Every year, I participate in my city's Community Reading Day, and every year I bring a big bag of comics to whatever class is lucky enough to get me as their reader. This year it was a fifth-grade class, and I thought their take on comics was pretty interesting — and should be troubling to publishers and marketers.
I always start by asking the kids what comics they read. Calvin & Hobbes is the one constant from year to year — often it's the only comic most of them can think of. No one seems to read current newspaper strips, or monthly comics, or many graphic novels, but everyone knows Calvin & Hobbes. There is usually one kid who reads superheroes, but this year there were none (although one likes to draw them). Someone had a copy of Big Nate, and two girls who were obviously friends mentioned the manga +Anima. "It's on the Internet," one of them explained. Not legally, of course, but I didn't have the heart to tell them that. If I worked for Tokyopop, though, I'd be worried — they were obviously reading it on a bootleg site, and what's more, it's the only manga they read. Whatever marketing Tokyopop is doing is missing the core audience. (Maybe they should buy ads on the bootleg sites.)
I showed the kids some different comics and book-talked them a bit, and I mentioned that you can get them in the library. I told them that being a comics reviewer meant that I get free comics and I'm paid to read them, which they found very impressive. Then I pulled out my iPad, and explained about digital comics and review copies. During that conversation I flashed a digital review copy of the upcoming Garfield graphic novel, which generated huge excitement — over half the kids mentioned it in their thank-you notes.
For the main event, I read the first issue of Scratch 9, forgetting that there is a fart joke in there. (Oops!) I left them with a stack of graphic novels, including Smile, Brain Camp, Missile Mouse, Stone Rabbit, Lunch Lady, Amelia Rules and a handful of Archie floppies. They had never heard of any of these (except Archie), but there was a stampede for them as I left the room.
The thank-you letters I got this week made for interesting reading. Smile and Lunch Lady seem to have been the biggest hits. "There are lines for the books you brought," one student wrote. Another one wrote, "I'm reading Brain Camp and it is really cool!"
One girl confessed, with disarming honesty,
I was a bit uncertain when I saw "community reader" written on the board. Those types of things can go either way. As it turns out, I shouldn't have been wary.
Yep, fifth-graders are a tough audience. Incidentally, this same girl is working on her own manga adaptation of the YA novel The Hunger Games.
Remember how there was no superhero reader? This may be the reason why: A boy wrote that he used to regularly visit a local comics shop, adding, "I like to collect them. My favorite one is Batman and Robin. Such a shame they don't have him any more!" Huh?
What I found really interesting about the encounter is that the kids absolutely love comics, but they don't seem to know they exist. As one girl said,
Before you came, we only had 'Big Nate' and 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.' I'm reading 'Smile' right now and it is very good. Everyone in our class is so exciting [sic] to read your books!
Once they see them, though, they catch on quick. One girl wrote, "For my birthday I got a Barnes and Noble gift card and I'm going to use it to buy a few."