This week: Maybe all-ages and kids’ comics comics are doing okay without my fretting, a podcast you should be listening to, and What I Read.
SEMI-COHERENT RAMBLE ON ALL-AGES AND KIDS’ COMICS
A FUNNY THING that’s happened since I’ve worked in comics (the beginning of this month marked my second anniversary at Dark Horse) is that I’ve developed a passion for all-ages and kids’ comics, both as something I enjoy reading and something that I wish everyone were publishing more of (there is an argument that “all ages” is a meaningless term, and this piece prefers “family entertainment,” but to be honest I don’t see a meaningful distinction between their term and what I think people mean by “all ages”). I’m not sure if my growing taste for the material developed out of a feeling that to expand the industry we need to grow comics readers from a young age, my internship with Top Shelf and its great all-ages line and later assistant job on books like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo and Larry Marder’s Beanworld, or some other source. I’ve long been a fan of series like Usagi, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Andi Watson’s Skeleton Key, and Jay Stephens’s Jet Cat and related titles, but it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve started to feel more evangelical on the issue.
And that evangelism? Pretty quickly hits any number of walls. The fact is that no matter how I try to justify their necessity, these books don’t really sell, at least not in the comics market. And maybe not really so much in the book market, which we have been told really want all-ages and kids’ books, but licensed ones. And, champion second-guesser that I am, I’ve started to wonder if maybe publishing really good all-ages and kids’ comics just simply won’t do the trick, if maybe the world really doesn’t want them in the numbers I’ve convinced myself they do. And I realize, when I think back, that my own history doesn’t dispute that. I didn’t get into comics through designated all-ages or kids’ comics (though the Batman comics of the mid-’90s were fairly innocuous), and the all-ages comics I listed above were all things I got into in high school.
Detour into the secret origin of Brendan’s comics habit:
When I was a kid, I was aware of comics, I just knew they were for idiots. Then—and I don’t know how this happened in a rural area and without friends that read comics—in 1993 or ’94 my younger brother got into the X-Men comics of the day. He was eight or nine, I was ten or eleven. He also, before too long, started reading the not-aimed-at-kids Spawn. Me, I was just along for the ride on the stops at the comics shop after we were picked up from school.
Eventually, just from being in the store every week, I picked up some comics myself. I don’t remember why exactly. I was bored in the store, and I liked the recent Batman movies, so I bought a Batman comic, and deciding that Superman was a logical companion, I picked up one of his as well. The actual issues were Detective Comics Annual #5, probably because it had Batman and the Joker on the cover, and Adventures of Superman #0, since the number and “Beginning of Tomorrow” tagline implied to me that it was a place to begin. Both turned out to be middle chapters of crossovers and were in retrospect no good at all. Why I didn’t decide I was exactly right about comics and never buy any more is beyond me.
Instead, on my next trip to the store, I signed up for a pull list with Batman and Superman on it, though discovering that each character actually had several titles and I couldn’t afford both, I quickly switched to the four Batman series of the day, Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Shadow of the Bat. The only one I didn’t subscribe to was Batman Adventures, the most kid-friendly one. Even at the earliest stage of the hobby, I recognized that the four I had chosen looked similar and interacted with each other. Adventures didn’t “count,” and besides, it was for kids. Just like my brother read Spawn, I was uninterested in the Batman comic aimed at kids (though its greater rigidness of design, following the cartoon, may have been an unconscious factor as well—more below). That’s one thing about about kids: what they really want is the thing that seems aimed older.
It was years later that I would discover Bone and then Usagi and then other “all-ages” comics. I later came to appreciate certain elements of the Batman Adventures aesthetic and a few of the writers and artists that worked on it over the years, but I’ve never been a regular reader of it or any other kids’ version of the superhero characters I have followed, though I did love Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eight Grade and pick up Tiny Titans whenever it shows up at work.
And we’re back!
So it’s hard for me to know what comics will truly appeal to kids, since I didn’t start reading comics until I was 11 (still a kid, sure, but definitely later than many comics fans, a lot of whom were well on their way to their first loss of interest in comics just as I was really getting into it), never read the kids’ versions of superhero comics until recent years, and discovered the many wonderful independent all-ages comics as a teenager. Looking at my own tastes, my instinct is that original comics that are of their time are what kids want. My first all-ages comics are all properties created within my lifetime. All are original and creator-owned, none a licensed version of a movie or TV show, but that is probably a function of my coming to them later, and some of them being recommended by students at the arts high school I was attending at the time. I begin to think my experience is unusual, and I realize that I need to do a lot more thinking on this issue.
I do maintain that the ideas in kids’ and all-ages comics should be modern. The bookstores want licensed material because it’s the parents actually buying the comics, but they probably prefer material licensed from contemporary sources, since that will be more attractive to actual kids. Either way, parents may not have time to sit down and evaluate books or comics for their kids themselves. Instead, they count on the brand name of the book to tell them what they need to know. Either it’s familiar from a movie or TV show that their kids love or it’s something they themselves loved as a kid. Kids’ versions of superhero comics are most likely aimed at comics-loving parents who read those characters as kids, while those comics licensed from more contemporary kids’ entertainment will at least be familiar to parents, even if they don’t push the same nostalgic buttons. And why should they? It’s selfish to think our children should read the same things we read as kids.
The one superhero exception for me has been the Johnny DC era of DC kids’ comics, which I’m sad to see mostly ending. It looks like soon Tiny Titans will be the only one left not connected to a TV show. What Tiny Titans, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade and Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam have in common is that, rather than following the design and tone of DC cartoons, they were created by individual cartoonists or teams and are a product of those cartoonists’ unique styles. Anyone who’s seen Art Baltazar and Franco’s or Landry Walker and Eric Jones’s creator-owned comics can tell that they were hired by DC to bring their sensibilities to the kids’ line rather than for their ability to write and draw in the style of an existing cartoon. Having read several of Baltazar and Franco’s comics in particular, it looks like their mandate in creating Tiny Titans must have basically been, “Do what you’re already doing, just with our characters.” It’s certainly impossible to imagine the series continuing if Baltazar and Franco were to move on. (Disclosure: I had the pleasure of working with Baltazar on a couple of stories for MySpace Dark Horse Presents.)
Maybe this is something that just looks like a problem from the point of view of a direct-market-focused indie comics fan. If bookstores are selling licensed kids’ and all-ages books and kids are liking them, maybe everything’s fine. And Bone, naturally, is the big exception, having been a huge success in bookstores. Maybe that’s a gateway drug, and kids can discover 2020’s equivalent of Skeleton Key when they’re a little older, so long as comics shops don’t scare them away.
So why is this obsessing me? Am I the same as the parent who complains that superhero comics aren’t appropriate for children because they want their kids to read the same thing that they used to read? Am I just pushing these comics because they’re the sort of things I enjoy today, when I should be researching what kids love right now and figuring out how to make great comics out of that? Is that the more sincere approach to making kids love comics? Because that’s supposed to be the idea, right? Not just trying to make kids like the same artists I like, but introducing them to comics.
LISTEN TO THE ART AND FRANCO PODCAST!
On a more positive note, I have been getting a real kick out of the Aw Yeah Podcast with Art & Franco. Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani are the guys behind my favorite of the current crop of superhero comics aimed at kids. They are the creators of DC’s Tiny Titans and the current writers of Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam and the upcoming Young Justice, as well as the creators of original kids’ comics Patrick the Wolf Boy, Grimm Reaper, Jack & Jack and many others.
Baltazar and Aureliani are very funny guys who make great comics and put together a pretty hilarious podcast. There are five episodes to date, which are available to download at http://www.awyeah.libsyn.com/
They also have a nice interview where they lay out their approach to all-ages comics at CBR.
And I’d like to give a shout-out to another all-ages comic that I have really liked recently, the comedy Western Reed Gunther by Shane and Chris Houghton. Check it out!
READ THIS WEEK:
- Dominic Fortune: It Can Happen Here and Now by Howard Chaykin
Chaykin being Chaykin: lots of sex and liberalism and Jewishness. Count me in. The main story is pretty raucous between its old-Hollywood debauchery and fascist-rebellion-busting action. This book is also a great bargain, including the four-issue series, but also the six-part story that was serialized online and two of Chaykin’s original Fortune stories. The online story, written by Dean Motter, is a light mystery that takes Fortune to the 1930s versions of Latveria and Wakanda, and features encounters with the man who will become the Red Skull. Silly, but fun.
- Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories by Zack Whedon, Eric Canete, Farel Dalrymple, Jim Rugg, Joëlle Jones & Scott Hepburn
- Fogtown by Andersen Gabrych & Brad Rader
This is the first of the Vertigo Crime hardbacks I’ve read. I was impressed by certain elements, particularly the unblinking approach to sexuality, but overall the plot doesn’t have a lot of energy to it, the standard device of the detective’s two cases intersecting is introduced in a limp, predictable way, and most of the twists arriving courtesy of characters appearing out of nowhere to change the game. I did like the chunky grittiness of the art by Brad Rader, whose work I’ve previously been exposed to mainly through the Batman Adventures comic, and I loved how the crappy paper added to the pulp flavor. This didn’t quite do it for me, but neither did it scare me off from the Vertigo Crime line.
- The Incredible Hercules: The Mighty Thorcules by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Reilly Brown & Rodney Buchemi (library)
Without my really noticing, this has become my favorite current Marvel comic, appealing to both the Greek mythology nerd I was as a kid, and my current taste in superhero comics (smart but not self-serious is apparently a lot to ask). This volume collects two concurrent story arcs featuring the two main characters, both of which are great reads, and both of which actually have consistent art teams all the way through. My understanding is that these issues were originally released bi-weekly, with the two stories alternating. I think I’d have preferred the stories be separated for the collection, but that’s my only real complaint. Herc’s story sees him manipulated into impersonating Thor, and culminates in the Mighty Thorcules battling the Incredible Hercuthor. It’s very funny, with great character comedy at the expense of each god. Amadeus’s story is played straight, but still fits in some pretty wacky ideas, and ultimately has more import for the ongoing story. Really looking forward to what’s next.
- Joe the Barbarian #1–#7 by Grant Morrison & Sean Murphy
Like so many things, this reads a lot better in a chunk. The first issue may seem slow taken alone, but the leisurely trip we take through Joe’s house is actually incredibly important, as it establishes the geography that will be so crucial throughout the rest of the series. I was mostly in it for the art when I read this monthly, but the story also has a lot more resonance when read together. The arc of Joe’s quest is much clearer and the stakes seem a lot higher. This is good comics. Despite being from Vertigo, I’d say it’s also a pretty good all-ages comics. Attention DC: If you want an almost certain positive review of the hardcover, I’m probably not a bad person to send one to.
- The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 11 by Eiji Otsuka & Housui Yamazaki
- Marvel Two-in-One #44 (from Essential Marvel Two-in-One vol. 2) by Marv Wolfman, Bob Hall & Frank Giacoia
Curious about the old-timey Marvel version of Hercules, I discovered that this was his only appearance that I owned. In at least this instance, he’s a much more serious, straightforward hero and talks like Thor with the “doth”s and “thou”s. The story is entertaining if unremarkable, with an inexplicable framing sequence in which the story is being told by the Thing to some unruly kids at camp. Flipping through the book, it doesn’t look like any of the other one- and two-issue team-ups have a framing sequence, so I don’t know what it is about this one. Maybe the inclusion of a mythic hero from ancient Greece made a nod to the oral tradition seem appropriate. I dunno, I tend to feel like framing sequences almost never add anything to a story.
- Usagi Yojimbo #131 by Stan Sakai
Images of Skeleton Key © Andi Watson. Images of The Aw Yeah Podcast © Blindwolf Studios, Electric Milk Creations and Shakey Productions. Images of Joe the Barbarian © Grant Morrison and DC Comics.