Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts on All-Ages Comic Books

One of the first comics I read as a very young child;
Gold Key was my brand of choice

One of the initiatives I have taken on as late has been all-ages comic books. I just found myself quietly drifting in that direction. Is it because I am getting older? Is it because, with a very young nephew and my own thoughts about eventually having a child of my own, this topic has suddenly become a lot more relevant to me?

I have made it my business to familiarize myself with the children's comics that are being offered every month. I'm particularly concerned with comic books for ages up to 13. While there is some good product out there, there is, in my opinion, not enough. The new releases for children -- only floppies, mind you -- at one large comic book store I go to fills a single shelf. A single shelf. That's not enough new material.

Then you have another shelf or two of trade-paperbacks and assorted hardcovers. And, course, there is always manga -- but, when you take out the titles meant for children 13 years or older, there is not tons and tons of stuff available (and if you take out the adaptations of card games, there is even less).

I'll admit I'm most concerned about the floppies, or digests with relatively low prices. These should be the things most accessible to kids, things they can easily buy with their allowance. Accessiblity. Accessibilty is really a local candy store, or a local mega-supermarket. Can you get Johnny DC titles at supermarkets?

Archies are racked up at some of the drug stores chains. Impulse buys. Low price-point. For under $3 or $4 you can get a digest packed to the gills with Archie stories for your child. Compare that to a digest priced at $7.99, or $9.99. Does a seven-year-old need fancy card-stock covers?

When I was a very small child (3-7 years old), my parents pulled copies of comics from Archie, Harvey, and Gold Key like they were grapes from the stands and spinner racks. If it had an Archie, Harvey, or Gold Key logo, they bought it. They also bought me Captain Carrot. Howard the Duck was a mistake, however.

Gold Key in particular offered me a great deal of variety. Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Fat Albert...everything I was watching on TV at the time. Some of these stories, unbeknownst to me, had been reprinted and repackaged from decades before. My love for these comics translated to the next step up -- superhero comic books. And so I was hooked.

Gold Key was the "gateway drug" for my hobby. Their offerings were vast, cheap, colorful, and plentiful. We could get them at the supermarket or the comic book store. And, most of all, they had a clear "all-ages" branding that made it easy for my over-worked and harried parents to identify and buy them for me.

My recommendations for all-ages material are:
1) Low price-point
2) Cheaper paper
3) Affordable mass-market digests
4) Larger supermarket, drug store, and candy store distribution
5) Push subscriptions as an option
6) More titles
7) Clearly mark or brand comics as "all-ages"

I'm sure I'm not the first person to recommend these things, but this is just some stuff off the top of my head.


  1. Agree on all points. I wish I could afford Archie on my budget, but alas. Then again, if my comic list continues to shrink I may just fit them in! Ya know, I may just work on that, screw it.

    Anyways, these all-ages books are the future. The future as in their audience are the ones who are gonna keep the industry alive. Plus, not for nothing, a ton are more well-written than the adult stuff. Any time I see Jeff Parker or Fred Van Lente I'll go after those books.

    I had recently gotten the self-publish bug and one of the concepts I'm contemplating is an all-ages humor book. Something adults can enjoy but the kiddies especially. Thinking after reading this I might pursue that one more aggressively.

  2. I'm right there with you, Valerie. As a father of a nearly-three-year old, I am always on the lookout for new all-ages titles for my daughter's bedtime reading. We have recently been reading Marvel Adventures Avengers digests. I learned to read because of Superboy #165, but it seems like mainstream DC and Marvel comics are never again going to be appropriate for that age. I'd like to see DC do more books like the Marvel Adventures line.

  3. The First Marvel comic I ever read was Marvel Team-Up #145 which was published in 1984, that would have made me 8. It wasn't filled with a ton of objectionable material, but I would bet plenty of people wouldn't think it was the most appropriate read for an 8 year old. The story revolved around Blacklash's pathetic attempt to seek revenge on Iron Man. Blacklash is ridiculed by his old hometown friends and even his mom disowns him at the end of the book. Again no Tigra getting pistol whipped to death, but not exactally Casper the friendly ghost either.

    my point? sometimes when we discuss all ages comics we're not giving kids the credit they deserve. if anything kids these days grow up faster. I guess there's my thought on all-ages comics, don't make them stupid. kids like reading stuff that doesn't talk down to them.

  4. I would be very, very happy if we could get the Johnny DC books at grocery stores, drug stores and/or Wal-Mart. Is there some stimulus money that could make that happen? The only, and I mean absolutely only (as in not at comic book shops) place I see them are the chain book stores and I live about an hour away from the nearest one of those.
    I will buy them up when I see them though. The choice of books my daughter and I pick out are usually based on the characters they contain and the price. And of course, I flip through them and make sure they are safe. Which pretty much means only Johnny DC and Archie stuff.
    But yeah, cheap paper is totally fine. Kids could care less.

  5. You're right--I can't disagree with any of your suggestions. My kids love comics, but they wouldn't be reading them if I weren't buying them for them because they're just not in a kid's price range.

    That said, the Marvel Adventures line tends to be the best all-ages material out there. The Johnny DC stuff is good but it's SO different from the mainstream titles that I wonder how many readers make the eventual transition to the more "grown up" books.

  6. The best stuff DC ever did for the all-ages market was the Batman/Superman Adventures stuff (the JLA stuff, too!). It didn't talk down to anybody and could be appreciated by both children and adults.

  7. I've seen Marvel Adventures books at Walgreen's and CVS and I want to say even Wal-Mart (though I could be making that up). I don't recall ever seeing any Johnny DC stuff, though.

    But yeah, I totally agree and, though I've never actually read any of them, the all ages titles seem like they're a lot more fun to read than the regular offerings.

  8. Anonymous6:29 PM

    I remember reading the Spidey Super Stories some 30+ years ago, in conjunction with the Electric Company, which were basically "worded-down" versions of previously published stories, with guest stars from the Electric Company (does anyone else in the world even remember that show? Morgan Freeman started in it!) Anyway, a couple of years ago I managed to snag some battered copies in a garage sale, enjoyed them for a few minutes, stored them away, and now they have found a new audience with the students in my girlfriend's class, for whom English is not their first language, and don't want to be caught reading stupid girlie books to help their vocabulary :-)

  9. See, there's a problem with stuff that can apply to adults and kids.

    There's also a problem with saying kid's stuff is all age 12 or younger.

    There is a world of difference in development between 2 and 7 and 9 and 12. There's also a world of difference in interests between actual kids and adults.

    The themes are different. Look. Toy Story was a great movie. It's great for kids that are 13 or older, as well as adults.

    But younger? Weeelllll...

    My son is 2. He loves Superman. He loves Spiderman. We can't find ANYTHING consumable for toddlers outside of toys.


    I've mentioned it before.

    The 1941-43 Fleischer cartoons are ACTUALLY consumable by little ones. They are simple themes and easily digestible. He loves them.

    But there's no Spiderman corollary.

    The recent Adventures stuff is still too old for him. And, honestly, some of the themes in there ARE complex. Too complex for anyone younger than 10 to get.

    Sure they have whiz bang effects, but some of the themes are just too complex and drag it down for kids. There's a reason why the cartoons' main demo was 18-34. Kids weren't interested.

    I'm tired of the old "kids grow up faster than they used to" argument. The reason they grow up faster is because we don't talk to them as if they were kids. We push everyone into the 18-34 demo. If you're older than 34, you should act younger. If you're younger than 18, you should act older.

    That's why you have so many kids dressing or acting inappropriately. Not just because the stuff is out there, but because people don't see any problem in feeding it to them.

    So Archie? Great. Don't think my son would give it much of a look, but whatever. What'd be even better, though, would be to have some good stuff with Superman or Spiderman or any superhero that isn't just manga by way of MTV.

    That's what I'd like.

  10. Val: It's funny you mention Howard. One of the best experiences I've had online was having the opportunity to stumble across Steve Gerber's blog a few years back, email him, and thank him for helping me broaden my vocabulary back in 1976, and making me cry over that poor Hellcow.

    The man had the Pixar-like ability to work on different levels simultaneously. If you were seven years old and didn't get that it was all social satire, it still worked. If you were too young to get the joke, it still worked. Amazing.

  11. As the father of a seven-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, both of whom are quite bright, I constantly despair at the lack of all-ages comics. My local store (Hi De Ho in Santa Monica) has ONE -- count 'em, ONE -- rack dedicated to all-ages comics, the rest of the store I'm scared to let the kids roam in. My son is attracted to stuff designed for 13-year-olds, but the narratives are too complicated for him to grasp. My daughter loves the Johnny DC titles, especially Tiny Titans, but there aren't enough of them, and they sell out too fast.

  12. I was into Gold Key, especially their Star Trek and Turok titles, but distribution in my area was spotty.

    Anyway, excellent ideas. I especially like the suggestion about the cheaper paper. Ideally, little kids would read these things until they fell apart, the way we used to in the old days.

  13. To me, it's not a question of morality, it's a question of pragmatism: You've got to hook in young readers, or where will your next generation of fans come from?

    But "all-ages" and "kid-friendly" don't, as I've said in the past, have to mean "dumbed down" or "sanitized." 'Doctor Who' (the current series) is considered "family friendly", but I guarantee you that small children had nightmares about kids in gas masks calling out, "Are you my Mummy?"

    Here are what I consider to be "family-friendly" guidelines.

    1) No explicit sex or violence. (This is mostly a concession to the parents, not the kids. Kids love this stuff.) This doesn't mean you can't do scary or sexy stuff, you just have to learn how to use implication. Sometimes, that's even scarier...

    2) Faster pace. Decompression is for adults. Kids get bored with long, slow, talky scenes. Comics aimed at kids should be peppier, have more action, and convey their points quicker. (This is, IMHO, a good general rule anyway. There's a reason Strunk and White's elements of style never said, "Write for the trade."

    3) The protagonist should be, ultimately, sympathetic and heroic. Not flawless or bland, but you should understand clearly that these are the good guys and you should be able to root for them.

    I think there's a lot of range in those three guidelines for comics that appeal to kids and adults alike.

  14. Laid off, I get what you're saying. I'm all for kids being kids, and I definitely understand there's a huge difference between what a 3 year old will enjoy and comprehend vs what a 10 year old will like.

    My point earlier was more that when I look back and see what comics I was reading at the age of 8 or 9 I'm a bit amazed that I not only comprehended the books, but enjoyed them as well. at the ripe old age of 32 Would I recommend Chris Claremonts run on the x-men to a 10 year old, probably not. Did I read the x-men when I way 10? You bet I did, and they're still some of my favorite comics.

  15. Any kid older then 6 is not going to touch anything with a big "All Ages" sign on it.
    All ages for the most part means dumb and silly.
    If your going to sell action you have to have action to sell!
    I would say that old Batman Cartoon on the WB was about the right mix of chaste and dark imo. Gargoyles was another good one but I never got to see to much of it sadly.