Okay, really, what ABOUT the children? - DC Comics and Young Readers
Lots of talk all over the inter-ma-nets since the New 52 started about the books' appropriateness (or, often, lack thereof) for children, and people have very strong opinions on the issue. The detractors worry that kids may be exposed to content that they're not ready for, and they say that for an initiative aimed at courting "new" comics readers, none of it seems particularly suited for anyone below high school age. Those that are enjoying the new books think that they're fine, and that DC books (and most major publisher comics, in fact) haven't been aimed at kids in 20-30 years, that kids are more interested in TV and video games, that DC already has their Johnny DC line, and they think that when most people say "comics should be more kid-friendly" they really mean that "comics should be like the comics these people read as kids."
I'm oversimplifying this, I know, but stay with me here.
So regardless of your stance on the issue, what do YOU think should be done? How should DC court the younger reader - through the main books, through a separate line - or should they court them at all?
As for myself, I'm torn on the issue. I think there should always be books for the younger readers. Get the books out there and get the kids hooked... not just on DC or even comics in general, but on reading! Anything that gets kids reading is always a good thing, and if it instills an early appreciation for the comics form, all the better. But even though I haven't appreciated the increased sex and violence (and sexual violence) in a lot of DC books over the past decade (that's not what I want from a DC book), I think I'm okay with the "regular" books being written for an older audience. And that's because of the direct market. If comics were sold everywhere like they were when I was a kid, I'd want them to be more All Ages, because there's more chance of younger eyes seeing them. But in a direct market comic shop, well, you don't get a lot of kids in there anymore. Even the really, really good ones don't have more than a small kids' section. If you want comics in a direct market world, you're actively seeking them out, which means you're likely a little older and have $3-4 a pop to drop on books.
So is the answer a separate kids' line? I think so, but I don’t know that Johnny DC is the answer, at least not the way it currently exists. The reality of Johnny DC is that if a book doesn’t have a cartoon supporting it, it doesn’t last. Some really great books that haven’t been tie-ins have been published as part of this line – Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!; Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade; The Family Dynamic – but none of them made it very long. Billy Batson lasted over 2 years, but a lot of that time was due to production delays. Supergirl was a mini-series that has never been followed up on, despite how well it was received. And Family Dynamic was supposed to be a 6 issue series, but got canceled after 3! Meanwhile, Cartoon Network Action Pack, Scooby Doo, and Looney Tunes continue to have great runs since they have the support of TV shows. Teen Titans Go! and Justice League Unlimited had healthy runs, too, but faded soon after their shows did. This is the final season of Batman: the Brave and the Bold, so you have to figure that book’s not long for this world, either. It’s the reality: with Johnny DC, success = TV, and while the books may be good, I fear that it stifles creativity, both in terms of new properties (like Family Dynamic) and newer, younger-skewing takes on existing properties (Supergirl, Billy Batson).
(Yes, I realize Tiny Titans is an exception to this rule, but one book is hardly a proper refutation.)
I think Marvel does it right with their Marvel Adventures line and associated mini-series that aren’t labeled Marvel Adventures and yet we know they count. First and foremost, the books aren’t “kids’ books” by any stretch. Marvel Adventures Spider-Man is a long, long way from the Spidey Super Stories sort of thing that I bet most comics fans think it is. What you get with that book, whether in its original incarnation or its current run, is fairly traditional, straightforward superheroing, only without the on-panel ultra-violence. The current series even has its own established continuity and (brilliant) supporting cast, so it reads like it actually “counts,” for those that like that sort of thing. Spider-Man, the awkwardly named Super Heroes, those mini-series like Spider-Man and the Secret Wars, Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil, or that more recent Captain America one, they’re all true Marvel Comics in both look and feel. Nothing “kiddie” about them, they’re just truly All Ages.
Another thing Marvel Adventures books have going for them? You can find them EVERYWHERE, and in a variety of formats: traditional comic books for the direct market shops, magazine sizes for places like newsstands and places like Target, paperback digests for the bookstores and, most importantly, school book fairs. Marvel is not only making the content, but they’re actually making it available in places where the intended audience – multiple audiences, in fact – are going to actually see it. Certain Johnny DC titles get traded, sure, but I never see them around much, at comic stores, regular book stores, or anywhere else. And remember, I have a 6 year old at home who likes cartoons and superheroes, so I spend a lot of time looking at and buying kids’ books featuring those characters. I can find a DC Super Friends Young Readers prose book just about anywhere, but finding comics for my son featuring those same characters (or some version thereof) is a whole lot harder.
I think availability is the real key here. Get the books out to where the people are, and you might actually be able to make something like Dean Trippe's proposed Lois Lane, Girl Reporter more than just a dream book for comics bloggers. There’s a young audience out there ready, willing, and able to read about these characters, but it seems like DC has never made more than a token gesture at courting it. The other parts of the Time-Warner media empire have no problem making a Batman available for every conceivable demographic and entertainment format, and yet the comics people seem to fear brand dilution would occur if they tried it. That has never made a lick of sense to me.