Mainstream superhero comics are imbued with a permanent asterisk, a stigma born from a number of stereotypes perfectly embodied by The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy. The basement-dweller, the neckbeard, the casual misogynist who relishes sex, violence, and exaggerated musculature in his (always “his”) art. Of course, stereotypes are just stereotypes, and there are plenty more superhero enthusiasts than this subset of readers.
Such as children!
Hell, I remember when I was just a children, I was all about the superheroes. Every Saturday morning it would be Superman, Batman, Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles, and I would head straight for the comic rack at the barbershop to pick up the new issue of X-Men, Spiderman, or whathaveyou. For a multitude of reasons, Young Horrible Paul was drawn to comics and superhero stories.
Just over a week ago, Comics Alliance’s Janette Asselin articulated the myriad reasons children dig superhero stories better than my cheap nostalgia ever can. In this fantastic read that cites psychologists, Supergirl writers and editors, librarians, and comic store owners, Asselin demonstrates why mainstream comic creators need to do more than just cater to the Comic Book Guys of the English-speaking world:
“Parents want to be able to give their kids inspiring superhero comics that are based on the heroes they know and love, or even just the ones that their kids are asking about. Currently, the companies that own those superheroes are not providing comics material that offers evergreen, accessible, kid-friendly storytelling.”
“It’s true; it’s not just “bam! pow!” (insert your own comics cliché of choice here); comics can be a wonderful developmental tool for children. Regardless of the genre, comics of any kind that are created for a young audience offer something that words alone do not. For new readers, pictures can help a great deal with making a story understandable.”
“If the comics industry is to thrive in the future, it needs to appeal to not just a wider variety of ages in its demographics, but also a broader diversity in terms of race and gender. [Psychologist Dr. Andrea] Letamendi has noted the effect diversity has on young comics readers. ‘When children read literature, they ask themselves, “How is this character like me?” and “What do I see in this character that I see in myself?” This is where gender can be important: Children notice differences at surprisingly young ages.'”
The article, and its many sources, damn a system that has polluted established properties–the kind of comics parents read as kids, and can no longer recommend to their own children due to inappropriate content–while failing to produce enough suitable alternatives. If a kid these days, let alone a kid who is not a straight white cis male, wants a superhero they can understand and relate to, their options are barren.
Three days ago, author of American-Born Chinese and all-around superstar Gene Yang wrote something of an addendum, arguing that comics as a general medium have richer opportunities for children’s literature, even though the slate of kid-friendly superheroes is relatively bare. To quote:
“Kids are reading lots and lots and lots of comics these days. They’re just not reading the same kinds of comics that their nerd parents did.”
While Asselin’s article takes a more elegiac tone about the death of the superhero mainstream, lamenting that today’s children won’t grow up to draw the superheroes of tomorrow, Yang isn’t quite as mournful. He rattles off half a dozen graphic novels outside of the superhero genre that have pushed their way into the mainstream. He assures us that his daughter loves the heck out of those books, and that’s just enough. You can get the same childhood joy and psychological, educational boons out of a comic, no matter what it’s about.
Basically: superheroes: who needs ’em? Even if the majority of current industry brass doesn’t want to greenlight diverse, accessible graphic literature, who cares about them when there’s tons of great stuff from the fringes going public? If children want it, parents will come. In addition to the titles Yang rattles off in his blog post (and Yang’s own kid-to-teen friendly books), there’s a healthy influx of quality comics coming in from independent publishers.
Françoise Mouly, best known for handpicking every New Yorker cover for the past twenty-one years, is one such publisher planting seeds for the next generation of children and cartoonists. With her line of TOON Books, Mouly is cultivating an armory of comics for kids as young as three-years-old, including one aimed at second-graders that unabashedly wears the superspandex. In her article, Asselin mentions that there are few genuine comic books, not just picture books, out there for very young children. If Mouly’s TOON vanguard breeds more success, then perhaps parents will find it easier to pick up a copy of Mo and Jo instead of wading through Wonder Woman’s troubled history to find a saga appropriate for their little one.
Mouly’s TOON comics remind me not of the old-guard, “nerd parents” comic properties, but of a relatively newer superhero who graced the inside of my third-grade classroom desk: Captain Underpants. When I am a nerd parent, maybe he will be the first superhero I introduce to my kids. Or maybe I’ll just pass down Bone, or Prime Baby, or even Rice Boy when they’re older. To paraphrase Megadeth, the world needs heroes. They might just look different from the ones from the last generation.