Saturday, August 18, 2012

How To Sell Superheroes To Children

Another one from Power Honor Grace. Children love superheroes: the movies, cartoons, costumes, T-shirt, and other merchandise. How can we get them reading the comics?

There comes a time when all bloggers feel the need to tell the comics industry how to save itself from any number of problems and concerns. I am not feeling quite that ambitious today. Instead I am simply going to point the way to selling superhero comics to children.

While there has been a lot of much needed calls to make the medium more hospitable to women and minorities, the future of comics is in the hands of today’s kids. The 8 to 10 year olds of today are getting older every day. Just this week Publisher’s Weekly reported a study that showed 23-33 year olds have now become the single largest group of book buyers. That’s the generation that grew up reading Harry Potter, first published 15 years ago. Potter’s success fueled a huge demand for Young Adult novels and created the generation of readers now buying all kinds of books.

Publishers haven’t been blind to the demand for kids’ graphic novels either. Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, built on the success of the Bones and Wimpy Kid series, has been a great success. The Wimpy Kids series alone has over 30 million books in print. Imagine a 7 volume superhero comic with over 30 million comics in print. But I am focusing my attention today on the Big Two. DC and Marvel. This is an area where they could do a lot better.

The idea of writing this article came to me while I was reading a copy of Teen Titans Go! I enjoyed it, but while reading it I couldn’t help but think there was a better model out there for getting kids to read superhero comics than basing them on TV cartoons: comics written before the mid-80s. From their inception right up to the introduction of dark and gritty characters in the 80s, it was assumed that the principle readership for comics was mostly children. All those Golden Age tales, the Silver Age revival of Scwartz, Infantino, Fox and so many others at DC. Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the bullpen at Marvel. Kirby’s New Gods, Starlin’s cosmic adventures, Gerber’s comix sensibility. All for kids. Comics like Teen Titans Go! forget this. The results are far too self-consciously “kids” comics. Especially the art, which ignores the generations of far more complex and rewarding work that people once assumed was what kids wanted.

So, should we just start marketing comics to kids? No. Comics have changed, but I see no reason why we can’t have superhero comics written for children as well as for grown ups. But in writing comics for children we should look to the comics of the 60s and 70s instead of Saturday morning cartoons. How would that change things? Not very radically.

The sex and violence would have to be toned down. Violence is a basic part of the genre (men and women dress up and fight), but the levels of gore and bloodshed don’t have to be as high as they sometimes are. No more girlfriends in refrigerators, for example. As for the sex, there would be no actual sex, obviously, but the change here would most likely be reflected in how female characters are presented. When I was a kid I could easily see that characters like the Scarlet Witch, the Black Widow, and Storm were attractive women (yeah, I read a lot of Marvel back then), but artists didn’t present them as though they using a Victoria Secret’s catalog to develop their character model sheet.

The second change is character. The characters’ character. The good guys are good guys. Even when they make stupid mistakes or are conflicted, their intentions are clear. It is possible to generate conflict without dirtying up a character. Namor was a good guy, an enemy of mankind, and serious threat to Sue and Reed Richard’s relationship. I think children are more capable of appreciating a character’s complexity than they are often given credit for, but this is an area where parents will protest. Good guys don’t casually rip through hordes of bad guys with their adamantium claws. Mom and Dad won’t like it.

That brings up a third and very important point. As adults we may put money down for collected volumes that can cost $100 to $150, but parents won’t spend that much on a comic for their kids. And when I say comic, I mean graphic novel. Keep the cost under $10. They may shell out a few dollars more for things like Bone and the Wimpy Kid books, but these are limited series. If you want little Tim and Janey’s parents to keep buying Batman and Spiderman, keep it under $10. I am not speculating here. I work in a bookstore. Parents don’t want to spend more than that. Cheaper books will mean shorter stories, but by shorter I only mean page count. Comics of the era I am referencing typically had a lot more story per issue than we’re used to seeing today. So plot out your story for the usual half dozen issues, then condense it down to four.

There you are: look to the comics of the 60s and 70s for a role model, tone it down, value integrity, keep it short, but full of story, and remember the costs. It seems so simple!

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