X-Men strand Gen Y
Getting a hologram card of Wolverine in a pack of the first series of Marvel Universe Trading Cards is one of my fondest childhood memories. I was five. I showed almost all the guys in my class. Unfortunately, if this kindergartener had been inspired to buy the Wolverine comic around that time it would have been tough sledding: in that story Wolverine learns his memories are a result of brain implants. The next arc ended with Wolverine promising a man that he would return to remove a part of his body every year until nothing remained.
Comics were convincing themselves that they were for adults, and that adults required mature, violent stories. But no one told the licensing people whose job it was to pump children’s playthings into the market. I think this is why there are so few of my contemporaries reading comics. As children, we had to claw our way into the medium despite its best efforts to keep us at arms length, the better to succeed as a medium for teenagers and adults.
When I was a kid, comics for kids were missing in action. Crisis on Infinite Earths happened when I was a toddler and in the new “simplified” DC Universe there was no space for comics for kids, only serious tales about people who dressed in tights. Gone were Captain Carrot and his Zoo Crew, on center stage was a Justice League without Superman but with two different Rocket Reds.
This isn’t to say that comic companies abandoned kids; they just stopped putting out books for them. Animated series and merchandise were still aimed at children. Batman: The Animated Series and the cartoon X-Men were defining cartoons for my generation, but we couldn’t graduate from the cartoons to the comic books without having to digest an awful lot of new continuity. Dick Grayson? That was two Robins ago. Marvel probably didn’t care if I spent my allowance on their trading cards instead of their comic books, but even the trading cards started being marketed to fanboys and speculators with the introduction of the Masterworks line and the $6.95 pack.
Publishers would eventually realize their collective mistake. Batman Adventures tried to bring kids into comics with the same continuity-free atmosphere of the cartoons. Now there is DC’s Johnny DC imprint, which has a Legion of Super-Heroes for kids. Marvel has the similar Marvel Adventures line. The industry has learned from its mistake of a decade ago but I can’t be sure that in the process an entire generation wasn’t lost.
Comics have become wrapped up in their own continuity and mine is the first generation that had to find our way into that world without serious help. For people who didn’t have parents who were willing to teach them, this was all the harder. Never have I successfully introduced someone to buying comics every month without having a long, priestly conversation about the history of the specific universe in question.
The recently released Justice Society of America #2 is the perfect example of the problems new readers face. JSofA is a marquee book for DC featuring arguably their most prominent writer, Geoff Johns. At the end of this issue the new Starman removes his mask to reveal that he is Thom Kallor, Starman from the pre-Zero Hour Legion of Superheroes who had also passed through the Kingdom Come timeline. The problem here is that Zero Hour took place almost 13 years ago and in Kingdom Come the character did not even have a speaking part.
This reveal, on the final page on a marquee title, requires a monkish knowledge of continuity to puzzle out any meaning at all. New readers are far more likely to see that last page, shrug and drop the book like a hot Pop Tart.
There’s no easy answer to this problem. It’s just as silly to say every book should be accessible to kids as it is to say that no book should be. Treating material for kids as valuable would be an excellent start. Put marquee creators on the books for starters. Kids can tell when they’re being pandered to and they don’t respond, just look at the myriad of wizard stories that came out after Harry Potter went big.
Don’t put them off in an island outside of continuity either. There’s no reason the top tier characters can’t have one book a month for adventures that are less continuity heavy and don’t deal with mature themes explicitly. Put a writer like Mark Waid on a third Superman book that’s more action and less angst, or maybe Jeff Smith could write and draw an amazing new Shazam! series (wait, we have that one DC just priced it at the collector friendly price point of $5.99!) and we’ll be one step closer to an industry that can grow itself again beyond variant covers and epic stunts.
Arthur Tebbel is editor-in-chief of Nonsense, Hofstra University’s only intentional humor magazine.