Children of all ages, by Elayne Riggs
I’ve already spoken about how October is my favorite time of year, what with the baseball post-season and the foliage displays and the crispness in the air and, in 2007, my imminent lifestyle change and ComicMix Phase II debuting. There’s another reason I love this month — it culminates today in one of my favorite secular holidays, Hallowe’en.
[I emphasize "secular" because I distinctly remember when, as I kid, I was blatantly discouraged from trick or treating and otherwise celebrating the day, on the basis of the holiday’s etymological origin being the Christian commemoration of All Hallow’s Eve and therefore the holiday itself must be Christian. This is the same logic used by some fundamentalist Christians to denounce the holiday as Satanic — the flip side of Christian, and therefore Christian as well because non-Christians don’t really have this Satan thing going — because it emphasizes the supernatural. In fact, as with most seasonal celebrations coopted by early Christians, the holiday actually has pagan roots — in this case Samhain — which I’m perfectly fine with honoring, as those ancient nature worshippers may be the closest thing we have to modern sensible secular rationalists. I’m even half-convinced Christmas is becoming okay to celebrate because, despite the name, it’s essentially a corruption of the Saturnalia holiday. But I digress.]
One reason Hallowe’en is so cool for me is because of its emphasis, at least when I was growing up, on being a holiday for kids. As far as I can discern this mentality came about with the holiday’s commercialization (just check out the Wiki on Hallowe’en to see how many modern rituals involve spending money, from parties to costumes to decorations to candy), and of course since hyper-capitalism cannot be confined to just that segment of the population largely dependent upon others’ pursestrings, today it’s big business with "children of all ages." But I still think Hallowe’en has a particular power over children’s sense of wonder about the world around us, whether or not the lines between living and dead, between the ordinary and the magical, can indeed be blurred during the time of year when (the northern half of) the Earth starts preparing for its winter slumber.
So I like to give out comics to those few straggling trick-or-treaters who find their way to the group of houses hidden behind the main road where we occupy our top-floor apartment. Because I believe that, like Hallowe’en, comics still have tremendous appeal to kids, even as hyper-capitalism has led to their greater acceptance by and obsession for many adults. And so during the year I cull the Cartoon Network books from our DC comp boxes and go through the stuff I have from Free Comics Day to see what’s all-ages appropriate.
I do have a bit of a dilemma with the latter, though — I like all-ages stories. Most of the time, I like them more than the teen-targeted or "mature" readers-only books.
Part with my issues of Amelia Rules, Bone, Castle Waiting, etc. all the way down the alphabet to Zot!? No way. (Val D’Orazio has much the same dilemma.) I love those works as much as I love my Harry Potter and Oz and fairy tale books. I never "outgrew" any of those stories, and I hope I never will. I only wish the comic book industry and its main consumer base felt the same way I did.
Time was, anyone could read comic books, and often did. Soldiers, many only semi-literate, appreciated staving off the horrors of WWII with some entertainment that offered them pictures to help get through the words, and their state-side friends and loved ones helped increase Golden Age comics’ value by recycling them in paper drives to help in the war effort. Comic books, like newspaper comic strips and animated cartoons, were seen as all-ages fun. But the post-war era and the advent of TV shifted perceptions in this country and dismissively relegated those creative endeavors to the realm of kid stuff. Grownups — even that new consumer subculture, teenagers — suddenly weren’t supposed to admit to liking kid stuff and, conversely, kid-stuff entertainment that tried to expand its reach to older audience with more mature themes was demonized as inappropriate in a conflation of format with content that continues to this day.
And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with our entertainment carved up and specialized to zero in on ever-narrower demographics, and woe betide any that stride the fence. Bookstores and libraries have “children’s” and “young adult” sections practically designed to make actual adults blush if browsing for themselves. Comics try to compete with ultraviolent movies and videogames to capture the post-adolescent male wallets. Adult women with heavy pursestrings continue to be ignored by many filmmakers and comics companies but courted by book and magazine publishers and TV soap opera empires. Adult men are the primary targets for TV sports programming. Cartoons with limited imagination and occasional educational content are aimed at kids and interspersed with heavy ad rotation, the more ironic animation relegated to late-night for the hip college crowd.
And it’s all rather silly because, although one can chart certain broad trends demographically (i.e., men tend to like action-driven stories whereas women tend to prefer character-driven ones), we’re all of us individuals, and individuality naturally rebels against hyper-capitalism (which is why ad campaigns for many mass-produced goods rely on an appeal to individuality). I like watching baseball and soccer, as well as documentaries and cooking shows and cartoons. I read fairy tales and political blogs and comic books and my local newspaper. I don’t do what I’m demographically expected to do by the people trying to sell me things. I’m the ideal consumer with a broad range of interests, yet I’m the consumer from hell who won’t stay in her preconceived bracket.
But like it or not, "all ages" remains a dirty phrase. By its very nature, "all ages" can’t be targeted by hyper-capitalism, and so it must be marginalized and ridiculed. Attempts to shame adults out of enjoying their reading by implying it’s not lowbrow or sophisticated or mature enough for their demographic. You can practically hear the sneering tone in some people’s voices when they dismiss even discussion of the Harry Potter series as juvenile and beneath their notice, particularly when that discussion concerns extra-textual revelations of subject matter assumed to be adults-only — as if children have never heard of gay people, or aren’t supposed to even if all “gay” usually means to a child is “this man likes other men” instead of “this man likes ladies.” It’s rather amusing imagining their heads exploding, all because they can’t wrap their brains around the idea that much all-ages entertainment can be enjoyed by different age groups on different levels. Simultaneously! Why was this concept so easy to grasp back in the ‘40s, when cartoons were regularly shown as part of movie matinees, and so elusive nowadays?
Perhaps the way to make all-ages entertainment acceptable again is to up the “cool factor.” We’ve seen this done with comics a few times, the latest incarnation being all the mega-millions sunk into blockbuster movies made from comic book characters. We also see it to an extent with Pottermania, but that’s still considered the exception to the rule and it’s not enough to keep the sneers at bay — possibly because all-ages reading is more subject to critique by the literati than all-ages movies or TV (which elitists already consider “lowbrow” entertainment to begin with and thus expected to be duly ignored).
Maybe we need some sort of PR campaign, to the extent that adults aren’t “ruining” all-ages literature for children by reading it as well; rather, they’re sharing in the experience. (In my opinion, what truly “ruins” all-ages literature is people turning it into adults-only material, but that’s another column.) And shared experience is A Good Thing, no matter what our age. The joy of all-ages literature lies in part with the fact that we have all been kids at one time, and as long as we don’t persist in acting childish there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be childlike.
Or possibly entertainment purveyors need to wake up and notice that “exceptions to the rule” aren’t necessarily as rare as all that. Titanic raked in tons of money on repeat viewings by “unexpected” demographics. Just about every animated movie by Pixar turns to gold. The Simpsons is currently on its 19th season. Seems to me the “cool factor” is already there, it just needs to be acknowledged and supported. Once the powers that be figure out for the umpteenth time that they can make more money with broader appeal, and that “general audiences” shouldn’t mean “dumb it down to the lowest common denominator” but instead “raise the quality so that there’s something everyone can enjoy.”
Much like Hallowe’en.
Elayne Riggs, ComciMix‘s news editor, wishes everyone a happy Hallowe’en.