A great many of us that write about superhero comics spend a LOT of time worrying about “getting the kids back.” We remember what a gateway experience superhero comics were for us, how dropping by to check out Superman or Spider-Man because of television or movies led us on a journey that ended with weekly visits to a comics shop and finding all sorts of cool books that really set our imaginations on fire.
My gateway drug, as you may recall, was the 1966 Batman TV show and 1967 Saturday morning cartoons. Through the miracle of DVD technology, our six-year-old godson Phenix gets to enjoy these too, and they work just as well for him today as they did for me when I was that age.
But they’re not his gateway drug. No, that’s something we discovered last Friday, when he came to visit.
We have been sucked back in to watching Smallville, mostly because of our friend Vesper. She took some exception to the rude column I’d done about the series a while back and so I’d agreed we’d give it one more shot. Overall, my opinion of the show as a whole has not changed a whole lot; but I have to admit that it does seem to have re-discovered its mission statement of being a show about how young Clark Kent learns to be Superman. And it has grown a little bit of a sense of fun — despite the funereal music and lighting, the show doesn’t seem to take itself nearly as seriously as it used to. Of course, it all still falls apart like a house of cards if you poke it with any kind of logic at all, but it’s entertaining enough that we sort of have been trying to keep up with it. So we figured, hey, it’s superheroes, Phenix might like it.
As it happens, that Friday’s show was the episode Geoff Johns wrote for this season, introducing Booster Gold and Blue Beetle.
I’m not nearly as down on Geoff Johns’ work for DC as some of my colleagues here on the blog, but the thing is, his comics work always reads to me like he wants to do fun super-adventure, but worries it won’t be taken seriously if he does. The times that he has let go and just done balls-out swashbuckling superheroics — Stars and STRIPE, the new Flash, Hawkman, JSA — it’s been a lot of fun. You just never know if you’re getting that guy, or the depressing, gory one that wrote the Rebirth books or Green Lantern or Blackest Night.
The funny thing is that Smallville, a show I’ve often said is way too dark and dour and self-important, always seems to bring out the fun-loving side of Geoff Johns when he writes something for them. His JSA episode was kind of a mess, granted, but that was all awkward staging and costuming, the script wasn’t at fault; it came off as way too pretentious and dark because it was shot that way. And his Legion episode was a hoot.
All this is by way of explaining why I thought the Booster-and-Beetle episode might be entertaining for our godson.
I really didn’t expect it to light him on fire, though. And you know what did it?
It was the scene when the alien scarab implanted itself into young Jaime Reyes, played by Jaren Bartlett.
When that happened, six-year-old Phenix leaped to his feet and whirled to face me on the couch. “That’s Jaime! This is how he became the Blue Beetle!” The kid’s eyes were shining. For Phenix, this was an origin story he’d been dying to see.
Because, see, Phenix adores the new Brave and Bold cartoon. (So do I, actually, but for Phenix it’s a gateway to the DCU, the way Filmation cartoons were for me.)
He liked seeing Booster Gold and Clark, as well. But it was Jaime that was the star of the show in Phenix’s eyes. As far as he was concerned it was The Blue Beetle Hour Guest-Starring Booster Gold and Superman in a Dumb Suit.)
This was the show that was going to answer what he wanted to know, the one that told him how it all started.
And Smallville, for once, actually delivered. The episode was a smashing success as far as our godson was concerned. Honestly, I rather liked it myself. It was smart and fun and not loaded down with too much silly Smallville angst. (I wish they hadn’t lit it and scored it like it was The X-Files, but I wish that every episode.) The fun part, though, was seeing how rapt Phenix was, watching it, and remembering how empowering it felt back when I was a kid and finally got to see Batman’s origin story with Joe Chill, or how Spider-Man failed to stop the burglar that killed his Uncle Ben. That satisfaction that comes with the realization, So that’s what happened.
After it was over, Phenix wanted to watch cartoons. Specifically, his favorite cartoon: Next Avengers, Heroes of Tomorrow.
Phenix feels the same kind of ownership over that cartoon that I do over the old Filmation shows…. that vague sense that there might be other, cooler shows out there, but this one is special because it’s mine. He never tires of seeing it.
This time was different, though. Maybe the Blue Beetle adventure had put him in a researching kind of mood. Because about halfway through, he asked me, “What happened to the old Avengers?”
I had to explain that this cartoon was a sort of what-if, that it took place in a possible future, but that as far as comics were concerned the Avengers were still slugging it out every month. The upshot was that we ended up pulling out a bunch of old Avengers trade collections for him to look at.
Then he wanted to see the “real” Blue Beetle comics, whereupon I broke out those trade paperback collections for him.
We also ended up screening the Avengers cartoons, which, again, probably aren’t for purists, but Phenix sure loved them.
Now, here’s the part where it got interesting for me, as one of those comics pundits who occasionally frets over how superhero comics are “losing the kids.”
Because it dawned on me that we’re not. Not really.
I realized that I’ve seen this process happen over and over again, both with Phenix and with my students in cartooning classes over the last sixteen years. It’s the same one that happened for me in 1967 and probably happened for you as well. Maybe for you it happened in the 1980s with the animated Spider-Man and X-Men, or in the 1990s with the Bruce Timm WB cartoons. But that curiosity is still there, the urge to research the characters that light them up. Kids are still being led from the movie and TV versions to the comics version, because they want to know more.
What’s different today is that kids aren’t generally led to the comics shops. They go to big-box bookstores, or to the library. And why not? Hell, I like the collected-in-a-book versions better these days, too.
I get as irritated as anyone when I look at the big-name Marvel and DC characters in the regular monthly comics and it seems like the creators are determined to get rid of everything about those characters that made them fun in the first place, especially when it’s done in the name of making them “adult” and “serious.” It irks me that DC threw away the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle on aging fanboys like me, instead of making it a point to get the book in front of kids like Phenix who clearly love the concept. It annoys me beyond all reason when DC tries to make Superman “relevant” by putting him in the center of a protest in the Middle East instead of having him fight giant robots and have bullets bounce off his chest.
But the beauty of living in this Age of Availability is that the original stuff is OUT there. Those comics are still available for kids. If publishers are determined to aim the 32-page monthlies at guys like me, well, it’s not the end of the world as long as the books are still there for kids like my godson.
When I see my godson led to old Avengers comics by a straight-to-DVD cartoon or my students carrying Spider-Girl digests they’ve sought out at the library because they’ve seen Spider-Man in the movies, it consoles my inner doomsaying pundit a great deal. Superhero comics aren’t losing the kids, not really.
The kids just got to the comics-in-bookstores idea way ahead of the rest of us, that’s all. As long as Marvel and DC remember that, and keep the accessible collections in print, I think we’ll be fine, no matter how many hamfisted attempts are made to turn superheroes into something “mature” and “relevant.” God knows, if even Smallville can learn to lighten up enough for a kid to still enjoy the stuff, anyone can.
See you next week.
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