Children’s comics: A not-so-phantom menace

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knightsofthelunchtable Childrens comics: A not so phantom menaceAs someone who spent the entire decade of the ’90s trying to convince comics industry players that kids liked to read comics — while editing comics featuring the world’s most popular characters, no less — I can only nod and smile tightly at Chris Butcher’s latest blog post. Butcher has mostly been on blogging hiatus of late but he comes back with a 40 megaton bomb on the recent retailer discussions about whether there are enough kids’ comics. The entire essay must be read in full, but Butcher’s main point is that what most retailers are asking for isn’t comics for kids, but comics that they read as kids:

I’ve seen this happen myself, and with both moms and dads and daughters and sons, when it comes to getting kids some comics. Sometimes it’s because the parent liked comics as a kid and wants to share that with their children, sometimes it’s because the teacher told them it’ll get them reading. Sometimes it’s just to keep them quiet on a long car ride or plane trip. But the only time I’ve ever encountered someone who wants to buy their kid a comic exactly like they read as a kid? Die-hard superhero fans. It’s that defensiveness again, not only are superhero comics awesome and modern mythology and whatever, but they’re the only comics that they want their kid reading. I’ve seen some pretty appalling behaviour too, parents outright refusing to buy a young reader something they’re actually interested in (Simpsons, Disney, NARUTO) because the parent used to Looooove Spider-Man as a kid and hey you liked the movie didn’t you champ remember we saw all three come on get a Spider-Man comic. It’s upsetting, but it’s how they choose to raise their kid and that’s fine, I’m not going to be paying their therapy bills.


Indeed, I had the same kind of reaction when reading the various laments over the lack of comics for young readers. Bongo’s Simpsons comics collections are barely ever mentioned in polite direct market company, but have years of sales totals that anyone but Alan Moore would die for, to cite but the most obvious example.


Much less obviously to the most vocal comics shop crowd, a small but fast growing segment of the graphic novel business is probably YA graphic novels — unfortunately not original ones, but adaptations of existing successful kid and YA franchises: HarperCollins’ Tokyopop’s Warriors books are big sellers, as are the Yen Press James Patterson adaptations, the Artemis Fowl comics, and so on and so forth. I haven’t even mentioned (cough cough) Wimpy Kid. From where I sit, it’s pretty obvious that book publishers haven’t really figured out how to do kids graphic novels — even Scholastic, the giant in the field, is hit or miss — but they are getting the best traction in the market right now. I’m not saying they are good — Del Rey’s Avril Lavigne manga sold okay — but they are comics for kids that seem to have some kid appeal.

And OF COURSE we need readable, competent comics featuring popular characters like Spider-Man and Batman and the like. But the kids’ lines at both Marvel and DC are usually seen as the C-list — if people are any good at writing them — Mark Millar, Jeff Parker — they quickly get brought up to the big leagues. The idea that people can actually make a career out of creating lasting content for children in a variety of mediums doesn’t seem to have entered the superhero realm.

As a side note, here’s something I should have announced weeks ago: in one of my own little contributions to the cause, Publishers Weekly now runs a monthly page of just children’s graphic novel reviews. (Scroll to near the end of the link.) Working in concert with other editors at PW, I decided that breaking out kids graphic novels into their own section is a lot more useful for librarians and booksellers than seeing it lumped all together with the general “Graphic novel” section.

I’m already working with a few publishers to make sure I get enough books to review for the page, but anybody interested in adding me to the pile can email me at the usual place: heidi dot macdonald at gmail dot com.

In short, comics for children and young readers are alive and growing and helping educate the next generation of readers, comics readers, and future world makers. If comics retailers aren’t aware of the books and products that can help them tap into this market, there are several resources out there to help them.

RELATED: Robert Haines of the Joe Shuster Awards describes how they went about creating a category for young readers.

Comments

  1. KentL says:

    There’s a lot of great comics for kids out there. You just probably won’t be able to find them at your LCS. My LCS has a very small rack of comics for kids, mostly Marvel and DC’s latest stuff, though they’ve added the BOOM! stuff recently. I take my kids to the store so infrequently because of the slim pickings. I much prefer shopping online for them. Actually, my son’s school book fair carries a bunch of titles, from the uber-popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid to The Simpsons to Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet. Good stuff.

  2. Good call on using “Knights of the Lunch Table” to illustrate this article. I would have LOVED those books when I was 10 years old. What a fun little series!

  3. Birmy says:

    I can’t hear about Avril Lavigne’s manga “presentation” without thinking about that Comic Foundry interview where she flat-out says, “I don’t read comics. My agent came to me with a marketing opportunity.” Ugh. Way to sell me on it, Avril. I’m not sure if that’s just no-bull honesty or just being a bitch (possibly both).

    At my store, the kids stuff is mostly Johnny DC, Marvel Adventures, Boom! Kids, and Archie, though I’ll put appropriate side stuff in there like G-Man, Gargoyles, Courageous Princess, etc. (We’re a manga-light chain of stores, for better or for worse, so that’s not really a factor for us). Perennial sellers? Disney, Scooby-Doo, and Sonic the Hedgehog (apparently much more popular in comics form than in video games these days). Simpsons/Futurama sell well, but a lot of parents (particularly conservative ones) need convincing that the material is more kid-appropriate than their televised, often more adult and subversive counterparts (a disparity I’ve always found strange). Stuff not tied to other media or not instantly recognizable tends to go by the wayside (trying to sell both a fidgety kid AND their parent on a book by explaining the high concept is a lot more difficult than going, “Hey, you ever see this movie/book/cartoon? This comic look familiar?”).

  4. There’s a disconnect between what comic shop owners THINK is for kids, and what kids actually want to read.

    I posted an entry at my site about the time I took my niece into a comic shop to see what she would want to read. I expected her to choose something like Betty or Veronica, but she chose an issue of Green Lantern that was a Blackest Night tie-in with Star Sapphire and Sinestro on the cover (I forget the issue), based mostly on Star Sapphire’s banana thong costume.

    I eventually talked her down to a copy of X-Men Forever, but my point is that the stuff that Marvel and DC are pushing on kids, kids don’t necessarily want to read; and since many comic shops can’t see past the front of Previews, they’re missing out on the things kids REALLY want to read.

  5. If you wanna get a kid hooked on superhero comics, get ‘em during that phase (around four years of age). I’ve been plying my nephew with old Spidey Super Stories (thanks, Morgan Freeman), and the Toon books.

    As for recent superhero titles, I’m enjoying Marvel Adventures Spider-Man by Paul Tobin. If you’re a fan of Spider-Man, especially the teenage high school student, read this series!

    Crafty fanboys know that you get them reading comics, any comics. Then they get older, and you can use your expertise to introduce them to cool stuff they haven’t read yet.

  6. Good superhero books don’t have to be DC or Marvel. Chris Giarrusso’s G Man, Scott Zirkel’s A Bit Haywire, and Scott Sava’s Hyperactive are all excellent. If a kid likes Spidey or Batman, I always hand over these as well.

  7. All comicartists all over the world that have become multimillionaires, nay billionaires!, drew kids comics: Asterix, Lucky Luke, Astro Boy, Titeuf,…

    Think about that for your inspiration!

  8. Ian Boothby says:

    The Simpsons and Futurama comics, at least the ones I write, aren’t aimed at kids. Futurama has robot hookers. But I’m glad kids like them. Monty Python wasn’t for children either but I sure enjoyed it when I was one. I look at the Bongo books the same way.

    Boom comics have been doing some great work especially the Muppet and Incredibles books.

  9. In my experience being an elementary teacher who uses comics in the classroom on a weekly basis, I find that the superhero genre is less popular than other titles.

    Bone
    Amulet
    Lions, Tigers, and Bears
    Mail Order Ninja
    Baby Sitter’s Club adaptation

    are big hits. Tiny Titans is also very popular with my fourth graders. The Toon Books are solid for emergent and young readers. There is so much out there than just superheroes. I hate to see when folks try to frame comics as superheroes because readers (especially young ones) know better. It’s the adults that don’t seem to get the message. Super heroes are great, but so are all the other genres of comics out there.

  10. Sonic the Hedgehog seemed impenetrable before, but my son was interested in trying it… and now we’re BOTH completely hooked.

  11. And then there are (ahem) web-comics for kids… or all-ages…

  12. The basic disconnect here is that for almost anyone who’s coming at this from the insular, isolated, incestuous world of direct market comic book shops “kids’ comics” means exactly the same thing as ” kids’ superhero comics.”

    Honest to god… is there a graphic novel from Marvel or DC that’s sold anywhere even near the numbers of the first CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS book?!

  13. Those Sonic comics are incredibly popular. Makes you wonder why there’s never really been a Mario book.

    And yes Tiny Titans is one of those books fun for kids and adult. Shazam! was great for the Jeff Smith run and the first few issues. Owly was a big hit with my nephew.

  14. I think the problem lies with the creators. We’ve been told over and over again that comics aren’t for kids any more and that the focus should be on telling mature, sophistacted stories aimed at adults. I think the Vertigo line is a prime example of the type of work that is encouraged by the media. There’s a sense that kid’s comics are going to fail and that publisher don’t really want to touch them, for example the Flight Explorer book being suddenly without a publisher or Ted Naifeh’s Simon and Schuster comics getting minimal support from the publisher.I think someone has the next TinTin,Bone or Donald Duck in them but is put off by the atmosphere in comics.I think creators need to be more persistant in following their visions, I certainly believe the market is waiting for them.

    I’m going to post about this tomorrow on my blog.

  15. MBunge says:

    The problem is that comic characters and concepts that USED to be for kids have now been hijacked for the entertainment of people who should be grown-ups, creating this weird disconnect between what comics used to be and what they are.

    Mike

  16. My publisher Top Shelf has been doing gangbusters lately with kids comics, Drawn & Quarterly has been doing great with kids comics too. DC finally has a great line-up of kids comics. Boom Comics has made a huge splash over the past year. Things are actually better for kids comic right now than they’re been for years and years.

  17. Scott Robins says:

    The big thing here is to look beyond the traditional pamphlet comic book publishers and to the great stuff that a LOT of mainstream publishers are supporting:
    Babymouse, Kit Feeney, Lunch Lady from Random House
    Rapunzel’s Revenge and the upcoming Calamity Jack from Bloomsbury
    Binky the Space Cat from Kids Can Press
    Jellaby from Hyperion
    Amulet, Copper, Missile Mouse, Knights of the Lunch Table from Scholastic

    And of course, the godfather of all kids comics – Bone.

  18. Mainstream companies have let the ball drop on kids’ comics for too many years now, and it’s their loss. Meanwhile, children’s books have thrived over that time presenting an unusually high level of artistry and creativity in what gets released by major companies and managing to present what amount to panel-a-page sequential, visual stories for children without the licensed characters. The proof that the major comics companies mostly failed is in the titles listed by people on this thread – notice how many of them are from mainstream children’s book publishers – the only actual comics companies really mentioned are progressive ones like Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf. I would also add First Second as a major source of great books for kids. That’s why I’ve focused my review work preaching to the unconverted – as Butcher’s piece sadly points out, the converted often have too narrow a view of the possibilities of the medium when it comes to kid’s books. Thankfully plenty of people outside that little bubble are moving along happily with great material.

  19. Torsten Adair says:

    Amongst all this talk about comics which are for young readers yet also appeal to adults, here’s a creator who tells incredible stories which also have strong moral themes: Doug TenApel. And, just in time for the holidays, he has a new book coming out.

    As for Marvel, go read Eric Shanower’s Oz adaptations (and then go read the original Baum books).

    Not to quibble… but Captain Underpants isn’t a comicbook, it’s a chapter book. Lots of fun… but it’s a book. Black and White by David Macaulay IS a comicbook, and quite an experimental one at that!

    I also enjoyed the new Caspar reboot from J.M. DeMatteis and company. Revamped with an urban modern feel, but true to the characters. He’s also crafted some fine YA stories, such as Abazad.

  20. Thank you for continuing to bring attention to children’s comics! As a senior editor at Stone Arch Books, I’m always searching for ways to get comics into the hands of a wider audience. My company, the fiction imprint of Capstone Publishers, has churned out more children’s comics than, perhaps, any publisher in the last five years — hundreds of original titles in a variety of genres (humor, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy) and major licensing partnerships including the upcoming Sports Illustrated for Kids graphic novels. We strive for each of our comics to have that elusive “kid appeal,” and we make sure they are appealing to parents and librarians as well (leveled text, diversity, easy-to-read fonts, Spanish titles, and SAFE subject matter).

  21. Wayne Beamer says:

    James K.: The success of your Monkey vs. Robot books and Andy Runton’s Owly series made other comics publishers take notice.

    Butcher is dead-on the money with this one. and I have but one thing to add to the discussion: My “broken record” stance that most comic shop owners don’t really see themselves as independent booksellers. If they did, the way they position their businesses and sell comics as books would change radically, and for the better for everyone on the food chain. And, we’d be on to more important stuff… like talking about good books.

  22. This seems like as good a time as any to remind people about THREE THIEVES, my series of YA fantasy graphic novels that debuts from Kids Can Press next fall! Tell your favourite bookseller to order hundreds upon hundreds of copies! ;)

  23. Here’s another success story: Amelia Rules!

    Moved to Simon & Schuster, and great comics for any reader!
    (Oh… and it’s got superheroes in it, too! And ninjas! And a licensed cartoon character! And a hot indy singer/songwriter! And it’s creator owned! And it was adapted into a musical!)

    Wayne, I’m with you on the whole “hobby vs. bookstore” dichotomy in comics shops. The smart retailers know all this. The not-so-smart ones… well, I hate to see them fail.

  24. My daughter’s being raised on a steady diet of Beanworld, old Superfriends comics, Simpsons, Sonic the Hedgehog, Cartoon Network anthologies, and anything that grabs her attention on my kids spinner rack. IDW’s Astro Boy grabbed her eye recently.

    This is a good time to remind everyone that the ALL-NEW BEANWORLD GRAPHIC NOVEL ships this week and next!

  25. I got hooked on Sonic comics way back with issue #5, when Scott Shaw! was still doing the covers. For a kid who’d grown up (and then grown out of) reading Archie, it was an instant addiction.

    I believe Mario comics haven’t made it to the states because Nintendo is an especially finicky licensor. I remember there being a long-running Mario comic in Japan…

  26. Every week I post my recommendation for new comics by going through the new comics release list. (I’m a couple weeks behind, though.) The goal is to recommend material for new readers – people who have never or aren’t currently active in reading comics. So needless to say, 95% of superhero stuff is typically eliminated right away. One thing I’ve been noticing is that there really is a constant influx of new material (that looks like it could actually be GOOD!-whodathunk?) coming out from publishers like Dark Horse, Boom, First Second, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, IDW, Fantagraphics, Image, and others I’m forgetting. It seems like there’s always at least one “all-ages”/”kid friendly” comic or graphic novel every week, usually more, which I love seeing.

    It’s true what they say. There has never been a more diverse selection of quality comics. The trick is digging through the noise to find them.

  27. Wayne Beamer says:

    Torsten: Thanks! Unfortunately, even ones we perceive to be “smart” don’t get that distinction.

    Makes me wonder, when magazines finally figure out how to make money on the Internets (see yesterday’s NY Observer: http://www.observer.com/2009/media/time-incs-squires-assembles-team-rivals-harness-digital-media), comics won’t be far behind, leaving sellers of aged paper wrapped in multiple “collectors” covers choking dust and booksellers the real destination for comics buyers.

  28. Nintendo properties are available in comic form in the US, but not drawn by Americans. There’s The Legend of Zelda manga, and the Pokemon manga. If there was a Mario manga, I would assume VizKids would jump on it… unless it wasn’t very good?

  29. Synsidar says:

    I was wondering what the benefits of graphic novels for children would be, compared to picture books, since many young children couldn’t appreciate artwork done in sequential panels. I looked at a couple of “recommended purchases” lists for libraries. The two lists, one from 2005 and the other from 2009, are quite different. The Graphic Novels For
    Children’s and YA Collections
    has a lowest age of seven for the most part — a few are suited for five and older — while the Core Collection Suggestions” list is aimed entirely at juveniles. Neither list separates the tiles by sex.

    SRS

  30. Miss C says:

    I think webcomics are a fairly new and exciting solution for children and adults. Nothing beats the feeling of going into a comic book store, and exiting with a big stack of comics huddled in your arms… However, webcomics open up so many unique and accessible adventures to readers of any age. (Don’t forget, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” started out as a webcomic!) If anything, in this economy, it is a frugal and smart solution since many webcomics are free.

    Robot 6 recently posted a Thanksgiving buffet of webcomics to enjoy — check it out!

    Included in the aforementioned buffet is “Smash,” a webcomic by Chris (writer) and Kyle Bolton (artist). They have successfully created an all-ages comic in the superhero realm that is engaging, exciting, and fun to read. Chris recently wrote a blog pertaining to the subject of comics for readers of any age, and I recommend reading it here and continuing the conversation: Smash Comic

  31. James: There seem to be 39 volumes worth of “Super Mario-Kun,” but MangaFox users have rated it at under three stars … not impressive for something they’re reading for free.

    And yeah, I’ve seen the Zelda manga around, come to think of it. Even so, the licensor is probably the reason why we only get translations of Japanese comics and nothing new.

  32. I haven’t read all the comments, but one place you’ll find some good quality comics suitable for all ages is comics on the web. I see someone mentioned Smash already.

    I do as sci-fi humor all ages comic called Marooned – A Space Opera in the Wrong Key.. Steve Ogden does another one called Moon Town.

    We recently just began a publishing studio called Wishtales, and our stories will cater to the all ages market. In fact, we just published a kids book by my daughter called Gertie, a Guinea Pig’s Tail.

    Good stuff is out there, it just may not be on the big stores/comic shop shelves right now.

  33. I’ve started reading Super Mario-Kun online, and it’s pretty good. Not great stories, but I actually love the art style.

    Apparently there’s an out of print book called Super Mario Adventures that was an early Mario manga that ran in English in Nintendo Power magazine. Used copies do not appear to be for sale at any price anywhere online.

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