What happened to comics for kids? Hell, what happened to COMICS?
It's time to go back to basics
In central London, there’s a giant-sized superheroes, space ’n’ science fiction shop. Among the pricey objects on offer – £479.99 for a replica Alien egg, for example, or £152.99 for a Star Wars dart board – there are action figures, t-shirts, books, DVDs and - even now - comics. On packed shelves of glossy colour mags, we have zombies, saucy vampires, tough guy violence, titillation and bad language alongside the incredible, world-shattering powers of costume’d hyperbeings.
Cool, a 12-year-old would think. But look around, of course, and the customers are exclusively adult.
A sense of standardisation seems to prevail, here. The comics have serious, over-dramatic and elaborate plotlines involving characters acting realistically, however fanciful the scenario. Artwork tends to cuteness or realism - incredibly wide manic grins signify psychotics, and for being really on-edge, try cig-smoking.
But how come everyone thinks that being self-consciously 'adult' makes this stuff better, when in fact it's better when it's aimed at kids, and the fully-grown enjoy it more that way too?
There’s one part of this shop that always satisfies: the British comic section, with its racks full of 2000 AD comics and beautifully bound books of reprints of the late 1970s and early 1980s classic British war comic Battle. Here are brisk, no-fat action stories with abundant imagination, wit and individuality. There's 2000 AD's Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock; and Charley’s War from Battle. There are also the quality second-billers - the time-travelling cowboys of Flesh, the blue-skinned elite infantryman Rogue Trooper and the JG Ballard-for-beginners Tharg's Future Shocks stories… Truly, this is sustenance for the weary soul. The 2000 AD comics, created for ten-year-olds and, later, teenagers, now has many, many more adult fans.
But could such comics be made now? Unlikely.
The entertainment is too raw, the action too violent, the humour too warped. Judge Dredd – whose film version back in September nailed the essence of the character superbly – had all these basic virtues in abundance in the early years of the 2000 AD strip. It had top-notch writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and artists including the mighty Mick McMahon, Brian Bolland and Ron Smith. These were stories were riven with satire as well as action – as well as JD’s full-on instant-justice shtick unleashed upon Mega City One’s hyper-obese insurrectionist fatties and ill-fated confectioner Uncle Ump’s sweets-as-crack. Consider the legendary, un-reprintable 1978 issues, when Dredd finds himself in the midst of a war between Ronald McDonald and Burger King in the post-nuclear Cursed Earth.
What about the other famous 2000 AD strip, Nemesis The Warlock, the horned alien freedom fighter waging war on the crusading, future-medieval xenophobes of Termight, led by their superfascist Grand Master Torquemada - later proved to be an actual reincarnation of the original leader of the Spanish Inquisition? Drawn to flesh- and brain-crawlingly wondrous effect by the great Kevin O’Neill, and scripted by Mills, here was rich mulch for developing brains. Ideas like these seep into the mind’s water table when you’re young.
Something else that probably wouldn’t last five minutes today is Battle’s historically accurate and brutally frank First World War strip Charley’s War. Also scripted by Mills, and awe-inspiringly illustrated by the late Joe Colquhoun, it’s another classic that anyone who watches X-Factor should be forced to read.
Tracing the experiences of the teenage British soldier Charley Bourne as he survives through the Great War, it combines adventure with seriousness in ways are genuinely affecting, as when Charley’s pal Ginger is blown up by a shell and he has to bury him. Has ever a villain been more genuinely hated than the sadistic toff Captain D’Arcy Snell for what he does to the heroic commoner Charley? These are how honourably subversive these black-and-white, five-pages-a-week series were - a wider discussion of the deadening consequence of the internet’s endless choice is going to have to wait. Go to the Imperial War Museum’s database of First World War servicemen, and there was actually a real Charley Bourne; comparing it to comics about sexy vampires or zombie attacks seems wrong, somehow.
Next page: Too cool for colour
Engaging comic-book-guy mode....
I get that, since El Reg is a mainly-tech-focused site, you have to write that piece with someone who knows little or nothing about comics in mind, but it would help if you didn't, along the way, ignore various massively important factors in the comics marketplace.
For example - the issues you talk about here affect only the anglophone comic marketplace. Go take a look at the FrancoBelgian, Spanish or Italian markets and you'll see a different picture. Even more so in Korea or Japan (ignore the whole "manga"/"manwha" thing, they are all collectively comics).
Factors that have screwed over anglophone comics:
1) in the 50s, in the US, Fredric Wertham's "Seduction Of The Innocent" - this preposterous load of old bollocks lead to the effective dominance of the superhero genre by killing off then-massively-popular horror and crime comics on the basis that they were a bad influence on children (and clearly comics are only for children, despite their origins being rooted at least partially in mainstream newspapers aimed at all ages).
2) shortly afterwards, the UK government had a similarly-themed moral panic and passed similarly-daft legislation banning the distribution of US comics, which had a massively beneficial effect on UK comics.
3) fast-forward around 20 years and television starts to kick the crap out of comics in the UK, as kids begin to lose interest. TV-themed comics are the response, and they hold off the inevitable doom for a while longer.
4) In the US, the same thing is happening; all the exciting and interesting stuff is happening in underground counterculture stuff (Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, etc). Anti-drug legislation shuts down headshops, killing off distribution channels for underground comics, but the industry sees a bit of growth in non-superhero comics.
5) A move towards more-action oriented comics happens in the late 70s and early 80s in the UK, showing two contrasting responses - in the UK, a number of publishers are growing up who want to push creative boundaries, leading to the likes of Warrior, Deadline, Crisis and more - these comics being intended to exist with entirely separate audiences to long-term stalwarts like the Dandy or Beano. Conversely, in the US, the rise of the Direct Market model (whereby comic specialist shops are the "customers" as far as the publishers are concerned, and all good comics feature superheroes) led to an increasing tendency to try and catch trends. See for example the effect that the release of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in 1986 had (every superhero going was now being reinvented as a dark, grim and gritty character). Eastman & Laird's release of TMNT as an independent comic was another high-profile creator-oriented comics title, alongside the positively loopy Dave Sim's Cerebus, that established a merit to publishing outside of the generally-conservative US publishers.
6) A bit more background here - the Direct Market in general is predicated in part on the notion that comic shops can operate at a profit by selling back issues at a markup (see every news story ever about an issue of Action Comics #1 or Tales of Suspense #15 selling for stupidly large sums of money). US publishers were targeting collecting-oriented readers, occasionally playing silly buggers with things like sprawling stories that crossed over into other titles (the notion being to encourage collectors to buy things they wouldn't ordinarily read to get "the full story") or variant covers (again, encouraging multiple purchases to get "a full set"). This peaked in the 90s with the Marvel of the time (who was, corporately speaking, a different entity to the Marvel of today, who in a lot of ways is different enough to share only the name and legal ownership rights with the 90s iteration) gaming the market hugely with a frankly daft preponderance of variant covers of "New instant-collector-item issue 1" titles for comics like X-Men. They massively saturated the market with crap, and a whole load of barely-competent comic shop retailers took an enormous bath in the resultant collapse of the collector market. There are numerous accounts of UK specialist retailers being wiped out in this way, so it wasn't just a US issue.
7) Fast forward to 2012 in the UK when the Dandy, after several attempts to reinvigorate itself, finally announced that it was ceasing paper publication (but likely continuing to exist in digital only form). Meanwhile UK newsagents still carry the Beano, Simpsons comics, Transformers magazine (including comics) and several other kid-oriented comics on a weekly or fortnightly business. There's also the Phoenix, which has hands down the strongest creative team I've seen on a kid-oriented comic.
The reason I mention all of this is that the article berates an entirely non-existent "adultification of comics", which is incorrect. In some markets (particularly the anglophone one), some publishers (particularly Marvel & DC) decided to focus on what they call "mature" audiences - though in doing so frequently they were actually targeting adolescent audiences who wanted Naughty Things like Boobs, Swearing and Violence in their comics. Some of them also published genuinely mature comics - Sandman and Hellblazer spring to mind as titles which ticked all the Naughty Things boxes but managed to tell nuanced & sophisticated stories with magnificent art at the same time. Kids comics have struggled to retain the interest of their audience in the face of more interactive entertainment, but they still exist.
The fact that when you go into a heavily US-comics-oriented comic shop, you are confronted with product aimed at the US comics marketplace is more a commentary on the relative profitability of the ever-dwindling adult collecting-oriented US comics fan who has the money and willingness to spend it on what amounts, these days, to 32-page pamphlets featuring 10-14 pages of adverts and a cover price of just shy of £3. That is not a problem with All Of Comics - it's a problem with the part of the market you've chosen to examine.
If you want to look at modern UK comics publishers aiming at kids, look at the likes of the Phoenix or the Thought Bubble Anthology (published by the organisers of the annual Leeds-based Thought Bubble Festival). Go and check out the ComICA festival, including their comics mart, the Comiket. Take a look at the magnificent books being published (on real paper, no less) by the likes of Nobrow Press. And for Christ's sake don't bother with the over-rated tat-bazaar that is Forbidden Planet, and instead get yourself along to either Orbital or Gosh! Comics, both of which are great shops that carry a wide range of material.
Alan Moore - Halo Jones.
...over-rated tat-bazaar that is Forbidden Planet
Anyone else old enough to remember "Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed" when they were in Berwick Street?