wouldn’t LET my young child read a new comic book off the shelf these days. That’s right. I said it. Moreover, I can’t imagine how any responsible parent could. How then do you foster a love of superheroes (and comic books) if you can’t responsibly let your young child read comic books? Read on and I’ll explain the “why” and the “how”.
So the idea here is to raise well-adjusted kids while passing along a love of all things “geek”. In my world a big part of that means comic books and superheroes. I’ve mentioned before how I’m getting my son’s comic book collection started early. After all, put all the movies, cartoons, T-shirts and action figures aside, superheroes are about comic books. Comic books are the lifeblood of the superhero culture. They are the way the culture perpetuates itself. They are the way the characters develop over time. They are they medium through which they travel from decade to decade, generation to generation. I love passing on the superhero culture, but the centerpiece to every superhero fan’s enjoyment must be the comic books themselves. Everything else branches out from that central hub. I love sharing superhero culture with my kids, and I looked forward to making the actual, real comic books the biggest part of that shared experience. But in recent years the landscape has changed – drastically; so much so that as a responsible parent I have recently had to come to terms with the fact that I may never be able to share the comic book culture with my young kids. Because the fact of the matter is: comic books aren’t for kids any more.
Times change, and therefore so must our heroes and the dramas they engage in change as well. Business models have to change too, and since the advent of the NES, and then later the internet, the comic book market has been in steady decline. Over time comic book producers have had to fight harder and harder for the attention (and $) of their target audience. Bit by bit, month by month, the stories and artwork have become more and more edgy, moving frame by frame away from the innocent, campy, good vs. evil stories of MY youth, to more and more violent, sexually charged, adult-themed stories that cater to a more mature audience. You can’t fault the companies for fighting for their survival, and if this is what they have to do to stay in business, then it’s what they have to do. But the fallout is that they have moved away from a younger audience, and more towards the 20 and 30-something audience, who is better equipped to handle adult subject matter (not to mention $4.00 comic books).
Recently there was a big to do about DC (the producers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) launching “The New 52”. They essentially decided to re-boot 52 titles from absolute scratch, including the tent-pole characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) Superman is now much more hardcore, Batman has a new Robin (his illegitimate son), Aquaman is actually cool… This in and of itself is no strange thing for comic book fans. It happens about once a decade. But the way it happened this time was a game changer.
I eagerly purchased the new issue #1 of my favorite titles, four of them in all: Batman, Detective Comics, Superman and Action Comics – and when I opened them to see what was new I was SHOCKED at what I found inside. I couldn’t believe it. There is no way I could even imagine my children reading these “comics” until their late teens. The Batman books graphically illustrated either a gun to someone’s head, blowing his brains out, or a psychopath cutting pieces of his victim’s face off. The Superman issues had citizens spewing visceral hate-speech at the “illegal alien” Superman, the depth of which is totally inappropriate in civilized society (let alone in California). The Wonder Woman comic was transformed into practically a horror comic (a horse is beheaded in the first issue… yes, they drew it in all its gory detail).
And Starfire… more on Starfire later. It didn’t take long for the entire comic book community to be buzzing about the same thing. Gratuitous violence everywhere, female characters in sexually compromised situations. In one week the entire DC Universe moved from PG-13 to pushing the boundaries of R. And these were the tent-pole titles, Batman and Superman. Where these titles go, the rest of the industry follows. Their marketing strategy is clear. They’re going for shock-value. They’re trying to get the Halo-3, internet generation talking online and sharing these story elements virally over Facebook and Twitter. Who knows if the strategy will work, but one thing is for sure: young kids are out of the equation. DC’s counting on grabbing them once they get wrapped up in their Xbox360’s playing “Grand Theft Auto 7” with their older brothers.
So what then is a Dorkdad to do? I can’t give up on superheroes. I won’t. Fear not fellow Dorkdaddies. There are options out there, and I’m happy to pass on what I’ve managed to piece together.
Of course there’s always the old “Superfriends” standby from the 70’s and 80’s. They’re all easily available on DVD and you’d be amazed at how vanilla they are. There are no guns. There’s no fighting. They’re totally namby-pamby, and totally kid-safe. They’re also totally over. No new episodes and no new issues to look forward to every week. They’re nice to put in your glove box to put on the minivan DVD player during long trips, but you won’t get much utility beyond that. If you’re looking for newer material, I’m happy to report that there is still good reason to go into the comic book shop every month.
Although you may need to go to the dark secluded corner of the comic shop to find them, DC publishes two comic book titles designed for children that also segue nicely with animated programs you can find (and TiVo) on Cartoon network. The first is “Batman: The Brave And The Bold”. This title is in full-merchandizing mode. There are T-shirts all over Target and action figures all over Toys R Us. “Brave And The Bold” is a title that revolves around Batman, but introduces all of the tier-2 superheroes (Blue Beetle, Zatana, Plastic Man) here and there in his adventures. The cartoon however, is quite ingeniously engineered to appeal to both child AND parent. If the name “Linda Carter” means anything to you, take a look at this clip of the show and listen to the music that plays when a certain star-spangled heroine comes to the rescue of the caped-crusader:
It must be said that there are guns, and plenty of fist/foot to face fighting in this series. If your young one is too young for that sort of thing, best to wait a bit.
Along those same lines, Cartoon Network also airs “Teen Titans”, which for my money is the best kid-friendly superhero stuff out there. It features a group of teenage superheroes, with Robin as their leader, and introduces a healthy number of other lesser-known DC characters here and there as well. Artistically, it also makes liberal use of Japanese anime stylings that kids seem to respond well to these days. It’s also worth noting that although there is a measure of fighting in this series (these ARE superheroes after all, fighting bad guys), the producers do an EXCELLENT job of disguising it. You never, ever see a fist touch a face, or a boot hit a body. Fighting may happen in the story, but the producers seem to know the audience here is younger, and they keep things appropriate. Oh, and there are absolutely no guns (or at least guns that you would recognize as real-world-ish).
To give you an idea about how far afield DC has taken things, I’ll note that my daughter’s favorite character in “Teen Titans” is Starfire (the red-headed character floating overhead in the picture to the right). Starfire’s charm has always been her cultural naiveté since she comes from another planet. On the show her role is to be the emotional gooey-center of the group. She’s the one who’s worried about everyone else’s feelings, and drives home the message of friendship. Starfire was part of DC’s New-52 project as well, and was re-imagined and re-booted along with all the other major DC characters. If my 5-year-old daughter went to a comic book shop to find a comic book featuring her favorite DC superheroine, she would find this:
Two words: HELL. NO.
I don’t need my kids seeing that. Heck, I don’t even need to see that.
Thankfully though, Starfire also makes regular appearances in the other kid-friendly comic book DC publishes monthly. “Tiny Titans” may not look like your typical rippling-muscles in spandex comic book title, but it turns out it’s great at introducing really young kids to the superhero universe. It seems to resonate particularly well with girls… and with kids who are just starting to read. If you’ve got a kindergartener you’d like to get excited about superheroes (like I do), see if your local comic book shop will set aside a copy of “Tiny Titans” for you every month.
It should also be noted that Cartoon Network also airs a show produced by Marvel (Spiderman, X-men, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, etc) called “Super Hero Squad”. This too is geared for a younger audience, and is produced in conjunction with a relatively robust online video game, also geared for younger children. I beta testd the video game and though it was a fantastic entry to online video gaming for a 7 or 8-year-old. I must admit though that I haven’t vetted the television program, and therefore won’t be making any judgments on this blog post.
If the world of printed comic books continues along its current adult trajectory, I can’t imagine a scenario where my kids will start routinely collecting the main title books on their own when they’re 10 or 11 years old like I did. Times change, and just like with Saturday morning cartoons I may have to mourn that loss as I raise my kids. But while they’re young I can still share in the joy and culture of visiting the comic shop every month by seeking out the kid-friendly titles. Supplement that with some strategically DVR’d episodes of “Teen Titans” and “Batman: Brave And The Bold” and I can be confident that they are getting the Surgeon General’s recommended daily dose of vitamin superhero in their critical years. I’ll keep collecting the “adult” titles and setting them aside until the day comes that they are able to handle the material, and from now to then we can always have fun hunting down back-issues from a comic-book era that I’m afraid is, sadly, gone forever.