Marvel recently announced the launch of a multi-platform program entitled Marvel Superhero Adventures. Aimed at preschoolers, the initiative will involve animation, publishing and merchandise, using superheroes to teach preschoolers about positive values such as friendship and heroism. The initiative is a smart move from Marvel, recognizing that from an early age children are fascinated by superheroes and their adventures. Toy store shelves are groaning under the weight of superhero toys, while countless kids have a wardrobe bursting with superhero clothing and apparel. On one thing, kids and adult fans can both agree: superheroes are great.
From a marketing perspective, Marvel's new initiative makes perfect sense, echoing previous attempts such as Marvel's Superhero Squad and the mega-successful DC Super Hero Girls. Kids are drawn to superheroes, fascinated by the colorful costumes, the fantastic powers and the clash between good and evil. Yet the question has to be asked: laudable as such initiatives may be, how welcoming is the superhero world to younger readers?
Things have come a long way since the 1940s, where the huge popularity of superhero comics among children saw them being used to encourage support for America's war effort. In the 1950s, fear over the effect of comic books on youthful minds led to Frederic Wertham's campaign against comics, and the resulting establishment of the Comics Code Authority. Even in the 1960s, where the development of the Marvel Universe saw comics make inroads into University and College campuses, the primary readership was still children. The situation today is far different. In terms of visibility in popular culture, superheroes are at an all-time high, but all too often it appears that there's an uneasy tension in fandom about who superheroes should be for.
In a world where there are numerous cartoons and comic lines specifically aimed at children, such a question may seem redundant, but there are two important caveats that should be borne in mind. Firstly, while superhero comics started off as all-ages material, titles are now increasingly targeted at specific age groups. Younger readers in the last few years have been expected to start with material such as the Marvel Adventures line or DC's licensed properties, before graduating to the more "sophisticated" mainstream superhero titles. This links to the second key point: a portion of comics fandom has a deep aversion to the idea of superheroes being for kids.
Such attitudes can be traced back to the mid '80s, when books like Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns pushed the boundaries of what superhero comics could do. Darker, more violent and more willing to push the envelope, such books were a precursor to a wider trend. Soon, grim 'n' gritty was in, with the term "graphic novel" increasingly used to portray something as somehow more adult and respectable than a mere comic book. In recent years, where superhero films have captivated the general public yet still been met all too frequently with media coverage that takes its cues from the 1960s Batman TV series, the desire of fans to show the wider possibilities of the superhero medium has been somewhat understandable. However, there's a real risk that in seeking to play down the perceived childish elements, an essential part of the magic of superheroes is lost.
It's always interesting to gauge the reaction when Marvel or DC roll out their superhero launches, taking the measure of what titles and concepts fans view as worthy. Despite their undeniable popularity with segments of fandom, characters such as Squirrel Girl and other more lighthearted concepts are often decried as being childish or for kids, as if that's a bad thing. But is it really?