There once was a time, before Watchmen and long before The Walking Dead, when comic books were primarily targeted at children. Simple, fantastic stories with vibrant, if generic, artwork were published at a breakneck pace, giving ravenous young readers a steady stream of stories in genres ranging from superhero tales to Westerns to romance. Since the mid-’80s, though, the content in mainstream comic books has become increasingly adult. The ’90s placed an emphasis on sex and violence that reached caricature levels by the end of the decade, and the current economic climate has made collecting comic books a hobby that requires a regular paycheck, not a weekly allowance. As creators work to distance themselves from the four-colored frivolity of the past, comics have become more mature, which has allowed them to feature more adult content and in some cases be accepted as serious art.
The maturation of comic books led to a creative renaissance, but it’s also resulted in a shift of demographics. Most of the readers buying superhero comics are older fans who first read them as children and teenagers. Companies have responded by gearing more titles to the adult crowd. The recent DC relaunch was intended to bring in a younger audience by doing away with much of the continuity that made titles inaccessible to new readers, but most of the books were saturated with sex or violence that would make me think twice about buying them for a kid. Which raises the question: What comics can you buy for kids?
Start by finding a good story. An all-ages comic book should have an easy-to-follow plot. Easy-to-follow can mean simple, like the wordless adventures of Andy Runton’s Owly, but most importantly it means that children can find their way to the end without getting lost along the way. Jeff Smith’s Bone is a perfect example of an all-ages epic that has its share of twists and surprises, but never loses clarity. Bone is also a story that balances drama with humor beautifully, combining the high fantasy of Tolkien with the cartoon hijinks of Disney. As the stakes rise for Smith’s characters, the comedy prevents the tone from becoming overly bleak or serious, and the humor becomes a source of hope for both the cast and the reader.
Bone also illustrates that “all-ages” doesn’t just mean “for kids.” The best titles have elements adults can latch on to as well. Roger Langridge’s The Muppet Show is one of the best humor comics published in the past decade, using the comic-book form to capture the spirit and energy of the television series. Each issue has an overarching plot broken up by one- or two-page comic strips depicting the show’s different sketches, and Langridge’s experience with adult humor on titles like Fred The Clown keeps the jokes from being too infantile. Langridge can also craft incredibly moving stories, like the series’ third issue, “Gonzo’s Story,” which focuses on one of the great Muppet mysteries: What is Gonzo? The Muppets spend the entire issue investigating, until Scooter finally just decides to ask Gonzo while he’s in a hospital bed, recovering from his latest trick:
Self-absorbed, destructive, and wholly unique, Gonzo really is an artist, and it’s a moving punchline to the story that resonates with anyone who has ever risked their safety or sanity in the process of creating art.
A good all-ages book should also emphasize romance over sex. Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger was a touching book that sadly lasted only eight issues (and a great Free Comic Book Day special), but in that short time, Langridge and Samnee crafted one of the best courtships in comic-book history. Exiled from Asgard until he can learn to be less of a pompous jerk, Thor meets Jane Foster, an adorable divorcee who teaches him how wonderful it is to be human. Their attraction is immediate, but their relationship isn’t defined by sex, but rather by quiet, intimate moments like this:
Writing is one half of comic books. The other half is art, and clean, vibrant art is the best choice for all-ages titles. There are a handful of darker books—Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin series is a great example of all-ages black and white horror—but for the most part, kids like colorful artwork that is more cartoonish than realistic. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans is on one end of the spectrum, with drawings that look like they’ve been lifted from a child’s sketchbook. There’s a Charles Schulz-like simplicity to the characters, and Franco’s designs are easily replicable by his readers, who often send in fan art that is published in the back of the book. Andy Runton’s Owly is similarly uncomplicated: His main character is really just a circle with ears and feet, but he’s the most adorable circle ever drawn.
Langridge’s Muppet Show is still quite cartoony, but with a more polished, cinematic look. Animation-inspired art remains the most popular choice for an all-ages series, with Bone falling into this camp, along with Skottie Young’s Eisner Award-winning work on Marvel’s Oz adaptations, although his style is even more exaggerated and stylized. Carl Barks’ work with Disney’s duck characters is the pinnacle of this school: Barks’ experience as a Disney animator honed his talent for creating sprawling environments and distinct characters that are instantly charming and incredibly rich. Fantagraphics just published its first hardcover collection of Barks’ classic stories, Donald Duck: Lost In The Andes, a beautiful package collecting some of Barks’ most memorable duck tales.
Ideally, all-ages comics will also give young readers something to think about, maybe even supplying a moral at the end of the story. Even superhero books like O.M.A.C. have something to teach: Kevin Kho’s experience shows the destructive nature of secrets, and could even be read as metaphor for addiction. Image Comics’ Reed Gunther teaches the value of friendship through a story about a cowboy and his pet bear. Recent issues of Archie are admirably tackling the subject of homosexuality with Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first openly gay resident, teaching not just tolerance, but acceptance.
With comic books moving ever closer to the forefront of pop culture, publishers have the opportunity to catch new readers while they’re still young. The rise of digital comics means kids don’t have to rely on their parents taking them to a comic shop for books, but they still need their parents to pay for them. If the content isn’t appropriate, publishers are going to have a harder time getting their books in a child’s hands. Those children grow up to be the adults with pull lists at their comic shop, and if publishers want not just to survive, but grow, they need to make a conscious effort to release books that will entice young readers.
A selection of great all-ages comic book titles
Owly (Top Shelf)
Andy Runton’s charming series of graphic novels about the friendship between an owl and a worm teaches lessons about disappointment, responsibility, and kindness through the wordless adventures of woodland creatures. Perfect for young readers that haven’t quite made transition to written narratives, as well as adults who love adorable things.
Marvel’s Oz adaptations
Eric Shanower and Skottie Young are now on their fourth adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, and each new volume shows just how perfect both creators are for the material. Shanower has long been an Oz scholar, adapting some of Baum’s stories in the early ’90s, but Young’s art is the real star of the books, with imaginative design work that distances the comics from previous adaptations of Baum’s work. Even if readers are already familiar with the world of Oz, Young’s vision is so extraordinary that it feels like an entirely new reading experience.
Courtney Crumrin/Polly And The Pirates (Oni Press)
Ted Naifeh’s young female protagonists aren’t perfect role models, but they are some of the best portrayals of girls in comics. Fiercely confident and unwilling to conform to what society expects of them, Courtney and Polly are ordinary girls that discover their potential by being thrown into fantastic circumstances. A burgeoning witch, Courtney is about to receive her first ongoing series this year, while Polly will also be getting a sequel to her swashbuckling graphic novel in 2012.
Tiny Titans (DC)
Reimagining the Teen Titans as grade-schoolers in the Peanuts vein, Art Baltazar and Franco’s ongoing series uses DC history as fodder for slapstick comedy, making it a fan-favorite amongst both kids and adults. The series is ending with March’s #50, but Art Baltazar and Franco are moving on to Superman Family Adventures in May, which is sure to provide more goofy superhero fun.
An original graphic novel by the creators behind the hit Powers (not for kids), Takio is the story of two multi-ethnic sisters who have to learn how to get along after they gain complementary superpowers. The release of an original all-ages graphic novel by a big-name writer like Brian Michael Bendis is an admirable move on Marvel’s part, and Bendis’ efforts to diversify Marvel (he’s also writing the adventures of the Miles Morales Spider-Man) have given the company characters that look and act like real kids.
Dan Didio and Keith Giffen have created the most unabashedly fun title of the DC relaunch with this revival of a classic Jack Kirby property, featuring a cyber-commando connected to a potentially evil satellite named Brother Eye, with just the right mix of goofy superhero action and drama. It’s a blend of silly and serious that’s distinctly Kirby, and its big ideas and bold artwork should appeal to audiences young and old.
The most girl-friendly comic published by Marvel last year, Mystic has a sleek, animated look that complements the Disney-like story of two orphan girls living in a world of magic. G. Willow Wilson creates likable characters that are dedicated to their beliefs, and the friendship between the two girls is the highlight of the series. The art is the best of David Lopez’s career, and his attention to detail gives each character a distinct personality and appearance.
Good As Lily (Minx)
The best title to come out of DC’s defunct Minx line of original graphic novels targeted at young-adult girls, Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm’s time-travel story is both intensely funny and emotionally powerful. When a teenage girl is visited by her past and future selves, she has to help each come to terms with their fears and regrets in order for them to leave her alone. Kim’s story looks at young love and family tragedy with surprising insight for an all-ages title, and Hamm’s art has a raw quality that works with the story to give the book a kid-indie look.
Amelia Rules! (Renaissance)
Jimmy Gownley’s series about a young girl adjusting to a new life after her parents’ divorce is a tribute to the power of friendship, with Amelia turning to her quirky group of friends for comfort. Gownley isn’t afraid to shy from issues faced by modern youth, like a 2007 story where Amelia learns that a rival’s father has been deployed overseas. Gownley’s art is expressive and lively, and his heartfelt scripts highlight the joys of being a kid by also showing the occasional despair.