After taking a turn for the dark in the ‘80 and ‘90s, comic-book franchises are once again successfully courting the kiddie set.
This weekend, my son Emile is attending FanExpo Canada, which will be his fifth comic-convention. He is not yet three-years-old.
The first time he was still basically a blob and I was just bringing him along because, well, what else was I gonna do with an infant? (Plus, he totally needed a Flash onesie.) But, since then, he’s become evermore interested in superheroes, and I expect this year’s Fan Expo, with all of its intricately costumed attendees, will blow his little mind the most.
E and seemingly everyone else at his daycare are absolutely obsessed with caped crusaders. Makes total sense, as superheroes wear cool costumes and follow a binary good-versus-bad morality that little kids best understand and which, paired with their responsibility, teamwork, and selflessness, outweighs their tendency toward violence as a conflict-resolution tactic.
But this intense interest in superheroes would’ve seemed unlikely to me not that long ago. I’ve been a comic geek since the late-’80s Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns era, when the books got darker and grittier and more mature. From the 1930s onward, comics had been considered kid stuff, especially after the 1954 anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent led to congressional hearings and the establishment of a self-censoring Comics Code Authority that banned violent or sexual images and demanded bad guys always be punished. This effectively killed horror and crime comics, leaving only softened superhero books to survive.
Superheroes slowly began breaking free from CCA shackles in the 1970s—when the counter-culture began buying comics—with Spider-Man storylines about Harry Osborn’s drug addiction and Gwen Stacy’s murder, while X-Men tackled racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, and even explored genocide in the acclaimed “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past” arcs.
By the comic boom of the late-’80s to early-’90s—with nightmarish graphic novels like Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman—comics were no longer just for kids. Or really for kids, at all. Besides, the whippersnappers had already moved onto other things like Star Wars, WWF wrestlers and Super Mario, even as Saturday morning cartoons gave way to live-action sitcoms like Saved by the Bell. (Yes, there were great Batman and X-Men cartoons in the ’90s, but both emulated their comic-book brethren’s more mature narratives.)
As comics began disappearing from the candy-laden newsstands and corner stores where kids spent their allowances in favour of direct-market comic shops, many in the community worried that an aging fandom was unsustainable without fresh blood. This concern was not without merit; Marvel Comics even declared bankruptcy in December, 1996.
But those fears have proven unwarrented as superheroes are once again wildly popular with the knee-high set. Yes, older audiences still comprise the bulk of attendees at events like Fan Expo (where you’re far more likely to see a high-schooler barely dressed as Poison Ivy or a couple of middle-aged dudes discussing the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby feud than small children) and the crowds at PG-13 summer blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. But Marvel and DC have managed to bring little kids back into the fold.
Marvel Super Hero Squad launched in 2006 as a line of large-headed Japanese-style “super-deformed” action figures and, a couple of years later, spawned a slapstick-y cartoon, comic books, and videogames, including the multiplayer browser-based Super Hero Squad Online. Disney XD also has a Marvel Universe animation block led by Ultimate Spider-Man and an Avengers cartoon.
DC, meanwhile, launched the Eisner Award–winning Tiny Titans comic-book series in 2008, featuring super-young superheroes like Robin and Wonder Girl attending elementary school. The writer-and-artist team of Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani have since moved onto the similarly young-skewing Superman Family comic. The Warner Bros.-owned comic company recently kicked off a DC Nation animation block on Cartoon Network made up of comical shorts like the claymation DC’s World’s Funnest (by the good folks who make Wallace and Grommit), Super Best Friends Forever (created by Lauren Faust of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fame and featuring Batgirl, Wonder Girl and Super Girl) and Plastic Man (voiced by SpongeBob himself, Tom Kenny). DC also airs the teen-superhero series Young Justice and lighthearted Batman team-up toon The Brave and the Bold.
Most of these family-friendly franchises were being promoted or sold in some way at Fan Expo, where I also picked up Bone creator Jeff Smith’s 2007 hardcover collection Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, which was acclaimed for its old-school, child-aimed aesthetic. All these kiddie cartoons and comics, of course, have accompanying action figures, dolls, colouring books, backpacks, temporary tattoos, lunchboxes, and almost anything else you can imagine. Not to mention there are a host of iPad apps, YouTube videos, and (unwreckable) digital comics to bring kids further into the fold.
The result of these recent efforts, concurrent with the rise of comic book–based blockbuster films, has been to cement the pop-cultural omnipresence of superheroes by raising another generation on the costumed crimefighters of the 1940s and 1960s and provide the future scene with a consistant infusion of fresh fans.
For me, as a dad, it means that my kid really likes my Silver Surfer T-shirt and singing the 1970s Spider-Man theme with me—and he will no doubt love the two-decade-old, still-boxed, Japanese-edition Magneto “with magnetic hands and feet!” action figure that I just bought at Fan Expo for his birthday. And the Wonder Woman cup, and Captain Marvel vinyl figure, and Tiny Titans trade paperback, and…