My father loved Archie comics and Mad Magazine. He read them unashamedly in public and made frequent references to them in conversation—references that often only his kids understood.
Dad could pull that off. For one thing, he was a theoretical physicist, so it’s not like he came off as dumb—just eclectic. And he was well known for his goofy sense of humor anyway. (Even when he had advanced Alzheimer’s, he still would come out with the odd bit of Three Stooges schtick.)
For most of us, it’s not so easy. My teenage daughters react with shock and embarrassment if I bring a comic along to read while running errands. Of course, everything I do evokes shock and embarrassment from them, so I ignore that, but a lot of adults do feel self-conscious about reading comics, particularly kids’ comics, in public.
On the internet, however, no one knows you’re a grownup. Which is just as well. Some of the best comics on the web are aimed at kids, but many of them, like Pixar movies, operate on two levels, speaking to both kids and adults.
Take Trade Loeffler’s Zip and Li’l Bit. I used to lie in bed at night and wonder what it would be like to walk around on the ceiling; Loeffler brought that story to life in The Upside-Down Me, in which a little boy, Zip, switches places with a counterpart who lives on the ceiling. In The Sky Kayak, Zip gets a flying boat and sails off among the birds. Zip’s sister, Li’l Bit, tags along and tries to keep things sane, although she never speaks out loud. The stories have a dreamlike quality to them and the humor is actually rather sophisticated; in The Upside-Down Me, for instance, there is a long digression about a broken mirror that shows the wrong reflections, and the toys in Zip’s toybox look like they were designed by surrealists—an infinitely expanding cardboard box, a set of octopus arms, and a jar of glowing light that expands to fill the whole room. It’s like a lower-key version of Little Nemo, and Loeffler’s style, with its graceful line and flat areas of low-key color, is very reminiscent of children’s books of the early 20th century. The stories also have a timeless feel to them—they could be anytime from 1909 to 2009. Alas, after two complete stories, Loeffler has moved on to other things; I certainly hope he returns to Zip and Li’l Bit in the future.
Sandra and Woo is closer to PG than all ages, as it includes a bit of bad language and a few references to serious subjects, but the cute animals and the clean artwork have plenty of kid-appeal. The kid-plus-animal matchup is very classic—in this case, Sandra is a smart little girl and Woo is a talking raccoon—and creators Powree and Oliver Knorzer have some fun with that, tossing in the occasional Calvin and Hobbes reference. Mostly this is a gag comic, with a few longer story arcs, and the stories range from the adventures of Woo and his animal friends in their eat-or-be-eaten world to Sandra’s dabbling in high finance. The funniest arc so far is the one in which Tweety gets his (start here), but the creators also go meta from time to time and take on serious subjects like human rights in Burma. Anyway, any comic that has a little girl dreaming of winning the Fields Medal is a winner in my book.
Finally, M.I.M.E.S., by Wayne Cordova and Harold Jennett, is a Nickelodeon-esque takeoff on superhero comics featuring a crew of crime-fighting mimes, each with a different superpower: One stops enemies with an invisible wall, another crushes them with invisible anvils, etc. Their opponents are equally goofy—an evil contortionist, twin trapeze artists. It’s colorful, funny, and broad enough for a kid to get, but the wit and humor have grownup appeal as well. After all, how many mimes does a kid ever see?
This is getting to be one of those tropes (like private eyes) that one only sees in parody, never in real life. My one complaint about this comic is that it’s obviously a print comic repurposed for the web, and the pages are a bit too small for us older types to read comfortably. Also, it hasn’t been updated in a while, but hopefully that means the creators have a large invisible box full of goodness just waiting to be posted soon.