Yesterday I attended my first Baltimore Comic-Con. I was helping my uncle, Joe Sergi, promote his new YA novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, and the Great Zombies in History comic book anthology, while also giving out some free samples of Earths in Space.
I had a good time, but it got me thinking about the current state of super-hero comic books, namely how so many just aren’t appropriate for kids anymore. That’s a shame. It deprives kids of some reading entertainment, and it’s terrible for business long-term.
The best time to hook a comic book fan is before high school, when all sorts of other interests will start competing for their attention. The book-publishing world has products for all stages of life — and products that can be appreciated at several different stages of life. A middle school kid and forty-year-old can enjoy the same YA novel, and that’s great. The kid can continue his habit of reading, and the forty-year-old gets another fun book without taking anything away from younger readers. He still has older fare for when he feels so inclined, and he and his kids can chat about the YA book.
The classic super-hero characters were designed for children, and they’ve grown up over the years. Much of that was a positive evolution, giving us such treats as the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, the Frank Miller Daredevil, the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans, and the Englehart/Rogers Detective Comics — all books parents can feel comfortable giving to eleven-year-olds, and books no eleven-year-old would feel insulted reading.
The current trend, however, seems best represented by this year’s Man of Steel movie, which I reviewed here. That joyless movie aims to impress adults with its “realism,” as (SPOILERS) we get to see Pa Kent suggesting that young Clark let people die to protect his secret, Superman snapping a villain’s neck, and Superman failing to save who-knows-how-many lives as the carnage ensues. What does it have for kids? Not nearly as much as The Avengers, which did a great job appealing to a broad range of ages.
Look at DC’s Identity Crisis mini-series from a several years back (and more spoilers ahead, of course). The story brings together nearly all the major DC super-heroes to solve the murder of the Elongated Man’s wife…who we learn was raped by Dr. Light…and then another super-hero’s wife goes psychotic…and it turns out a group of Justice Leaguers once chose to mindwipe Batman for convenience…and yeah, this isn’t for kids. The book has Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and more in it, but it’s not for kids.
But that’s what I’m seeing. More violence, more blood, more sexism, more attempts at “realism.”
I recently re-read some of the early 90s Batman books that got me started on comics. Reading as an adult now, I was particularly impressed by what a great role model Robin was at that time. That was the Tim Drake version — a well-adjusted kid who figured out Batman and Nightwing’s secret identities on his own, and he takes it upon himself to help them. He was smart, capable, determined, and had a good moral compass, and his adventures could be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Do kids reading comics today have anyone like that? In Spider-Man’s book, Peter Parker is dead and Doctor Octopus’s mind is driving his body, so not there. The new version of Spider-Man in Ultimate Spider-Man looks promising, though I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.
Please let me know if there are any good super-hero comics that are appropriate for older elementary and middle school readers. I’m genuinely curious. Maybe I’m just missing them. I hope that’s the case.
Not all super-heroes need to be for kids. The world has room for wonderful adult-oriented books like Hawkeye. But Superman belongs to folks of all ages.