Over the last month, I embarked on a mission to find some great new comic books aimed very specifically at children (but still engaging for my adult self). The books I chose were Greg Ruth's The Lost Boy, Gene Luen Yang's Boxers & Saints, Paul Pope's Battling Boy, Steve Niles and Dave Wachter's Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem, and the ongoing anthology Cartozia Tales. I wanted to find works which would be effective at entertaining both young children and adults (no small feat), drawing in a young audience to enjoy the medium, without alienating existing readers. While all of the books I chose do function very effectively as all-ages books, there is absolutely nothing childish about them, these are great comic books by any standard.
The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth is very much a sort of Harry Potter-esque story, but deeply rooted in small town rural America, a sort of fairy tale with hard edges to give it bite. The story of a boy who moves to a new neighborhood and quickly finds himself at the center of an increasingly eerie mystery. Meeting a neighbor girl who is already deep into sleuthing herself, they work together like some kind of little-kid-version of a mismatched buddy movie, creating an entertaining backdrop to their investigation. As they dive deeper and deeper into the troubling violence in their neighborhood, it becomes clear that the danger they face is all too real, no matter how many ostensibly adorable (but deeply creepy) talking toys and animals they encounter.
The artistry and elegance of each illustration makes the book visually rich and sumptuous even at the stories bleakest moments. While the story is very much a tale to grow with, appropriate and enjoyable for very small children, there is an adult-friendly theme at it's core, one of redemption, self-awareness, empathy, and forgiveness. This process of growth and exploration gives Ruth's story a heft which makes it a very inspirational and potentially healing book for any age of reader.The Lost Boy is published by Scholastic/Graphix. (There is a website for the book here.)
Boxers & Saints are two books close to Gene Luen Yung heart and, (based on his talk at Comic-Con this year), I expected a lot. The books did not disappoint. He spoke of his research, inspired by growing up as a Chinese Catholic, hearing the stories his parents would tell about their childhood, and his own struggle with his faith. Yang uses two books to share insight into the two different sides of the battle of the Chinese historical Boxer Rebellion, one book - Boxers - covers the epic battles of a young Chinese man inspired by the superheroes of traveling operas to vanquish foreign invaders. Conversely the book Saints is the intimate and personal story of a young Chinese girl who converts to Catholicism and finds her own path into battle.
As I read the books knowing that they're based on the Boxer Rebellion, I attempted to prepare for an emotionally intense story, but still it was almost overwhelming to find myself so deeply engaged so quickly. The books are far better when read together, I would even go as far as to suggest that they shouldn't really be published as separate books since you lose so much if you only read one. I can understand that the size and scope of both in one might be asking a lot of people. However, if you want to read every soaring, beautiful, transformative moment of the journey depicted, then you need to read both together (and you'll want to). As in life, no one exists in isolation and the lessons we can learn from their experiences are both important. War, xenophobia, empathy, worship, transformation... these are complex concepts and Yang (and colorist Lark Pien) do a marvelous job at creating a beautiful, elegantly non-threatening visual atmosphere in which to digest these difficult, violent ideas.Boxers & Saints are both published by First Second Books. (There is a trailer for it here.)
Battling Boy is a wildly apocalyptic science fiction fantasy, clearly only the first episode in a great universe of stories, filled with wild, outrageous adventures. With this book we're introduced to two weird new worlds, and the very different standards of parenting in them. In order to prove himself, Battling Boy, is left alone by his god-like, warrior parents to rid a planet of it's terrible monsters. Simultaneously, the great hero of the planet has died, leaving his young daughter to take on his mantle. These two fractured young heroes hold the promise of a rewarding and engaging dynamic, and the book leaves us ready for more.
Pope's familiar expressive ink work is paired with unusually bold colors, expanding the potential audience and injecting a really fun atmosphere into a very serious struggle. This book is something which Paul Pope has spoken of as his own attempt to create an all-ages comic book superhero for a new generation. "I think it would be pretty amazing to update Peter Pan where the kid can get rid of Captain Hook." and it is clear that once the adults have lost, the battles are left to a new generation of heroes, brashly brave children. In the first half of the book Pope methodically introduces us to a pantheon of inventive characters, worlds, and situations, before plunging us into the second half of the book which is filled with the seeds of future conflicts, whetting our appetites for much more of this bizarre universe.Battling Boy will be released on October 8th 2013 from First Second Books. (There is a trailer for it here.)
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem is a fantastical tale set during the very real horror of the Second World War. When a British pilot crashes into a rural Jewish stronghold, the villagers must find a way to protect themselves from Nazi soldiers who search for him. Simultaneously poignant and brutal, a young man and his dying grandfather find a way to breathe life into inanimate clay in the form of a golem. The villagers come together to build their protector and there is an offbeat kind of horror to the heartwarming story, offering hope in the face of insurmountable odds.
With characteristic affection, Niles offers us a seemingly impossible situation where monsters are not what they seem, and Dave Wachter shapes a potentially horrific story into something very readable and touching. Like so many of these all-ages books, it is in the face of adversity that people find deep wells of strength within themselves and here we see the power of community and love as expressed through this monstrous fantasy.Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem is released in February 2014 from Dark Horse Comics. (Originally published in three parts, more information can be found about this format here.)
Cartozia Tales is an ongoing, collaborative fantasy anthology. A comic book of short stories exploring the fantasy world of Cartozia, it immediately begins with an explanation of the developing map of this world, and we're prepared for a journey into entirely new places. With stories and ideas about how to explore and map our own world, this book sets forth with a defined mission to create a supportive space for the curious and inventive of all ages.
The really sweet thing about Cartozia Tales is that it literally encourages exploration simply for the sake of it. Unlike a lot of intense, high-quality all-ages books, Cartozia is not about learning a difficult, personal-growth lesson (although there are characters who are learning things on their journeys), it is about seeking and exploring, applauding the experience of learning, and rewarding curiosity. The ongoing nature of the books allow for a huge variety of contributing authors and characters, with a diverse range of recurrent, appealing stories to follow.Cartozia Tales is independently published and available from http://cartozia.com/. (There is more about it at the completed Kickstarter page here.)