Somewhere between the well-worn “comics are for kids” trope and the strident call and response of “Watchmen!”, “Dark Knight Returns!” and “They’ve got boobs and swearing now!” an important fact seems to have slipped, namely that comics really don’t seem to be for children any longer - and not in the way anyone would have hoped. For a lot of the time they’ve existed comics have largely been aimed at children. But the medium has matured and broadened, and it’s important to remember that it’s exactly that - a medium. And just like any other medium, it should be able to support as broad a range of ‘stuff’ as possible. Booker Prize nominees surely don’t feel threatened by the contents of the children’s book section of their local store, similarly comics fans should learn to appreciate that a broader range of titles is a sign of a thriving industry, not a threat to what they want to read.
I digress. As the market has become more mature (older, not necessarily wiser), the bigger publishers have moved away from the all-ages fare they previously published, and started producing books that target the 25 - 35 age group that pays their bills. I was dimly aware of this, but I was reminded starkly when two friends independently asked for recommendations for comics for kids and, despite being a fairly voracious reader of comics (as was one of those asking), I struggled to come up with suggestions. There are good titles out there, but they definitely seem marginalised at the moment. Licensed comics have done OK - Boom! Studios had a broad range of Disney and Pixar titles before Marvel was bought by Disney, and The Simpsons comics have always sold steadily, but there’s definitely room on the shelves for more kid-friendly fare. After all - children are our future. We need them to grow up and pay taxes to fix our hideous future diseases, as well as buying comics to make sure we have a thriving selection of comics to read when we’re in Hideous Future Disease Hospital.
I’m looking at relatively new stuff here - reading the Beano, The Dandy (now reborn as a website rather than a physical comic), Asterix and Tintin is a given. You should be prodding your kids with a sharp stick until they read those (Disclaimer: I am not a childcare professional). So, in alphabetical order so as not to play favourites (Atomic Robo! Atomic Robo!), here is a by no means exhaustive list of recent comics for kids and teenagers.
Grant Morrison (Writer) and Frank Quitely (Artist)
Maybe one for the slightly older kids. Grant Morrison tells a standalone Superman story that may well be the definitive take on the character, blending mythology with a 50s-style forward-looking, ultimately optimistic sci fi tale. Modeled after the 12 tasks of Hercules, it takes Superman back to the roots of the character before he got bogged down in 70 years of continuity, as a renaissance man, embodying many goods. It’s so gloriously uncynical that it’s worth reading just for that, but it’s also an excellent book in its own right.
Brian Clevinger (Writer) and Scott Wegener (Artist)
Nikola Tesla built a robot assistant. 100 years later, having battled the forces of wrong science across the 20th Century, Atomic Robo leads a team of ‘Action Scientists’ against ambulatory pyramids, Nazi cyborgs, and all sorts of dubious sorts. His Wile E. Coyote-alike sometime nemesis is Doctor Dinosaur, some sort of time-travelling imbecile. Incredibly funny, well-written, and featuring top-notch cartoony artwork, Atomic Robo is the comics equivalent of a Pixar movie. It works for kids and adults equally well, with some jokes that will go straight over kids’ heads (unless they know a lot more about H.P. Lovecraft’s racist tendencies than I did at that age).
Atomic Robo is much easier to get digitally than it is physically, but let’s face it, you’ve got a tablet. In the last few years tablets have replaced fire (0 -1900) and crushing poverty (1901 - present) as the premium junior-distraction during mummy and daddy’s special gin time. Comixology has it all for very little cash. If you do want to get physical copies, there’s no pressing need to read them in order. The series jumps around in time, so each trade is a self-contained story that doesn’t require knowledge of the others to get onboard. If you want a taster, the Free Comic Book Day editions are available on Comixology for no cash.
Paul Tobin (Writer) and Colleen Coover (Artist)
Bandette is glorious wish-fulfillment stuff for kids. A young sneakthief in a non-specific Franco-Belgian city (it has elements of Paris, but is also decidedly Not Paris) constantly outsmarts the adults around her and is often the only person the police can turn to to solve other, worse crimes. It’s fast-paced and beautifully illustrated, with both art and writing drawing from European kids comics (although you sometimes get the sense it’s being written for a young Audrey Hepburn).
It’s part of Chris Robeson and Allison Baker’s Monkeybrain Comics line, which is digital-only at the moment (via Comixology). They’re listing it as 15+, which seems incredibly conservative. Younger children should have no trouble with this. As with other Monkeybrain titles, it’s 69p / 99 cents an issue, so there are no excuses not to try it.
David Peterson (Writer and Artist)
First things first - there are talking mice with swords, so yes - it is a bit like Brian Jacques’ Redwall series in that regard. Mouseguard is set at a very different scale though, with the tales being small and character-driven, rather than the Tolkien-esque high fantasy of Jacques’ stories. The artwork is the main draw though, with precise linework and watercolour-esque colouring that makes Mouseguard look like nothing else on the shelves.
New Brighton Archaeological Society
Mark Andrew Smith (Writer) and Matthew Weldon (Artist)
More wish-fulfillment stuff. Here a gang of kids take up their parents’ mantles as the New Brighton Archaeological Society, and head off on an adventure with goblins to find out what happened to their parents. It’s slightly knowing, but has plenty of humour and faintly unthreatening adventure aimed at kids. There are dead parents involved, and the possibility of some villainous relatives, but it never strays into particularly dark territory.
You can read the first volume online - a second volume was funded last year and is currently being finished up. There’s a trade paperback of the first volume available as well.
Various writers and artists
This new British comic only launched properly in 2012, but it’s already starting to pick up a fairly sizable audience. There are strips from well-known indie comics creators like Simone Lia and Paul Duffield, as well as a range of up and coming artists. It rotates new stories in amongst recurring strips, so there’s a lot to see. One highlight is Adam Murphy’s Corpse Talk strip, where the author digs up historical figures and interviews them. Just macabre enough for kids.
There’s a fairly content-light website here, but you’ll need to pick up a physical copy to see much of the strips (a bold idea!). There’s a map of bookshops that stock it on the site, and it’s also available from Waitrose supermarkets. No further comment on that.
That’s all folks
There’s always more that I could recommend, but I’d encourage anyone who reads comics with their kids to chime in and let us know what they’re reading at the minute. There seem to be so many good writers and artists working in kids’ comics at the moment that it would be a shame to see their work continue to be pushed off shelves to make space for recycled ideas.