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August 19, 2009

Mainstream Does It


Since I’m not a comic-book historian, or someone who religiously follows every industry trend and title, you could not consider me an authority. I have been referred to as an advocate for kids and comics, as well as comics in the classrooms. Yes, I do what I can, but I am not the expert in the business—though I know my way around both the comics and educational arenas.

Still, editorials and blogs are often a blend of facts and opinions—and therefore should not be considered the last word in anything—more like another view of the playing field.
Okay, now that I’ve stated my disclaimer…let me get to the point of this particular blog entry.…
What are comics for kids supposed to be?
I mean, who determines these things? For that matter, what happened that suddenly made it necessary to even ask the question? The answers vary depending on who you talk to—and, to some extent, whether or not they are successful in this business. Like all art, comics reflect the pulse and nature of society at the time of their creation.
Way back in the day, let’s say the ’40s and ’50s, comic books were written for the general audience, even though they were viewed as kids’ entertainment. Of course, when EC Comics began to do more “intense” storylines (in horror and war especially), a certain percentage of the population attempted to censor the tales. But that still left the large majority of comics in the accessible range.
The ’60s and ’70s gave us a new view of the world, and this country in particular. Slowly, more of the stories in comics began to take on the themes of the times, like war, drugs, racism, etc. I’d have to say I was enjoying many of those tales because it made my heroes stand up for something. Also, several writers of that time truly had something to say, much like their mainstream publishing counterparts.
But it was also clear that Green Arrow and Speedy were not going to be able to take down massive amounts of super criminals while Speedy was trying to kick a drug habit. Spider-Man found it harder to wax humor when he was holding his dead girlfriend in his arms.
Great stories all, but with more adult substance than previously encountered and with more complicated plots, motives, and syntax.
So, though comics were taking on more mature subject matters in an effort to widen the audience base, they were also leaving their younger audiences behind. Oh, companies like Harvey and Archie (to name a minority) still remained true to the young ones—but we’ll go into that later.
Okay, so we rolled through the ’80s, ’90s, and almost 10 years into the new millennium, and the books became more and more skewed toward adults. Were we looking for validation as an art form or as literature? Or were we simply following the trend of film and TV? Is a series about a father-daughter team who curse and kick butt (using a PC phrasing here), intended for the Super Friends crowd? I think not. But, depending on who you talk to, the answer might be different.
While you’re thinking about that, consider this equation: Right now, we’re seeing a surge toward putting comics “back” in the hands of children. The obvious statement is being made, “if they’re reading comics, at least they’re reading.” Thanks for that back-handed compliment.
Kids were reading comics—with flashlights—under their blankets back in the ’40s and ’50s. Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spy Smasher, Wonder Woman, and more grabbed their attention and fired their imagination. From the ’60s through the ’80s, kids reading comics may have been less covert, but it was certainly not less beneficial—they were reading.
And if a child loves to read, then a teen and adult may develop that same trait and subsequently continue to buy comics, magazines, novels, and newspapers. Cut off that entry level experience at childhood, and do you really need to wonder why 10 to 20 years later you’re not selling as many prose books?
I feel we need to legitimately create an array of comics for the young as well as the old. Take a leaf from mainstream publishing. They have an age-rating system that goes like this: young readers, 6–9; middle-graders 8–12, and young adults are 13–18.
Certain companies had (or have) their “Adventures” line that allowed the top title characters to have less “intense” and complex stories without making them pabulum or dry. We’re also seeing some titles that are playful, and others that are downright clever and innovative—especially coming from the independents. And there are a number of books that have merged both words and pictures into a comic or graphic novel format, but still need work.
Nevertheless, we’re out there. And with an honest push toward quality products, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month gimmicks, kids will benefit tremendously. What a concept.
Oh, one last thought. As someone with over 30 years in the world of the teaching artist, I’d like to point out that what benefits children and teens also benefits adults struggling with learning disabilities or second-language challenges.

We’re doing more good than you know, folks—so keep it up!