CAPES, COWLS & COSTUMES >> Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!

Back in the olden days, when comic books were the purview of children — and we children reading them were getting too old, really, to continue doing so — we delighted when DC Comics came up with the slogan “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” Illustrated with superhero headshots and the smiling faces of adolescent readers, the slogan was slapped atop the spinner racks and wall racks from which we used to pluck our comics — always from the middle of the stack, to get the fresh copy no one had yet touched — found in every candy store, drugstore and Woolworth in the land. It was validation in a world in which THE NEW YORK TIMES had yet to anoint us as an acceptable art form (that wouldn’t come until about 1998; only took us about 60 years to get legitimacy).

Of course, it was just a slogan and, alas, comics really aren’t for kids anymore. Those of us who were kids in 1969 are still reading them. Kids in 2009, not so much. So comics have matured themselves out of an entire generation of kids, when lifetime buying habits for things like comic books are formed.

Comic books are like the Shakers (a.k.a. the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing: With no children to follow them (in their case, because sex was a no-no) and dependent only on recruitment of adults to keep the sect alive (and how many are joining a sect where sex is a no-no?), they faded away, leaving behind only their lovely, Shaker-style furniture.

But, while the world of so-called “floppies” (what we in those olden days used to call a comic book) shrinks, the kid market lives on … and just not in the comic shop. Instead, comic book characters are alive and well and, all things considered, relatively healthy on the shelves of bookstores across this great land of ours.

Largely the realm of the more iconic Marvel and DC Comics characters, these kids’ books cover the age spectrum from infant to young adult, and feature as many variations of these characters as there are demographic groups. In my time behind a desk at DC, I edited more than my share of such books, including three of the four below. I choose them not because I think they are any better or worse than anything that came before or since, but simply of my familiarity with these particular titles; I have not read many of the 120-plus kids’ superhero tie-in books on my shelves. (That’s how you know you’ve crossed the line from reader to collector: Readers actually read the books they buy.)

I’ll skip coloring books (because really, what can you say beyond “Look at the pretty pictures!”) and go to stories created for the youngest readers — a format known as the “8×8,” due in large part, one assumes, to its dimensions of eight inches by eight inches. These are usually 24 pages and feature full-page illustrations with anywhere from 750 to 1,000 words of text total, or blocks of anywhere from 40 to 50 words or so a page.

One such 8×8 was a 2003 book from Dalmatian Press was JUSTICE LEAGUE: MIRROR, MIRROR, starring the heroes of the animated series. Written by former DC Comics assistant editor Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt, this is a terse tale of Flash foes Captains Cold and Boomerang teaming up to bedevil the Justice League, leaving the heroes weakened and confused — mere reflections of their former selves, which, along with the title, should be enough of a clue to anyone over the age of 5 as to the identity of the true villain of the piece. The story is simple, straightforward fun and features some lively art by DC Comics veterans Joe Staton and Dan Davis.

Next step up the reader ladder is the “chapter book,” which, for the folks at Scholastic Books, is defined as longer stories with paragraphs, broken up into chapters, as the name indicates. (Companies like Scholastic spend considerable time and money targeting their books to specific age groups, complete with vocabulary word lists and computer programs that grade a story’s degree of reading difficulty by analyses of vocabulary and grammar.) Chapter books come in different sizes, but are generally in the vicinity of six inches by nine inches or so, often square-bound, containing stories around 1,200-1,500 words long and are heavily illustrated.

For Scholastic, I put together a series of eight such storybooks starring Batman, portrayed in one of the aforementioned character variations we called the “Classic Style,” i.e. the blue-and-gray costume with the yellow oval around the bat-symbol on his chest. BATMAN: TIME THAW led off the series, written by the very experienced Jesse Leon McCann and illustrated by John Byrne. (Yes, that John Byrne; he illustrated the first two books, with the remaining six executed by Rick Burchett. Yes, that Rick Burchett.)

TIME THAW gives Batman six short chapters in which to learn of Mr. Freeze’s dastardly plot to freeze Gotham City while terrorizing it with some thawed-out prehistoric beasts unearthed in a recent expedition to Siberian. We can debate the plausibility of the frozen fiend’s ability to produce flesh-and-blood dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers from frozen remains (actually, no need for debate; it’s silly), but the goal here isn’t to teach biology or cryogenics. It’s to tell a fun story that kids will want to read as the book publishing world actually cares about growing new readers.

From chapter books, we move on to novels, which come in all flavors for readers, ranging from about 8 to about 12 or 13 years old, in a category commonly known as IA, which stands for Intermediary Readers. The format is closer to that of an oversized paperback book and the stories tend to run around 24,000 words, and other than the use of art for chapter headings, these books aren’t generally illustrated. Which brings us to JUSTICE LEAGUE: SPEED TRAP, written by Brian Augustyn.

These 10 novels made the rounds of the core JL membership, focusing on the individual characters even as they engaged in a mission with their teammates. SPEED TRAP stars The Flash as the point-of-view character and was the first work of prose for Augustyn, whose knowledge of The Flash was as comprehensive as you might imagine for a guy who not only edited the comic book title for many years, but also co-wrote it with Mark Waid for a couple of years following.

When Wally West’s body chemistry is somehow altered so that he experiences excruciating pain whenever he moves at super-speed, he’s forced to save the Justice League from doom without the use of his powers. As fast-paced as expected, Augustyn turned in a wonderful manuscript full of great character bits and vivid descriptions of what it must be like to live in the super-sped-up world of the Fastest Man Alive.

Then come your basic YA — or Young Adult — novels, ranging from about 50,000 words on up, in standard paperback or hardcover formats. The HARRY POTTER books are YA. So is GOSSIP GIRLS. There’s a broad range of styles and markets, but the bottom line is that these are books aimed at readers up to age 16 or 17, after which, one presumes, they move on to adult novels. But this demographic was a perfect fit for this particular comic book-based property on the WB network: SMALLVILLE. It was a simple but brilliant formula for the material: 90210 with superpowers. Part cheesy teen angst (portrayed by actors quickly too obviously old for the parts), part superhero action/adventure, the brilliance lay in leaving the spandex out of the equation, rendering the whole outlandish drama palatable to mainstream audiences.

Publishers Little, Brown signed on for 10 books, kicking off with SMALLVILLE: ARRIVAL by Michael Teitelbaum, based on the teleplay by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. This is the one I did not edit, but the writer is a friend, which I mention only so I can add, for the record, that his father had been — coincidentally and decades before I ever met Mike — my high school algebra teacher, a kind man who passed me and allowed me to graduate on time even though I was really a point or two on the side of flunking on the final; here’s to you, Mr. Teitelbaum! (Why even write a column if you can’t do the occasional 35-year overdue shout-out?)

ARRIVAL follows the TV episode on which it is based, quickly bringing readers up to speed on the meteor shower of a dozen years earlier, segueing smoothly into the present and the spate of strange events that’s been plaguing the town ever since. The latest strange event, involving a fellow high school student who suddenly manifests strange powers and abilities, sets young Clark Kent on the quest for the truth about himself and his past, a journey he’s been on for eight seasons now. (Spoiler: He’s from the destroyed planet Krypton, has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and all town’s troubles are being caused by Kryptonite. And, oh, yeah: He’ll eventually meet the JLA.)

Next time: comic book prose. —Paul Kupperberg

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Comment by rob!
2009-02-21 09:05:57

I’m glad to see so much of this stuff in bookstores, since at least the characters–if not the comics themselves–will be remembered by the next generation of kids.

I’d hate to see Superman, Batman, et al become like The Green Hornet or The Lone Ranger–fine characters that hardly anyone below the age of 30 has heard of.

(Comments wont nest below this level)
Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-02-21 09:30:37

I’m with you there, Rob. I call the editorial part of the DCU the tail that wags DC: They think it’s their comic books that make the company go ’round when in reality, it’s licensing and licensed publishing that do that. These departments bring in WAY more money than the DCU AND their product–everything from t-shirts to coloring books to TV and movies–is what really keeps the properties in front of the public. Alas, the floppies–what we used to call a “comic book” in the old days–probably barely pays an editor’s salary and is just a loss-leader for the licensing.

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