[Guest post by Barbara Postema]
I read a lot of children’s comics, and enjoy them a lot. Often, I’d rather reread Jeff Smith’s Bone or find the newest volume of Sardine in Outer Space or Amulet in my daughter’s room than read the latest grown-up comics, like Crumb’s Book of Genesis, or brush up on fields that I’m not that well-read in, like superhero comics. Then I worry whether that’s a problem. As a serious comics scholar, should I be reading more serious comics?
I have become very tired of the old cliché that many articles about comics in newspapers and magazines fall back on—that comics “aren’t just for kids anymore.” Comics haven’t been just for kids in a very long time, if ever. In fact, I think a significant shift in comics in the last fifteen years or so has been that more comics now are for kids—deliberately, carefully conceived and designed for young readers. Many of the well-established comics publishers, like Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and the newest addition, First Second, are publishing lines of comics specifically for children and young adults. From the side of traditional children’s book publishing, there’s been a move towards comics as well, for example by Penguin and Scholastic. Comics published by traditional children’s book publishers tend to sport hardcover bindings and full color printing, while children’s comics by comics publishers are more likely to be black-and-white and soft cover, though First Second publishes full color. In any case, I would argue that there are more quality children’s comics to be read than ever. And yet…
I obviously try to stay current in my field, reading new scholarship being published in journals and books, reading new comics that are coming out. As the field of comics studies is expanding (yay!), it is also more of a challenge to keep up, and so the question of defining one’s field more narrowly arises. I have no problem stating that I concentrate my studies on formal comics theory and alternative comics rather than mainstream comics. Do I then need to go further and distinguish between comics for adults and for children? In traditional literary studies, it’s a given that one works on novels for grown-ups, unless one identifies specifically as a children’s lit or YA scholar. Is that label useful in comics studies, or do we then begin to break up the field into too many hairsplitting categories? Perhaps based on the historical assumptions about comics, does one get taken less seriously if one studies children’s comics, or is one already assumed to be a children’s lit scholar when one studies comics anyway?
I know why children’s comics appeal to me: they are more likely to be fictional, fantastical stories, genres that I happen to like. Works like Jordan Crane’s The Clouds Above, Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabriel Soria and Warren Pleece, Faith Erin Hicks’ Zombies Calling, anything by Sara Varon, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Spiral Bound: Top Secret Summer by Aaron Renier all share adventure and imagination, something that I appreciate a lot after reading the latest autobiographical comic, even if it is as charming as Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage. Of course I will go on reading “serious” comics, and enjoy them most of the time. But in the meantime, how do I approach my children’s comics reading? Is it a disservice to them to single them out as a separate genre, because really, as comics like the Tintin series or Good-bye, Chunky Rice illustrate, sometimes the dividing lines are very blurry. Or is it problematic to bunch all types of comics together as a single field of study, and should I proudly proclaim myself a scholar of alternative and children’s comics?