Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What's the Point of Making Comic Books for Pre-Schoolers, if There Aren't Any Comics for Them When They Are Twelve?

I missed most of the panel at Wizard World Chicago where the new DC super-hero comics for very young kids were announced, so I didn't know that to make room there would be the concurrent cancellation of Teen Titans Go! and Justice League Unlimited. (Well, actually, I knew about the Titans, but the JLU cancellation came as a surprise.) Had I known, I would have asked Jann Jones at some point during the convention (she seemed to always be at the DC booth when I passed it) why DC is abandoning a whole strata of kids in favor of comics for four-year-olds. Justice League Unlimited is one of my thirteen-year-old nephew's favorite comics (and, I'll admit, one of my favorites, too), along with Marvel Adventures Avengers, so where is he supposed to go for his DCU team fix?

It is obvious that Jones and I have a different viewpoint of what is kid appropriate. I admit that I was raised in an atmosphere of allowance when it came to reading or watching just about anything I wanted. My mother believes that a kid will only read or watch what he finds interesting, and I can't disagree. Jones is loath to expose children to "serious issues--cases where if the heroes don’t save the day, it’s implied, or shown[,] that people will die. I think that’s kind of heavy to put on a younger audience."

I appreciate what Jones is saying, and it is a legitimate complaint, though more applicable to the mainstream titles, in my opinion. However, just because adult logic informs us the failure of heroes could mean the death of innocents, that does not mean said deaths be mentioned/shown or having happened at all. How many abandoned warehouses and/or "neighborhoods scheduled to be razed" were invoked by Stan Lee when the Hulk went on a rampage in New York or battled the Thing, thereby negating the casualties an adult understands should be littering the ground. Unless there is a trauma in a child's life, e.g., seeing a family member being hit by a car, most children don't consider fatalities unless there is evidence of such in word or picture.

On the face, this is a good idea. Comic books should be available for any who want to read them (though I am of the opinion that the mainstream comics should always be all ages and "Jonathon DC" would be the imprint for mature readers who have outgrown the mainstream line, but I digress). But where now, my nephew? Where are his comic books? Once, really not so long ago, just twenty-five years or so, at thirteen he would have been more than able to jump into mainstream comics and easily found his comics, the ones that hooked him into the hobby for life. If Jones believes that JLU presented stories more mature than to which the average child should be exposed, what is her opinion regarding the appropriateness of any random mainstream DCU comic for an eleven-year-old wanting something more than vignettes and puzzles? It looks to me like DC has abandoned the whole 'tween demographic with this move. Assuming these comics do hook kindergarten age kids on DC super-heroes, where do they go for a DC comic-book fix when those children are ten years old?

Actually, as I write this, I wonder if Jones's comments reflect more her opinion than an objective evaluation of the now canceled comics. Prior to the Industrial Age, weren't children's stories a way for them to learn about the world without having to experience loss, death, and other negative events first hand? Disregarding its general sanitization of classic fairy tales, at least Disney hasn't found it necessary to "correct" Snow White by making her night in the forest or the witch less scary, or Bambi by having his mother show up at the end, the gunshot having delivered but a flesh wound that required her to go away for a few years to recover. Still, even admitting that I am not as overly sensitive to the potential scarring of a child's psyche (I write this as someone who has been filing PVP away for my child, once she understands that paper wasn't invented just for ripping and chewing), I don't think that there were any stories presented in those comics so mature, even in subtext, that any child, save for the most sensitive, would have been irreparably damaged.

I always considered the JLU title to be a direct descendant of Julius Schwartz's editorial policies. Jones declaration to the contrary, I found that the stories there were safe, just like a Schwartz comic. Each story was filled with heroes acting as such for the non- and early readers while giving older kids and adults the illusion of character development. That formula wasn't considered too harmful for nearly thirty years when it was used in the mainstream JLA comic, in comic books printed during the time when the medium was still considered one just for children, so why is the formula damnable now? In fact, wouldn't that formula, even if I've poorly described it, be the definition for a true all-ages comic book, something to which both companies continually pay lip service to, but never really get around to incorporating into their mainstream comics.

JLU never offered stories dealing with the secret abuse of Star-Spangled Kid by her step-brother; revealed Green Arrow's secret, neglected family; or showed us Elongated Man's the rape and murder of Elongated Man's wife. (Would that I had been spared that in the mainstream DCU.) JLU did, however, present stories that showed that dispite mistrust because of differences, young and old people have knowledge and experience they can offer each other; or that even if you have no blood relations around, as long as you have friends you are never alone. Yes, these are harmful concepts for anyone under 18 to know exist in this world. Actually, I'm wondering if, like alcohol use, access to concepts like those needs to be restricted to people 21 and older. Come right down to it, I'm surprised that such dangerous plots were even allowed for in the JLU comic book.

Now, I understand why Titans Go and JLU are being cut. With no new episodes of their cartoon series in production and infrequent airings of either on Cartoon Network, sales the books have probably peaked and will soon erode. Still, Mattel considers the JLU a viable license, new episodes or not, hence their announced continuation of the JLU action figure line, and it has to pay a licensing fee. I find it interesting the decision makers at DC don't have the same faith in their own product.

Once, I would have taken this announcement as a sign that DC was honestly going to open their mainstream titles to a broader demographic, giving the preschoolers hooked on Tiny Titans somewhere to go when they reach show tying age. No longer am I so naive. I'm sure the abandoning of the audience of older children by DC isn't part of a great marketing plan, but, rather, an illustration of how people in power all too often fail to think through the potential ramifications of their actions.

Where do the four-, five-, and six-year-olds who theoretically will be weaned on Tiny Titans go for comic entertainment when they age past the desired demographic? I guess the stories told in these comics could mature with the readers they attract, until, finally, the Batman in Super Friends loudly declares "I'm the God damn Batman!" and Tiny Titan Robin will be found in sleeping in bed, naked, with Tiny Titan Starfire. Then Winick will take over the Shazam book and Hoppy will come out of the closet and, probably, be HIV positive. Aging with its audience worked for mainstream comics, maturing the storytelling therein to appeal to the entrenched comic fan has really kept the sales numbers stable over the last twenty years. I guess you can't argue with predictable growth every year--oh, wait; I'm talking about comic book sales, aren't I?

Thumbs up, DC. Cancel what even Jones described as "really good, solid books" for comics that unless they are readily and noticeably available in outlets other than comic book stores, probably won't last long enough for a five-year-old to reach his sixth birthday. What DC has really done is open a door for Marvel to attract the kids disenfranchised by DC. Push the Marvel Adventures line to those kids and I bet Marvel will have a new generation of Marvel Zombies under the age of twenty-five.