Comic Fodder

Hey, Kids! Stay Away from Comics!

Recently, I got back in touch with an old high school chum. I'm old enough now that the folks I've graduated with have hit their marks; graduating college, working, getting married, working some more, and now kids.

What's a mother to do?

I love kids. Put them in the oven for an hour and a half at at 350 degrees under foil, and delicious. (The chubbier ones don't even need to be basted.)

My friend's son, who is 5.5 years old, has become fascinated with Batman. This year, of all years, that may actually cause a problem for my friend Meredith and her husband. The Bat-crazed son is the eldest of three, and is about to see America go nuts for the Dark Knight for at least a few weeks. This will, of course, make the Batman movie some bizarre fruit of knowledge he will wish he could see, but will probably know he really shouldn't see. And I'm not too sure a PG-13 movie like the one that's about to be released is where this 5.5 year old needs to be anyway, parents who are reading this column.

Meredith, noting from my personal blog that I enjoy the occasional comic book, asked for my advice about what Batman comics she could buy for her kid. And this got me thinking about the Bat and DC franchises, and what is available to kids these days.

That's where the money is

DC and Marvel make no bones about expecting the audience for their core universes to be teenagers or older. But at this point, it seems almost silly to believe that comics are the moneymakers in this scenario, or that's where the money is coming from.

Heck, at the recent Warner Bros./ DC comics summit, this is what a WB suit had to say:

While we are not going to go into the specifics of the meetings, we're constantly looking at how best to exploit the DC Comics characters and properties. DC is an incredibly valuable asset to Warner Bros. and plays an important role across the entire studio by providing development and franchise opportunities for all media, including films, television, home entertainment, animation, consumer products, video games and digital platforms.

And comics. I'm sure he meant to talk about how Time-Warner couldn't keep the lights on without the money generated by comics.

But there's the crux of it, really. DC and Marvel can keep publishing comics, and it does work as a test bed for all the possible media outlets where their stable of superheroes can be exploited. TV. Video games. Movies. Add in merchandising rights, which have to greatly outweigh any development costs for actual movies, etc... And its a hugely profitable sort of business.

At the end of the day, quibbling over a few thousand comics sold either by DC or Marvel doesn't really matter. But which company has managed to exploit the likeness of their character on soap dishes and get them on the wrapper for Peanut M&M's? That's where the money is.

DC Comics aren't just for kids!

If we're concerned, as comics loving adults, that kids don't have access to comics, maybe it is a blessing in disguise. After all, when my pal asked me if she could send her husband on a run for the latest issue of Batman, I felt kind of anxious and responded with a detailed set of instructions (you can see them below in the comments. Add your own!).

Pretty clearly, Morrison's run on Batman isn't aimed at the kids, even when its exploiting material originally conceived in stories sold to the children's entertainment market in the decades prior to "Dark Knight Returns". I couldn't imagine them picking up a Frank Miller book by mistake, or The Long Halloween.

Luckily, I could point my friend to the current "Batman Strikes!" title for her son, as well as "Super Friends" and "Tiny Titans" (which is, by the way, one of my favorite DC titles). In addition, I could point her to the digest-sized collections DC was putting out of the Batman, Superman and Justice League comics based on the animated series, if her local comic shop actually had them in stock.

Marvel has done even better with their Marvel Adventures titles. The comics translate very easily across multiple ages and generally aren't relegated to the kid's rack at comic shops. They're also available in a few other locations, including, I believe, at Target (which assumes kids ever wander away from the video games and into the books at Target, which seems somewhat unlikely). But it's a respectable effort to break away from the Direct Market and re-engage mainstream retail (you know, where kids actually tend to be).

There are also multiple lines of toys out featuring both the DC characters and Marvel, and depending on whether you think they're aimed at collectors or actual kids, they're out there. Back-to-school stuff is out, and so are Spidey lunchboxes and Batman back packs. And some of this stuff is infinitely cooler than what was available to me as a kid.

This doesn't trump the problem completely. My friend is now maintaining a blog, and she discussed how they're putting Hulk and Iron Man toys in fast food kid's meals. While delighted to get free toys, she went and rented the recent Marvel animated movies (rated PG-13) for her kids...

So, I rent "The Hulk" and "Iron Man" thinking that the boys could see these and they would suffice......since I am pretty sure that the Hulk and Iron Man movies at the theaters now are NOT appropriate for 5, 3 and 2 year old boys. Mistake. BIG, BIG mistake. These don't work either. Now, to be fair, I knew these were PG-13 and thought I'd monitor myself by watching with them, fast forwarding when needed, etc. But within 6 minutes of BOTH movies my boys were too scared to watch the rest. And I can't find a suitable alternative for them to see that IS for their age group.

Again, the kids are 2 through 5. The age at which many of us were imprinting on Super Friends, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, etc... Which raises a question: Marvel and DC are happily licensing their characters for everything from pajamas, to toys to lunchboxes, but is the race to serve the adult collector market cutting out the possible new audience before it has a chance to build an interest? Are they investing in media that's not reaching a wide enough audience?

The audience DC and Marvel comics seem interested in capturing is the young adult and adult themed, but with historical perceptions regarding the intended audience for superheroes, paired with the continuing schilling to those very young audiences, in seeking to reach both audiences, both companies could be creating mixed signals that might lead to trouble down the road. And, it seems very few other modes of entertainment face the challenges of trying to meet the various demographics where they live.

What would Wertham do?

As DC and Marvel step further and further away from the generally perceived audience of "comics are for kids" and into Joker as mass murderer, they face the potential of the Mom Lobby. It's not unthinkable that parents could actually bite on the message the publishers have been pushing for twenty years, that comics are a mature storytelling medium and should be respected as such. Does it not follow, then, that parents, unwilling to risk stumbling into media they find inappropriate for their children, will simply choose NOT to let their children watch comic-related media?

Perhaps more sinister is the possibility of the parents who do not believe that adults should read comics will pick up a copy of, say "The Killing Joke", and like the PMRC of my youth, will make a move, legal or otherwise, upon the Caped Crusader. If readers scoff at the notion, I highly recommend Hajdu's "The Ten-Cent Plague", detailing the downfall of American comics in the 1950's. Or, consider the fairly recent ruling which declared some manga unfit for adult consumption as well as children, and wound up getting comic retailer Jesus Castillo in some legal hot water. This, of course, happened in my home state of Texas. But similar cases pop up throughout the US on a more regular basis than you'd think.

Parents' lobbies are incredibly powerful. Anything that earns the reputation as bad for kids tends to get dealt with fairly swiftly, especially when politicians and judges are trying to maintain their image by protecting "family values". Comics are enjoying a high at the moment, with the Comics Code Authority now just a memory, but if things were to get stirred up again...

Like it or not, it's an issue DC and Marvel are going to have to learn to balance as they attempt to serve both audiences in search of maximizing licenses, etc...

The secret world of comic geeks

One of the thrills of the Nolan-helmed Batman movies is that longtime readers are, at long last, seeing a version of Batman that reflects the Batman we've seen since sometime in the Englehart-era, and which solidified in style and substance with "The Dark Knight Returns". We've all read "The Killing Joke", so we know what The Joker is capable of when the writers aren't worried about parents looking over their shoulders. I was a kid reading those comics for the first time, and as much as parents desperately want to shield and shelter their kids, its simply part of growing up to explore those dark corners in comics, movies, books, etc... and hope Mom doesn't catch on.

But a movie blown up in 70mm on an IMAX screen is a lot harder to dismiss than a stack of comics casually tossed on the bookshelf. Especially when that movie is getting notices that are much better than dismissive.

Add in the cursory glance around Toys 'R Us, Wal-Mart or Target, and it seems WB managed to sell Hasbro on some bill of goods, that this movie was going to be "toyetic", and its pretty clear that art and commerce are going to be ill at odds with The Dark Knight. And that line of toys is going to have some upset parents wondering what the heck happened.

And God help them if they try to pick up Morrison's "Batman" for Junior.

But I think comic fans will agree... when comic movies succeed, often its because the same stories and characters we've come to love have been treated as seriously upon the big screen as they're treated on the page. And as gratifying as that is, movies like "The Dark Knight" are playing the hand we've known about for years (decades), but were kind of assuming would never spill out into the popular consciousness.

So in conclusion...

As a guy in my 30's, I want my comics to reach out to me. Any back-peddling at this point is going to lose me as a reader. For good or ill, those words quoted above from a WB executive let me know, though, that to some extent, those guys know what they're doing. It's a pretty big questionmark whether or not kids will be interested in actually reading with cartoons, DVDs, the interwebs, etc... at their finger tips. But that doesn't mean kids can't enjoy the characters, too. And maybe they'll find comics at some point. I mean, really, didn't most of us start with Super Friends before we actually bought a comic?

By the way, I have no remedy in mind for what DC, Marvel, etc... should do. Right now I think they're balancing things pretty well. It's unfortunate that Meredith's son will have to wait for a while for the new Batman cartoon "Brave and the Bold" to come to TV when he wants Batman NOW.

But with such a wild array of stuff out there these days, its really incredible how many audiences the characters of DC and Marvel can serve, and how the various depictions can co-exist with a minimum of fuss. I DO think DC and Marvel aren't making the right investments by not strengthening their "Johnny DC" and "Adventures" lines and getting them back out in the public eye. It's good PR, and it could sell.

Marvel might want to think about those movies they're making, though...

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

=======


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

Here's those directions:


Ooookay: Comics.

Your standard Batman comic is now aimed at an audience that's PG13ish. The sort of tone you might have seen in the current Batman movie with Heath ledger is not atypical. Lots of dead bodies and whatnot for Batman to sort through.

Also, I'm not really clear on what's appropriate at what age, so... I'll try to make my best recommendation.

What I'd recommend:

Look for the "Johnny DC" label on Batman comics. You don't need to rule things out that don't have it, but "Johnny DC" is just a guarantee of age appropriateness.

The DC Kids/ Johnny DC site
http://dccomics.com/dckids/

Collected books
http://dccomics.com/dckids/?action=books

comics
http://dccomics.com/dckids/?action=comics

The first thing I'd look for is a comic called "The Batman Strikes". Its based on the Saturday morning cartoon, and will feel very familiar. It looks like Amazon has some collections available.

BTW: Don't mistake it with "The Dark Knight Strikes Again". That's more for older kids and adults.

There's a new series called "Super Friends" from DC. It has Batman, Superman, etc.... And is squarely aimed at Nathan's age group.

http://dccomics.com/dckids/?action=comics&i=9555

There's also "Tiny Titans", which is also really aimed at Nathan's age or younger. It doesn't have Batman, but it does have Robin. Honestly, its a little bizarre and funny for older readers (yes, I pick it up). Do NOT confuse Tiny Titans with Teen Titans, which is aimed at 11 year olds or older.

http://dccomics.com/dckids/?action=comics&i=9990

These comics are going to be hard to come by at the store. They'll be collected at some point and available at Amazon. You can also hit local comic shops.

You can find a local comic shop with the Comic Shop Locator Service: http://www.comicshoplocator.com/

I'd also look on Amazon for older stuff under the names

Batman Adventures
http://www.amazon.com/Rogues-Gallery-Batman-Adventures-Vol/dp/1401203299/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1215925913&sr=1-3
http://www.amazon.com/Shadows-Masks-Batman-Adventures-Vol/dp/1401203302/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1215925913&sr=1-1

Batman: The Gotham Adventures
http://www.amazon.com/Batman-Gotham-Adventures-Ty-Templeton/dp/1563896168/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1215925913&sr=1-4

And there's other stuff, too:
http://www.amazon.com/Batman-Adventure-Stories-Scholastic-Collection/dp/0439763126/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1215925913&sr=1-12

Or, you can look for stuff under the name "Justice League Unlimited"

If you're ever considering making a purchase and aren't sure of age appropriateness, just let me know. I am happy to take a look at it and give you a feel for whether its right for a younger age group.

But unless a comic was originally published before 1980, I wouldn't assume its okay for Nathan to pick up. There's some mature content in some of these comics.

Ryan

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 16, 2008 12:52 AM

Ryan, thanks very much. Although my going-on-eight-year-old hasn't shown too much interest in superhero comics (he likes Star Wars), it's good to know there are lines aimed more at kids his age. My husband and I agree that we don't think the new Batman movie is going to be appropriate for him or his older sister to see. At least we'll have to check it out first.

-- Posted by: Ittot at July 16, 2008 12:44 PM

I think about this all the time. And I've even written about it in this very forum.

My daughter turns 3 years old this week, and she's seen the Batman toys and paraphernalia festooning Daddy's office.

Naturally, she's curious, so I started out explaining who Batman was (a nice guy who saves the day), conveniently leaving out the whole mom-and-dad/big pool 'o blood thing.

So she's got that. To further help, we watched some of the old Filmation cartoons from the 1960s, with me explaining as we went along. Anything too scary was fast-forwarded through.

I also broke out some of the Batman storybooks I had as a kid -- one, from c. 1968 teaches the alphabet with convenient Zap! Pow! graphics.

So, in short kids, there are ways to teach the next generation about comic books. You just have to be judicious in your methods.

I look forward to giving my little girl Johnny DC titles when she's old enough. But she'll be well into her teens by the time she gets hold of any of the current stuff (assuming she hasn't dismissed me as an utter geek by then).

Cheers,
John

-- Posted by: John Micek at July 16, 2008 5:04 PM

Hey Ryan,

If you or your readers are searching for all-ages superhero comics, I'd love to point you in the direction of SMASH, a new webcomic about a socially awkward ten-year-old boy who gets to realize his dream of becoming a superhero... the hard way!

Written by me and illustrated by my brother, Kyle, SMASH combines the humor of "Calvin & Hobbes" with the adventure of "The Incredibles" and Jeff Smith's "Bone."

You can read the first episode at our site, www.SmashComic.com. We're aiming to put up Episode 2 on July 25th, with a new episode appearing every two weeks after that.

Drop us a line — we'd love to know what you think!

-- Posted by: Chris A. Bolton at July 16, 2008 5:39 PM

Thanks, Chris! I should have mentioned how I believe web comics will be the method of choice for consuming comics for today's kids. That's where they live. So you're one step ahead of the curve on that one.

John, I have no recollection of what age I was at when I learned Batman's origin, but it's an interesting demarcation device for determining when kids might be ready for "real" Batman comics. It's interesting to hear how folks with kids decide to reveal various parts of the origin stories to their children.

Is Superman's origin too much for kids? Apocalyptic origins, etc...? I don't really know. I mean, I saw Superman in the theater at age two or three, and recall Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle getting the Stormtrooper Special. So... yeah, I don't know.

Being a parent is hard. Its much easier to just let me dogs watch whatever they like. So, so much Animal Planet.

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 16, 2008 5:56 PM

A little over a year ago, Viper Comics published a very funny, cute superhero book called A Bit Haywire, in which a 10-year-old boy discovers he has superpowers, but they're ... a bit haywire: he can run super-fast, but only as long as he holds his breath; he can fly, but only while he keeps his eyes closed; etc. It's probably for slightly older kids - maybe 6 or 7 on up. But it's so funny ...

The Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius comics from Marvel are a hoot also: Franklin, son of Reed and Sue Richards, is very much like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes (even looks a little like him), and he's constantly getting into trouble by sneaking into dad's lab and trying out a new invention.

My younger son started out with such comics as Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes, then Teen Titans Go (now ended, sadly, with issue #55). He's now 13, but thinks Tiny Titans is great fun. He also has loved the old Harvey Comics that Dark Horse is reprinting, and he adores Little Lulu (even though he told me years ago that it's really for girls). Now, he's 12 years younger than his older brother, so he was exposed to heavier action stuff at a young age simply because he wanted to watch what big brother was watching - so he has loved Godzilla and other Japanese movie monster films since he was 4.

And I was reading The Spirit and The Phantom when I was like 7 or 8 years old; I watched the old Superman TV series when it was first broadcast on TV, also Atom Boy when it was first broadcast in Japan. I used to watch bloody violent samurai tv shows when I was 6. It all depends on what the child can handle. (And yeah, I'm kinda old.) I was also reading lots of fairy tales, many of which were very gruesome, since I could read. Violence I could handle; Mothra gave me nightmares. Go figure.

My parents didn't read comics - we kids found them on our own, and the neighbor kids (we lived in military housing in Japan at the time) shared our comics with each other. I was the only girl in the group, though.

The kids in the school where I work love Bone and Little Lulu, and they're starting to read the Marvel Adventures Spider-Man titles to piece (literally, I've had to mend them numerous times). We also have some of the Stone Arch books, including such series as Jimmy Sniffles (he has a super-powered nose), Buzz Beaker (super-smart science kid), and Tiger Moth (4th grade kung fu warrior).

-- Posted by: Kat Kan at July 16, 2008 11:34 PM

I have to take off for a few days and won't have internet access, but I really appreciate everyone's comments. Please feel free to carry on without me.

Great stuff, Kat! It's always interesting to hear what's actually going on, especially in schools where so much depends on word of mouth.

Ya'll keep up the conversation without me. I'll be back as soon as I can to see what's transpired.

Also: I'm from Texas. I can say "Ya'll" with no sense of irony".

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 17, 2008 12:06 AM

Waitasec, how long have you been from Texas? all the time, or just lately? I want to know how quick the socialization process takes for "y'all" to go native.

-TP

-- Posted by: tpull at July 17, 2008 1:15 AM

I've lived in Texas from 1979-2002, and 2006-present. And I'm mostly not embarrassed of living here.

So I have no idea when the "ya'll" thing kicked in. I'd say that it takes very little time for kids to pick it up, as its a common, familiar greeting for groups of two or more. As per adults who come to Texas, I'm not sure they ever fully adopt the "ya'll".

-- Posted by: ryan at July 17, 2008 1:43 AM