148 Free Comic Book Day and the State of Comics for Kids
This Saturday, besides being the twenty-third anniversary of my lovely girlfriend’s birth, was Free Comic Book Day, and in between a long day of celebratory brunch, gift buying, and heavy drinking we made our way to Bergen St. Comics and picked up some of what the comic book industry had to offer.
Free Comic Book Day has been an unofficial holiday for me since its inception, when I was actually reading comics less frequently. In fact, I’d venture to say that it was a key reason why I decided to get back into the culture after a few years away. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I’d like to echo Ed Brubaker’s call for evidence that FCBD creates new comics readers. I would even go one step further, and wonder if there’s evidence that it creates new readers in the younger markets. After all, a number of the comics featured are “all-ages” titles, and one might assume that a promotion like this would (or even should) be aimed almost directly at parents of young children.
But what is the state of comics now for kids? Is the comics industry catering to the young? Let’s take a look at some of this year’s Free Comic Book Day offerings after the jump and rate both their age-appropriateness and quality.
Marvel had two entries in the FCBD promotion this year, with an Iron Man/Thor team-up written by Matt Fraction with art by John Romita, Jr., as well as a more “all-ages” friendly Iron Man/Nova team-up written by Paul Tobin with art by Craig Rousseau. I picked up the former and only read a preview of the latter, but it seems like both are relatively harmless tales designed to promote Marvel’s upcoming Iron Man sequel. Fraction’s entry would probably be a little over-the-head for some younger readers but Tobin, along with wife Colleen Coover, has been a mainstay in the Marvel all-ages world. He’s written a plethora of “Marvel Adventures” titles, an imprint which the publisher markets to younger audiences. And what I’ve read of Iron Man: Supernova seems like light-hearted superhero fun.
DC Comics’ entries make a similar effort, though with decidedly different outcomes. Whereas both of Marvel’s book seem at least thematically appropriate for all ages, DC’s more adult-oriented offering — an intro to their upcoming “War of the Supermen” crossover — is wildly inappropriate reading for anyone below the age of 13. Hell, I wouldn’t even want my 13-year-old reading it. It features excessive violence and… well, this:
On the flip-side, their all ages title is just fantastic. Unlike Marvel, which mostly focused on young adults, the DC Kids Mega-Sampler featured stories from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Billy Batson & the Magic of Shazam! for the young teen crowd, as well as Tiny Titans and Super Friends for the little ones. Art Balthazar and Franco Aureliani are really writing great stuff for kids these days, and it’s nice to see them featured prominently here.
Rather than try to cater to adults and kids alike Image Comics decided to put out just one entry this year. If this were 1995 we’d be talking guns, pouches, tiny feet and large breasts, but lo and behold: an Image all-ages comic! Fractured Fables, besides sporting a nice looking cover by Mike and Laura Allred, features some pretty funny stuff inside. The high concept is silly takes on well-established tales, and I have to say it’s a formula that works both for kids and adults familiar with the stories. I’m usually pretty down on Image (mostly because they publish bad comics) but I’m pleasantly surprised with this one.
Who’s the Audience? Well, Marvel and DC were clearly looking to attract as many people as possible with their entries. Whether they succeeded is debatable, but both of their techniques were pretty different. Marvel used both of their books to lure in a vague “13 and up” demographic, creating two books I’d consider fairly safe for any teen. Younger readers may not get the plot of the Iron Man/Thor crossover but it’s not really offensive in any way, and Iron Man: Supernova, while aimed at a young adult audience, is fun enough that anyone could enjoy reading it. There wasn’t really anything interesting for younger readers, however, which is a shame since their Superhero Squad comics would have been a perfect fit.
DC, on the other hand, had plenty to offer kids of all-ages, using one of their books solely as a showcase for that audience. But their second book is absolutely hands-off material. Not only that but it’s the beginning of a long storyline, intended only for current fans of the universe. If you had no knowledge of Superman or his world before reading this book, War of the Supermen #0 would be of no help– a shame for a book featuring one of their flagship characters, as it could have been used as an opportunity to attract a wider audience.
Image’s book is for everyone, plain and simple. The only violence is cartoon violence, the stories are familiar and new at the same time, it’s an entertaining read, and a pretty nice-looking one, too.
How’s the Story? Iron Man/Thor is a little boring. Fraction’s punchy dialogue helps a little but it just didn’t really do anything for me. I didn’t read much of Supernova but that seems like a lot more fun.
DC’s efforts were almost nulled by the atrocious, ugly, not fun at all War of the Supermen (is anyone looking forward to that story?) Fortunately Tiny Titans is, as always, a delight, and the other all-ages stories ain’t so bad neither.
But I have to hand it to Image: they put together the best overall comic from all three “big” publishers.
Iron Man and Thor weren’t the only big-name properties that were featured this Saturday. Archie Comics also put together Archie’s Summer Splash! #1. Although Archie has been getting a lot of press lately — first from alternate reality “Archie gets married” stories, then from a biracial relationship, and even the introduction of a homosexual character within the comics — this wasn’t exactly ground-breaking material.
Who’s the Audience? Literally anyone who will read the damn thing.
How’s the Story? Boring. It’s a run of the mill Archie story about Archie teaching some mean girl a lesson. I’m always surprised Archie does so well when it’s such a generic brand that I personally have never had any interest in it at all. Then again what do I know? The company’s been around since 1939 and still makes a profit, so it must be doing something right.
APE Entertainment offered up Shrek & the Penguins, a licensed property featuring everyone’s favorite green ogre and… seriously? The penguins from the movie Madagascar? Huh. I had no idea that was a “thing.”
Who’s the Audience? Young fans of both franchises, presumably.
How’s the Story? This is an interesting one, actually. Each of the characters have one short, pointless story followed by a slightly longer, slightly more interesting story. The big loser here is Shrek. I mean, I’ve seen all the Shrek movies. I’ve enjoyed them, even. But unless you’re really into Shrek the same way some people are really into, say, Tweetie Bird, where you collect anything Shrek related and wear Shrek t-shirts and backpacks, you will not like these Shrek stories. At all. Unlike the licensed Disney and Pixar characters in the Boom! books, Ape (apologies to all involved, but the creators aren’t listed online at the FCBD website) doesn’t make much of an effort to use the character’s “voice.” That isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but combine that with the fact that what made the Shrek movies fun and interesting to begin with were the writers and voice actors that took part in the movie and you’ve got a book that falls flat.
The penguins, on the other hand– man, I don’t know if that movie Madagascar is any good but the second penguin tale in this comic isn’t really so bad. It’s actually kind of clever, and they use some interesting visual techniques to tell the story. Again, I wish Ape would have supplied better writer/artist information to the Free Comic Book Day website because I’d definitely like to highlight the team who put that story together, but you can check out the sample pages here (you’ll have to skip through Shrek first to get to it.)
Drawn and Quarterly published some John Stanley stories and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Who’s the Audience? Old people? Seth?
How’s the Story? Included here are numerous reprints of John Stanley creations, including Nancy, Melvin Monster,Tubby, and Choo-Choo Charlie. They’re good, of course– I just don’t know anyone too excited about reading them. These archival projects feel more like fetish objects than anything else, and even the most dedicated, Olde Timey, “back in my day” person in the world can’t read this stuff all the time, can they? And even if they can: are they clamoring for it on Free Comic Book Day? It’s nice, but I don’t really know that kids will be into it in this day and age.
Top Shelf showed up to the party (as they do every year) with Owly and Friends in tow. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy these stories and this year’s edition is no exception, with Andy Runton, James Kochalka, and Christian Slade churning out more high quality work.
Who’s the Audience? This book has always worked for me precisely because of how well it caters to different age groups. In fact going through the book story by story is like walking through the different steps of childhood. Owly is a beautiful, wordless story for very young children. For a slightly older audience just learning to read, James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo is a funny, quirky series. And Christian Slade’s Korgi is a fun, surreal fantasy for teens.
How’s the Story? Good. Always good. In fact, year after year Owly and Friends is my absolute favorite free comic. This year my girlfriend joined in on the fun, and it was her favorite, too (though she does have a thing for owls…) Owly itself is so good that I’m thinking of buying all of the volumes now just in case it goes out of print before I actually have children to give them to.
So what’s the verdict? A pretty strong showing for kids lit, actually. There were others: a decent Toy Story comic, a terrible Sonic the Hedgehog comic, and an Oni Press collection I wasn’t all that into. With all the talk about how “comics aren’t for kids anymore” it’s refreshing to see that in some instances they still are. Even the big guys did a pretty good job, with Image putting out a delightful book of fables, and even Marvel and DC adding in some all-ages fun along with their big time, serious superhero business. Whether any or all of it is good or not is up for debate, but one thing’s for certain: there’s plenty out there to choose from.