I was born in 1988, making my debut the same month as Neil Gaiman’s first issue of Sandman. Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli reinvented Batman the year previous with Year One, eschewing the decided campiness of the previous decades to turn him into the Dark Knight we know today. Since the Comics Code Authority neutered the industry in the 1950s, comics were dismissed as silly and frivolous, something only worth the attention of children, but 1988 brought a comic book renaissance to fruition, with creators determined to demonstrate that “funny books” could be as mature and sophisticated as any other medium. To the small corner of the world paying attention, 1988 was a tremendous time to be reading comics. Unless, of course, like me, that was the year you were born.
Growing up, I watched all the superhero cartoons: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, the wonderfully terrible X-Men cartoon. I had all the action figures. One of my earliest memories is sneaking into a second cinema after going to see some Disney film or another, for an illicit double feature with Batman Returns. Tellingly, I can’t remember the Disney film, but I sure as hell can remember Batman Returns. One would think my bedroom floor would be covered in comic books from the time I could understand how more than one picture in a row could be used to tell a story.
Certainly, I wanted to read comic books. Every now and then, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store with my mom, I’d catch sight of a familiar superhero on the cover of a comic book on those strategically-placed spinner racks, and would pester my mom to buy it. Every now and then, she would cave to what I’m sure was my incessant begging, and she would buy it. I probably wouldn’t even wait until we were home, and would start reading it in the car before we were even out of the parking lot, and I would always find myself perplexed. The dynamic and energetic layouts of a ‘90s superhero comic were a struggle for me to follow, the pages were full of narrative captions and dialogue balloons, and I could never figure out what was going on. Those creators who pushed back against conventions in 1988 adequately proved their point: comics, unlike Trix cereal, weren’t for kids.
Now, I’ll be the first to defend comics as a legitimate literary and artistic medium that deserves to be taken seriously. I could point to dozens of examples of comics which aren’t just “good, you know, for a comic,” but are equal to or greater than any stories told in other mediums. Just because comics can be mature, sophisticated and challenging, however, comics shouldn’t exclude children entirely from their audience. I’m sure there are children today like I was, who have an interest in comic books that is well worth fostering, but who might find themselves a little out of their depth if they walk into their local comic book shop looking for a place to start. But contrary to when I was that age, there are actually a lot of fantastic comics that are perfect for any ages. You just have to know where to look.
If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, the only place you need to look is Little Island Comics. It claims to be the first kids comic book store in North America, and possibly the world, so it might well be meaningless for me to call it the best kids comic book store in North America (and possibly the world), but I mean the praise honestly. Little Island is simply wonderful. On Bathurst, not even a block south of Bloor, it’s just around the corner from tacky Toronto landmark Honest Ed’s, but Little Island ought to be the neighbourhood’s real destination. (If you’re in Toronto on some kind of comic book pilgrimage, you can eat at the same Pizza Pizza that was featured in a scene of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, right at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst. It’s just like any other Pizza Pizza.)
It’s owned and operated by the same folks who run The Beguiling, another great comic-focused book and art shop only a block away. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call The Beguiling the hub of comics culture in Toronto, considering that the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was founded by Beguiling staff. Extolling the greatness of TCAF will surely be another post altogether, but it is further proof that the good folks at The Beguiling and Little Island are doing great work to bring diverse, quality, independent comics to readers of all ages.
Little Island frequently hosts in-store events, signings, readings and workshops, and last spring they even hosted a series classes teaching children ages 10-14 how to make comics of their own. The staff are fonts of knowledge, and you can find anything from superheroes to sword-and-sorcery to silliness to coming-of-age dramas and anything in between on their shelves. This is a great place to start your child on a lifelong love of comics.
But, of course, despite what it feels like when you’re on a crowded streetcar at rush hour, not everyone lives in Toronto, and not every community is fortunate enough to have a wonderful little island full of comics for children. Thus, I wanted to shine a spotlight on a few particular titles or the works of a few particular creators that are a great place for the comics-curious child to start.
Just about anything by Raina Telgemeier.
I feel I’m starting with the obvious here. Raina Telgemeier’s memoir of her sixth-grade dental woes, Smile, continues to hold a Top Ten position on the New York Times Bestseller list of paperback graphic books, and has happily held a place there for the past 168 weeks (and counting.) At the moment, four out of the ten titles on that list are by Raina Telgemeier: as well as Smile, it’s follow-up Sisters, her middle-school drama about drama entitled Drama, and the first in her series of adaptations of the classic Babysitter’s Club novels are all on the list, alongside such heavy hitters as Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Raina’s work is delightful. Funny and accessible, with all the honesty and awkwardness of the eight-to-twelve age group she is both depicting and appealing to, she plays with themes that definitely stem from childhood but extend to adulthood. It seems a lot of children are starting with Raina’s books, and you could do much worse than to start there.
Not that Raina’s art and writing isn’t good enough to succeed on it’s own merit alone (it is), she does have a distinct advantage of being published by not just a major comic book publisher, but a major publisher, period. Under their Graphix imprint, Scholastic is recognizing the appeal of the comics medium to children, and are mustering their substantial marketing and distribution weight to get comics like Raina’s noticed. This is the same imprint responsible for reprinting Jeff Smith’s tremendous independent comics masterpiece Bone. (Take it for granted that I’m including Bone on this list of comics-you-and-your-children-should-be-reading.)
The Arrival by Shaun Tan.
I could live inside this book. I could spend an entire day on each page, and after reaching the end, would happily start all over again. This book defies description. Which is perhaps appropriate, as the book is completely wordless.
This is another sparkling jewel in Scholastic’s Graphix output. Australian illustration genius Shaun Tan is an artist whose work I would recommend unequivocally to anyone who will listen, and all his books are worth reading, though most fall under the purview of picture books rather than comic books (it’s a blurry distinction). A concept artist for Pixar’s Wall-E, his work ranges from the delightfully strange and surreal, to the poignant and beautiful, and The Arrival offers both. A stunning sequence of beautifully detailed pencil illustrations, The Arrival is what I would describe as all-ages in the truest sense – though Shaun Tan crafted his narrative as reflective of a migrant experience, and that might sound a little heavy for some children, the pictures are truly wondrous enough that anyone can find something to carry them away.
Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks.
This is a book near and dear to my heart. I was home-schooled, from kindergarten straight through to the end of high school, and I have very few complaints about this experience. One nuisance, however, was that so much children’s and YA fiction was squarely focused on a school experience, and that held little relevance to me. I could never find myself in any of the protagonists for most of the fiction written for my demographic – my perspective and my experiences were never represented.
Faith Erin Hicks, like myself, was home-schooled, though unlike me, she did start attending public school at the secondary grades. Though Friends With Boys is a work of fiction, her protagonist Maggie is a home-schooled girl attending public school for the first time. Though I had to wait until I was twenty-four-years-old to find it, here was finally a work of YA fiction with a character whose perspective I could recognize!
Personal biases aside, Friends With Boys is a pretty objectively great coming-of-age/ghost story. I’m unabashedly an enormous fan of Faith Erin Hicks (she’s one of only a few artists that I own original artwork by), and any of her work is well worth reading (The Adventures of Superhero Girl is another favourite).
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.
Due to the aforementioned lack of real-world-based stories that I could relate to, I read pretty much nothing but fantasy until I was probably about fifteen. I would’ve loved Nimona. Heck, I do love Nimona.
Originally serialized as a webcomic, Noelle Stevenson’s wonderful book is about a career super-villain/mad-scientist Lord Ballister Blackheart, who, truth be told, is maybe a little too nice for his chosen occupation, and the shapeshifting girl, the titular Nimona, who shows up and insists she’s his new sidekick. There’s a bit of the same sensibilities that inform Adventure Time at play here – it’s fun and weird and wonderful and adorable, all without shying away from the loftier good-and-evil themes that we expect from fantasy.
But What About Superheroes?
Same as when I was a child, most superhero comics are still a bewildering deep-dive into decades of convoluted continuity. Then, even if you can make sense of why Batman is now Commissioner Gordon in a robot-suit, there is of course still the content to consider; to continue using Batman as an example, the current run on the title (while pretty damn great) is at times downright horrific. Children who like superheroes today will find themselves in much the same position as I did at the same age.
Certainly, there are all-ages comics featuring the major superheroes that kids know and love, but there still aren’t many of them. While neither series is still running, Art Baltazar and Franco’s Superman Family Adventures and Tiny Titans are delightful and frequently silly, always vibrant and action-packed, while for the younger Batman fans, Dustin Nguyen’s Li’l Gotham is a great choice. All those titles are now handily collected in a few trade paperback volumes, and not only are they great kids comics, they’re great superhero comics, still maintaining what makes those characters iconic and great while aimed squarely at children. DC still has some great titles for the 12-and-up set, such as Gotham Academy, while Marvel’s all ages output is pretty well limited to comics based on the cartoons based on their comics.
Make Your Own.
There is a lot to know about making comics, but Raina Telgemeier offers some good advice that covers a lot of the basics:
Workshops like those offered at Little Island are a great way to get started (and a great way to stay motivated!). The Toronto Comic Arts Festival also always offers a full day of kids’ programming and workshops. As well, some comic creators, like Willow Dawson, are available for presentations and workshops at schools and libraries.
My advice, though, is just to draw as much as possible. Make quick comics out of the everyday, like Kate Beaton’s wonderful holiday comics. Copy the art that you like – a little trade secret is that everyone, all the artists you like, started out by copying the artists that they liked. It’s a good way to learn the basics, just so long as you outgrow it (Plagiarism is not cool, kids). But, as Ryan North proves with Dinosaur Comics, you don’t even need to know how to draw to make a good comic.
And, of course, read as many comics as you can. Hopefully, I’ve given you a good place to start.