not just on his desk, but from the very minute it entered the DC offices in NYC. All hail the Internet, which connected me to a Manhattan gift shop that specialized in custom baskets. The proprietress seemed amused by my tale and I could tell I got her invested in my quixotic quest; she had become a Sancho Panza of simian seduction, as she and began to envision a basket loaded with bananas and monkey-themed nonsense. Here’s the photo she sent me just before delivering the payload to the DC headquarters:

Nuts, right? I mean, totally bonkers that I took this stupid little idea this far, and turned it into a Carmen Miranda halftime show. You can feel the scrappy, I’m-gonna-make-it-after-all, against-the-odds vibe here, right?

But as you know, it’s Rejection Week, and I haven’t retired early to the Caymans with my fat wages garnered as a hot comix provocateur. This story must get the Old Yeller treatment.

I did hear from Chiarello, at least, and he was very gracious. He thanked me for the basket, swearing that I didn’t have to try so hard next time. (Read: Please stop scaring us with your crazy.) He assured me that if there were going to be a Wednesday Comics 2, it would probably still be using A-list talent (and that he even had some names in mind for a Detective Chimp concept he had already been noodling). He did agreed to meet me at the Comic-Con, which is probably the best outcome I should have hoped for. We have stayed in touch from time to time, so who can say: Perhaps this rejection is the very long, drawn-out, needlessly fruit-infused beginning of an acceptance one day.

And when that day comes, we’ll all have plenty of Vitamin A and potassium.

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
(Rejection Week Day Five)

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Stealing a little thunder: How I’d inject some extra electricity into ‘Thor’

“Thor” seems to be enjoying a sort of hotness, seemingly embraced by the geek community at large, which is notoriously harsh to those who mishandle beloved properties. A Facebook friend of mine recently announced, “Thor was actually pretty good. Don’t act like you’re all above it.”

I’m not above it. I swear. I am, however, confident in saying that while this is a very fun movie, it is not a very good movie.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good popcorn film. I’ve been pretty clear that I can support the poppiest of popcorn movies without being snobbish about it. The kink in my craw comes when I actually start to get my expectations up. When I get an inkling that something might be uncommonly good – either thanks to a distinctive trailer, good nerd-of-mouth buzz, or a perfectly paired actor or director – that’s when I want a story to rise to the occasion. Come on nerd culture: We can expect our media to be a cut above.

So it was with “Thor.” I never cared about the character (as a comics superhero, at least), and had written off this movie the instant I heard it was greenlit. But then Kenneth Branagh took the director spot — that is, Kenneth “Once more unto the breach” Branagh — and I thought, “Oh. I see. Marvel wants this movie to be good, not just some slam-bang cash-in. They have expectations.

Certain of my expectations were met by this movie: When a god of thunder hits things with his big, fat hammer, there should be big, fat explodey on the screen. On this, Branagh delivers. The boomboom scenes look pretty; very pretty indeed. My favorite scene is one that rests lightly (relative to the rest of the movie) on computer graphics: A cannon-faced automaton is destroying a little Arizona town, while a cast of Asgardian heroes has a dickens of a time containing it. It’s got all the visual surprises and dead-sexy ultraviolence a superhero movie should have.

But in this story of Norse gods, the devil is in the details, and the details of character development must have been left on the editing room floor. The whole point of this “origin story” for Thor is that the cocky god-thug must learn humility and a genuine affection for the human race before he can truly be a hero. After what appears to be a single day in the Arizona desert, he ends his vacation on Earth with an inexplicable, unconvincing commitment to heroism and humans. Natalie Portman plants a kiss on Thor as he departs our world, and in no way do you believe that these two share a meaningful relationship beyond lusty desire (hers) and bemused curiosity (his). After all, Thor’s had centuries to snog hearty Asgardian dames like the lovely and talented Sif (Jaimie Alexander) … so after 24 hours with a slightly scattered, flustered and, uh, breakable Earth girl, he’s got real Capital-L Love and a hankering for humanity?

That’s not change we can believe in.

What I’d have whispered in Branagh’s ear as he sat down with his storyboards: Thor needs to have an ironclad reason to don his Team Earth shirt, and it needs to come from Natalie Portman directly. She needs to wow him with some behavior or act that is distinctly human. This happens all the time in science fiction, where supposedly superior beings encounter Earthlings and find something quaint and endearing about us, causing them to find us endlessly fascinating. Think of, say, Q from Star Trek (an omnipotent being who couldn’t stop the comparatively prosaic compulsion to stick his nose in Capt. Picard’s business), and Dr. Who (who at tense moments often interjects his enthusiasm for human spirit, gumption, adventurosity and the like).

So in the middle third of this movie, we needed to see Thor try to solve a problem in his Asgardian way, and Natalie Portman needed to show him – with the confidence of a woman worthy of a god – a better way. She needed to to appeal to his head and heart, not just to his other godly bits.

She could use her smarts. She is an astro-meteoro-cosmo-something-or-other scientist, after all, though most of the movie she acts like a headless chicken with a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps she could solve a problem with forethought, caution and wit, which would be the exact opposite of Thor’s quite literal smash-mouth solution to problems.

She could use her heart. Since Thor has been cast out for cruelty, she could model some behavior that proves to this superior being that he’s actually inferior in ways he’s yet to learn. Perhaps she exhibits forgiveness of someone (maybe Thor himself), giving the god a peek into how mere mortals must solve conflict without using hammers. Thor’s strained relationship with his brother Loki is central to this movie. So have him learn the power of forgiveness from an Earthling!

She could use her muscles. Though by muscles, I really mean bravery. This thin little woman could find herself in a perilous situation where she must show godlike courage without godlike power to back it up. This demonstrates to Thor the audacity and pluck that even we frail mortals can muster when our hearts are at stake. It’s one thing for an impervious deity to smash through an enemy’s skull, but what does it take for a human to do the same for the sake of another?

One of the most convincing “change of heart” moments I’ve ever seen on film comes from “Ice Age.” Yes, the 2002 cartoon from 20th Century Fox. It’s a brilliant movie all around, and if anyone wants to give me grief about it, I’ll see you outside by the bike racks after school. One reason this movie is so solid: One of the main buddies in this buddy flick is a deadly sabertooth who is secretly plotting to lead his companions into the maw of a sabertooth pack ambush. Hello, that’s an unusual theme for a “kid” movie! Over the course of the story, this cat must be given a cause to betray his pack and side with the heroes, and the moment comes, convincingly, at the end of the second act. The woolly mammoth nearly dies saving the cat from a lava-filled death trap, and the cat asks, “Why did you risk your life for me?” The mammoth replies, “It’s what you do in a herd.” When the cat realizes this new herd cares more for him than his original pack, he has a believable, rewarding, satisfying change of heart.

Thor needed to have a good reason to believe his new herd of Earthlings are worth getting hammered over. I don’t believe he did, and now I have to relegate another high-potential geek movie into the “popcorn flick” category, rather than hailing it as truly one of the immortals.

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What’s better than free comics? …GOOD free comics

Like all loyal Retort readers, I loaded my arms full at Free Comic Book Day on May 1. It takes time to savor that much content, but I persevered … and survived to declare one true winner. This thing:

A supernatural Western featuring some kind of cursed six-shooter? You had me at hello. You also had me at, “hangin’ tree full of oracular corpses”…

… “crank-handled machine gun monks” …

… and “undead undertaker posse.”

Read this issue FOR FREE online, it in its entirety. It’s mystic, it’s dusty, and it’s got as many shady layers of good, bad and in-between as an “Unforgiven” film school discussion.

There were other comics available on May 1, some for kiddies, some for adults, some as jumping on points for other series, some as out-of-context windows into other stories that may or may not draw new readers in. But if you picked up a copy of this, you got as iron-clad an argument to return to your comic store as any I can imagine.

Yeehaw, undead cowboys!

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The very best of the Chicago Comic-Con

Great hay was made this weekend at the first ever Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo — or C2E2 as we cool nerds say. I wheedled a day for myself on Friday and took the boys for free on the kid-friendly Sunday session. This is the first time such a con was held at stately McCormick Place, which is most notable for having windows to let in sunlight directly to the hall. (Most of these little comix get-togethers involve windowless, cavernous convention halls, the better to soothe the collective pasty complexion of my fellow geeks.)

The hall was also incredibly spacious, which was a boon for ease of mobility — even if it siphoned a bit if the energy away from the typically elbow-to-elbow crowds of similar comic conventions.

In addition to sunlight, here is the best of what I saw at C2E2:

Muppets and Mebberson!

When I saw artist Amy Mebberson sketching at the Boom! Studios booth, I had a chance to gush at her about how much my daughter and I had enjoyed reading “Muppet Peter Pan” together. I must have laid it on pretty thick, because she felt compelled to gift this sketch to me in honor of my daughter. (She signed the art to her — right after the “Hi-Ho” there — though I protectively, obsessively ‘Shopped it out for this post.) I noticed then that she had been selling such sketches for $10 apiece and I immediately insisted I should pay her for it; this embarrassed her, and probably made me look rude for essentially declining her gift. Eventually, awkwardly, we settled on $5. I should have just accepted her offering — but then again, she’s a working artist and deserves to gain from her work, especially by a fan who has genuinely enjoyed her  creations.

How to Cook your dragon

I’ve yeehawed about Katie Cook’s art here before, and this time I was coming to a convention prepared: Youngest Daughter likes her Princess Leia sketch Cook did for her in ’08, and had a special request for me when I asked “What do you want her to draw for you this time?” Her answer: Astrid from “How to Train Your Dragon.”( I love my little nerd girl!) And leave it to her to identify with the strong females in every movie she ever sees. Cook’s booth was packed 10 deep half the time, but eventually I got through and she made time to do this quick dragon-doodle.

Cursed Pirate Girl sails again

Speaking of subjects I seem to yammer on about, Cursed Pirate Girl is another comic I’ve crowed about more than once but you cannot blame me. No, I am blameless. This is just comics-making at its pinnacle of achievement: Books rendered lovingly, meticulously … and gradually …by an artist who’s motivated only to make it look good. Jeremy Bastian must meet no one’s timeline or editorial agenda other than his own. So, of course, I fanboyed all over him, saying everything just shy of “I’m your No. 1 fan …” If Bastian had a red button under his desk to alert security I did not see him press it. Still, it was great to give back some of the positive emotion I had uncorked for myself when reading his work.

Bastian was selling four different portfolios of CPG-themed work, each loose-leafed pages in hand-stamped sleeves of homemade paper. I chose this version (“Tedious Treats of Whimsy”) for the frame-ready print of the Girl above; just look at the rest of the juicy contents:

Spookshow Pinups

The Flash-built website for this pin-up artist is resistant to all my clever attempts to do a screengrab (probably because his works are too tempting to copy and run with), so I will insist that you visit it now. The images above are just a small sampling of this wonderful cheesecake-meets-camp-horror pastiche. Pin-up art may be a bit beneath your tastes, but every now and again a modern hipster finds a way to throw some ironic tweak into the old WW2-style nosecone design. I find it much more smart & funny than sexy; your mileage may vary. If you visit the Spookshow Pinup site, check out one called “Blinded Bye Science” featuring a beefy Frankenstein monster and a leggy Bride. If I didn’t have a non-ironic-tweak-appreciating wife, that’s the one I’d have blown up on my wall.

Free Comics

Archaia and DC Comics had plenty of goodies to share (Marvel, if you did, too, I didn’t seem ’em). Between freebies like this and the upcoming Free Comic Book Day (May 1 — mark your calendar), there is no better way to get people roped into your product. DC had copies of capes-and-tights titles as well as younger fare such as the superfun Tiny Titans (below) — DC also masters the giveaway of cheap little hero-logo buttons. Those things always go in droves. Note to Archaia Studios: I love that you had scattered copies of the beautiful, beautiful “Mouse Guard – Winter: 1152” around communal areas, but was confused why you chose to share issues 4 and 6 of the 6-issue series. The middle and final chapters don’t seem a natural onramp for new readers.

Wondermark

David Maliki won me over by offering me a cardstock handout and saying, “Want a free comic?” I took it from him, saying: “Who could say no to that?” “You’d be surprised,” he deadpanned. Ha. He had a spiffy display for his books of Wondermark strips, those found-art gems made famous in The Onion. He also had posters of his Internet-sensation Supernatural Collective Nouns comic, which is highly grin-worthy; as I’m not currently in a poster place in my life, I bought one his books instead.

Me Play Video Game

Marvel got big ups for its demo of the Iron Man 2 vidgame. Both boys gave it eleven stars, partly because this is as close as they will get to this movie for several years. Another big hit: Nintendo’s “Photo Dojo,” an upcoming DS game that allows you to snap pictures of yourself in classic fight poses, record your own battle cries (“I kick you!”) then inject them all into a silly martial combat game.

The net effect: We left the con with big goofy smiles of our own. If I had the ear of con organizer Reed Exhibitions, I’d say: Great start! It was a bit heavy on the used-comics retailers — so many booths with plain white longboxes full of old floppies! — and a little light on the other pop-culture ephemera that goes along with comics, especially games and gaming. (Neither Wizards of the Coast nor Wizkids had a significant presence there, which is always a nice complement to the four-color action going on in every other booth.) But on the whole, I hope this inaugural year was a success, and that I’ll be returning to the Sunny Confines again next year for more!

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Things That Make Me Absurdly Happy IX

Younger Son combines two of our favorite household pastimes. Happy Home Opener, Cubs!

(N.B.: The picture was taken last summer, which explains the ridiculous lushness of the trees. This is still springtime in Chicago, after all, which is *not* something that makes me Absurdly Happy.)

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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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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.

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