By Erik Grove
The first comic book I ever got my hands on was GI Joe #84. My mom took my older brother and I into the city to see a movie and there was a comic store a few doors down. I was familiar with GI Joe from cartoons and toys and quickly picked that comic from the shelf. I must have read that single issue 100 times in the first couple of weeks even though now I've only haziest memory of what happened in it. It didn't take me very much time to convince my parents to get me a subscription to the comic and after what seemed like an impossibly long wait for an 8 year old, I started getting monthly issues in the mail. In those GI Joe comics there were house ads for Marvel Comics characters and that was how I got the bug. Over the next couple of years I was experimenting with Spider-Man and the X-Men and by the time I was 12 I had a subscription box at a comic book store stuffed with far more comics than my allowance could ever cover.
Everyone that loves comics has a first comic that got them started. Some of us started reading when we were kids and some when we were a little older (maybe enticed by one of the 8 Essential comics I talked about last week). For comics to thrive, new readers need to come into the fold at least as quickly as long-time readers move away and there's some concern you can hear in comic shops and in online communities about the dearth of content that's appropriate for and enticing to younger readers. Well, I wanted to find out about that so I went to my local comic book shop and I looked at the shelves and I talked to the friendly staff about comics that are popular with kids under 12. I asked my friends with comic reading kids and my 10 year old nephew and what I found was an exciting variety of comics from major publishers and independent publishers. I found kids that are just as excited about comics as I was when I got GI Joe #84. I found a lot of great comics but I've settled, as I have to, on just these Essential 8 Comics for Kids.
Over the course of 55 issues irregularly released over 13 years, the one man comic creating machine Jeff Smith created an all-ages comics masterpiece that everyone I talked to told me had to be included in this conversation. The book has a treasure trove of Harvey and Eisner awards and a list of accolades from comics press and the mainstream press reiterating that this is a book that no one should miss. Bone is the story of Bone and his cousins as they embark on fantasy adventures. There's comedy, action, intrigue, romance and everything else a growing kid (or grown up) needs to keep the imagination engaged. Smith created the characters and the universe as a complete, cohesive whole, purportedly even completing the final page of the series before finishing the first issue. Smith's cartoony and expressive art evokes classic Carl Barks comics while the depth of the world and story brings to mind fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings. Originally published in black and white, you can get the entire main series in a single 4 pound volume (over 1300 pages!) for a very reasonable price or you can get colorized collections. Whichever format appeals to you, I suggest you waste very little time and get this book!
Kazu Kibiushi has created several well-loved all-ages comic books. Amulet is his current bestselling monster hit series with the 6th book due this summer and I can't wait. Book 1, The Stonekeeper, introduces us to the strong, well-rounded protagonist Emily, her mom Karen, her younger brother Navin, a rabbit robot named Miskit and a fantastic universe with talking animals, elves, flying ships, robots and obviously, monsters. The book bursts with vivid, colorful art that looks like an amazing mix of Hayao Miyazaki and Bill Watterson. The story starts, like all of the best ones, with unspeakable sudden tragedy and then dives headlong into the age old tug of war between good and evil. I'm told kids all over my nephew's elementary school are obsessed with this book and I can absolutely relate to that. This is a gorgeous and compelling comic that will engage and challenge kids and adults alike.
If you read this column last week, you know I'm a big fan of Jeffrey Brown's work. I talked about Darth Vader and Son and this time I'm pleased to talk about Star Wars: Jedi Academy, a hybrid narrative comic and diary from a starfighting hero in training. The book hits that sweet spot that Brown's other books hit with the grandeur and possibility of the Star Wars universe tempered with humor and sweetness. It's also educational and a great opportunity for kids to learn about galactic aliens and the importance of soup for fending off the Dark Side (hunger leads to crankiness, crankiness leads to suffering…). This is a fun book and it introduces kids very nicely into two things very near and dear to my heart: Star Wars and comics.
Some of you will remember Secrets of NIMH, a great animated movie from the early 1980s about a field mouse with a sick son that ends up fending off a vicious cat named Dragon and the farmers plowing the field. I loved that movie as a kid (still love it!) and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is in that vein with more swords and swashbuckling. Do I need to say more to explain why this book is awesome? This is a medieval tale with mice knights in capes fighting snakes and owls and just swashbuckling around on mouse knight adventures. That's incredibly cool, right? Well, beyond just having sword wielding mice (which apparently I have a soft spot for), this book is also elevated by Petersen's fantastic painted art that makes every panel an earthy delight. This one is a bit grittier than some of the others (these mice mean business) but it's not gory or gratuitous. This book is a tad darker with a bit more danger. Kids love danger. They'll love this comic.
Oh, wow. This one surprised me. While researching this article and talking to people I was told to check this one out from a friend and I picked it up out of curiosity. What I found in Ben Hatke's first full-length graphic novel is everything I love about comic books; adventure, humor, humanity and a big heaping dose of wonder. This book follows Zita, a precocious girl who stumbles on a mysterious device with her best friend Joseph. The device has a big red button on it and despite Joseph's warning, Zita, like any good precocious girl, has to push it. What follows is a space adventure with the most memorable robots since C-3PO and R2-D2, a strong but not clever alien named Strong Strong, a giant mouse that hates his name and communicates with a small printer around his neck and a rogue with a heart of gold named Piper. Hatke has made something really special here and I've officially become a big fan. This book is original and fun. It's completely appropriate for kids but like the best stories, I think everyone will appreciate it.
There's an 800 pound gorilla in children's entertainment and it's called Adventure Time. Adventure Time is the number one TV show for boys under 14 and those boys are tuning in faithfully and in huge numbers. There's an estimated 3 million viewers, kids and adults, that tune in for each episode of this show. Adventure Time is a big, incredibly popular brand and before I started really looking into comics for kids, I knew very little about it. After a crash course of episodes from Netflix and some comics from the shop though, I'm beginning to see why Adventure Time is for this generation of kids what GI Joe was for me in my youth. Adventure Time, the cartoon and the comic, focuses on the boy Finn and his sidekick/adopted brother/magical shape-changing dog friend, Jake. They live in the fantastic Land of Ooo and they have crazy, fantasy-inspired surreal adventures doing whatever the creators dream up at the moment. The stories are loaded with odd subversive comedy and move at a breakneck pace (each episode of the cartoon is 12 minutes). The best way I've been able to describe Adventure Time to my adult friends is to say it's a lot like Ren & Stimpy with a lot more sugar and Dungeons & Dragons. I picked Adventure Time for this list not because it's the only big-time comic adaptation of a popular kids show (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is probably a bigger seller and there are a lot of others that I don't have room to mention) but because it just kept coming up when I asked about comics for kids. The comic itself is basically just an adaption of the cartoon with new material but it still seems to captivate kids and get their attention. Ultimately, one of the strongest ways to get kids to read comics is to get them to pick up a book that features characters and a setting they're already familiar with. It certainly worked for me and it's working for Adventure Time.
The same person that pointed me to Zita the Spacegirl also told me to look at Hildafolk by Luke Pearson and I'm glad she did. Pearson draws Hilda with an infectious crooked grin and writes and draws a book that is so self-assuredly easy to read that it shows a real mastery of storytelling and design. Hilda is an imaginative and adventurous girl with a blue pet fox with antlers named Twig. When a storm comes, she drops her book on trolls and immediately sets up a canvas tent so she can sleep outside in the cold. Hilda's reaction of unbridled enthusiasm to something most kids would grouse about is one of the things I find really endearing and affecting about this book. There's nothing cynical on display here. Through Hilda's story we see a word that's a little strange but full of possibility. Rocks become trolls with long noses. A Wood Man brings logs for the fire and lounges on the floor because he's become bored with his own house and the scariest things in the world are usually just misunderstood. Hildafolk isn't long or overly dense with plot but Pearson gives Hilda a sophisticated vocabulary and a charming imagination. This is the perfect comic to read with a flashlight, when it's raining and you're snug in your canvas tent.
JL8 isn't a comic book. It's also one of my favorite all-ages comics. JL8 is a weekly web comic by Yale Stewart about the Justice League in elementary school and it's fantastic. When I first discovered it I spent hours binge-reading to catch up and immediately shared it with everyone I knew. There's a lot of great character based humor and a really clean and approachable art style. Stewart tells the kind of stories that you want to find in the Sunday comics section of your newspaper. He clearly loves these characters and it shows. He respects the characters but distills them down to recognizable, oversized kid-version icons. Stewart manages to pull off something with JL8 that in the wrong hands could have been a one-note joke or self-indulgent nostalgia. Ultimately, I picked JL8 not because there aren't all-ages options from DC directly (or Marvel for that matter) but because JL8 is just really, really good. I also think it's important to think about the different media options for kids. I grew up on printed comic books but kids today are fully digitally fluent and they're far more comfortable with web comics as they are ever going to be with spinner racks.
The market and distribution options for comics have undeniably changed. There are certainly more books oriented toward an older audience than there were in 1989 when a book without a Comics Code Authority stamp on the cover was an exception but within and beyond the traditional mainstream ongoing titles there are a lot of options. Looking at the lay of the land for comics at this point in the 21st Century I'm reminded that 25 years ago multi-screen cinemas or more than 100 channels on cable were uncommon. Certainly, video on demand services like Netflix were unprecedented. Comics used to be available in convenience stores and on spinner racks at the grocery store and they aren't anymore. Some might see this as a barrier to entry for new readers but I see it as a normal sign of changing times. I could have picked 80 comics for this list just as easily as I picked 8 and many of them are easy enough to order online, get in digital format or pick up from a well-stocked comic or book store. I would have loved the variety of options I've found today when I was 8 years old and I'm thrilled that while my nephew might like Zita the Spacegirl more than Spider-Man, he still loves comics just as much as I did when I was 10. At the end of the day comics are evolving and changing and kids are still finding them. The kids, and Spider-Man, are going to be just fine.
Special thanks for this article go to the folks in the Bleeding Cool forums for some great suggestions, Portland's Cosmic Monkey Comics for their patience, sage advice and very thorough inventory and finally legendary GI Joe writer Larry Hama and the incredible artists that brought his scripts to life in my favorite comics like Marshall Rogers, Tony Salmons and Mark Bright. Those were the guys that got me into this and I've appreciated every comic since.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let's talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR. Follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website www.erikgrove.com for comic book adjacent absurdly awesome fiction.