Remembering When Comic Books Were For Kids

One of the coolest milestones I’ve had as a parent is when my kids learned to read. Not having to change diapers anymore was great, but seeing the pride in their faces as they read to you is something no parent should ever forget.

When I was a kid in the 70s, I read comic books long before I read novels. Scooby Doo fought Dracula at age 5- a prize I won at a birthday party. From there I moved on to better stuff: Green Lantern and Green Arrow battling aliens on the moon.

I was an avid comic book reader for almost twenty years, finally fading away from the comic scene in the 90s when I was stationed in Germany and didn’t have much access to them anymore. When I returned to the U.S. I dabbled in comics again, but they just weren’t the same. With only a few exceptions (The Badger and the Punisher) I moved on to other media and eventually the time-consuming responsibilities of family life.

Until my kids started to read. Then I quietly introduced them to comic books.

For my eldest, now 13, we started off with Comic Book Day- letting her score some freebies from a local, family-run comic book shop. She eagerly read her Super Friends, Wonder Woman and Supergirl issues, and we made several more visits to the comic book shop for a few years, until she discovered novels.

My seven year old is now on the comic book discovery path- not only reading, but collecting. We attended the Derby City Comic Con in Louisville, Kentucky in 2012 and I introduced her to the thrill of the quarter boxes- cheap comics from years ago. Now she’s on a quest to collect all the back issues of the Supergirl run she has, from around 2000, eagerly reading and re-reading them.

To that end, we sought out the local comic shops again- our family shop being closed now. So far, it’s been discouraging.

The larger shop in the area has been around since I was a kid. It’s across the river in Kentucky, a short drive from our southern Indiana home. And it has back issues. But nowhere near the amount they had when I was a kid. Very few discounted, old issues either. Instead, the shop now shares space with role playing games, music and toys.

So we tried another shop- closer to home. Smaller and more run down, it had no discount boxes. And it was dirty and cramped and filled with far more adult-themed material than I liked. And that’s my complaint about comics these days: they’re not for kids anymore.

When I was thirteen, I appreciated seeing Tigra’s furry curves, or the shapechanging Shakira in her skimpy black bikini cavroting with the Warlord in Skartaris. I was a hormonal teen and I found girls interesting. Before then, I was more interested in fighting or the clever humor Spiderman spouted at his enemies. I didn’t care about Tony Stark’s drinking problem or Peter Parker’s money problems.

When I was a kid, I could jet down to the local Kmart and buy Whitman reprints of older comics. Or I could take a break from the super action and read the latest exploits of Hot Stuff, Richie Rich or Baby Huey.

Today, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much of a choice for kids. I didn’t see any Looney Tunes or Hanna Barbera titles at either comic shop. And the superhero comics have more than curves, alcoholism and poverty. Now they are overloaded with sex.

Adult themes run rampant in comics. Fighting and clever dialogue have been replaced witn drama and sex talk. Even the covers are pushing the envelope- one of last month’s titles featured a woman sprawled spread eagle on the cover in her underwear. Maybe it was a tribute to the pinups of the 40s…

Putting aside the PG-13 side of comics though, there’s still the complexity of the stories. They just aren’t for kids anymore. My seven year old doesn’t understand a lot of what she reads. When I was seven, I never asked why Superman had to fight someone- the simple stories made sense to me. Lex Luthor was the bad guy, Superman was the good guy, a fight must ensue. Now everybody wants to develop complicated plots that would be at home on shows like Fringe.

It’s fairly obvious the comic companies are catering to an older crowd these days. I get that older folks still like comics, and generally want something more from their stories. But why have the comic companies forsaken the little ones? My kids love the superhero shows like Justice League, Batman, etc. They’d love to read about those characters in the comic books they came from.

I’d love to see comics return to their roots and start making kid-friendly stuff again. Simple plots, bright colors and nothing sexual. That isn’t so much to ask. And surely the comic book industry realizes the market for kids. Cartoon network, Disney, Boomerang, they do. Just look at all the shows on these days for kids, that don’t feature sex-crazed characters, or deep philosophical arguments.

Maybe we’re just unlucky and the comics for kids are out there- just not being stocked locally. In any event, we’re saving our quarters now for the next comic convention that comes to town, when we can stock up on some old stuff that isn’t full of smut.

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  1. You might also want to check out anything by Roger Langridge. He;s currently doing a Popeye comic for IDW, but he also did some Muppet comics that are still available. Great, all-ages stuff.;

  2. It's amped up a lot. I don't recall in spread eagled women on covers when I was a teen… and believe me, I'd have noticed. And didn't I read about one of the new 52 titles having Batman and Catwoman getting it on in an alley? Don't remember anything like that. Heck, the raciest thing I do remember was Marlene obviously nekkid under the sheets in Marc Spector's bed as he suited up as Moon Knight to go kick butt.

  3. So I don't see any specific titles being referenced as problems, but there are still cartoon comics and such around. And if you need the more "kid-friendly" lines, there's always the Marvel Adventures line.

    But here's the thing–comics have been pretty adult-oriented and subversive for…always. In the '70s, Captain America got Nixon to commit suicide, Peter Parker had to save a friend of his from a heroin overdose, and in the 70s and 80s political justice and civil rights were huge themes. Recent runs have done everything from protest the Iraq War to dissect the PATRIOT Act. I have to be honest, I'd rather have depth in my comics than not.

  4. I'm sure that Zach had a lot of great things to say already, and he knows a heck of a lot more about the current comic book industry than I do, but now I'm going to do a little history lesson.

    Some of the very first comic books were actually pornography. They were called Tijuana Bibles, and they featured much-loved children's cartoon characters like Popeye and Olive Oyl in…rather explicit situations. This was 1930s America, when there were extremely strict censorship laws on film and books.

    In fact, it was the censorship laws that limited comic books to simple plotlines with very little philosophy or innuendo. And comics started to push the limits in the late 70s and early 80s with the underground comic scene; Will Eisner is credited for making the first "graphic novel," because nobody had ever considered that comics could be more than disposable, unimportant entertainment. But there are a lot of powerful narrative possibilities when you combine words and pictures the way comics do.

    Of course, I also sympathize – I don't mind sex in my comic books, but I'm HUGELY against the over-sexualization of women in modern comics. Like, Catwoman doesn't need her catsuit unzipped to her navel! She's already wearing a catsuit! That should be enough.

    But I don't think that comic books have ever been intended only for children, which is why so many adults continue to collect them. If you're looking for something a little more child-friendly, I would consider checking out some Japanese comics, actually. You have to be a little careful, because some look really appealing but have more mature themes – but they thankfully come with a rating on the back of every book. Of course, they only come in trade paperback, so they're about $10 apiece. But that was my own introduction to comic books, and I didn't turn out too bad. =P

    As for complicated plots…I actually think that's a really good thing to expose children to. It makes them think more critically, and it will probably help them a lot with their novel-reading abilities and literary comprehension. Kids know a lot more and are capable of learning a lot faster than adults sometimes.

  5. Hi C.E. – while I cannot really speak on the changing times of comics as I'm definitely a younger reader, I can assure you that there are a good array of comics made for kids, or comics just safe for children even if not made directly for kids. It's very true that comics have grown to showcase more mature themes than before, but that's not exclusively the case. I would argue that, as comics are now widely considered a medium of narrative storytelling and less of a genre, subdivisions of content have become the norm, as opposed to a somewhat dependable trend in content. What I'm saying is that comics are now publicly viewed and viable means of telling any story and a lot of that isn't child friendly. That does also mean that people are making loads of comics that *are* for children.

    Again, my position on this is skewed. I don't have children, nor am I around children often. The best perspective I have on this is that I try to consider many angles of perception when I view content that people want to have children experience. The closest I can come to is my uphill battle to getting my still-young-enough-to-be-influenced cousins into comics.

    Here's some titles I've succeeded with: Tintin by Herge, Owly by Andy Runton, Amulet & Copper by Kazu Kibuishi, Bone by Jeff Smith, Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, and Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.

    Here's some suggestions for DC & Marvel's content for kids:

    for DC stuff:
    for Marvel stuff:

    Lastly, I would say that publishers that specialize in children's books (namely Scholastic) have recently been publishing comics with an avid fervor that is really quite promising for the industry.

    I understand your laments, but perhaps a larger scope and a better stocked (or online) comic store could be a great boon.

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