A friend of mine posted a note on Facebook today describing her young daughter’s first adventures at a comic book convention held at the Toronto Convention Centre this past weekend. Unlike the larger Hobby Star Fan Expo, which is a three day staple held towards the end of the summer, this particular gathering was a far smaller affair, taking up but one smallish room in the North Building of the centre. My friend commented on the lack of children seen at the convention, and wondered what the industry could do to connect with the next generation readers. Posters in schools? Advertising from stations that air animated series like “Wolverine and the X-Men” or “The Spectacular Spider-Man”?
These were all great ideas, and helped highlight a concern that has come up in my own brain over the last few months. Just how kid friendly is the comic book industry in the new millennium? Judged solely on some of the books I read regularly, I’d say parents might think twice before letting their kids pick up the latest adventures of some of comic’s most enduring characters. Take the Avengers, for instance. From a storytelling point of view, writer Brian Michael Bendis is a master craftsman, weaving characters and concepts together to form a rich tapestry that hasn’t been seen since the days of the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. However, books like the New Avengers are full of swearing and sexual innuendo. As a guy in his 30’s, it works just fine for me, but I’m not sure I would feel comfortable handing a pre-teen a copy of the book for their reading pleasure. Which could be problematic, since it was the pre-teen Andy B that first got hooked on comics in the first place. I’m sure I’m not alone on that either.
That doesn’t mean Brian Michael Bendis can’t write for the kid set. His amazing (and if the rumours are true, soon to be ending) run on Ultimate Spider-Man, a continuity free book set in the “Ultimate” universe, is as entertaining for the youngsters as it is for this grizzled comic book veteran. The series was by design an accessible way for kids to start reading a baggage free but familiar teenage Spider-Man who just receives his powers. But on the flip side of this is The Ultimates, featuring familiar characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor set in the same “Ultimate” world. Unlike both Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch wove The Ultimates as a darker and more violent book, hugely entertaining but far from what one would consider kid friendly. Of course, it’s a parents discretion what their kids are reading, but its problematic to think a child’s exposure to what is a mainstream form of art may be limited because of some of the concepts or content.
While mainstream Marvel comic books are clearly designed for an older audience, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some solid books out there that kids and adults can’t enjoy equally. While at the previously mentioned comic book convention this past weekend I picked up the two Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane hard cover collections, which is a kid friendly book that focuses on a teenage Mary Jane Watson and her infatuation with the mysterious Spider-Man, as written by Sean McKeever and Toronto artist Takeshi Miyazawa. There are love triangles, teenage angst, and a healthy dose of comedy. The book is pretty much like the O.C. or 90210 for comics, minus the sex and way more skillfully written. I spent a Sunday afternoon curled up on the couch reading a comic book that was free of violence or swearing and I was captivated.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is the sort of book a parent could easily hand their kids to read to give them a taste of the Marvel Universe, tiding them over for a few years until they’re ready for Civil Wars, World War Hulks and Secret Invasions.