MARTHA THOMASES: Hey, Kids! Comics!
Once a week, I volunteer in the pediatric department of a local hospital. I teach knitting to kids and caregivers. I’d like to say I do this because I’m a spiritual person, more evolved than you – better, in fact – but that’s not true. I do it because it’s the best part of my week, and whatever problems I might have in my adult life disappear when I spend a few hours with these kids. It gives me a chance to talk about color and texture and sheep instead of war and money and politics.
Because I go to the hospital on Wednesdays, I stop on the way at the local comic book near the subway for my weekly fix. The subway ride is long enough to read at least one book, and sometimes I get uptown early enough to sit in a playground and read more, weather permitting.
For the past few months, when I’ve bought a Simpsons comic or the Jonny DC Legion series, I’ve given them away at the hospital. Again, this isn’t altruism, but efficiency. There are enough comics in my apartment without adding any extras.
I’d give them all away, but most comics are too serialized to give away at random, and it is not my wish to see these kids in the hospital every week. It would be better for them to get better and go home. And I’m not giving a kid Garth’s Wormwood, no matter what.
This may surprise you, but children are excited to get comics. They like them. Even in a room filled with computers and video games and flat screen televisions (and flowers and get well cards and relatives), kids put down what they’re doing and start leafing through the pages, looking at the colorful pictures.
For more than twenty years, those of us who love comics have insisted that the medium is one that can support great literature and complex ideas. We’re right. We’ve said “Comics aren’t just for kids,” and that’s true. Just as prose can be written for different audiences, graphic storytelling can reach many different audiences and tastes.
And yet, for some reason, a lot of people think that comics shouldn’t be for kids. I’m not just talking about the arts police, the ones who think every kind of entertainment needs a rating and a warning sticker. When I worked at a major comics publisher, my boss (who was a vice-president of marketing) once explained to me how the company would make plenty of money if no kid ever bought another comic, and our audience was exclusively males in the prized 18-to-25 demographic.
Even those who aren’t in it for the money often think that comics for kids aren’t necessary. In the early days of the direct market, when there were suddenly all kinds of comics for all kinds of niche tastes (“The Good Old Days”), I would often go to a local store with my toddler son. I’d buy a variety of comics, including a fair number of independents, but the emphasis for me has always been super-heroes. The clerk would sneer at me as he added up the prices on the colorful covers. “I don’t read this crap,” he would say. “I prefer the more challenging literature. Like Love and Rockets.”
No disrespect meant to Los Bros Hernandez, whose work I admire greatly, but I don’t find them to be the ultimate literary expression available to humanity (nor do they, I suspect). And why should I feel defensive about my purchases? It’s no surprise to me that this store is no longer in business. The stores that survive in the competitive Manhattan market are the ones that understand that all kinds of customers enjoy all kinds of comics.
Even these good comic book stores have relatively few comics for kids. American publishers aren’t publishing them. Manga is great, but there’s an awful lot of it, with lots of extended stories, and it’s hard for a newbie to jump in without a guide.
Comics may not be just for kids anymore, but do we have to shut them out?
Writer and creator of Marvel Comics’ Dakota North and contributor to their Epic Illustrated, Martha Thomases also has toiled for such publishers as DC Comics and NBM before becoming Media Queen of ComicMix.com.