Superheroes. Are there any titles for kids anymore? (Yes)

At the New York Comics Convention some years back I sat in on a panel where the Marvel rep discussed the difficulty they had in training their in-house staff to write for an-all ages audience.  He said that for many years they were simply pulling writers and artists from their mainstream books  and instructing them what not to say or draw.  No guns, no blood, no ‘language’ or suggestive situations, and so on.  The results were awkward, uninteresting, clunky.

No surprise since studies show the average age of most comics collectors is over 30, and most comics writers and illustrators nowadays grew up reading comics, and have moved on to adult themes: cynicism, decay of common values, despair, etc…

Generally though the genesis of superhero comics can be understood to be adolescent hormonal fantasies.   Bulgy men and women (with correspondingly exaggerated characteristics of male/female bulgy-ness) swoop across the sky in skintight costumes, solving problems by pounding them to pulp.    These are testosterone surges running rampant.

And if there exists a sort of magical thinking in the idea that you can simply smash your complex problems as they arise, well, what’s wrong with a little magic?  It’s enough to realize that there is supposed to be a moral code that allows you to smash your problems, so long as you are doing so in defense of the helpless and not merely for personal benefit.

Anyway this is all shorthand for the idea that some day, when you are grown, you will have incomprehensible powers to enable you to make problems go away.  Somehow.  And until then, you are embroiled in a war of your own, trying to get a handle on your emerging mutant powers.

All of this subtext is generally over the heads of  those in the pre-tween set. And parents whose kids have discovered superheroes get a little seasick, uncomfortable with the level of violence or frank sexuality barely hidden under a few millimeters of spandex.

Still, one of the functions of storytelling is to help us understand the lay of the land before we get there.  You needn’t check the watering hole for lions if the old silverback of your troop pantomimes that a feline predator lurks there.

So too with the treacherous savannah of adolescence.  Kids tend to like to read about heroes who are their age or just a little bit older.  Archie comics, for instance, are about teenagers, but they are most often read by elementary age and middle school kids.  (Here these are training grounds for how to be socially rotten to each other, not physically brutal, and the stakes are more personal than, say, the SURVIVAL of  the ENTIRE UNIVERSE!!! ).

Anyway, the all-ages stuff that works best within the superhero realm recognizes what is operating here, keeping it above the line:  kids want to see kids, teens,  trying to survive despite their extraordinary differences (superpowers and secret identities) within that social context.

Kids want to read about kids.  And kids still enjoy comics.

In Marvel Adventures Spider-Man:  Thwip!  Paul Tobin (et al) understands this quite well.  His Spidey is the awkward adolescent trying to pass his classes, dodge social thuggery, and maybe meet a girl along the way.  If his life is complicated by weighty obligations and secret oddities, well that serves as a perfect subtext for adolescent angst, and when in costume, also provides an outlet for pent-up frustrations.

Who wouldn’t want to chuck the homework and swoop through Manhattan on a zipline, cracking wise and intimidating bullies to re-think their actions?  Granted, every now and again you have to catch a speeding car with your face, but somehow it seems easier than figuring out whether or not that girl likes you.

The action zips, the witticisms volley between characters, the comic timing swings the story from highrise to lower story to rooftops again in long loopy swoops like webswinging itself.  But without great momentous occasion or epic narrative thrust.

A friend who teaches toddlers once told me that it is a truism among teachers at the Bank Street School of Education that a teacher is most comfortable working with kids who are at the same stage of development that they (the teachers) were when they stopped developing emotionally.  I’m not sure what it says about Paul Tobin as a person, but as a writer I will say it seems he understands adolescence quite well.

As a parent or Librarian if you have tweenagers looking for a superhero book, you’d do well to give them Thwip!

I’ll follow up in the next post with a few other superhero titles appropriate for all ages.

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