Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Comics For Everyone: The Magic of All Ages Comics

There are a lot of different types of comics out there, no matter what the public perception is. I'm sure if you've found your way here, you have a good idea of that, but it still needs to be reiterated every now and then. Superheroes make up the bulk of what the mainstream media sees, but there is so much else out there, and that's a wonderful thing. Since I started writing this blog a couple months back, I've written about more than my share of superheroes, but I've also touched on horror, sci-fi, and crime. But there's another genre I've spent a good amount of time talking: all ages comics. And today, I'd like to spend a little time talking about why I find all ages comics so fascinating, and some of the best ones I've ever read.

Back in the 80s,  pretty much every comic historian, scholar, and fan can agree that comics really went out of their way to become something that was more than just funny books for kids, and did so by forcing a lot of the light and fun out of comics. We reached a point where it was hard to find anything on the racks that you could give to a young kid. I won't say there weren't exceptions; the comics based off of the DC animated series of the 90s were great fun for everyone, but they proved the exception.

I feel like somewhere around the late 90s or early 00s, a movement began that rejected that, and started crafting all ages comics. Please note I did not say kids comics. I think there was still an undercurrent of fear that writing comics geared for small kids exclusively might undercut the progress of the industry, so what people began doing was creating comics everyone can enjoy on multiple levels. And I think this is something that, while not exclusively within the comics industry, is something we can pride ourself on that others sort of hide from.

Other entertainment industries don't seem to run with the idea of all ages. Cartoons are either for adults or for kids. Sure, grown ups watched Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, and Phineas & Ferb, but those cartoons are marketed almost exclusively at kids, no matter what the demo that was actually watching was. I will say that, in recent years, Pixar has tried to close this gap, and The Muppets was marketed in this vain, but that's still a far cry from there being truly all ages marketed movies. When the Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing at the bookstores, the books were still looked at as kids books that adults could read, not as just plain books. There is no "all ages" section at Barnes & Noble; there's children's and adults. I think a lot of authors write with the intent that parents should be able to read and enjoy these books with their kids, but they aren't marketed that way.

But with comics, there is a sense that people who write comics that kids can enjoy really want the experience to be something that is shared, and something that people of any age or demographic group can enjoy. I'm not a dad yet, but I am an uncle, and I am happy to say there are plenty of comics I can happily now read with my nieces, who are four and eight. They are stories that I can enjoy on some level and they can on another. And on top of that, these tend to be stories that are not just enjoyable, but are fun. So much of modern fiction, both written, performed, or produced, is so gloomy, so dark, or so mean. All ages comics are a breath of fresh air in that world. They are something that you can get a thrill out of, but something you can usually walk away from feeling happy or affirmed. Not always, serious stories need to exist for children as well as adults, but stories for all ages books tend to be told in a way that leaves you understanding that we fight through the dark and persevere, not wallow in it.

One of the great things about all ages comics is that they encompass all the genres of the rest of the comic book industry. If you like Harry Potter, well there are plenty of fantasy comics for your kids to read. If they've read Goosebumps, I can find a spooky all ages comic. And hey, guess what, I can find superhero comics that you'd feel safe letting your kids read, and that you'd get a lick out of. I've talked about some of these in reviews and recommended readings before, so I won't go into them again, but remember that Atomic Robo, Tiny Titans, The Muppet Show Comic Book, Snarked, and Reed Gunther are all out there for you to enjoy. There are plenty of others that I'd like to touch on today.

I think the comic that started the trend of modern all ages comics was Bone by cartoonist Jeff Smith. Bone is a mix of high and low fantasy, with a touch of fairy tale, starring the three Bone Cousins, Fone, Phoney, and Smiley, who, after being run out of Boneville, arrive in the Valley. In their new home, they meet Thorn, Gran'ma Ben, and the rest of the cast of the series as, through a comic mishap, they are drawn into the war with the Rat Creatures and their mysterious master, The Hooded One. Bone is tremendous fun, and does a great job of mixing the high stakes action of a fantasy epic with the comedy of Phoney Bone's moneymaking schemes and monstrous Rat Creatures talking about quiche. You can read one story with an army of Rat Creatures attacking the Valley, and in another Phoney is trying to fix a cow race. At its heart, though, Bone goes back to the classic fairytale trope of the underdog facing down the big monster, and finding courage. You can get all of the series in one giant omnibus in the original black and white, or pick up the individual nine volumes colorized from Scholastic Books.

The all ages comic that made me stand up and begin to really think about how great they are, though, was Patrick The Wolf Boy. I stumbled across Patrick when the first one shot featuring him came into Dewey's, and as I have mentioned before, I have a thing for werewolves. But Patrick isn't a scary monster werewolf. He's a first grader who just happens to chase squirrels and turn into a hairy wolf boy during the full moon. Created by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, now better known for their work on Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, Patrick plays in the same ballpark of a comic that can be read with your very little ones, but has enough of a sense oh humor that you grown ups would appreciate it. The best metaphor I've ever been able to come up with for this book was a comic where Calvin happens to turn into Hobbes on the full moon. Wrap your head around that. Patrick is sadly pretty much out of print as far as I can tell, but Art and Franco have a bunch of Patricks I've seen with them at cons, so go, check them out there.

Since I'm talking about monsters, let's talk about Scary Godmother. Jill Thompson, possibly best known for her work with Neil Gaiman on Sandman, wrote and drew a series of charming picture books about the Scary Godmother, who lives on the Frightside and is sort of a patron witch of Halloween. With the help of Hannah Marie, a little girl who stumbles into her, and a cast of monsters, Scary Godmother helps keep Halloween going. These aren't scary books, but are perfect for Halloween reading, with giving maybe a little chill or jump but nothing that will keep the kids (or you) up late. The four picture books have been collected in one volume and all the comics in a separate one by Dark Horse.

I just want to drop in a quick mention of Amelia Rules! here, as it's probably my favorite all ages comics that is currently being published. There's a new volume due in the next month or so, so expect a recommended reading when I know the exact release date. Without spending too much time, Amelia McBride was created by cartoonist Jimmy Gownley, and is smart, sassy, and always getting into trouble for being herself. She has a group of friends who are oddballs, teachers who don't get her, parents who are trying to get her, and the coolest aunt in the world. The book has more heart in one chapter than most books or comics have in whole volumes.

Now, in any duscussion of all ages comics, I think a writer would be remiss to not talk about Archie Comics. Some of the longest running comics out there, the kids from Riverdale are still going strong. While I know some people have been upset by how socially progressive Archie books have been over the past few years, I like the idea that Riverdale is an idealized version of the world where everyone is accepted. Still aside from the more progressive stories, there is the same hijinks from when I was a kid, with Arachie trying to choose between Betty and Veronica, Jughead eating everything in sight, and Reggie being a jerk. There are also the occasional high concept story, like the spy themed "The Man From RIVERDALE" above, that's a cool spy pastiche. I also picked that cover because that issue was drawn by artist Fernando Ruiz, who happens to be one of of regular customers at Dewey's, and appears with us every Free Comic Book Day. He's an awesome guy, teaches at the Kubert School, and is currently the artist on Life With Archie, the magazine featuring tales of grown up Archie, which also happens to be an great book.

And just to make sure I don't go a post without mentioning my usual manias, there are some great all ages superhero and Star Wars comics out there. Dark Horse regularly releases volumes under the Star Wars Adventures and Clone Wars Adventures banners that are great one off stories featuring stories that are geared for everyone. These can be a little scarier, or more intense, then a lot of the others I've talked about, so you might really want to read these with your kids. DC has, since the advent of Batman: The Animated Series, had some form of all ages Batman title running, and while quality has varied, some of these have been outstanding. Mike Parobeck's run as artist of the original Batman Adventures series is outstanding, and Dan Slott's run on the second series of that title is vastly under-rated, and ended before its time. Also, if you want a truly surreal treat, DC just released one of their DC Comics Presents reprint volumes featuring Mark Millar's run on the all ages Superman Adventures. Yes, folks, Mark Millar, writing shockingly good all ages Superman. Check it out and be awed.

So, those are some of my suggestions. We comic readers are a dying breed, ladies and gentlemen. So why don't you pick up something, and give it to your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the neighbor kid. You might be creating a new life long comic fan.

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