The talk-back section at industry-watching website ICv2 has been abuzz over the past week about the contentious issue of how few ‘all ages’ comics there are. Some retailers take time out to decry mainstream superhero comics as being too violent and over-the-top for young readers, and anything actually aimed at children as being “too kiddy”, meaning that it’s for the youngest kids while ignoring grown-ups who might want to introduce their kids to the material in the first place. The issue of location also cropped-up, with retailers in the bible-belt complaining that what flies as all-ages in one store might not in another (which while in general is perfectly accurate as a statement, I just can’t think of how that applies to the comic books under discussion today… anything labeled ‘all ages’ in comics is generally entirely kid-safe).
At The Beguiling where I work, we’re notorious for carrying challenging, risqué, and adult material. It’s how we built our name. But we also do a solid business in comics for children, in all kinds of formats. We work with school and public libraries to develop age-appropriate collections, and we have kids of all ages in here all the time. I’m also personally quite fortunate to have worked with all kinds of experts in reading material for children. One of those people is Mr. Scott Robins, a children’s publishing industry professional and blogger at Good Comics For Kids currently studying to be a librarian here in Ontario. He ran a blog called “All Ages” for a little while, talking about comics for kids, and this was how he capped off his very first post back in 2004:
“Have you ever looked at the word ‘shoe’ so many times that it just doesn’t look right anymore? I’ve called my blog “All Ages” to hopefully do just that — diffuse its meaning and steal that term away from everyone who uses it. Considering that every aspect of children’s publishing is so extremely focused when it comes to AUDIENCE–who the book is for, there’s very little use to the term ‘all ages.’ It’s totally noncommittal. I know this issue will come up again and again but I just wanted to put it out there to get the ball rolling.” – Scott Robins
So Scott thinks that, right out of the gate, the term ‘All Ages’ is a farce—it means nothing. I’m going to agree with him here, as it’s a term most often used within the comics industry (full of hucksters at the best of times) to try and sell the same product to as wide a range of people as possible, specifically college-aged and grown men who still read superhero comics. That and in circus tents, where ringmasters bellow “Ladies and Gentlemen, Children of All Ages!” hoping to engage that special part of the brain and heart that retains its childlike capacity for wonder. It’s a nice thought, but really it’s designed to put asses in the seats and keep them there. It’s a con, that term, and the idea of it is at best outmodded. I would love to order 10,000 copies of the same comic or book every month, instead of 10,000 copies of varying quantities of different books–it would make my life much, much easier. But that isn’t the industry we’re in, we’re in one of micro-niches, trying to hold the tide against the internet which is an industry of nano-niches; information and media customized down to the individual and their specific mood at any given time. Anyone who wants ‘all ages’ anything may as well go looking for a unicorn–all ages never existed. Arguing otherwise is naive.
Let’s instead use the term “Family”, as in “Family Entertainment”, or products and media designed for kids and parents to participate in together. I like the idea of that. I mean, I’m totally cool with material being designed explicitly for children as well, and for ‘children’ as an audience to be subdivided between babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, kindergardeners, early-readers, etc. etc. Go to a bookstore some time, look at how they divide the books into 2 year age gaps until you get to be 11 or 12. That’s the reality of contemporary media. But there is a market for family material. Sitcoms, movies, board games (family game night!), broadcast sports, those sorts of media that are participatory, shared experiences. One-to-many, instead of one-to-one. Books, generally, aren’t like any of those things. Oh sure, there’s reading aloud to kids, which is something that generally tends to disappear after the second or third grade. For the most part, reading, and especially reading comics, has been a solitary pursuit, not a family one. Comic books have not historically or even recently (through the 70s and 80s) been a ‘family’ product; comic books were a niche product with an age- and gender-targeted audience, that happened to bleed up and down and sideways a little.
In the 70s and 80s, according to retailer Joe Field of Flying Colours, “more comic titles used to be accessible to a much wider audience of all ages without having to write down to younger readers and without having to be over-the-top for older readers.” This is a true statement, and a balanced one I think–but I think you need to consider the time period as well. It’s worth noting though that looking backwards from the mid-80s, there was considerably more of a mono-culture in North America–far fewer entertainment options in general, fewer genres of popular music for example. There was music that was played on the radio and music that wasn’t, often with clear divisions down age, gender, or even racial lines… Some of the retailer and reader proponents of the idea of All Ages lived not just through the 70s and 80s, but the 50s and 60s too. Entertainment has become both more diverse and more complex–complex in delivery if not in content–since the birth of comics in the 30s, and the rebirth of superheroes in the Silver Age. It’s a different time.
Many of the retailers at ICv2 in favour of ‘all ages’ comics attack the violent over-the-top superhero comics of today for being for adults, even though they’re not particularly ‘adult’. I’d agree with that, because honestly most commercial comics are crap anyway, there’s nothing particularly literate or adult about most of them. But the thing that can’t be argued is their complexity, complexity often in lieu of any real literary or artistic merit. If there’s a lot going on in the story, even if it’s all awful, it must be adult! If there’re a lot of lines on the page, even if the work is awful, it must be accomplished! If it’s a 50-part crossover it must be literary! What we’ve had in superhero comics, and this matches most entertainment, is an increase in complexity. And flat-out, that sort of complexity is what’s demanded by readers of superhero books. They clearly don’t care if a work is mature, or literate, or even good, but Goddamnit if it isn’t complex, if it’s simple or straightforward or (Lord help’em) FUN, then that sucker is going to get cancelled as quickly as humanly possible. ‘Fun’ comics aren’t mature or literate or sophisticated; ‘sophisticated’ things are respected; comics crave respect from the world at large; divorced, hero’s wife kills her best friend and we all cry about it. No one is as defensive about their chosen hobby as superhero readers, and anything that lends them legitimacy is defended… vigorously.
Which brings us to the next generation of superhero readers, what this is really all about. Because this whole kerfuffle isn’t about ‘comics for kids’ or ‘all ages material’ or any of that. If a mom brought her daughter into the store and wanted the comics she read as kids, which might be Archies, Romances, etc., we’d have no trouble grabbing something appropriate off of the stands. Archie still publishes, there and dozens of new romance manga out every month. There are lots and lots of books and comics coming out for kids, all the time, even if you live in the bible belt. This is about certain readers, and certain retailers, wanting to introduce very specific comics to young kids. The language hints at it:
“When a man walks into our comic store with his 8 to 10 year-old kid and wants to buy some comics like those he read as a kid–Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Fantastic Four, etc.–we have a real problem. We have no new comics to sell him. The kid line of comics from Marvel and DC may be for kids, but they aren’t like the comics in the 60s and 70s and 80s that anybody could read. They’re aimed directly at young, little kids. Meanwhile, the regular comic lines contain material that simply isn’t appropriate for kids that age.” – Rembert Parker “Reader Copies”
(As an aside: Rembert is bending the truth more than a little. Read my description of “Marvel Adventures” below.)
Now let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. I’ve seen this happen myself, and with both moms and dads and daughters and sons, when it comes to getting kids some comics. Sometimes it’s because the parent liked comics as a kid and wants to share that with their children, sometimes it’s because the teacher told them it’ll get them reading. Sometimes it’s just to keep them quiet on a long car ride or plane trip. But the only time I’ve ever encountered someone who wants to buy their kid a comic exactly like they read as a kid? Die-hard superhero fans. It’s that defensiveness again, not only are superhero comics awesome and modern mythology and whatever, but they’re the only comics that they want their kid reading. I’ve seen some pretty appalling behaviour too, parents outright refusing to buy a young reader something they’re actually interested in (Simpsons, Disney, NARUTO) because the parent used to Looooove Spider-Man as a kid and hey you liked the movie didn’t you champ remember we saw all three come on get a Spider-Man comic. It’s upsetting, but it’s how they choose to raise their kid and that’s fine, I’m not going to be paying their therapy bills.
If my dad had tried to introduce comics to me this way, by the by, I probably wouldn’t be here blogging this right now. If he had tried to foist THOR (the comic he liked as a kid) on me at 8 years old, I can guarantee that I would’ve hated it. I didn’t like superhero comics at all until into my teens, and at 8 years old it was TRANSFORMERS & G.I. JOE that brought me to comics, and I saw them on the newsstand, and I knew them because I saw them on TV and I had the toys. My brother didn’t like my comics either, he wasn’t that much of a fan of Transformers of the Joes. He did, however, like Archie’s TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics, because he saw them on TV, and had the toys. We’re only 3 years different in age, but it’s a big enough generation gap that he had stuff that was just for him, and he loved it. 3 years apart, not 20 or 30.
So let’s really, really narrow this discussion about “all ages” comics to what it really is: Superhero Fans Want To Buy Superhero Comics For Their Kids That Are Simultaneously Exactly What They Read As Kids AND All New At The Same Time. They want all the comics on the stands to be ‘safe’ for children, while still engaging them on an adult level like all of the other media targeted at adults. They want the stuff they read as kids and teenagers in the 70s and 80s (or hell, the 60s) to be the same as what’s published today for their kids. They will accept no substitutions, and most importantly they need it to be CANON. That’s right, even if the Superhero comics meet every other criteria, they can’t take place in their own “universe” or be the “for kids” version (even if it’s for ‘all ages’), it has to be part of the 616 or DCU continuity or else it isn’t ‘real’. Superhero fans want validation for their tastes and interests, just like the OCD football dad who couldn’t make it to the NFL and is going to live out his dreams in his son. Exactly the same sentiment, but without a million dollar paycheck at the end of ‘reading superhero comics’, so waaaay less pressure.
And that’s what Retailers, older retailers in particular, want to sell them. Because it’s what they read, and it’s what they know, and they have the same nostalgic feelings for and biases towards that material.
Again, I’m sympathetic. I want to sell more of the same product to the most possible people, rather than fewer copies of different products to those same people. It’s just good business sense. I also think it’s nothing short of ridiculous that “Captain America” and “Spider-Man” are titles intended for people in their 30s and older. Really, it’s insane. “Captain America”. Say that out loud. It’s a great read, but it’s also an international espionage book with dark art and weird mind-rape stories intended for an audience of 30+ year olds. But? That’s the industry. That’s the complexity demanded by the readers of those books, of the accumulated 50 or 60 or 70 years of history of these characters. Any and all attempts at simplifying the stories, making them less violent, less intense, less convoluted, more accessible, all of it is met with howls of outrage from long-term fans. If their problem isn’t that they’re doing it (de-marrying Peter Parker), it’s how they did it (de-marrying Peter Parker) or why they did it (de-marrying Peter Parker). The current audience for superhero books is getting Exactly What They Want from superhero books; sales have been more-or-less consistent or on the upswing for going-on 5 years now. You can argue that they’re “narrowcasting” but they’re making a hell of a lot of money doing it.
So, ultimately, all of the furor and despair is for nothing: These retailers are, by and large, trying to service a clientèle that is, if not unserviceable, then almost not worth bothering with. Selling nostalgia is possible even profitable. Validating that nostalgia is much harder. I understand that it’s tough when that love and nostalgia is why you got into business in the first place, to turn around and put the business before your personal preferences. It’s something I struggle with myself all the time. But let me reitterate: It’s not real, and these isolated and unreasonable customers aren’t worth the aggravation. There are lots of good comics for _actual_ kids out there, and they come in more formats than floppy comic books. There are far, far fewer comics for grown-ups trying to remember exactly what their own childhoods were like. Do the simple business math.
That said, I’d like to address the specific comments made by Michael Tierney of “Collector’s Edition” Comics in Arkansas, as his concerns differ slightly from the main thrust of this article, but I think they further illuminate a lot of the issues at hand:
“I’m glad that Jay has success with the current mix of content, and with “dozens and dozens” of All Ages titles. Chances are that some of those “dozens” of books aren’t considered appropriate in every market. There’s probably a big difference between the Bible Belt, where Buddy and myself operate, and other markets with different demographics… The fact is, in my market All Ages titles massively outsell Mature Readers Only titles. While there are Mature Audience books aplenty, they just don’t sell for me. This is why having more All Ages material is so important to me, and others in similar markets. It’s what we can sell. But we’re only getting “dozens” of them. And that isn’t growing our businesses… And please, let no one confuse All Ages with Kiddie Books. Kiddie Books simply don’t sell for anyone. No reader likes to be talked down to. All Ages simply means “accessible to All Ages, and entertaining to All Ages.”” – Michael Tierney
First off, if the challenges you face as a retailer are that the type of product that you are selling is by-and-large too extreme for your conservative community, then you have a much deeper and more fundamental problem with your business model than you may think. If you can’t grow your business because the product you sell is unsuitable to your community, diversify, or get into another line of business, for your own sake.
Secondly, I don’t need to tell you any of this as you’ve been in business for many years, but it needs to be said: Marvel Comics has been publishing a line of comics called “Marvel Adventures” (previously Marvel Age) for the better part of 5 years now. These are specifically “all ages” comics in the exact method you’ve demanded, which is to say comics intended for every age. Not written for kids, but written to be continuity-light, fun books with good art and solid stories. The only thing they aren’t is “in continuity”, and the only person that should matter to? An established fan, not a new reader coming into the shop for the first time. These comics sell exceptionally poorly, less than 10,000 copies a piece through the Direct Market. A year ago this time there were four books in this line–now there are two. Honestly? They’re good books with almost-no-audience in periodical format, but we do gangbusters on the sales for the digest collections. Conversely, the top selling Superhero comic books in the industry right now are about evil aliens violating corpses, and bringing those corpses back to life in order to kill more people. It may be that the tastes of the market for the product you’re selling don’t match up with the specific interests of your community. It may be that the number of books that you’re demanding is untenable, and the number of books that fit your criteria that currently exist is all that the market will bear. It may be that The Hulk ripping Wolverine in two was put right onto the cover of a graphic novel this year, because that is what readers of The Hulk and Wolverine want to read, and not the Hulk vs. Wolverine ‘dust-ups’ of the 70s and 80s.
Thirdly, your poor attitude of describing books you don’t like as “Kiddie Books” is probably doing more to hinder the sales of those books than any perceived lack of merit in the content. “Kiddie” books are some of our best sellers, in collected formats. I would strongly recommend that you as a retailer, and other retailers that share your feelings, really look at how your own biases and prejudices about some comics colour the way you sell them–or don’t sell them, as the case may be.
Finally, I really do sympathize with your desire for more salable product, and to grow your business; I think most retailers want to be making more sales, making more money, and growing their investment. I also understand the need to vent, particularly when given a convenient target to vent at, like an off-handed comment that you might be out of touch with the industry because of your complaints. I like to vent, I like to pick easy targets. But realistically, you haven’t presented any evidence whatsoever that what you’re asking for as a retailer from publishers like Marvel and DC (and let’s be honest with ourselves, you really only care about Marvel and DC with this rant) would work. Books like the ones you are asking for tend to get cancelled. Publishing more of those isn’t going to do anyone any favours.
So, that’s my piece said. Let’s stop asking for All Ages books, because they aren’t ‘real’ and the ones that are? No one wants them. Making more existing books “kid friendly”? Well the industry doesn’t seem to be responding to that either. Let’s let those few parents so drowned in their own nostalgia that they can’t see past the end of their comic collection, let’s let them go, and hope that their kids get into comics through the net, at school, at public libraries, through their friends, and then come back to comic book stores and buy the stuff that they might ACTUALLY want to read. I see it happen every day and I’m happy to do it. Just like I’m happy to work with and sell to the parents who truly love comics, and want to share the joys of reading and the medium with their own kids–even if it isn’t exactly the same thing that they want to read themselves.
Edited slightly at 11:15pm, for clarity.