BOOM! Studios convened a roundtable panel discussion at Emerald City Comicon with the goal of redefining the notion of all-ages comics, and delving into BOOM!'s impressive kid-tested, mother-approved line-up. Moderator and senior editor of BOOM!'s KaBOOM! and BOOM! Box imprints Shannon Watters was joined at the panel by creators Mike Kunkel ("Herobear and the Kid"), Colleen Coover and Paul Tobin ("Adventure Time: The Flip Side" and "Bandette"), Kate Leth ("Kate or Die" and "Adventure Time: Seeing Red"), Ryan North ("Adventure Time" and "The Midas Flesh"), and Mad Rupert ("Regular Show: Skips").
Things kicked off with the question of what "all-ages" means. Watters recalled being on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con with a creator who resented the term, arguing that creators should be proud of calling their comics "kid comics," whereas Watters really loves the inclusiveness of "all-ages." She opened the question of whether the term was sufficient to the panel, with Kunkel starting by talking about "Looney Tunes" cartoons.
"I think we live too much in a world of film and media where everyone is trying to lock everything down into certain demographics," Kunkel said. "You write for yourself. It's like old Warner Bros. cartoons. When Chuck [Jones] and them would do those cartoons, they did them because they made them laugh. And when we watched them as kids we laughed at what [the characters] were doing, and when we watched them as adults we laughed at what they said and what it was about. I call it a family event and that defines 'all-ages' to me."
Coover continued that thread by saying that one of the things she's liked most about working on properties like "Adventure Time" is that they feel like "entertainment for grown-ups in disguise as entertainment for children."
"They can exist on so many different levels, and those levels can be discovered as you grow older," Coover said. "I've always felt like if you put kids into a box of 'this is appropriate for this age and you can't go out of this box' then they aren't being challenged to think about what they are reading." Watters concurred by saying that it did a disservice to children because if one sets out to make media just for one age group can, one end up condescending to them, which is "the worst thing you can do when you are making media for kids."
Tobin noted that, as a child, he always wanted to feel like he was reading something a little subversive, and that he was "uncovering something." "If you're creating something and you know it's going to be read by 5 year-olds and you think 'What would make a 5 year-old laugh?' then I think you have already failed," Tobin said. "You always have to approach a project with 'What will make me laugh? What will entertain me?' The enjoyment of creation is what transcends age groups. As long as the creators are engaged then the readers will be engaged. I like the term all-ages, but I don't like what it's been turned in to. But I can't come up with a better term! So many times I'll tell someone, 'This book is for all ages,' and they'll go, 'Oh, well do you write anything for my age group?' Are you not in all ages?!"
"I work in a comic book store and the all-ages section is a really tricky thing," said Leth. "Whenever I come to one of these projects, my watermark is always a Marvel book called 'Thor: The Mighty Avenger' [by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee]. I can give it to a 5 year-old, I can give it to a 30 year-old, and there's so much you can get from it. It's friendly to everybody. It's got fun jokes for kids, but there's also a lot of things that maybe a kid wouldn't pick up on. It's smart and it's sweet and it's got a lot of heart, so that's a thing that I always thinking about. I like the ideas of all-ages comics, though I do think there's a lot of stigma around it, which is silly."
"Agree with Kate," added North. "The thing about 'Adventure Time' is that there is this world that, if you look at it, there's a lot of dark there. For me, when I'm writing something like 'Adventure Time' I just make sure that everyone keeps their clothes on and nobody swears that that's really all you need to do to make it all ages. It's really about respecting your audience and writing for yourself and everyone keeping their clothes on and you have all ages comics. That's the secret."
"The way that I approached 'Regular Show' is that it's kind of 'Beavis and Butthead'-lite," said Rupert. "A lot of people who are my age remember watching 'Beavis and Butthead' and 'Ren and Stimpy,' so in addition to the younger kids, we also get an older crowd who has a lot of nostalgia for that kind of thing. And you have the people in the middle who are like high school and college age for whom it's a lot of butt humor and poop jokes; and the little kids, who of course also like poop jokes, and the funny slapstick stuff. With 'Regular Show' I also write it to indulge myself, and what do I like to write about and draw and read about? I like the movie 'Groundhog Day' and I like giant monsters that pop out of the ground and destroy everything, so that's what I'm going to write about! I think a lot of people respond to that, in all ages."
"So why all ages, all of you?" asked Watters. "You could be out there writing about gritty antiheroes cussing and taking their clothes off! So why do you write all-ages comics, besides 'it's fun?'"
"There is no 'besides it's fun' to me," Tobin responded. "That's the reason I do it. I try to key in to the way I felt when I was a kid, and how I still often feel. That sense of adventure and that sense of not knowing what's next. Adventure tries to work its way into all of my books, but with all ages books I think you can go a little bit towards the sense of the absurd."
"And joy!" Coover added. "I think that's why a lot of adults respond positively to the all-ages stuff. They've been told for the last 20 years that comics are all about fighting and being angry and upset and in conflict. When you present them with something where someone in a comic book is having fun, they go, 'Oh, I forgot that you can do that!' I think that's why we all see a lot of adults coming and saying, 'This is such a relief.'"
"It's a total dream to be working on 'Adventure Time.' It's the most fun thing to write in the world because you can do anything," said Leth. "The one that I did has all these crazy battles and demons and stuff, but it's also a quiet, personal, sad story about a parent and a child having an awkward relationship, and you can get away with that in that world."
Leth went on to talk about her interactions with readers of different age groups at conventions. "Two years ago at one of my first conventions, I had my own comic which is autobiographical and which is not child friendly," she said. "I was at a table and all of the kids would come up because I have a very cartoony drawing style, and they would pick it up and I would have to take it away from them and be like, 'You can't read that!' That was really sad for me, and I realized as the shows went on that it would be so cool to be able to give to everybody. And now when I'm there with the 'Marcelene' book and I can give it to kids and sign and draw for them, it is so exciting. It's like nothing else in the world."
The conversation turned to things that kids love but which are not intended for them, like "Jurassic Park" (which terrified Watters as a third grader) or Leth's webcomics (of which Leth herself was once horrified to hear an 11 year-old girl's adulation). "Even some actual children's books, like Shel Silverstein," said Coover.
"It goes back to that idea of not talking down to kids when you're writing for them. Challenging kids is different than making something that's inappropriate for kids," said Watters.
"Or exploring those disappointments that you go through growing up," added Coover.
"That's the good thing about all-ages books: to present something to an audience that they can relate to, not something that's inappropriate," said Kunkel. "That's where you find the line. I'm going to present stories to you that feel familiar." Kunkel reflected on the slogan of his own independent publishing company The Astonish Factory: "Remember your childhood and pass it on." "That's been always my personal goal," he said. "I'm remembering things I did, I remember things I wanted to try, I remember things that friends got in to, and I'm going to re-present that to you."
Watters directly asked the panel what things they loved as a child that weren't, strictly speaking, intended for them.
"When I was a kid, I spent most of my time thinking about 'Back to the Future.' That's kind of an all-ages movie, but not really," North said. "I was also into 'Star Trek' which wasn't really marketed to kids, but if you are a kid who likes spaceships then it is amazing."
"I started watching 'Buffy' when I was 9," Leth added. "It was definitely too old for me at the time -- the episode with The Gentlemen, I was terrified and I didn't sleep for like three days, I was terrified out of my mind. But I loved it so much and it's such a formative thing for me. Even now I read and I love so much stuff that is almost all-ages. One of my favorite movies in the world is 'Coraline,' and my favorite thing about it is that it's not afraid to scare you. I love those things because I think in a lot of kid's programs everything is so dumbed down and all the corners are rounded. I love it when something that a kid can watch has bite to it."
"I liked monster movies," said Tobin, "and I specifically hated the ones that were marketed towards kids. I liked to watch a monster destroy a whole city."
"The Gorillaz happened when I was young," Rupert said. "I was a weird kid and I was afraid that if I heard curse words then it was like something terrible happening to me. But The Gorillaz were animated. When I was younger I didn't want to see things that weren't intended for my age group because I was afraid that something really nebulous but terrible would happen to me, but that kind of like helped me reach out into the wide world and think, even if it's not kosher it's still okay."