Comics for Kids are out there — you just need to look for them.

Within comic retailing circles there seems to be an ongoing discussion about age appropriate material. Comics are for Kids! Comics aren’t for Kids! There are no good comics for children!

Just this week it erupted again on the news site ICv2.

Buddy Saunders of Lone Star Comics on Comic Book Content ‘Comics Aren’t for Kids Anymore’ wrote:

Regarding recent discussions of trends in comic book content and what they represent: I agree that comics aren’t for kids anymore. That so few comics are appropriate for children is a pity.

Jay Bardyla of Happy Harbor Comics on Comic Book Content ‘Out of Touch with the Industry’ replied:

“so few comics are appropriate for children”

Frankly, I am tired of hearing this from retailers. When I look back and see what comics were being offered through the 1990s and early 2000s against what’s being offered today, I can’t help but feel that every retailer that says the above phrase is out of touch with the industry. There are dozens upon dozens of titles aimed at young children and dozens and dozens more that are appropriate for all ages. Are the number of today’s books in the whole of all titles published monthly comparable to the number of “all ages” books from the 70s and 80s? No but then again, there weren’t 300 to 500 new books published each month in the 70s and 80s. And also, the world’s view of entertainment is not the same either.

In short, there is quite a bit of “all ages” material out there and today is not the same as yesterday. With a bit of effort, any retailer can find the material it needs to encourage the community to try comics.

Followed up by Rembert Parker of Reader Copies on All Ages Comics:

While there may be a lot more All Ages comic books this year than in recent years, it still doesn’t solve the real problem “real” retailers face.

When a man walks into our comic store with his 8 to 10 year-old kid and wants to buy some comics like those he read as a kid–Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Fantastic Four, etc.–we have a real problem. We have no new comics to sell him. The kid line of comics from Marvel and DC may be for kids, but they aren’t like the comics in the 60s and 70s and 80s that anybody could read. They’re aimed directly at young, little kids. Meanwhile, the regular comic lines contain material that simply isn’t appropriate for kids that age.

The only current solution? Point them to a couple of boxes of comics from the 70s and 80s that we’re willing to sell for a dollar each. While this may solve the problem temporarily, it isn’t what they came in for–they want NEW stories that they can read and enjoy together, and those comics don’t exist.

Sure, we can try to guide them back to the new Disney comics from BOOM! Studios or Marvel’s Oz: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or hand them a Previews and let them borrow that to look for something to read, but there is no way for them to relive the experience the father had except with the exact same comics he read as a kid.

… there are no All Ages comics similar to what was available in the 70s and 80s.

The Joe Shuster Awards decided to take this issue head on last year by introducing our Comics For Kids Award. The Comics For Kids Award was created to provide fans, parents and retailers some guidance towards great comics created for a kids market, ages 14 and under. Unlike most of our awards, the Comics For Kids Award was about the book, not the creator. Yes, for eligibility purposes one of the creators on the work had to be Canadian, but we decided to not limit the inclusion to wholly Canadian works. Either the writer or the artist had to be Canadian to qualify the work. This was about finding great comics, with some Canadian content, that anyone could feel confident in handing to a young reader.

The award was headed up by Jennifer Stewart, MA, B.Ed, owner of The Dragon comic shop in Guelph, Ontario and full-time teacher at The Linden School in Toronto, the only school in Canada that was specifically created to incorporate cutting-edge research on girls’ learning style and educational needs. Jennifer, along with Beth Alexander, B.Ed and Diana Pai, B.Ed, three school teachers who utilize comics in their classrooms, read through 28 books they felt were eligible to come up with 8 finalists. That means that in 2008 there were 28 brand new comics collections created by Canadians for a young readers market…. and relatively speaking, these 28 examples are just a fraction of the output generated by the much larger international market.

Of the eight finalists selected, the books covered the entire spectrum of readers, from 3 – 14. Of course not every book would be appropriate for every age. For example, Emiko Superstar skewed to the very top of the age group, while CTON’s Super A-Maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics! skewed to the youngest readers.

The winner, Kean Soo’s Jellaby, was selected by a jury consisting of Douglas Davey, Halton Hills Public Librarian; Graham Purcell, a grade 3 school teacher; and Scott Chantler, a comic creator whose past works on all-ages books have been nominated for three Joe Shuster Awards, three Harvey Awards, a Doug Wright Award, a Russ Manning Award, and an Eisner Award.

The goal was to be bullet proof, that no one could quibble with the selections, that there was more than enough weight behind our nominating committee and jury making the selections. We accomplished that goal.

The missing element: retailers have to use the recommendations.

The simple fact is, there are lots of age appropriate comics being made. Retailers need to get off their butts and find these books, read these books, source these books, stock these books, and provide the correct guidance to customers looking for an age appropriate comic reading experience.

The discussion occurring on ICv2 is amongst comic book store retailers! The way the industry has developed over the past 30 years, with the heavy influence of the direct market, these are the people that provide comic books for consumption. Without more effort, they will never have age appropriate comics in their stores.

Look at the names of the Publishers who had books considered for the 2009 for Comics For Kids Award:

OwlKids – CTON’s Super A-Maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics!
Kids Can Press – No Girls Allowed
Orca Publishing – Ramp Rats: A Graphic Guide Adventure
Éditions Les 400 Coups – Ariane et Nicolas Tome 5: Les tours de Babel
Little Spirit Bear Productions – The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws Vol. 2: The Voyageurs
Hyperion – Jellaby Book 1
DC/Minx – Emiko Superstar
DC Comics – Teen Titans: Year One

I’m sure that list contains a number of publishers that are not on the radar of a lot of comic book shops, but these are publishing companies producing great comics that can be read by young readers. They may fall outside of the Marvel/DC/Image superhero-centric comfort zone, but they exist.

I should note that Marvel does publish the Marvel Adventures line, their superhero line for children. DC Comics publishes the Johnny DC line, which includes Scooby Doo; Warner Bros characters such as Daffy Duck; as well as superhero books such as DC Superfriends and the most excellent Tiny Titans, a book created specifically for the enjoyment of adults and children. Image Comics deserves recognition for the very excellent Shadowline comics and Silverline books imprints which have produced many wonderful young readers books such as T-Runt, Dear Dracula and The Lava Is A Floor.

Retailers have to move outside of their comfort zone, but too often I have heard retailers say things like, “there are no young readers”, or “no one is doing anything to get children into comics”. I would argue that it’s the retailer that has to do much of the heavy lifting. If you make your living by selling comics, then it is in your best interest to ensure there are new, young readers coming into your store. If most comic readers are around 30 years old, isn’t this an excellent opportunity to begin working on the next generation? As this group of readers transitions into parenthood, it’s up to the comic retailer to bridge the generation and have the parent and child read comics together. The way to do this is through further specialization and selection of diverse books.

The fact is that stocking comics for children will be more work, but the goal is new readers. If a child has read Bone in their school library, don’t you want to be the next place they visit for another comic to read? This forces retailers to up the ante: they have to compete against the book giants who provide a bright, warm, women and child friendly retailing experience. Then you have to deal with an educated and participatory consumer: the parents, who want to ensure that the books you are recommending are the right choices for their child. The retailer has to know the books they are selling. You have to read these books and understand the content involved. Heck, if you need to, create a cheat sheet and post it in the ‘Kids Comics’ section of your store. List the book, the themes, any minor violence that might occur (and it does: Mouse Guard is a great book for children but there is fighting in the book) and the age groups that should be reading the book. This way parents and your employees know exactly what is appropriate and what isn’t.

Frankly, trying to get kids to read BOOM!’s kids line or Marvel’s kids line is not enough. The solution isn’t found in Disney or superhero comics, as much as retailers would like to make their jobs easier and rely on what they know. Maybe kids don’t want to read superhero comics! Comic retailers need to stop focusing on what they know: superhero comics, and instead focus on what the parent/child reader want. Expand your product line, expand your knowledge of the back-of-Diamond sellers, source out new distributors that handle the material that these children will read. Don’t lean on the excuse that “a man walks into our comic store with his 8 to 10 year-old kid and wants to buy some comics like those he read as a kid“. Comics long ago stopped being the domain of men. Women are looking for a different retail experience than most comic reading males, and if your store provides that clean, bright, friendly, organized enviroment, then you already know how many women and girls read comics. And please don’t send them back to the $1 bins, to dig up ratty 70’s comics that the child has no interest in.

These days, Male and female parents want to have shared experiences with their children and reading a comic together is the one thing a comic retailer can provide. Perhaps they walk in with the intent of reading a superhero comic, but more than that, they are looking to bond with their children over a shared interest. If you can hand them a great book that they can read together, you’re giving them much more than they were looking for.

I see that Chris Butcher has written about this exact dust up/debate, and I’d say we’re pretty much in agreement.

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