Feature by Jonathan Clode
Back in August 2013, it was reported that American artist Paul Pope had pitched an idea to DC Comics to bring back Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, only to be told by DC Editor-in-Chief Dan Didio that, “We don’t make comics for kids, we make comics for 45 year olds.”
While the specific phrasing of this response has been overstated, Pope, who expands on what was said here in a Newsarama interview, has said that the message from DC was clear – many of our comics are made specifically for adults!
My introduction to comics came from a galaxy that really does seem far, far away. It was known as the mid-1980s, and like many kids my age I was weaned on the The Dandy, Beano and Funday Times. From there I progressed to Oink!, which for the uninitiated, was a kind of kid friendly version of VIZ. This was a grimy, rude, consciously naughty comic book that wasn’t afraid to be utterly disgusting and celebrate mockery, two essential parts of any decent childhood. Crashing into my teens I discovered reprints of Tales from the Crypt, the actual VIZ, and Eastman and Laird’s original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While it was Ninja Turtles that branded me for life, it was the comics I read as a child that put the iron in the heart of the fire.
Many times I’ve heard people argue that kids are far too ‘switched on’ for comics these days; that technology has taken control of their simple little brains and refined them to the point where fart jokes and daring, silly adventures are far too bland to compete with the flavoursome wonders of a Playstation or YouTube. It seems to me that children aren’t perhaps as switched on as we give them credit for. Rather they are so tuned in to the virtual world that they switch off from the real one. Good comic stories can enlighten and educate, and I suspect that the fart jokes would be perfectly compelling, they just might be better received via download on a tablet. But how many writers or artists actually try?
The sad indictment of a comic book culture marketed and produced for middle aged men, while arguably specific to the American market, has a direct influence on publishing here in the UK. Non aficionados assume that capes and zombies are all there is to it, and if you walked around your average convention, you’d be hard pressed to argue. Every booth or table is peddling it’s take on a superhero, zombie or supernatural story that sets itself apart by (insert clever twist) and isn’t at all like Batman, Hellboy or The Walking Dead… honest.
I’ve been at conventions and seen kids pick up books only to be told via a subtle nudge to their parents that, “You’re a bit young for that.” That same kid then goes home from a comic convention with bags full of everything but comics because there was nothing there for him or her to read. The fact that comic books once flourished as a kids medium is now frowned upon, and in their efforts to be taken seriously have distanced themselves from kid’s altogether.
The British comic book scene has certainly enjoyed a renaissance in the last few years, with publishers like Self Made Hero and Jonathan Cape providing a home to intelligent, creator controlled stories. But the majority of these exist in the equally distanced world of the ‘graphic novel’ and are seldom meant to be read by your son or daughter.
There are lights within this apparent void, whether it’s Luke Pearson and his beautiful Hilda books (published by NoBrow Press), or Jamie Smart, an artist with that rare gift of being able to amuse child and adult in equal measure. And that’s the point. Good storytelling works because it’s good, not because of genre or demographic.
I feel confident to debate this because I write comics. I’ve spent the last year editing To End All Wars, a World War One anthology, and in spite of its subject, and the odd expletive, I would be largely comfortable in letting a child read the majority of the 26 stories contained inside it. Heaven forbid they might learn something and enjoy it at the same time!
Last summer I adapted a story from E.Nesbit’s Book of Dragons, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had writing a comic. I’d like to say it was for a UK publisher. To their credit, this one was American.
The very idea of kid’s comics seems to have capitulated to more allegedly sophisticated alternatives and signalled their surrender, and the vast majority of what remains are licensed properties with bucket loads of cash behind them. This means that our strong heritage of masterfully crafted, astutely written original children’s comics has been consigned to history. From The Eagle to Battle, we produced stories that, while often very much of their time, never talked down to their audience, and weren’t ashamed to be made especially for them. Yes, we need to be conscious of the preference toward digital media, and yes, any attempt at a meaningful resurgence will be an uphill climb, but as things stand it’s barely even a crawl. When the Reverend Marcus Morris founded The Eagle, one of his hopes was that it might act as a stepping stone from picture books to prose. Considering the current literacy levels in the UK, I’d argue that kids need comics now more than ever.
The thing I loved about the comics I read as a kid was that they felt like they were mine. They understood my sense of humour, knew what made me tick and directly nurtured the need for creativity I now hold so dear. Perhaps it’s time we stopped being so precious about our medium and used it to give children something that, if done for the right reasons, they won’t fail to love.
At least I hope they won’t, because I doubt very much our next generation of comic creators will come from 45 year old super hero fans.
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