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Another Friday at the Kids’ Table

by  in Comic News Comment
Another Friday at the Kids’ Table

Okay. So here we are again. To recap:

Last week I was talking about the comics that really hit me right between the eyes when I was a kid, and how they were emphatically not designed specifically as “kid’s” comics. That they were, in fact, a little hard for me to grasp here and there and part of the appeal was that I had to struggle with them a bit. And I wondered how many of you out there had a similar experience, if the things you read when you were young that hit you where you lived had been maybe a little over your heads. Quite a few of you chimed in with an affirmative.

So far, so good. Now here’s where we change it up a little bit. Because this all started with Joe Rice talking about Mike Kunkel’s new Captain Marvel book, which is clearly aimed at younger kids….

…and, as I said before, I absolutely approve of that. Can we get that out of the way up front? Yes, young readers absolutely should have comics they enjoy. I agree. So don’t start barking at me for saying “Publishers should only put out books I like.” Not saying that, not going there, calm down.

I had skipped the book– because, as I said, I understood clearly that I’m not the target audience for it!– but the furor here on the blog got me interested, especially when someone suggested it would be worth passing on to my students. So I went down to the comics shop and bought a copy.

It’s not bad. There’s a lot to like about the book; on the whole, I thought quite a bit better of it than Joe did. For one thing, I really like Mike Kunkel’s art. I enjoy his design sense, there’s something about the look of the characters that calls back to the old television cartoon studio output I remember from the early 60’s, that kind of antic Jay Ward vibe from stuff like Dudley Do-Right or George of the Jungle. Part of it is the way Kunkel’s using the panel — especially his trick of having a character appear multiple times in a panel to progress time. Apart from that, there’s an exuberance about his pages and a sense that he’s having a really good time doing it.

The problem is the format — the book is printed too small for the art, so even the pages that are designed well come off cramped, and often there are sequences that probably should have gone over two pages instead of one. At the same time the book is way too text-heavy, it’s as though they’re scared the visuals can’t carry enough of the load. There’s either way too much editorial interference here, or not nearly enough; whichever it was, the result is that there’s entirely too many words in the story. Overall, the whole comic feels like a size-seven foot jammed in a size-four shoe. Most of my issues with this book are with its format, as it turns out. But I’ll get back to that.

Already, I can see the line of annoyed commenters forming. Yes, of course, I’m not the target audience, so why would I like it? The thing’s not meant for me. I know that. It’s meant for kids. The only review question worth addressing is, will kids like it?

Despite the amount of anecdotal evidence from Mr. Rice’s commenters to the contrary, I’d have to say “Probably not.” I daresay I’m going to get dogpiled for this. But just as Joe looked at it and instantly knew his students would sneer, I looked at it and had exactly the same reaction. My students would probably sneer harder in dismissal than Joe’s would.

Which means that once again, a major publisher has put out a “kid’s comic” that its target audience isn’t going to be interested in.

Think it through before you start yelling, Cap lovers. Walk through this with me for a moment. What’s the key to successful marketing to an audience? Make them see your product, make them want it.

The problem is that this is a comic that is really best for very little kids, ones that are just starting to read. Four or five-year-olds. It’s ideally something a parent reads to a child, or with a child; that way, sure, it might very well be a gateway to reading for some kids. (At least if the text was pruned back to the point where it didn’t intimidate the hell out of them with its sheer mass.)

But where are those kids going to see this? Is it advertised anywhere OUTSIDE of comics and the comics press? How can it be an option if it’s invisible?

This is what I was getting at last week, about publishers getting it almost right and then completely screwing the pooch at the end. This book should never have been published as a standard comic. It would be pitch-perfect if it was an actual book, maybe something like the ones Whitman Publishing used to put out, say — a half-step up from a Little Golden Book.

If it had come out in that format, edited to that reading level, I would be applauding louder than anyone. Especially if it had shipped to places like Target or Wal-Mart or even big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble. You know, places where a non-fan parent might actually see this, or have it shown to them by a child who wanted it. (They used to publish superhero stories like that, you know; hell, one of my first books was one of them.)

Unfortunately, it’s not designed that way. It’s packaged as a standard monthly comic book, something no four-year-old is ever going to be interested in unless his comics-geek parent thinks it’s a good choice for Junior’s First Pull List.

And there’s the problem with the whole Johnny DC — and to a lesser extent, Marvel Adventures — lines. It’s not a question of quality. (I love a lot of the Marvel Adventures books and I think they are terrific.) But as several of the creators working on them have lamented themselves, the books “don’t sell for shit.” The format, the presentation, everything, is completely askew from what the target audience is trained to look for.

These ‘kid’s’ comics are being published based on a false premise, as far as I can see. Judging from the format, the (almost non-existent) marketing and the (spotty) distribution, the success of these imprints hinges on a fan-nostalgia dream of some mythical wave of kids finding the stuff on their own and being initiated into the joy of superhero comics the way we all were.

Sorry, those days are gone. Not happening.

Joe got yelled at for saying this, so I am probably courting a lynching if I chime in too, but trust me on this — Joe’s been teaching in public school for six-plus years and I’ve been teaching there for fourteen, and damn it, we keep track of what our students like to read. And this Billy Batson book isn’t it. Generally, the Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC books aren’t really it. Hell, superheroes aren’t it. Haven’t been for years.

If there is anything that public school teachers (and youth librarians, too) pay attention to — you could almost say “obsess over” — it’s what our kids read for fun. Because anyone who’s ever taught or tutored or even helped with homework knows that literacy scores shoot up if you can persuade a kid that reading can BE fun. We’re always on the alert for what book, what genre, what kind of story we can use to get a wedge in there and somehow motivate the kid who’s a reluctant reader.

Comics are a hugely powerful tool for encouraging literacy, because teachers and librarians have known for some time that kids reading “trash” are still kids that are reading. I know it and I know damned well that Joe knows it too. In fact, Mr. Rice was actively using Captain Marvel as a way to get his kids to write stories at one point, if I recall. So I can’t blame him for sounding a little bitter and frustrated at having his hopes dashed about Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam.

There’s something extra-maddening when a publisher almost gets it right and then blows it over something as idiotic as format. Who’s Billy Batson aimed at? Very young readers. Do those readers have any experience of newsstand superhero comics as kids’ reading? Not very damn likely. Who does? Adult superhero fans. Does Billy Batson look like it would appeal to those regular superhero readers? No, they’re all about All-Star Superman or Secret Invasion. So who’s going to buy this thing?

As far as I can tell? Geeked-out parents, wanting to introduce their children to superheroes. Apparently that’s the target audience.

Not what you’d call a huge market, I imagine, but okay. Let’s say that IS the strategy, actually designed to reap a profit (instead of just a forlorn hope of financial survival at a break-even, subsistence level.) Which leads me to another facet of the problem.

Before I got this gig here, I was a columnist at a “youth magazine” that was distributed to schools and community centers and churches and so on. And the problem with that job, for all of us that wrote for the thing, was something that we never really figured out how to solve — see, as writers, we desperately wanted to tailor the material to the kids. We wanted to talk about the real stuff that they had to deal with in their lives. “You have to meet kids where they ARE, not where you think they should be,” was something our editor told us a lot.

However, kids didn’t buy the magazine. Their parents and teachers did, and then it it was distributed to the kids free as part of a class or a youth-group meeting or something. So the editor also was tasked with trying to back us away from dangerous topics, to make sure that we put out a book that looked “safe” (for the adults spending the money) to bring into their homes and schools.

Not to ride this hobbyhorse into the ground (I know I’ve been harping on this recently) but remember, the financial consideration is always there. In publishing, it’s not just art. It’s also a business. You’re in it to make money.

How’d this play out at the magazine where I worked? It was a constant tug-of-war. Creatively we were always trying to push it beyond the safe place, terrified that we would bore our young readers. (Since all the arguments about Captain Marvel back-and-forth the last couple of weeks seem to be anecdotal, I will just throw in here that I have never, ever, lost as a writer or as a teacher when I gambled on kids being smarter than I assumed. They will rise to whatever level you need them to, if given the chance. That’s my anecdotal experience.)

But editorially we were always getting pushed back, because of terror that adults wouldn’t buy the book for those young readers. “Parents don’t want their kids reading this.”

You know why those old AfterSchool Specials always ended up so preachy and toothless? This is why. Because writers almost never win that fight.

And I think this is my problem with the new Billy Batson, too, and really with the Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures books in general. Those books are not packaged for kids. They’re packaged for the adults who buy them for kids. Look at all the winks and call-outs to the original Captain Marvel in the new Billy Batson. Those aren’t for the kids. Those are for adult fans.

Just as an aside, I showed the book to Julie, too. As it happens, my bride works at a community-center mission office in the poor part of town. She sees a lot of young people forced out on their own, and you know what jumped out at her?

“Why is it fun and cute that these kids are orphaned and alone?”

She was really bothered about the casual way that came off, especially Billy’s faking out the principal by masquerading as his own parent. Seeing as how helping orphans and homeless youth is a big part of her job, Julie’s gut reaction was that Billy and Mary’s orphan status shouldn’t be just a source of cute sitcom slapstick, but should be a central issue of the book. It should have been less fun and more of an actual plot problem, the focus of the story. How are these kids coping on their own?

Boy, did I feel like a tool stuttering that this was just the way Cap was in the 40’s and it was a tradition, paying respect to the original, the kids being on their own isn’t what Captain Marvel’s focus is really about. I knew it was a stupid answer the second I said it, it was just the automatic fan response. “Why is it like that? Because that’s how Captain Marvel is supposed to be.”

Which is, again, not a crime or anything. But it brings that creative tug-of-war into it that I was talking about above. Because creatively, the more I consider, the more I think Julie’s right. For modern audiences that is a much better hook to hang it on, all the mangas that grab my students are built on that idea. So is most of children’s classic adventure literature. So is Harry Potter.

But Captain Marvel fans would pitch a fit, as we always do anytime the character gets too far away from the version of the 40’s and 50’s. We stand firm in our belief that Captain Marvel as a concept should NEVER need to change. Just do it right, and it will work fine, kids will love it, we proclaim. And I’m sure that Mike Kunkel took that as his mission statement when he sat down to do Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam. The only thing that is ‘updated’ as far as the plot and premise are concerned is making Theo Adam a teenager and aggressively designing it to be for kids. But — here’s where it all comes together, this is the point I got so carried away with that I spent all last week’s column on it — kids don’t want the stuff adults think they should want.

They can tell the difference between comics that are ‘good for them’ and comics that are just good. Moreover, the things that jumped out at us when we were kids generally are not the things that jump out at today’s kids.

Here’s where the Big Two publishers make the basic mistake with their young-readers lines: Superheroes are not a default kids’ genre any more.

It’s an adult, fan, specialty thing now. Just the fact that it’s a superhero comic doesn’t guarantee interest or a closer look from kids. That only happens with fans. If I put a superhero book, even one ostensibly aimed at young readers, even one based on the new hot Marvel or DC movie, next to a manga digest on the table in my classroom, I’ll bet you a year’s pay against a stale bagel that the kids all will lunge for the manga first.

And that’s been true for as long as I’ve been teaching, all the way back to the pilot program at Gatzert Elementary.

Just observing my students over the last decade and a half I can tell you what grabs their attention, some of the common factors I’ve picked out here and there. Here you go, publishers. Free of charge.

They want it to look like manga, at least superficially. I don’t know why. They just do. Manga is their thing, it’s what they go to on their own. The same way my eye’s been trained over thirty years to automatically stop when it sees a cape or a chest emblem. It’s that ingrained. Even just at first glance, even if it’s just the big doll eyes — if it looks like it’s done in manga-style, they’ll stop and look. Anything else — even stuff they’ve liked a lot — I’ve had to show them, point it out, make a big deal over it. You want them to look on their own, it has to be manga.

They want stories about other kids. Ideally, kids that are put into positions of adult responsibility and make it work. I see a lot of mangas like that.

Naruto. Bleach. Young protagonist has to make it on his or her own in an adult world. Sometimes maybe with sidekicks or a wise old mentor, but the young person’s definitely the focus and the hero.

The students are all over that stuff. Ironically, Julie had it right — that part of the Captain Marvel premise probably would be a great hook for young readers. But in Billy Batson it’s presented as a fait accompli, just a subplot gag.

They want bulk. The most successful kids’ comics out there right now? Manga, obviously. Archie digests. Shonen Jump. Those are big honkin’ bunches of comics. Next to those, the Johnny DC books look like brochures. Marvel Adventures are doing a little better — sometimes in a convenience store I’ll see a slightly larger and thicker Marvel magazine. (But these comics sightings are fleeting, the books never are a regular feature in the store like the Maxim or IN Touch display.) Why the big two have such a terror of getting away from the 22-page stapled-booklet format, I have no idea. It sort of made sense when the primary distribution outlet for comics was a spinner rack of predetermined size. But today? Digests, book-sized comics, manga, are where the kids are. Meet them there. Hell, Archie, the U.S. publisher that’s managed to successfully sell comics to kids for decades, seems to have a handle on this idea, and they’re even experimenting with a manga look lately.

What happened to the old tradition of U.S. comics publishers shamelessly stealing ideas from each other? Archie’s on to something here, you know. That’s a lead worth following.

(Note: After I wrote the first draft of this, Mike Gold put up this interesting yet depressing piece over at ComicMix. Turns out this isn’t even the first time U.S. comics publishers did something this dumb. It’s been going on since 1948.)

I feel very strongly that Marvel and DC are right in the middle of making the same mistake now that Mike Gold suggests publishers made back then, of not following the packaging trend that the market is clearly asking for. A huge factor in the depressingly low sales of kids’ comics today is price and format. Figure a child’s discretionary income or allowance comes in chunks of $5, or maybe even $10. Apply that to standard U.S. comics versus most any other kind of young people’s entertainment– even superhero entertainment– and simply in terms of unit cost, standard monthly comics suck. I can get a DVD of Fleischer Superman cartoons at Wal-Mart for $1.99 for Chrissake. To a ten-year-old that’s a WAY better deal than a $2.99 Superman comic that probably is part four of a nine-part story. (And I can’t find a Superman comic at a Wal-Mart to save my life most days, anyway; if I could, $5 would not cover two of them.)

Even we fans, the hardcore Wednesday faithful, are walking away from a $2.99 price point. Why would a kid ever bother with that in the first place? Even the Johnny DC stuff at $2.25 is way too high for the value when you’re a kid with an allowance that probably will only cover ONE thing. That one thing has to have a lot of bang for the buck, and superhero comics aren’t it. Certainly not compared with manga or even an Archie digest. Why are Marvel and DC clinging so stubbornly to the idea that if they only make the right 22-page booklet kid’s superhero comic, all will be as it was?

Let it go, guys. Ask yourselves, what formats are the other youth publishers succeeding with? (Not comics publishers — youth publishers.) Whatever the common thread is, I can say with total assurance that it’s not an overpriced 22-page booklet.

They want the stuff that’s important to them. I have a little bit of an edge here because I have been watching ten and eleven and twelve-year-olds making their own comics for a decade and a half, and when it comes to subject matter, the same things inevitably come up. They may get disguised under different genre material — ninjas, science fiction, shoujo — but the same ideas are always there. Whether it’s a mermaid or a wizard having the problems, the problems are invariably about school and friends and peer pressure. Especially, the stories come back to the idea of getting taken seriously, not being laughed at, proving oneself to people that were laughing before, etc.

The hell of it is, Mike Kunkel scores anywhere from a B-minus to an A on most of these things as far as the plot of Billy Batson is concerned. But he is being sabotaged by the comic-book format and the fannish expectations of the adults who have the purchasing power. His heart’s in the right place. It’s almost there, in a lot of ways.

Sadly, “almost” isn’t going to cut it. Not if Marvel and DC are serious about getting kids interested in their comics again.

Something else we used to talk about a lot when I was working at the magazine was this: the competition wasn’t other kid’s magazines. It was cable TV and video games and anime and the millions of other things that engage a young person’s attention today. A kid’s spending power isn’t focused on comics… not the way we fans focus on them. We think in terms of which comics we want, how a particular comic book rates our specific attention.

But kids think in terms of “What am I going to buy with my allowance?” Whether it’s a DVD or a paperback book or a CD or a game cartridge or whatever. That’s the competition. You have to beat THAT if you want their attention. Period.

Sure, Mike Kunkel is doing a Captain Marvel that’s a hell of a lot better than other crappy revamp attempts DC has made over the years. Props to him.

But so what? That’s not the job. The job is to engage kids so forcibly that they will want to put down the XBox and read the comic. Just redesigning a classic isn’t going to do that. Not Captain Marvel, not Tiny Titans, not even Scooby-Doo. Kids want their own things, not nostalgia-driven revamps of ours, especially if the revamp is presented in a format that only we are attracted to.

It’s not impossible to do it. Naruto and Harry Potter have shown that it can be done, that kids will respond in huge numbers if they are genuinely engaged.

Give young people something that is tailored to the things they are interested in — not the things WE are interested in — and don’t talk down. Make them reach for it a little. More than anything else, that’s what’s been successful, over and over again.

Marvel and DC want kids to come back to comics? Then their comics have to go where kids are. Not where they — or we — think they should be.

See you next week.

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