Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by retailer Steve Bennett of Mary Alice Wilson's Dark Star Comics of Yellow Springs, Ohio.  This week Bennett talks about Archie's redesign of its characters for the tween audience, and how other publishers are pursuing this trend.
Well the announcement of the impending 'new look' for Archie and the gang got pretty much the reaction I expected; a slow news cycle provided the publisher the free publicity from choice media outlets it had been looking for.  Plus there was the predictable fierce, bitter opposition over at the Newsarama forums to any changes being made to characters the authors hadn't thought or cared about it in decades (if ever).


Actually it was the piece in one of those outlets, the December 22nd copy of The Wall Street Journal, which again got me thinking about the subject and I finally realized what was really behind it.  The company was chasing tweens--you know, kids between the ages of eight and twelve who made the Disney Channel movie High School Musical a national phenomenon.


Although today's kids are increasingly exposed to more adult material, they still have a need to feel safe,  making them seek out material innocuous and reassuring, explaining the success of such inoffensive fare as the Suite Life of Zack and Cody and That's So Raven.  They certainly seem to be hungry for stories about (relatively) ordinary kids in situations that reflect upon their hopes and fears - and doesn't that sound more than a little like what Archie Comics has been doing for decades?  With a little tweaking the company is uniquely situated to provide kids with the sort of innocent romance (in, not surprisingly, close to a manga format) that tweens now crave.


How pervasive is this whole 'tween' thing?  Disney, which up until recently lived and died by their classic comic characters is starting to push girl friendly titles like W.I.T.C.H. (at the expense of Mouse and Duck titles) worldwide. 


And online I recently saw a trailer for next summer's Nancy Drew movie and was amazed by the way the icon had been 'tweened' to appeal to this key demographic.  For one thing the supremely independent (one might even say 'aloof'), ever so slightly glamorous sixteen year old sleuth now looks all of fifteen, actually goes to (gasp) school and while trying to solve a mystery has to deal with out of control parties, whether that special boy likes her (that way), and how to be true to herself.


Archie has certainly done a far better job than either Marvel or DC has at going after this audience.  DC has a sixteen year old Supergirl reconfigured by Joe Kelly (a talented writer whose work I intellectually appreciate but can't say I often actually enjoy) as a Satanic Teenage Time Bomb.  And Marvel fifteen year old X-23, a teen girl Wolverine clone who up until recently was an assassin and part time prostitute who wears black leather bondage gear.  I can understand why both publishers haven't tried to appeal to an audience that isn't there (yet); but can't help feeling uncomfortable seeing underage female characters being treated in such demeaning, sexualized ways.  Sometimes it really does seem like both publishers are doing their best to appeal to perverts and get the lead spot on tonight's edition of the 700 Club.


So, what do I want?  In the aforementioned Wall Street piece there's a quote from Archie chairman Michael I. Silberkleit about the various ways their characters are drawn that I'd like to share with you:


'Why are there seven different Chevrolets?  There's one that people like this way and one that people like that way.'


Meaning, this isn't an either or situation, you can have classic and post-modern versions of characters existing side by side with each other.  DC is already selectively practicing this.  To appeal to the mainstream super-hero reader there's the Trial of Shazam Captain Marvel and for everyone else there's Jeff Smith's upcoming rendition of the classic incarnation.  It'll probably come as no surprise that I prefer the utter wish fulfillment of the original, but until a lot more kids start coming into Dark Star I can't ignore the way copies of Trial of Shazam has been flying off our shelves.


If you want to do a dark Supergirl, fine, just so long as somewhere there's one who, you know, might actually appeal to girls.  Say a Supergirl with a manga style story that focuses more on Linda Lee Danvers and her cat than super-heroics, or a version of X-23 where she's the strange new Goth girl at school with the terrible secret who slowly learns to reach out past her pain (anyone who says girls could never enjoy the fantasy of a character who 'cuts loose' the way boys do hasn't an inkling just how mean and vindictive your average teen-age girl can be).


Surprisingly, between Marvel and DC it's The Marvel who's doing the best job creating material that'll appeal to this audience, with titles like the Franklin Richards specials, the Power Pack mini-series and, oddly enough, New X-Men.  Sure it's essentially One Tree Hill with super powers, but it's also the only X-title I'd feel entirely comfortable putting into the hands of a tween.  But both companies could be doing a lot more.


The Customer of the Week award goes to the kid (no older than ten) who came into Dark Star the other day and wanted to buy a Heroclix with an American Express card.  He was told his parents would have to come in to sign the receipt upon which he claimed it was his.  I don't want to believe this you understand, but the older I get the weirder things get; upon hearing the news it was tough shaking the overwhelming desire to curl up into a fetal position.