Tim Davis of Alternate Reality in Chicago Illinois sent us this well-thought-out and impassioned plea for publishers to produce comics that can be sold to young children.
A true story (swear to god) that illustrates one of the biggest problems our industry currently faces. The Saturday after the Spider-Man DVD was released a dad and his two sons come into my store. The boys looked to be six and eight and the dad said they had just watched the DVD and his boys wanted to read some Spider-Man comics. So I direct them to the Spider-Man shelf of current offerings and they start flipping through the books while dad looks around the store. So I'm watching their reactions to the comics they are perusing and do I see a lot of 'ooh's' and 'ahhh's' over the four-color adventures of the hero they just watched on TV. Nope. Do I hear: 'Dad these are great, I never knew Spider-Man was like this!' Nope. Instead I see two puzzled faces and the oldest asks me 'Do I have any Spider-Man comics like the movie?' I ask them if they mean the comic adaptation of the movie, at which point I'm told: 'We've seen the movie, we mean Spider-Man comics that are like the movie.'
Then for a fraction of a second I thought:
'SPIDER-MAN COMICS THAT ARE JUST LIKE THE MOVIE?' Boys, boys don't you realize that comics like that don't exist. Spider-Man comics, like all mainstream comics are continuity dense offerings written for an aging, shrinking 30 plus target market with an entrenched mind-set and a desperate need to cling to what they remember was their youth. But more than that, comics are also sequential art which most times feature avant-garde creators all constantly striving to make their grand 'statement' in graphic storytelling. Creators like Kevin Smith on Spider-Man/Black Cat who writes lines like: 'I'm a woman with father issues who's pushing thirty, crammed into wet leather, and nursing a mean case of PMS'. Ask your dad about pms and wet leather, and for the hell of it ask him about father issues as well. Tell you what boys, take a look at Peter Parker: Spider-Man or Amazing Spider-Man and get submerged in over 40 years of back-story. Marvel (no pun intended) at how talented creators can still make silk purses out of the sows ear of oppressive, unyielding continuity (remember the target market has an entrenched mind set). Did you know Aunt May's attempting to come to terms with the fact her late 20's-something nephew is really Spider-Man (missed that part in the movie didn't you) while Peter is trying to come to terms with the disillusion of his marriage to MJ (hunh?), which right now doesn't even seem to exist. This last bit of news is Marvel's sop to you, the uninitiated fan who could get confused because the comic isn't like the movie. None of this sounds like fun? Why Spider-Man comics can be great fun! In fact when comics aren't dealing with adult themes or straining to be grand mythology they can dish out satire and parody. Why over in Tangled Web you can read funny stuff about how Rhino and Grizzly try to donate sperm or take a dump in costumes that have no apparent zippers. Or in Get Kraven (who's dead but this is his son, brother, whatever) you can read social commentary masking as parody on how screwed up the film industry really is. If you have any sisters at home get a copy of Spider-Girl, the poster child comic for convoluted, over-thought continuity and storytelling. You see in an alternate future which may or may not be our own, Peter's daughter has grown up and...
In other words boys, there are no Spider-Man comics like the movie; in fact there are no Spider-Man comics for you at all. You see the comic book industry doesn't have time for the likes of you. We're what would be referred to in other circles as an 'Old Boys Club', which you can join if you jump the hurdles I just mentioned. But to be honest we'd rather you didn't try, you see all our pretensions of 'art' and grandeur are lost to the likes of you. You don't appreciate what its like to have read Spider-Man for over 40 years. We've suffered with heartache you could never understand. Ditko to Romita to the Death of Gwen to the black costume symbiote to McFarland to the Clone saga to bankruptcy to 'Chapter One' to the restart to this movie and we don't want you coming in and messing up our little club so GET OUT!'
But instead I said the adult thing: 'Try Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel made it so it's like the movie'. So they looked through a couple of issues, put them back on the shelf and asked me again: 'Don't you have anything like the movie?' Sorry boys but that's the closest you're going to get. So dad bought them four Yu-Gi-Oh! booster packs and they left. Sixteen bucks thanks to the folks at Konami and Upper Deck and ZERO dollars to Spidey. Thank god for the Japanese. True story over.
So what was wrong with Ultimate Spider-Man? Issue 30 (the one on the racks at the time) opens with Spidey being shot (literally) off of a window and bleeding on the sidewalk after falling who knows how many stories. He escapes the cops and hides in a dumpster until MJ (who's in on the secret) comes to get him to a hospital emergency room (which he bleeds all over) for medical attention. The issue ends with the cops saying Spider-Man is now a wanted vigilante who must be stopped. Did I mention these boys were six and eight? Did I mention they were looking for Spider-Man comics that were just like the movie? Comics where Peter doesn't get shot by the police, hide in dumpsters bleed all over the place or let Mary Jane in on the secret? Did I mention they were six and eight? I know at the end of the movie the Goblin beats Spider-Man to a semi-bloody pulp, but you can get away with that in a film but not in a comic (well not a comic a six or eight year old will care about). Ultimate Spider-Man is a fine book to graduate into but it is a lousy jumping on point for a six year old. It's written an older 12 and up crowd and written right over the heads of the audience I'm concentrating on here. And there lies the problem, because if you can't snag them at five or six or seven, what chance do you seriously think you'll have at twelve or fourteen?
I first started running a comic book store back in 1978 and one of my biggest gripes with comics back then was the lack of material being put out for younger readers. It's 24 years later and the situation has only abscessed with time. Yes there are other distractions like the internet, video games, DVDs and such, but these boys weren't looking for those. They wanted Spider-Man COMICS. There is something fundamentally wrong with an industry that has gotten so far out of touch with what has always been its traditional marker (young boys) that it can't produce a comic aimed a willing consumer from that market. Especially when the comic in question has the push of a 1 BILLION DOLLAR grossing hit film behind it. We're not talking about an obscure character like Blade or Swamp Thing, but SPIDER-MAN. Kids (remember them) are supposed to want to read Spider-Man, he's fun, he's cool, he's neat. He spins a web, any size. He catches thieves, just like flies. So Mr.Jemas my question is where are all the kids at? Better yet show us the 2002 sales spike/increase for the Spider-Man family of titles. Columbia Pictures spent 50 million dollars to promote the movie, where's the spill off to the comic? Tell me Mr.J when I get two young boys in my store who WANT to read Spider-Man comics but can't find ANYTHING on the rack to interest them, what should I do? How do I explain to the father (who brought them to my store in order to get their boys interested in reading) that each of the current Spider-Man titles are inappropriate to his boys for the various reasons I've listed above. Does anyone for an instant think that if I did sat him down and explained the comic industry facts of life to him it would be a good thing?
There is a solution to this problem and it's really, really simple. CREATE A COMICS LINE FOR KIDS. Marvel has made halfhearted attempts at this in the past while DC's current line exists only to promote whatever animated series the parent company is featuring. Both of the 'Big 2' need to start a line of YOUNG READER titles (hell, put that in big letters across the top of every issue) made solely for the target market of boys between the ages of five to eight. Not a line that exists to promote a cartoon but a line that exists to promote a character. It doesn't have to be a huge line, three titles from each company would be just swell. These titles should feature their 'Big guns' but be totally separate from the mainstream versions of the characters being portrayed.
Imagine a Spider-Man book done up in the style of Spidey Super Stories but with more emphasis on plot than phonics. Imagine a Mort Weisinger style Superman family book where a talking kryptonite rock narrates a story about 'Porcupine-boy Jimmy'. How about a Batman book right out of the 'ZAP! BAM! POW!' camp sixties, with bad guys that aren't Hannibal Lecter homicidal maniacs, a cool Batmobile and a Robin replete with bad puns. DC's been trying to figure out what to do with 'the original Captain Marvel' since the early 70's. Set up your talking tigers and evil genius worms right here in this line of titles! Imagine a Hulk comic where Banner becomes a misunderstood monster when he gets mad; a giant who is being chased because he breaks things and can't control his temper. Do you think kids or parents in this audience can identify with that conception of the Hulk? All this might sound like a nightmare to some 'continuity entrenched minds' but remember the age group I'm talking about. This type of story might actually be cool at this age and hook them into the world of comics. If absolutely necessary, put these books on another earth, another dimension, make them Ultimate-lite, whatever is needed to differentiate them from your mainstream offerings as not to 'confuse' longtime readers.
The comic line I'm imagining should also follow a few guidelines:
1) ACCESSABILITY. Every issue should be a considered a reader's very first issue, so keep them accessible. Keep continuity simple, internal and character based. How simple? Read an Archie comic. Internal continuity in the Archie universe hasn't changed in over 50 years. They still sell just fine and are instantly identifiable by folks 'on the outside'. Keep characterization static. Again look at 'Archie', outside of some basic clothing styles; the characters have never changed.
2) VISUALLY INVITING. A child's world is one of primary colors. Comics are full of characters that dress in gaudy primary colors. Back in the 60's and 70's the bright colors were one of the first things that attracted me (and scores of others) to comics. Get back to a simplified color palette. Again look at 'Archie'.
3) INVITING CONTENT THAT'S UNAMBIGOUS. Stories don't have to be all sunshine and smiles but keep all the murder, blood, rape, lust, sex, angst, etc out of this line. Make plots and characterization simple, straightforward and to the point.
4) SIMPLIFY THE ART. I grew up with John Romita, Sr., Kurt Schaffenberger, Jack Kirby, Curt Swan and the like. These and others were all talented artists with clean styles that defined the look of characters for generations. Much of the manga art out there superficially resembles this simplified style, as does 'Archie'. This style of art is suited for a YOUNG READERS line of comics as opposed to much of the current mainstream styles. Break artistic boundaries in other titles; keep the art clean and simple in this line of books.
5) AFFORDABLE. Marvel did a line of .99-cent comics a few years back that failed I feel because they did not follow the first four of these guidelines. If the books weren't continuity heavy they were dark and moody or showcased 'complicated' mainstream artistic styles (can you say Image?). Cheap comics aren't the point, but affordable is definitely a plus. $1.99 or $2.25 is the price I would peg this line at. 'Archie's' and DC's 'WBTV' books generally follow this rule and it seems to succeed. Parents seem to accept this price (especially when they see some of the $5.95 titles) and since they have the money keep, it cheap to keep them happy.
Who will work on these books? Many of the potential artists are probably still in the industry but aren't working because their style is considered out of the mainstream. Folks like Joe Staton and Herb Trimpe both come to mind and I'm sure a little digging will turn up others. For writers (or other artists) I would suggest mining the wealth of children's authors (and artists) who are out there. In a recent 'Biography' profile of Harry Potter's J.K.Rowling's said her original publisher in England told her not to quit her day job once she was published. This is because most children's authors never make enough to support themselves on just their book royalties. I'm not saying hire Ms. Rowling's, but there are many of fine unknown children's authors out there who would be happy for some extra, steady work and Spider-Man on their resume.
So from a purely business point of view: By making YOUNG READERS line of books you provide a 'safe and accessible' line that introduces what has always been your core base audience to your product. Like 'Archie's' they can be promoted as 'Reader Breeders' to the rest of the world thus making them both fun AND educational (a public relations 'win/win'). Once the reader is hooked they can 'graduate' into the mainstream line (or your Ultimate line) and themes that are better suited for their age group. As time goes by and they become teens they can begin exploring the more mature lines in the company (Marvel Knights/Wildstorm) and when they reach adulthood the adult lines (Max/Vertigo). The downside of this proposal is you will not see results overnight. It will take a multi-year commitment and a publicity push akin to The Truth, Dark Knight Strikes Back or Heroes to generate public awareness outside of our little enclosed market. And as I said at the outset, I feel this is a market that has been ignored for decades; creating public awareness/acceptance for a YOUNG READERS line of comics will take time.
There, a corporate philosophy and sales model that takes a prospective reader from the cradle to the grave (sort of) with your product. If done right, everyone makes money. The product is perpetuated through generations and everyone gets their own corner of the playground. Or I suppose we could all just sit back and watch the existing market shrink into oblivion through attrition.