It was a cold Sunday afternoon in February when Dani Elwell walked into the small room in the North Building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where a group of comic book collectors had gathered to sell, mingle, and haggle. Elwell, a flower shop owner and Toronto radio personality, wasn’t brought there by her own longtime love of Spider-Man or Batman, or any other of the iconic comic characters whose exploits have been a part of our culture for the better part of 7 decades. Rather, she was there for her daughter, 9-year old Jaiden, who having recently discovered comic books had become a fan of one of the Caped Crusader’s arch villains, Poison Ivy.
As mother and daughter made their way through the throng of people, navigating the narrow aisles bordered by graphic novels, premium “Golden Age” and “Silver Age” back issues, and the odd toy or shirt vendor, a few things became noticeable. First, but perhaps least surprising, the vendors and the clientele were mainly male, many of whom bore more than passing resemblance to one of the more recognizable television characters of the past two decades.
“Everyone looked like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons,” says Elwell.
But perhaps more alarming than the cartoon caricatures that seemed to populate the convention was the fact that, as Dani and Jaiden walked around the room, it quickly became evident that there was very little on display that would appeal to younger comic book readers. The room, and the contents of it, was clearly designed for a more adult audience.
“Even when we went to go and buy a t-shirt, all they had were extra large sizes in men’s,” says Elwell. “I was surprised.”
The dynamic duo’s experience highlights what has become a growing concern within the comic book world, for both retailers and publishers alike. In the wake of the success of adult oriented comics like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the past 20 years have seen an increasing level of sophistication find its way into the mainstream publications of industry leaders Marvel Comics and DC. For those that have grown up on books like Uncanny X-Men or Avengers, including this writer, the use of adult themes and imagery has kept them reading. But the cost could very well be the future of the industry.
A few weeks after Dani and Jaiden’s comic convention experience, I’m sitting in a New York City pub called The Dublin House. Across from me is C.B. Cebulski, a former Marvel Comics editor and now freelance writer and consultant for the company. Cebulski has made his name in part because of his kid friendly storytelling in such Marvel books as Spider-Man Fairy Tales, and X-Men Fairy Tales. He also has a knack for discovering up and coming artists. With his background, Cebulski knows better than most that for the comic book industry to continue, it has to reconnect with a younger audience, one that doesn’t necessarily care about years of complex continuity or character development.
“We tried so long to get out of the stigma that comics aren’t just for kids”, says Cebulski. “Our whole thing has changed now. People think that comics are for adults. Now we’re trying to get kids back into comics. We’re trying to convince people, especially after (2008’s film) ”The Dark Knight”, which took a different turn with all the dark superheroes out there, that there are still bright spots out there for comics for kids.”
Those bright spots come in the form of monthly comics designed for younger readers. Titles such as the Marvel Adventures line and DC’s Tiny Titans put iconic character likes Spider-Man, Captain America, Robin, and Kid Flash in easily accessible, stand alone stories, filled with humour, bright, oftentimes exaggerated art, with none of the confusing soap opera continuity of their adult counterparts. Still, according to Cebulski, even kid friendly books have an older audience in mind.
“When we’re creating comics ‘for kids’, we’re not making them specifically for kids. We’re selling them to the parents of kids. Parents are so involved these days, it’s a different generation. When I was growing up I used to read anything that was lying around. If it was a comic, it was for kids. My parents didn’t know how adult the themes in X-Men were. Now parents check everything their kids read.”
But even with publishers in agreement that getting comics into the hands of kids is a priority, are any actually reading them?
Check back for part 2 tomorrow!