Around this time every year, myself and countless other uncles and aunts start an arduous process. It's one that weighs heavy on our minds, part of a great responsibility that we have hoisted on our own shoulders. It's right about now that I start figuring out which comic books I'm going to buy my nephew for Christmas.
I realize that this stinks of showbiz parenting, as if I'm selfishly pressuring my sister's son into being able to name all five original X-Men when prompted, but I credit/blame Marvel for his fledgling fandom. Since he was born a decade ago, they've done a bang-up job of getting my nephew facetime with their characters. Sure, he was exposed to my extensive collection of X-Men action figures every time he visited, but the "X-Men: Evolution" DVDs he had did more for him as a fan than those toys ever could. After all, those toys were on display and not to be touched. So yes, my nephew enjoys superheroes on his own, thanks to "Superhero Squad" and "Spider-Man" reruns. He now gets a few of the "Marvel Adventures" comics in the mail every month. But now that he's ten -- I don't know how to take off the Marvel Comics training wheels. And this, I fear, is indicative of a problem that the future of superhero comics face.
It's easiest to explain the current marketplace by contrasting it to the one that made put me in a vice-grip in early 1993. The X-Men cartoon introduced me to the characters, and "X-Men Adventures," a comic series based on the TV show, got me into the comic books. That series taught me how to read comics (they also taught me that Marvel Universe trading cards can come in boxes of Cracker Jacks!). After a few months, I was ready for "Uncanny X-Men" and, once my parents plopped down their $1.25 for issue #299, I never looked back. I was plugged into the entire Marvel Universe at 8 years old, and I have yet to pull that plug.
It may seem crazy, but 8-year old me knew that "X-Men Adventures" was for kids and "Uncanny" was for big kids, possibly even adults. At the time, "X-Men Adventures" was one of a few, if not the only, kid-friendly Marvel superhero comic being published. Back then, kids read the actual "Amazing Spider-Man," "Avengers," "Incredible Hulk" and "Quasar" comics (actually, no one really read "Quasar," I just wanted to use this time to point out that everyone had a comic back then). A third-grader hops on "Amazing Spider-Man" for "Maxium Carnage" and stuck around long enough to read "Spider-Island" on his honeymoon (note: his wife is super mad).
Now, my nephew reads the "Marvel Adventures" line because That's What Kids Do and because most comics are too adult. The "Uncanny" I jumped onto way back when was definitely more mature than its cartoon-based counterpart, but it was nowhere near as mature as the global politics concerned "Uncanny" of 2011. The distance between kids comics and the "regular" comics has only grown in the past 20 years, and I wonder if these kids are falling into that gap and not climbing out.
Comic fans may not have even noticed this gradual maturation of our chosen genre and medium since, for many readers of my generation, it happened alongside our own growth. Joe Kelly's darkly comedic and intensely dramatic "Deadpool" run hit me when I was in middle school and opened my brain up in new ways ("I can laugh...and cry?!") and Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" questioned everything high school me held sacred. Since then, things have slowly changed. The Comics Code was ditched in favor of the companies monitoring themselves. Sexual content and coarse language have crept in to the point where comics finally met their television and film peers. Seriously, I don't think a superhero comic said anything harsher than "damn" until the mid-aughts. And is this wrong? Not to adult-me, no. I like that my heroes pursue sexual satisfaction with the same regularity as every character ever on The CW. I like that Wolverine can finally say all those words you know he's always wanted to say. I like that comics are now treated as mature means of telling a story.
But, and forgive the Fox Newsiness of this statement, what about the children?
Should kids read a story where Wolverine unknowingly kills all of his adult offspring? Should they see the extreme violence and, again, child murder in "Uncanny X-Force?" The images in "Swamp Thing" and "Animal Man" disturb me, so what do they do to someone a third my age? Do kids understand the foreign policy in "Uncanny X-Men" and are they bored by the decompression in "Avengers?" Some of those comics are rated either "Parental Advisory" or "T+," but do comic shops and bookstores enforce those ratings the same way movie theaters keep kids out of R-rated flicks? That's a genuine question, because I don't know. I do know that kids love being Wolverine for Halloween, and I do know that Wolverine spent the last year in literal Hell, hunting down and killing Mystique and then doing the aforementioned child killing. I personally loved every one of those stories (shameless Jason Aaron praise alert), but I would hand none of them to my costumed-nephew to read after he finishes unloading all his candy.
So what's the solution? I know I'm being asked to solve this right now (a.k.a., I know I'm nowhere near qualified to solve this). The kids books are branded a certain way to help parents find them. "Marvel Adventures" has probably become a name that parents trust and kids know. It also segregates kids from the rest of the Marvel Universe, which is the same universe that will provide mature stories for them that will engage and challenge them well past grade school. How do kids learn about those books? Which books should they read? Maybe it would behoove (and you can bet I confirmed the definition of that word) Marvel to create more transition books. These would be books that are tied into the main Marvel Universe and might focus more on telling done-in-one stories that have ample amounts of drama, outside ramifications and cater to all-ages instead of just the all-ages that implies "young 'uns." It would be great to have an action-adventure series starring Wolverine that is suitable for the audience that loves him enough to put butter knives between their fingers and growl. Or maybe, instead of wishing a whole new line of comics into existence, all uncles and aunts (and parents too) should take advantage of Marvel's recent back-catalogue push and get the comics that we fell in love with for our young collectors.
With DC's New 52 and Marvel's rolling tide of reboots and relaunches, comics are becoming more accessible to adults and lapsed fans, but the elusive next generation of readers isn't a bunch of adults wanting something cool for their iPad. They're kids, just like you and I were. Yes, comics should be as mature as every other medium, but we also can't expect kids to intuitively know when they should graduate from "Marvel Adventures" to Marvel proper. Keeping new fans interested may be more of a process than it used to be, so keep that in mind when you're shopping for gifts this holiday season.