July 20, 2010

All Ages Comics

Here's an article I wrote for Comic Book Digest, back in 2004.

With the announcement that DC was canceling Brave and the Bold (although I expect they'll be relaunching that one) and Shazam, leaving only one all ages superhero title in their stable (Tiny Titans) I was reminded of this old article.

It's long, but it still reflects my feelings on the subject of all ages comics. In a nutshell, we need more "all ages" comics -- that truly are for all ages. You know, the kind of thing that Pixar does: make a GREAT movie that can be enjoyed by children and adults. In other words: ALL. AGES.

The bottom line is this: kids DO like to read comics. So what're you gonna do about it, partner?

Oh, and if there are any talented artists out there who'd like to work on some all ages type material, let me know. :)

Anyway, here's that long article . . .


“All-Ages Comics?”

Why We Need More All-Ages Comics and What We Can Do About It

by Ben Avery


I worked the better part of a year recently in a residential treatment center for children who had been removed from their homes for various reasons -- mostly due to behavioral problems. The particular kids I was working with were abuse victims who had, in reaction to their own abuse, acted out against other children. They ranged in age from nine to thirteen, and the children I dealt with were exclusively boys.

You can imagine their excitement when I told them I wrote comic books. Their excitement dwindled slightly when they realized I couldn’t DRAW comics, of course. You don’t know how disheartening it is to have a ten-year-old patronizingly say to you, “No, no, Mr. Avery, you did a great job drawing Superman. Really. Or is that Wonder Woman?” However, I’ve been very blessed in some of the very talented artists I’ve worked with. They loved the drawings I would bring in to them. “What’s that?” they would say. “That’s (insert my latest project here), from a comic book I’m developing.”

The problem? None of these were completed projects. I was able to give them a preview of a book I had just finished, and I was able to give them peaks at the “creative process”, and that was all well and good. They loved that. But they wanted more. So I tried to give them more.

I searched through my old comics -- the ones that weren’t still packed away after our latest move. I found some cool comics I thought they would like. First I brought in a JLA story arc, thinking that these kids were big fans of the Superman and Batman and Justice League cartoons, so they would love reading about these iconic superheroes that everyone can recognize, right?

Wrong. “Why isn’t Green Lantern black?” “Isn’t Hawkman supposed to be a girl?” “Who’s that guy with the fire on top of his head?”

They just didn’t enjoy it. Too much back-story that they weren’t privy to. A plot that went over their head. I found myself explaining everything, from plot points to character back-story essential to the plot.

So I changed my approach. I began looking specifically for the elusive all-ages comics. And the pickings were slim.

I brought in Pakkins’ Land. Pakkins’ Land is a fantasy comic by Gary Shipman that started back with Caliber Comics. It’s been collected into four trades, and it ends on a cliffhanger that will be resolved in number five. They loved it. They could not get enough and were sorely disappointed that they would have to wait for the next volume.

I wanted to bring in Hero Bear and the Kid. I loved that series -- what a beautiful comic book. But I had given it away to someone . . . hey, their slogan is “Remember your childhood and pass it on”, so I did! Turns out not everyone feels that way about it passing it on, though, especially comic dealers, and, well, the collectors market being as it is . . . I just wasn’t going to be able to buy back issues any time soon.

Archie we received well by them. They were familiar with Archie’s Weird Mysteries, which they sometimes watched during breakfast before school, so they knew the characters. The short gags, while sometimes confounding them (I had to explain to them that sometimes, they couldn’t understand the joke because it wasn’t that funny), amused them.

Then I discovered the DC animated adventures reprints. My local comic shops helped me track them down. I read them myself and found that I really enjoyed them. The stories were told with emotion and energy. Respect for the characters (by reflecting the back-story) and the readers (by not getting bogged down in the back-story). And I picked up the Marvel Age stuff. These books were directly aimed at the kids I was working with and I got to see first hand that, for the most part, they succeeded. These boys loved the adventures of May Parker in Spider-Girl. And they enjoyed the classic-but-new-to-them Spider-Man and Fantastic Four adventures retold in the Marvel Age books.

But I ran into another problem when I ran out of material. Frankly, I hit a brick wall.

So I tried an experiment. I brought in some Marvel Essentials. Old? Yes. Anachronistic? Probably. Un- relatable? No. The only problem they boys had was that they were in color. I spoke to one boy’s mother who was so amazed that he was actually READING something. What was he reading? Essential Human Torch. Then I got him started on Essential Fantastic Four. His only problems with them were: 1. Ben Grimm called Alicia “Babe” too much and 2. Johnny Storm was a player. He would look forward at the covers that were coming up and get excited about a Sub-Mariner story -- ‘cause Sub-Mariner was such a bad dude. He wanted to read more . . . and more.

This all caused me to sit back and think about some things. As a creator and as a father. Because I want to write comics that kids and adults will want to read and I want to be able to give my children comics I feel good about, not that I have to worry about. (A friend of mine who owns a comic book shop is very careful about what the kids are allowed to pick up because even in mainstream comics you really never know what’s going to show up. Like a severed head or a rape . . .)

I had to be doubly careful, considering the issues the kids I was working with were dealing with. I had to be very careful about the visuals I was giving to them. Especially concerning women. And I became VERY aware of the treatment of women in comics as I looked for materials suitable for these kids. Some things were pretty obvious -- I mean, you just don’t hand a copy of Lady Death or Vampirella to a nine-year-old. But looking even closer, I realized that the only “strong” women in comics seem to be the ones I call the “scanty panty vigilantes” -- they fight crime in little more than their underwear. What kind of a message does that send? (In two of my own recent projects, one an all ages book, the female protagonists were wearing much less than I’d let my own daughter wear.)

And then there’s the violence. Again, sometimes it’s pretty obvious. Nekkid Zombie Blood Fest will probably not be the most appropriate title for a kid. And some comics are about just how much they can shock the reader -- with creative killing and trying to outdo what has gone before. But look closer -- many superhero comics essentially boil down to solving the problem with their fists. That’s what’s attractive about many comics: cool fight scenes.

Part of this is the medium itself. Comics are a visual medium. Duh. So you need cool visuals, and brightly colored costumed, perfectly muscled people zapping other brightly colored costumed, perfectly muscled people is a cool visual. The ideal female body is a cool visual.

Literature has one purpose, to make an emotional connection. To make someone laugh. Or cry. Or gasp. The easiest way to do this is through shock, not through characterization.

But there’s something more needed. What’s missing? The easy, and most condescending answer, is a moral compass. But it’s not far from the truth. Right now, the people buying comics tend to be kids who have grown up. They bought comics from the corner store with their allowance, and now they’ve grown up. Now they are more mature, so their comics need to be more mature. Unfortunately, “For Mature Audiences” tends to mean it’s got boobies and the f-word . . . lots of the f-word.

And, just as unfortunate, “All-Ages” has come to mean kiddy comics. But true “all-ages” comics have many things in common. First, adults and kids like them. "All-ages" is a hard moniker to live up to. The best Disney movies do it. The best Looney Tunes cartoons do it. Many old comics do it. It appeals to everyone, because it’s not created by talking DOWN to kids. It’s just a good story that resonates with kids, and therefore resonates with the young at heart. They focus on nobility. Honor. Friendship. Positive things.

But these days Superman is commonly referred to as a Boy Scout -- and it’s a BAD THING.

I would say we need more positive affirming stories. Stories that are about what it means to be a hero. That are about nobility. That show that we are human and have our “bad” side, but that also show that we can overcome that.

We need stories that go beyond solving problems with fists . . . or swords . . . or guns . . . or monkey wrenches . . . or steam rollers . . . you get the idea. Stories that focus on characters instead of characters serving the story. I’m not talking about preaching to kids or adding on that “knowing is half the battle” moral, although those things have their place. I’m just talking about fun, positive stories.

A 70's/80's retro comic released recently really excited me because it was something I had grown up on. It portrayed the youngest member of the group -- a kid -- hiding pornography in his room. Here I was so excited about introducing my kids at work to this piece of my childhood. But again, the book was not written for people the age of the kids who originally enjoyed the show, it was written FOR the kids who originally enjoyed the show. Grown up kids who now have disposable income. The tone was violent and bloody. It was decently written, though, and the art was good. I found myself wondering how much it would have hurt to make the comic book all ages? Suitable for younger readers while at the same time appealing to adults with mature well written stories.

This, of course, is more difficult. It means self-censorship. It means a lot more thought in every step, from plots to costume design to format to font size. It means more work.

We’ve had the deconstruction of the superhero. It’s been going on for almost twenty years now. And it reflected the times we were (and are) living in, to a degree. Art emulating life, or the other way around? Who knows? Most likely, a little bit of both. It’s now time for what I would call the re-construction of the superhero. In both life and art, I would say, although that goes a little beyond the scope of what I’ve writing about.

As I said, there are some titles out there. You have to look hard, but they can be found. I told an interviewer last year that the big companies were really missing the mark when it came to kids. Since then (not because of me, of course) that situation has changed. It is becoming much more common, in all different genres, not just superheroes. Bone. The Marvel Age books (although be careful, a Marvel Age label does not equate to all-ages) and heck, even the Essentials (especially the old Spider-Man and Fantastic Four). Herobear and the Kid or The Lab or for that matter anything by Astonish Factory. Astro Boy. Pakkins’ Land. Star Wars. Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s tabloid graphic novels (especially Shazam! Power of Hope). Opposite Forces. Some of these books you may never have heard of, and you owe it to yourself to check them out. They are comic books that appeal to mature sensibilities and resound with youthful optimism.

This doesn’t mean don’t write or draw or buy the stories that deal with mature subjects. MAUS is a powerful piece of literature that I would not hand to a child, but it definitely has worth -- Pulitzer Prize worth. There are many, many worthwhile mature comics out there. (Truth is, some of my own work is not for kids.) But there is also a void that needs to be filled. It’s a statistically proven fact that kids love comics. The best selling Disney Adventures magazine issue is the special all comics one. Archie is the best selling comic out there because parents recognize it, know it’s safe, and it’s visible (in the check out lanes at super markets) and it’s being purchased. But there’s almost a whole generation of kids out there who have missed out on comics. There’s a whole generation of parents who aren’t as likely to buy their kids comics now, because of the misconception that all that’s out there is blood and bullets and T&A.

The future of comics depends on whether we can take Astonish Factory’s advice -- “remember our childhood and pass it on.” But do we pass on ultimitized visions of heroism -- people who are “more real” because they abuse their power, or have perverted sexual appetites, or have dark secrets -- or do we pass on portraits of true heroism. Yes, I know that comics aren’t real and that in real life sometimes people just aren’t like that. But is there anything wrong in aspiring to be like that? Why is pessimism more acceptable than optimism?

We’re just coming through an election, and the battle cry from both sides has been, “Every vote counts.” That is especially true here. We can vote with our pocket books. Buy comics that are all-ages and give them our children or the kids down the street or our nephews or neices (after we read them ourselves, of course!). We need to create a new speculator’s market, where we invest not in the future price of a comic, but instead in the future of comics itself. The young readers who are just around the corner from having their own disposable income but still depend on Mom to buy them stuff right now.

And if you can’t find enough of these books, you can do what some friends of mine (and I) are doing.

Create your own.

Please.

Because I’m running out of reading material for those kids . . .

***

Ben Avery, the script adapter of the critically acclaimed The Hedge Knight, the creator of Hero TV and ArmorQuest from Community Comics, and the co-creator/writer of Lullaby and Mike S. Miller’s The Imaginaries, is a father of three and a seventh grade teacher who wants nothing more than to tell stories . . . many of which he hopes will be enjoyed by people of “all ages”.

5 comments:

Scott said...

This was a great article. I whole heartedly agree. I myself prefer to aim my material at All Ages.

My personal experience has been in the world of syndicated comics (which is pretty stringent when it comes to editing provocativeness). In this case all the news paper comics can be read by anyone, but not all are aimed a children... in fact most are aimed at adults, without offense to kids. It can be done and it is how I want to do it.

To that end I went to my first Comic con and sold a small ash-can comic my wife and I printed and put together at home.

The sale that I remember most is a mother and son (he was just a little guy) stopping at the booth next to me. He was holding hands with his mom (who was chatting with the artist at the other booth). I looked over at him and smiled and he spotted something and let go of his mother's hand. He walked right over to where I had placed some of my little 5 x 8 comics and looked at me. I told him he could read one if he liked. He never uttered a word but he carefully scanned each page with great intensity. His mom came over and asked if he wanted it and he responded with a quiet nod, never taking his eyes off the pages.

I sold a few dozen comics that weekend to many adults and teens, but that one sale I will treasure more than any other. As far as that little boy was concerned, that comic was made just for him.

Michael Regina said...

Dude, so very very true. It makes me sad that there are maybe only a handful of comics out there that I would hand my daughter to read. So I too decided to go make my own with same thought that we need more good stories. I hope the fresh crop of webcomics emmerging will yield more of the same results that books like Red's Planet, My Sister The Freak and others are doing. And I hope my little adventure, Kevin and the Light of Destiny (www.kevincomic.com), will grow to be read by children and adults as well. Thank you for writing this.

Ben said...

Scott, I have a couple stories like that and, honestly, those are the kind of things that are most satisfying as a storyteller: when someone gets enjoyment from one of our stories.

Ben said...

Michael, your Kevin and the Light of Destiny is really quite good. In just a few pages, you've got me intrigued. Very nice. Yeah, that Space Dock 7 bunch is fantastic. I haven't read all of them, so I don't know if they're all "all ages", but Red's Planet and Cleopatra, and Kevin and a few others are filling a need. The KEY, though (and this is not something covered in the article) is how to get the content to the audience. Is it something like "get Dad hooked so he can show it to the kids?" when it comes to webcomics? I'm not sure . . .

Michael Regina said...

I'm actually working on that thought quite a bit. I know that in general kids aren't running to the web to read comics. I've got something in mind, but they'll be small efforts for sure in the beginning. I'm really workingon organizing a charity to put some of these books into children's hospitals to start. we'll what happens. Have to finsih the book first.