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TCJ On-Line Essay on Comics For Kids
posted October 26, 1997

Oct. 26, 1997 -- I get a lot of calls for favors. A number of them are from the Journal's contributing writers (or, as we like to call them when we're sending them their incredibly small paychecks, "our extended family"): things like walking over a change of address to the FBI order department or providing contact information for an outside writing project. Other requests come from students, giddy with worry after talking their professor into a comics-related project without realizing that the only article on "Milton Caniff's inking techniques" exists in an out-of-print Journal back issue. My favorite requests are from people who think the "comics" in Comics Journal are comedians rather than the creations of cartoonists. When I told one irate caller we wrote about comic books and comic strips he shouted back, "Well, who would want to read about that?"

My brother Whit called a week ago Thursday with a typical request, one that's probably familiar to many of you who read comics. He said that his supervisor had stopped by his booth, and asked if he could recommend comics for his elementary school-aged son. "I'm not big on violence" was the supervisor's only caveat, and his casual perusal of the superhero material available on the newsstand was what sent him to Whit.

Like any good brother, Whit called me up at an obscenely early hour with a request for assistance. I told him I would fax him about 15 minutes after he got off the line (I guess the supervisor wanted to know about comics RIGHT NOW), and hastily assembled a list.

Here's what I came up with. Most of the comments are from the original notes. Whit's supervisor was going to Chicago Comics, a fine comics store, so I trusted someone there to help him find what I was talking about from rough or general descriptions.

1. Carl Barks' duck comics.
2. Don Rosa's duck comics, particularly The Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge.
3. Various new duck comics, with artists like William Van Horn.
4. Bone (monsters and some adult subtext, but not a lot).
5. Two comics I've seen but am not terribly familiar with: Patty Cake and Pakkins' Land.
6. The Batman and Robin Adventures and Superman Adventures books from DC.
7. Gary Groth reads Jim Woodring's Frank stuff to Conrad; may be too weird for your supervisor.
8. Little Lulu.
9. Tintin and Asterix, in that order. There are probably some other Euro-cartoonists still in print: Peyo? Ask Eric or Kurt (Chicago Comics owners).
10. Akiko, by Mark Crilley.
11. Leave It to Chance.
12. DC's Cartoon Network stuff, but it's very, very hit-and-miss. I like the ones Michael Kupperman and Sam Henderson have written, and guess that I would have liked them as a young child, but I may be reaching based on affection for Sam's and Michael's current work.

That's pretty much it, although in my signature I scrawled, "If the kid likes dinosaurs, get him an Alley Oop book." I had to include very new, untested work and some mainstream-style product next to some of the established masters, but I was still surprised I got to double figures.

All in all, after writing the list, my first thought was "What am I missing?" That feeling lingered for a while, and in search of a second opinion -- perhaps books that were more widely available that I hadn't noticed -- I posted to this site's message board. What I got back in response didn't really surprise me. Jeff Mason fired back with a recommendation for his own "Tykes," by Steven Weissman, which is one that hadn't occurred to me (would kids really like it?). The others who responded listed many of the same suspects as above, but expanded their definitions of acceptable superhero fare to include Stan Lee-written '60s-era Marvel comics.

I cast my net a bit further, and went to the on-line bookstores. The catalogs of illustrator-authors like Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak, the favorites of many a cartoonist and comics fan, are mostly still in print, and give many of the word/picture pleasures of comics. Gorey flat-out uses comics at times, a fact supported by last year's show at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Gorey was very much a favorite of mine as a child, and appealed to me in a way similar to how, I guess, R.L. Stine-type material delights young people now. The "Ghastlycrumb Tinies" story, with its letter by letter depictions of doom for a parade of letter-by-letter named kids, was a particular favorite. Morose, but great fun.

Several creators familiar to comics readers have worked in children's books in recent years. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean made a splash earlier this year with The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish, ($21.99, White Wolf, ISBN: 1565049446), a lavishly illustrated piece that showed off McKean to better effect than it showcased Gaiman. Daniel Torres, the very stylish European illustrator whose Rocco Vargas comics are soon to be collected (again) by Dark Horse, has worked in children's books, most notably with the well-reviewed Tom ($15.99, Viking Children's Books, ISBN: 0670866652). One of Chris Ware's definite influences, and the contributor of some of the most astonishing work in RAW and Bad News, Richard McGuire, has produced similarly startling work for children. Night Becomes Day ($14.99, Viking Childrens Books, ISBN: 0670855472) comes to mind as the one that best approximates the wonderfully idiosyncratic inner logic he demonstrates in comics like "Here." Finally, Lorenzo Mattotti, whose color work in the albums Fires and Murmur set jaws a-dropping in '93-'94, has done children's books including Pinocchio ($15, Lothrop Lee & Shepard, ISBN: 068812450X), and The Cranky Sun ($16.95, Little Brown & Company, ISBN: 0316503614). All are worth stopping by the children's department of your local small town-sized book store. And there are probably a lot more.

This stopped me short. If those last are included, "That's not a bad list," I thought, and stopped thinking about children's comics as I went back to work. Two things happened on my way home that put the subject back squarely on my mind. First, I went to two of the local comic stores (in search of some art for the magazine's new section), and noticed that very few of the comics I listed -- and none of the books -- were available (which corresponds to my memory of most comics stores). Second, I bought that week's version of TV Guide, featuring a run-down of the Fall season in kids' television programming. One of the articles talked about "unsatisfying" superhero cartoons (To digress, it was standard modern superhero apologia: the networks just don't want the loads of subtext and grittiness that make Marvel Comics so great. Uh-huh.), but the vast majority of writing was profiles of well-meaning, middle-of-the-road cartoons and live-action shows, directed at a number of age groups and both genders.

After some consideration, my initial thoughts on the subject:

1. The number of quality comics or comics-like material that most parents would allow their kids to read isn't too horrible, particularly when compared to the vast majority of comics anyone should want to read.

2. It's strange but not surprising that neither I nor anyone I talked to even considered the vast majority of superhero stuff "kids' comics," the way they would have even 20 years ago. In fact, most superhero books, with their violence, barely sublimated sexual overtones and general garish qualities are particularly ill-suited to children. Does anyone really disagree with this?

3. A lot of the high-end children's comics are being kept out of the hands of children. Most stores with which I'm familiar either don't have children's sections or fill that section with cheap pamphlet-formatted comics from various companies, particularly the various tie-in product from the big corporations. Potentially appropriate comics like Leave It To Chance and Akiko are in the regular comics section of all the comics stores I've visited, between the guns and large breasts of the regular mainstream lines. A lot of what else is there is very high priced (the Carl Barks Library) or even prohibitively priced, like the appropriate-for-older-children Zot! , which cost something like $85,000 a trade.

4. The alternative, or arts-first, comics community is sorely lacking in contributions to kids' comics. There is precious little being created right now that's new, genuinely idiosyncratic, and appealing to children.

5. There's some kids' stuff out there that would be great to have reprinted, but there's not enough of a comics readership to support the reprintings. The rare reprints that do see the light of the day usually appear in big, expensive collector's editions, which is a shame: C.C. Beck and Jack Cole's takes on the superhero genre were very kids-friendly; I'd love to see more of Jingle Jangle Tales and like comics; and Peanuts, the comic I read most as a child seems to be reduced to only the occasional late-period reprint and horrible themed books.

In other words, comics for kids suffer from the same neglect of artistic quality that all of comics suffer from, and are subject to the same repercussions of a decade-by-decade declining readership. There's a danger in couching the "comics don't exist for kids" argument in terms of some supposed self-interest ("In a generation, we'll have no readers!"): that argument focuses on mainstream companies, treating them as if they were sausage-makers (in a way, aren't they?) who need their recipe tweaked for the single goal of selling more sausage.

So let's hope for more good comics for kids the same way we hope for more good comics, period. There are some encouraging signs: both Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics have toyed around with starting children's lines, and a lot of alternative comics creators have expressed interest in doing all-ages comics -- particularly as they begin to have children of their own. (Rumor has it that one major alternative cartoonist may edit an all-ages anthology beginning next year.) Newspaper reprints continue; the major companies are toying around with cheap reprints as the easy money begins to dry up; and children's books will always be a lucrative market for comics' best craftsmen -- Nickelodeon has even given some thought to entering that market with some of their comics material, which includes work from Pat Moriarity and Kim Deitch.

And let us also hope for a continuing reform of comics shops, now that the mainlining of sweaty teenager money is no longer a guaranteed thing, and that at least those comics which are the equivalent of mainstream, well-intentioned kids' material can be targeted to that readership. Because let's face it: placing Akiko on the high alphabetical racks next to Ass-Woman is like putting the Adventures of Pete and Pete on the air between episodes of Silk Stalkings.

So while many in comics continue to struggle with mixing the juvenile and inappropriately adult, a lot of decent, arguably quality material may finally overwhelm industry culture and create its own audience. Okay, maybe not. But, at the very least, those with a passionate interest in the medium can build a pretty decent kid-friendly section of their comics library, which in and of itself is a promising start. -- Tom Spurgeon

Originally Published as Gutter Talk, TCJ On-Line, October 26, 1997