Every Day is Kids Day! by Martha Thomases
One of the things I learned at this year’s MoCCA Arts Festival (aside from the fact that New York firefighters remain the world’s most awesome) is that independent, alternative cartoonists embrace the children’s market. This was evident not only in the major publishing launch of Francoise Mouly’s TOON Books, but also the work of a lot of young people with their self-published titles.
This may seem like a stupidly obvious thing to say from anyone who has watched the market for children’s books, graphic novels, and other kinds of mass media. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to apply to most comic book stores.
When I worked at DC, the typical story about comics had the headline, “Biff! Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” My boss explained to me, in great detail, why there was no need to make comics that children under 12 would enjoy. The success of Vertigo – Sandman in particular – meant there was a profitable market for comics among college-educated, affluent adults, especially to advertisers.
This was true, as far as it went. Good books can be good marketing. Sandman continues to make a lot of money for DC, even though there haven’t been new stories for several years. I have no doubt that many people for whom Sandman was their first comic went on to read lots of other comics by lots of other writers, artists and publishers.
Making comics for kids will do that, too. And they’ll be your customers for a longer time.
However, talking about age ranges is a marketing subject. It bothers me that books and movies have suggestions for what age child would like them. I understand that people buy gifts for children they don’t know very well, and that there are vocabulary words that people think are either too racy, too violent or too difficult for children to understand. However, most of these decisions are made by parents, and parents should know their individual children as just that – individuals.
As a woman of a certain age, there are some subjects that interest me because they concern my specifics, that I am both a woman and of a certain age. Therefore, I’m likely to want to read about menopause, Social Security, and maybe Bob Dylan. None of these subjects dominate best-seller lists of any kind. Nor do they encompass everything I want to read about, or see on the screen.
Children are similarly varied. Some like to read about dinosaurs, others like to read fairy tales, and still others like both, put together in a dinosaur-fairy parfait. Some kids read at age three, and others take a few grades to find their rhythm. There are no one-size fits all stories, just like there are no one-size fits all kids.
The 1970s and 1980s were exciting times to be a comics fan. There were all kinds of innovative stories, from underground comics to the mainstream newsstand books. There were stories about drugs and racism and the war, stories told sequentially and randomly. None of them had suggested ages. If you didn’t get something, you’d put it down, and see if it made more sense the next time.
The best children’s literature is not just for children. An adult reading The Wind in The Willows, or The Railway Children, Mary Poppins or Peter Pan will find many of the same rewards of reading so-called adult literature. In the same way, there are many books written for adults, like Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye, that appeal to humans who can’t legally drive. In comics, James Robinson’s and Paul Smith’s Leave It To Chance was my idea of a terrific all-ages book, and most kids I know enjoy Stardust, no matter that it says it’s suggested for mature audiences.
What kids don’t like is angst-ridden, super-hero adventures with over-sexualized characters and random violence. This isn’t to say those stories are no good, but that they tend to assume the reader has had certain experiences that children don’t have, and that the reader is familiar with a body of work (the films of Sam Peckinpah, maybe, or the books of James Ellroy) that most children haven’t seen. What adults don’t like is cutesy books with lots of repetition, because they have enough repetition in their lives and don’t need more when they read. Which isn’t to say that comics can’t be good, but they don’t tend to reach a broad market.
We need to treat each reader as an individual, and find the right books for every possible comic. That’s what will grow our market and our art form.
Martha Thomases, ComicMix Media Goddess, wrote this column to honor the memory of Jane Thomases. She really loved kids.