[Guest post by Barbara Postema]

Amulet1I 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…

SpiralBoundI 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?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

10 responses »

  1. I’d say, of course! Proudly proclaim your personal and professional interests in children’s comics, with the understanding that part of your expertise in the field means troubling that very label when necessary. (Which is what you’re doing in this post.) I’ve said before in a previous posts on how comics are “shelved” that I’m often troubled by how publishers market certain titles and subjects (not every comic that has a child on the cover is for younger readers, not every comic that features adult characters isn’t) and it seems that a title like BONE is case in point. I may be mistaken but for years, wasn’t Jeff Smith’s comic issued in a single phone book-sized volume in the graphic novel section before Scholastic chopped it up and moved it into the children’s section? These designations sometimes feel arbitrary, but hey – our interest in good storytelling is not. There are more and more scholars, conference panels, articles these days that handle these texts as seriously as any other comic and I’m glad to know that your work will be among them.

  2. charleshatfield says:

    “Should I proudly proclaim myself a scholar of alternative and children’s comics?”

    Yes, why not?🙂

  3. Given that the YA/kids comics classification (it’s not REALLY a genre so I’ll use that word) is its own animal in terms of demographic, editorial constraints and frankly where they are sold- I think it is wise to segregate the two areas. In fact, I think it would only help those ignorant of the differences between the two. “Comics? Oh you mean Diary of a Wimpy Kid?”

    “….”

    As we in comics get what we want- gen-pop acceptance, sales to a broad base, critial acclaim- we also have the disadvantages of being categorized by those outside our sphere of industry and expertise. The more promulgators there are who know what they are talking about to the world- the better.

  4. Are there such things as ‘mainstream children’s comics’ and ‘alternative children’s comics’ on the other? Given what you wrote about current trends in children’s comics, that they are often “deliberately, carefully conceived and designed for young readers” does that mean that some children’s comics fall outside that category?

    • Barbara Postema says:

      Whoah, I don’t check in for a few days and there’s a ton of comments. Nice!
      In answer to Frank’s question: yes, there are, or at least were, comics that were not conceived and designed specifically for children. Many newspaper comics fall into that category: they’ll be family friendly, due to their low threshold, but they’re not necessarily created with children in mind. Pre-code comics were read by, and marketed to, kids, but did their creators make them with a children’s audience in mind? I would doubt it. Same for superhero comics. Until the 80s, when people began to make superhero comics that were explicitly more adult in nature, those comics were implicitly for children too, but I don’t think their creators saw themselves as children’s book authors. Do you think Lee, Kirby, or Siegel and Shuster did that?

      • roytcook says:

        I mention this in my earlier comment (below) but I think the issue of what ‘counts’ as a children’s comic is an important one. You mention both the intentions of the creators and the marketing, and there is also the nature of the content and the reception of the comics themselves by children to consider. It seems likely to me that all four of these concerns will diverge with respect to some comics (i.e. some comics might have been marketed children but not widely read by them – e.g. classics illustrated? – while others might be intended for adults by their creators but read widely by children – e.g. the early Lee and Kirby oeuvre?) Of course, it is also important to clarify what we mean by children here. When I stated below that I don’t think superhero comics were ever marketed to children primarily, I had in mind an understanding of children that did not include adolescents (i.e. I was thinking of “children” as picking out a population that is, roughly speaking, pre-teen). But results will vary on wider or narrower conceptions of what counts as a child.

      • I guess what I was thinking is this: are there ‘mainstream children’s comics’ (designed especially for children) AND ‘alternative children’s comics’ (also designed especially for children)? I imagine that there is a pretty wide range of the kinds of expectations that parents have regarding what their children read. Would some parents actively encourage their children to read comics made for children that address topics that are often considered too risky (and maybe risque) for children to read?

        I’m thinking about parallels in other kinds of media. There are movies that are made for children that some parents object to because they address topics that they don’t want their children to know about. But it could be that the topic of the movie isn’t the question but how the movie is presented. Wasn’t there some controversy about the recent film version of Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’?

  5. roytcook says:

    I find it interesting that my own interest in superhero comics poses almost the opposite problem. I am interested in superhero comics in large part because I think that there are deep issues regarding how comics work (and how fiction – in particular, massively serialized collaborative fiction) that don’t arise anywhere else (or at least, in very few other kinds of work).* But of course then I am often faced with the daunting task of convincing my peers that I am not wasting my time with “children’s” stuff (read: disposable pop culture trash entertainment suitable only for children and adolescents). Setting aside the fact that mainstream superhero comics have, at almost no point in their history, been targeted primarily at children (adolescents and young adults, perhaps, but not children), this is frustrating, and I feel like, just as comics studies shouldn’t still feel the need to defend its existence in the academy, I shouldn’t have to defend my interest in a particular type of comic.

    Much of this might be an unintended backlash from some of the strategies that have been employed during the last twenty years or so to defend the study of comics as a serious academic endeavor. As comics scholars (and, quite notably, the Comics Journal) have promoted a certain kind of comic (i.e. alternative comics, whatever those are) as something worthy of theoretical scrutiny, they have also, perhaps inadvertently, and often merely implicitly, devalued other kinds of comics in the process. So even though reading comics is worthwhile, there is still this stigma attached to reading the ‘wrong’ kind of comics.

    *Okay, I also think superheroes are cool!

    • Barbara Postema says:

      I think you’re right, Roy, or perhaps you could say that we’re bumping into the same problem from two different sides.

      I’ve written and presented on children’s comics in all kinds of settings, usually without going out of my way to classify them as children’s comics. Most of the time that works fine. But I do think that children’s comics have their own characteristics and their own background, and scholarship as well, through their connections to children’s lit in general. So depending on the approach, I guess I am coming round to the view that it is valuable, and sometimes necessary, to discuss them specifically as children’s comics, rather than comics in general.

  6. Barbara Postema says:

    Interesting questions, Frank, and I don’t know if I have answers to all of them. Both Marvel and DC have lines specifically for children and young readers now, so there are mainstream comics for children (Tiny Titans and the like). But what’s mainstream in children’s comics may also be different from comics in general: comics published by Scholastic for example: would they be mainstream, since Scholastic is such a mainstream children’s book publisher? “Alternative children’s comics” also seem an odd notion to me. Certainly the alternative publisher publish comics for children, but I don’t think I would call the Moomin, Little Lulu etc. reprints alternative comics. So I do think these labels (need to) shift when we are talking about children’s and young readers comics specifically, perhaps even in a way that you don’t have to do for these same titles when you’re discussing them in a general comics context. Does that make sense?

    As for parents’ objections, that’s a whole different can of worms. You mention the film “Where the Wild Things Are,” but I think the book was criticized in its day as well. Certainly Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” was. But parents can be really uptight: I once saw a mother react in shock and forbid her son to take out a book from the library, saying “We don’t use that word!” Nosy as I am, I went to look at what book she was talking about. It was called something like “I’m Bored.” I think books for children, whether comics or traditional, are more scrutinized by parents, teachers, etc. who feel children are vulnerable and need to be protected. Guidance is obviously good, in that you want children to read something they are ready for and can deal with. You see that clearly on Free Comic Book Day, where there are usually tables for readers “under twelve,” “twelve and up” and “adult” or some such variation. Most publishers are careful to indicate the audience they have in mind for particular works. Sometimes publishers and parents disagree what readers are ready for, like with the outcry over “Blankets.” Here re-shelving to the adult section solved the problem. Of course parents have the choice to override such labels, either to keep comics (and films) away for their children, or to allow them to read and watch things at younger than the “recommended” age.

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