Where did all the adventures go?
So my sister just had an adorable lil’ meatbag and I’m really happy. I’ve never wanted kids of my own, but I know I’m going to be the most awesome weird uncle. “Uncle Janra, why do you have drawings on your arm? What does this weird symbol mean? It looks like a lantern.” Her mom is going to try to keep her from all of the nerditude I will eventually teach her, but I hope I can get it to sink in. Cartoons, toys, comics.
Comics. That’ll be a tough one… you know why? Because Marvel and DC don’t make comics for kids anymore. Not really.
Lately we’ve been thrown into an age where comic properties are mainstream, where a kid can watch Beware the Batman on Cartoon Network, see Batman in the movies, and then go read Batman in comics. So what happens when that kid, let’s say they are eight or ten, who has just discovered Batman walks into a comic store and heads straight to the Bat section? Well a little while ago, he would have experienced this:
His parents would understandably freak the hell out. That stuff is clearly teenager material. Well, what about Avengers? A few years ago they had this crazy event where the Avengers were under control of an evil dude and they were attacking Asgard, home of Thor and the Norse Gods! Adventure! Excitement!
So wow, that’s pretty graphic. These are both examples of mainstream comics, comics that are put front and center in comic stores; comics that are supposed to be the best DC and Marvel have to offer. So what the hell is a newly minted uncle to do? There are some kid friendly comics out there, of course. Some of them are really great – Tiny Titans, the Marvel Adventures line. Both are perfect for little kids to read, and introduce them to the characters before they can graduate to the big leagues of Spider-Man shooting one of his villains in the head. Because if there’s one thing that kids (even tweens) can really get is context.
But those stories are cordoned off, and they don’t really make a huge impact. You can’t save the current wave of main line comics to give to your kids later on, and I’m not saying that over the top violence is horrible for kids. I grew up in a time when there were massive tanks rolling up city streets because some terrorist organization was trying to take over the world. Gun battles raged on Main Street, USA, and some dude actually tried to control the weather. But that’s the thing – it was over the top. It was so unrealistic it was funny. I mean, hell, look at superman here going crazy with weapons.
This is so crazy it’s funny. And this is great to give to a kid – there’s no subtlety, no context that needs to be thought out. Its Superman, he’s all pissed off, and he has pouches around his thigh for some reason. Over the past ten years or so, the number of comics that are in the limelight and okay for anyone of any age to read has been reduced, and while we can understand the market forces driving that I think it’s a net loss for everyone. So what can we do?
First off, realize compelling and exciting stories can be written without realistic violence. Cape comics are primarily for escapism. No one is looking at Batman and expecting something like From Hell. They want the X-Men fighting sentinels, the Avengers saving the world, and Spider-Man worrying about how to pay rent. That last one was mine, commenters – put down the keyboard. I’m not saying everything in comics has to be straightforward, four color adventures to fight the good fight. The comics I love feature stories about the psychology of heroes and what makes them tick, or maybe focusing on criminals and what they do when they aren’t robbing banks.
A great example is one of my favorite miniseries, Flowers for Rhino. The Spidey villain, Rhino, is tired of being dumber than a sack of bricks and undergoes an experimental make you smarter experiment. Things get really interesting from there. It doesn’t get so deep that you need a PhD to understand it, but it opens the reader up to a whole new side of the character, and – hey, maybe some kid reads it and wants to read Flowers for Algernon afterwards.
What about just some straight up action? Spider-Man 2099 had thrills, spills, and even people getting cut up a bit, since the titular hero has razor sharp talons on his hands and feet. But the violence was no more graphic than your typical action cartoon.
Speaking of which, there are tons of examples of these characters having adventures that are engaging to the young and old alike – they’re called cartoons. Batman the Animated Series and the DC Animated universe did this incredibly well. The Spectacular Spider-Man ran on the CW and then on Disney XD and anyone could watch that with their families and not get bored. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was getting close to perfection. All of these cartoons had stories and situations that put their characters in peril without showing the kind of violence that would make parents concerned about what their kids were watching. There is no reason this could not be translated to comics. You don’t have to sacrifice drama because you can’t show someone’s arm being ripped off in a double page spread. If a writer feels this fact boxes them in and takes away their ability to write a good story, then I submit that they don’t have the skill to be a competent creator.
The worst part is that for a while, we had different comic lines for all of these kinds of stories. Marvel has Marvel Adventures (now just Ultimate Spider-Man Adventures and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Adventures) for the little ones, the main books for everyone, and Marvel Max for the adults. Garth Ennis wrote an amazing Punisher comic for a few years on the max line. Blood, guts, swearing, the works. DC had Vertigo for a while. Shuttering that line was one of the worst decisions they’ve made in the last few years, and that’s one of a very long list. Sandman, Preacher, and more lost a viable home. Sure it’s still alive in certain ways, but it’s a shadow of its former self, and only deals in creator owned projects.
The most important thing, out of all of this is that kids aren’t idiots; they are thinking individuals. In my (obviously correct) opinion, comic lines should be targeted at three age groups: 6-11, 12-17, 18+. The middle range is very large, and focuses more on teens than adult readers, but the stories don’t have to be watered down. They don’t have to be made for the lowest common denominator. Books about adventure and complicated themes are taught in school at a young age, why can’t comics let kid’s imagination run wild while sneaking in some thoughtful sub plots? Assure parents and guardians that they can let the kids pick out their own comics,
without worrying that they are needlessly bloody and overly violent.
Hell I’m in my mid-thirties and whenever I see something overly violent I think twice about getting that book again. There’s no reason for it.
If any nerd parents out there want some great comics for your kids to read check out the following. (Of course you should
scan the contents yourself, to make sure it’s appropriate for your child.):
Young Justice, by Peter David
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, by Don Rosa
Batman/Nightwing/Birds of Prey by Chuck Dixon
Ultimate Spider-Man/Daredevil/New Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis
ANY Marvel Adventures books. Even if you aren’t five they are incredibly well done.
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
Bone by Jeff Smith
If you have any more suggestions, put them in the comments below!