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Comic Readers: The Next Generation

All this month, we’ll be helping Children’s Hospital Los AngelesMake March Matter campaign, which aims to raise over a million dollars in March alone for CHLA through the efforts of its corporate partners, among which we are proud to be numbered.  Children’s Hospital Los Angeles sees over 528,000 patient visits annually, and is the top ranked pediatric hospital in California by US News & World Report. You can help Make March Matter by simply attending one of the many events or participating in one of the many initiatives being offered by CHLA’s partners (including our event on Saturday, March 25), all listed at www.makemarchmatter.org.

To help remind us all to Make March Matter to support children’s health, we’ve asked all our contributors here at the website to focus on books and comics for kids, or the books or comics that meant the most to them as kids, because we firmly believe that escaping into literature is just as important in keeping children healthy and happy.

Today’s piece is from comic-book writer and Chief Creative Officer for IDW Publishing Chris Ryall:

When I was young, there was no such thing as “comics for kids.” In point of fact, most people thought all comics were for kids. And, other than the crime-and-horror-comic-dominated 1950s a couple decade prior, they were largely right, if a bit too regressively so.

What I mean is, when I was a kid and first discovered superhero comics through Marvel’s Fantastic Four, the idea of the kind of reader-segmentation that we have today didn’t exist. There was no such thing as Early Reader, Young Adult, Teen, Adult or any of these other designations that came to define audiences of comic fans. Comics just were.

Keep in mind, I say this in regards to mainstream comics. Underground Comix, which were decidedly adult, were a whole other kettle of fish. But when you walked into a 7-11 or, in the early ‘80s a comic book store, and picked up a comic, chances were great that it’d appeal to anyone, no matter their age.

Sure, like the best forms of any mass entertainment, there were jokes, references and storylines that might hit on an entirely different level for a kid than for someone older with broader life experiences. Think of Roald Dahl books or The Simpsons. But in general, that comic would provide you with entertainment no matter your age. It didn’t talk down to the kids, and it didn’t talk too-awful-far over their heads, either.

Like those comics or PG movies, anything with broad mass appeal has its detractors who crave something more adult, and that’s fine, too. But the point is, you walked into a comic shop and picked up just about anything and you were likely hooked and coming back again. And again.

Somewhere along the way, those childhood readers grew up and infiltrated the business on all sides—creator, publisher, retailer. And for many of this next generation of creators, it became important to try to prove a level of sophistication beyond those beloved childhood reads. To tell more adult stories, to push the characters into ever more adult situations—sometimes, to great effect to readers like myself, those who were aging along with the characters. We wanted more out of our comics the same way we wanted more out of our life experiences. And we got it, over and over again.

But, as much as I love that time, of seeing comics grow with me, I could also tell that something was being lost along the way. Namely, the 5-year-old-me, who was so enamored of the bright costumes and colorful adventures, was no longer being given the same number of reading choices. Comics was doing what many forms of entertainment are guilty of, and that’s preaching to the converted, leaving younger entertainment-seekers behind. (Want to test this? Put aside your own dislike of Star Wars: Episode I and watch it with a young kid—preferably your own. Watch their faces light up as Jar-Jar says or does something that we as adults found inane. They love him. That movie was aimed at the next generation of Star Wars fans, and when viewed through that younger-kid lens, you see that it hits the bullseye like it was back home shooting Womprat from a T-16.)

So suddenly I’m an influencer—one of those previous-gen comic fans who’s now working in the business and able to tell the more sophisticated stories that I now prefer. Only… I couldn’t stop thinking about when I was young, the choices I had as a childhood fan. And looking around at what we published—what everyone published—it was clear that we’d moved too far from where we were.

Now, books/comics/TV/videogames were rated to within an inch of their lives. You’re age 7-10? Sorry, that book is aimed at 8-12. You’re 12 next month? Come back to this PG-13 movie in a year, kid. You want a superhero team that doesn’t kill the bad guys? Sit home and watch the Batman Animated cartoon and give up reading til you can handle the hard stuff.

I’m sure it wasn’t that bad but that’s how it started to feel. The fans who approached our booth at comic conventions were a mirror image of us. Where were the kids? Where were the audiences who didn’t look like us? Where were the parents, eager to get their child reading a comic that would kickstart the same lifelong love they felt?

Luckily, I work at a place that can affect change in that way, and the company’s owners very much shared the same vision I did. We could do what too many competitors in large measure weren’t doing—we could develop comics that weren’t marked as “kids comics,” to be relegated to the sidelines of the comic stores so they didn’t get in the way of eager adult Deadpool fans. We could create comics aimed at everyone, and we could double down on the efforts to do so.

This wouldn’t be dabbling, a popular move for all publishers. I’m sure every comic publisher who’s been around for any amount of time has dabbled in western comics, crime comics, horror comics. Sometimes they work and become a trend, sometimes they quickly disappear. But in order to properly nurture a new, younger audience, we couldn’t dabble. We had to commit. We needed not one but indeed, a whole host of new comics aimed at all ages but not marked as “all-ages,” because designations on media often have the same effect as a red letter on Hester Prynne’s sweater. It was time to develop a proper stable of these kinds of comics once again.

(Hopefully anyone who knows IDW’s most popular all-ages title was clued in to duck under the looming pun set up by my use of the word “stable” there…)

In 2010, we launched our My Little Pony comic series. Now, we knew the property had a fanbase – in fact, it had two generations of fans, from both its earlier ‘80s animated incarnation and its far superior relaunched version – but we had no idea how big. We had reasonable expectations for that first issue, thinking that younger readers and some nostalgic parents might give it a look.

And then the series launched at five times the optimistic numbers we expected. Even then, aiming the comic at a younger audience, we still had that mindset of “the comic is aimed at these readers,” not knowing that there was an entirely new audience of Ponies fans out there, too. All of publishing is an education, and this was a good lesson for us: even while having what we think are lofty goals of cultivating a new generation of readers, we made assumptions about other audiences and shouldn’t have. Why? Because, like I learned when I was a kid, a good comic is a good comic is a good comic. No matter if you’re a kid, like that beloved Christmas song says, “from 1 to 92.” (I do think we need to revise that lyric, however; comics’ patron saint Stan Lee is now north of 92 and still filled with more childlike wonder than just about anyone)

My Little Pony wasn’t our first kids’ comic. It was far from our last. And other publishers of all sizes have also done great things in investing in comics that appeal to everyone. I’m not claiming we were first or that we were best (well…), just that as someone who was drawn to comics at an early age, it’s a thrill to be able to give back in some way and hopefully encourage that next generation—any generation—of fan to want to work in comics in any fashion. Because, as we all know, comics for kids are comics for everyone.

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