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The Importance of Kid-Friendly Comics

I was pretty darned sure of myself and my understanding of the world before I had kids. I realized really quickly that I didn’t know jack from squat. (And if you ask my kids, they’ll tell you I still don’t know jack from squat.)

I previously consumed my nerdy media solely from my individual point of view. Now I see everything through the lens of my children. It’s wonderful. And terrifying. And magical. And depressing. Sometimes it is all those things at once, and more.

This is certainly true with comics and comic book movies. Three quick anecdotes to get us started, then a shift toward history:

  • ANECDOTE #1: I’m currently watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) straight through with my soon to be 12-year-old daughter. It has been an absolutely delightful experience for both us us.
  • ANECDOTE #2: My youngest daughter has a wicked case of dyslexia, so she has some apps on her iPad to help her out. One app reads comics to her and it has taught me some important lessons on the importance of accessibility.
  • ANECDOTE #3: My local comic shop (FLCS) is friendly toward kids. When my daughter went in to shop for her first comic book, the employee dropped to one knee and really listened to my daughter’s preferences right at eye level. (More on that here.)

The History of Comic Books

30s-60s: Now, some history. The early decades of comics books were aimed primarily at kids. From the Zap! Boom! Pow! of the first Batman television show to the family first nature of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, early comic books stories were wholly accessible to kids.

70s-80s: But newsstands were sick of trying to stock dozens of floppy comics, so they took the first baby step out of the mainstream by placing them on spinner racks that they could slide off to the side.

Not long after, newsstands had only cooled further on comics, so the direct market – specialized little shops for comics – began its rise in the 80s. That a kid could no longer grab a colorful comic from a newsstand, and instead had to find them in a specialized retail shop, meant the comic book industry lost touch with that audience.

90s-00s: The Big 2 of Marvel and DC transitioned to an older audience quite smoothly. The audience became smaller, but it had much more discretionary spending power than a kid with two quarters had.

And they solved the issue of attracting the next generation through grittier lines like Vertigo, which worked wonderfully at attracting college-aged male readers. Here’s the thing: You keep them how you get them. So those Deadpool, Punisher, Vertigo fans of the 90s kept asking for those types of books, which inadvertently continued the trend away from being kid-friendly comics.

10s-20s: The darnedest thing then happened. The MCU became the runaway most popular franchise in the world and – being owned by Disney – it kept an accessibility to young audiences.

The Return of Kid-Friendly Comics?

Could those young MCU fans then be converted into comic book readers? Not really. Too many comic shops didn’t know what to do with kids, as they had only been practicing allowing 20-something males to hang around the counter while talking deep thoughts about Magic: The Gathering.

And the titles geared toward kids simply weren’t there. In fact, Marvel was caught so flat-footed that they quickly ramped up a “Marvel Action” line aimed at tween readers but it was printed by IDW Comics! Marvel Comics of the 60s would’ve owned that demographic but the Marvel Comics of the 10s had to outsource it.

My nephews own a gaggle of the Marvel Action comics, but they don’t buy them in comic shops. They gobble them up at school book fairs by Scholastic. My daughters get in on Scholastic as well, as do their friends. Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel are flying off the shelves. But not the FLGS shelves, the rolling racks that Scholastic delivers to school book fairs.

In fact, there has been an inflection point, much of it driven by Scholastic’s success with comic properties and kid-friendly chapter books.

Raina Telgemeier is the #1 comic creator in the world with her books Drama and Sisters, both of which are aimed at young girls. Dav Pilkey has Captain Underpants and Dog Man. “Real” comic fans don’t accept these as legitimate comic books but it hasn’t stopped the titles from selling literally millions of copies to kids.

Just this week it was announced that 3,300 Wal-Mart stores would have an entire end-cap in their book section that is devoted to middle grade non-superhero comics from new comics publisher Allegiance Arts and Entertainment.

The good news? There is an entirely new generation of comic book readers, although they weren’t gained via traditional comic book shops. But the hook has been set in these young readers. What could savvy shop owners do?

Well, be a good citizen and develop a relationship with the local schools, barber shops, and dentist offices. Don’t let Scholastic be the only one. Make up a flyer and let schools know you sell age-appropriate, kid-friendly comics. But you darned sure better make sure your shop follows through by becoming kid friendly.

It’s not revolutionary. As we just learned, comics used to reach kids via mainstream channels. They could again.

I can hear the counter-argument now: We need comics to explore adult themes! Indeed, we do. But I would argue we already have plenty of those, plus a whole lot extra that we don’t need. All I’m saying is this: What if we took away 10% of the “adult”-directed comics and replaced those with 10% more comics aimed at young audiences. Adults certainly wouldn’t be hurting for content and we’ve possibly gained new fans.

I made the same argument with PG-13 superhero movies. I know the other Nerds on Earth writers love their Deadpools and their Punishers, but the greatest joy I’ve been experiencing lately has been watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) straight through with my soon to be 12-year-old daughter.

The soft PG-13 of the MCU is 100% enjoyable by adults like me. I’ve had 46 years of f-bombs, hyper-violence, and nudity in my media and it has left me a crusty, joyless old crank. My life didn’t need any more media with “adult themes.” In fact, my soul has needed to see the excitement and delight in my daughter’s face as she experiences the MCU for the first time.

But 20- and 30-something males are a key demographic that spends a lot of money and consume a lot of media. I get it. My point is simply that there is plenty of content out there for them and, in examples like the MCU, they can fully enjoy the thing if it also takes care to be accessible to younger audiences. Pixar has also taught us that.

In conclusion, I’m not your dad. But I am someone’s dad. And I’m always looking for great comics for my kids.

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