Almost as soon as we put bookshelves in our daughter’s room—before she even moved from sleeping in a crib to sleeping in a bed—I put comics on those shelves. I subscribed to the Archie & Friends double-digests, and slipped those on there, along with my old paperback Peanuts collections. Later, once I was sure she wouldn’t just pull them off the shelf and rip them up, I added the recent Dark Horse reprints of Little Lulu and Harvey Comics, the Drawn & Quarterly John Stanley Library, and my collections of Cul-De-Sac, Calvin And Hobbes, and Mutts. I never handed any of these books to her and said, “You should read this,” and I never read any of them aloud to her. I’ve always felt that kids form stronger attachments to books, movies, and TV shows that they discover themselves—or that they think they’ve discovered themselves. So I just seeded her room with them, and my reward has been watching her come out to read us a funny Fox Trot comic I didn’t even know she’d found yet. It’s also been a pleasure to see her move on to comics like Bone, ElfQuest, Little Orphan Annie, and Carl Barks’ duck stories, reading them with the same seriousness and joy she applied to reading the Harry Potter series, the Narnia books, or her collections of her favorite author, Roald Dahl.
I embarked on this “teach my daughter to love comics” project even though the same mission didn’t work with her older brother (who prefers to read sports almanacs and instruction manuals), and even though I knew I was risking condemning her to a life of nerdery, loving an art form that has long been marginalized by popular culture. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was actually steering her into the mainstream, at least when it comes to children’s literature. For decades, I read article after article about how the audience for comics was aging, and how the mega-box-office for superhero movies and the respectful reviews of graphic novels in The New York Times weren’t doing anything to stop the decline in young readership. But those articles are now somewhat outdated. Over the past five years, comics have been making a strong comeback with the preteen set, sneaking back in through an unexpected back door.
Just consider the past month’s worth of New York Times bestseller lists for paperback graphic novels. Those lists have included the usual mix of superheroes, sword-wielders, and zombies (and sword-wielders fighting zombies), with the main difference being that two of those genre books—The City Of Ember and Amulet Volume 5: Prince Of The Elves—are from Random House Children’s Books and Scholastic Press, respectively. And they’re joined by two more down-to-earth Scholastic books by Raina Telgemeier: Smile and Drama. Meanwhile, the NYT hardcover bestseller list over the past month has included Hope Larson’s graphic-novel adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning classic A Wrinkle In Time, and the Amazon graphic novel lists have featured Telgemeier, A Wrinkle In Time, and multiple volumes of Dork Diaries and Diary Of A Wimpy Kid.
When my kids bring home the Scholastic Book Club flyers from school, they’re much heavier on comics than they were in my day, when the best I could’ve hoped for was a black-and-white paperback of Superman stories (which I still have!) and maybe a Garfield collection or two. In addition to the long lists of Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books in the Scholastic flyers, my kids can now select multiple Doug TenNapel adventure comics, or Brian Selznick’s text/pictures hybrids Wonderstruck and The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, or something from the increasing number of children’s books that work comics-style storytelling into their overall design.
Even more importantly than that: These books are good, by and large. Telgemeier’s Smile, for example, is a winning memoir about how some complicated dental issues corresponded with Telgemeier’s awkward transition into high school. It’s a coming-of-age story filled with wonderful personal details. Her Drama is just as engaging and specific, telling a fictional story about a teenage theater geek who’s sorting through her crushes on multiple boys, some of whom inevitably turn out to be gay. Telgemeier’s cartooning and tone are light, but her stories are refreshingly honest, in a way that budding adolescents in particular tend to respect.
As for Larson’s A Wrinkle In Time, I hadn’t read L’Engle’s book in about 30 years, and everything I’d loved about the original as a 10-year-old came rushing back while I was reading Larson’s take, from the fantastical plot—about a group of kids who travel across the galaxy on a quasi-mystical, heavily metaphorical rescue mission—to the particulars of the characters, who are all misfits in one way or another. A couple of months ago, my daughter read L’Engle’s complete Time Quintet in about a week; when she finished, I handed her Larson’s version, and she tore through it just as fast.
Another welcome development in the burgeoning children’s market for comics is that it’s giving some veteran cartoonists new outlets. Lincoln Peirce, the creator of the newspaper strip Big Nate—a kind of proto-Diary Of A Wimpy Kid—started turning his cartoons into young-adult chapter books a couple of years ago, and has become a staple of the Scholastic flyers, to the extent that even collections of his actual Big Nate strips are selling again. Newspapers used to be many children’s entry to comics fandom, but with print dying and the comics page dwindling in influence and quality, the mail-order bookstore may be the last, best hope for a vital American art form. (There are some similarities here to the way They Might Be Giants went from “beloved but marginal” to “wildly successful” once they started supplementing their quirky pop records with quirky children’s albums.)
Comics for children aren’t just making inroads via mass-market paperbacks. In 2008, alt-comics veteran (and New Yorker art editor) Françoise Mouly launched Toon Books, a thriving iteration of the earlier “RAW Junior” imprint she created with her husband Art Spiegelman, in an attempt to fuse comics with picture books for beginning readers. The first few waves of Toon Books—which have given the likes of Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, Jay Lynch, and R. Kikuo Johnson a venue for their more kid-friendly work—have done well enough that the line has just released its first book long and involved enough to be dubbed a “graphic novel.” David Nytra’s The Secret Of The Stone Frog is a beautiful, surreal storybook, like a fusion of Winsor McCay, Hayao Miyazaki, and Lewis Carroll. It’s a fine next step for kids who liked Toon Books’ “Benny And Penny” series but aren’t ready for A Wrinkle In Time or Drama.
Like Toon Books, the prestigious comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has in recent years been in the business of making the kinds of kid-friendly books that become family keepsakes. In sort of a reverse of what Fantagraphics did back in the ’90s when it started the pornographic Eros Comix to keep the bills paid, D&Q established the Enfant imprint for its archival collections of classic kids’ comics, like the recent color repackaging of selected Tove Jansson Moomin storylines and D&Q’s strange, wonderful collection of 1950s Pippi Longstocking comics, appearing in English for the first time. These are books that young kids read and re-read, then pass along to their kids someday—or at least leave on a shelf in the den for their children and grandchildren to stumble across, the way I remember doing with my grandmother’s collection of crumbling-but-still-gorgeous children’s books.
And this matters, because books like D&Q’s Nipper collections or Fantagraphics’ Mickey Mouse archives are a better gateway to comics than anything DC or Marvel is publishing now. That’s not a knock against those companies, or against the superhero genre, which I still love. But the major comics artists of today—like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, and Lynda Barry—tap into that feeling of being 8 years old and poring over the Sunday funnies or a Golden Book. They connect that feeling to adult concerns and emotions, but still, they rely on an inherent affection and nostalgia for the medium. Five years ago, I worried that those cartoonists were a dying breed, writing and drawing for a dwindling audience. Now I look at the stack of comics next to my daughter’s bed, and I see hope.