I mentioned in my last post that the release of Man of Steel on Blu-ray got me thinking about a couple topics, and I'd like to take some time to talk about the other. Actually, the truth is that I've been thinking about this for a while, but Man of Steel just put it into stark relief: comics and superheroes don't seem to be for kids anymore. And I think that's a bigger problem than anyone in the industry--especially at DC--realizes.
Now I can already hear some of your protest: "Of course comics aren't for kids anymore! The medium has finally matured! How can you be against that?"
Actually, I'm not against the fact that comics can aim for an older audience. Books like Watchmen and Maus have proven that comics can be serious literature, and I'm overjoyed that the superhero movie boom has brought these characters into the mainstream. These are all Good Things. My issue isn't that comics and superhero movies aren't limited to "children's entertainment" anymore; my problem is that the comic industry seems to have completely abandoned young readers. Simply put, there aren't many books out these days that are appropriate for kids, let alone aimed at them.
This mentality has worked its way into superhero films as well. With the exception of a few of the recent Marvel movies, I wouldn't feel comfortable taking young children to see them. As much as I like the first two Nolan Batman movies, I wouldn't let a kid younger than 10 or 11 watch them, as they're very dark and violent for their PG-13 rating. Man of Steel is also way too dark and violent for young children.
Not pictured: Family entertainment.
DC has actually been pretty up-front about this; when award-winning creator Paul Pope pitched an all-ages adaptation of Jack Kirby's Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, they told him "We don't publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year-olds." Of course, we don't need to take Pope's word for it; we merely need to look at the evidence. Here, for example is the latest incarnation of The Joker:
"Sweet dreams, kids!"
Joker looks like he's wearing a mask because he is. A mask made from his own surgically removed face. Yeah, Joker sliced his own face off just so that he could wear it as a mask. Because reasons. And lest you think that such disturbing imagery is a new phenomenon, here's something from 2005:
Pictured: Comics "maturing" as a medium.
The best part about that last pic? The dude doing the murdering suffers no consequences for his actions. Because audiences can't relate to superheroes unless they violently murder villains without remorse.
Again, I'm not saying that comics can't be violent, or that they can't cover dark and mature subject matter. What I'm saying is that if I were a parent, I wouldn't let my child read comics if that was what constituted mainline comic books.* This is a problem; the comics industry is potentially scaring away the next generation of comic book fans. If someone wasn't reading comics as a child, then it's highly unlikely that they will be fans once they're old enough to be in DC's target demographic (Read: 45-year-olds).
But it doesn't have to be this way. Young readers should have quality books that are aimed at them--and it just so happens that the major comics publishers already have the perfect properties to market to the younger demographic. First up for Marvel, we have Power Pack:
Power Pack is a concept that has actually been a part of the Marvel Universe since the 1980's. In the mid-2000's the series got a reboot that ran for a few years (and was actually on my pull list when I could still afford to buy comics). The concept is simple: four young siblings are given superpowers by an alien, and they use these powers to become the world's youngest superheroes. The reboot changed a few things (making the kids aged 8-13 instead of 6-12) and took the kids and their adventures out of the "main" marvel continuity. That last move was genius: it allowed the book to keep a light tone no matter what was happening in the "real" MU. It also meant that the kids could team up with other superheroes and have adventures without interrupting those other characters' own books.
It also allowed for this to happen.
The mid-2000's also saw a reboot of sorts for my favorite superhero in his own all-ages book:
Yes, Captain Marvel** got a new monthly title with Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, a spin-off of Jeff Smith's excellent Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil miniseries. Like Power Pack, this book was set in its own continuity, featured a bright and cartoony style and focused on making superheroics fun again.
Sadly, both of these books ended up getting cancelled. It's a shame, because if kids aren't going to read quality, all-ages books about superheroes, then they'll end up reading quality, all-ages books about something else.
Dark Horse knows what's up.
* Yes, both of those images are from mainline books. That's how Joker looks in all the Bat-books, and Infinite Crisis was DC's big event book that year.
** I know that DC has renamed the character to "Shazam." I think Nick Fury sums up my take: