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Unconventional - "Age Appropriate Comics" pt 1

Posted On Wednesday, August 8, 2012

“With great power, comes greater responsibility…,” a quote that has been revered by comic book readers for decades, its mere utterance an example of sacrificing personal gain for the sake of communal well-being.  Certainly a lofty idea when applied to life in general, but to us, it’s as constant as tomorrow; the underlying theme we seek out every Wednesday when new comics fill shop shelves.  For me, there’s no power greater than imagination, the one true force behind every single innovation ever made.  As a practitioner of its magic, I feel compelled to use that power imbued me, not just in the service of creating new ideas FOR comics, but presenting new ideas TO comics as well.  And while the probability of affecting change may be low, the possibilities of what could be are so great, so infinite, I take it as no less than my responsibility to try…I’m sure Uncle Ben would agree…so, without further ado, I give thee: 

Let’s face it; comic book readership is nothing like it used to be.  And I’m not nostalgically vying for the sales-heavy inflation of the Investor’s Market of the 1990’s either.   No, its arguable how many comics were ACTUALLY read back then, considering collectors routinely purchased two or more copies of a single issue, one for consumption and the others for posterity.  My aim is to reach back a bit farther, to the dawn of the Silver Age, a precarious period where comics seemed to develop in maturity, testing the boundaries of what this fledgling medium was capable of.  For the first time, the form experienced reinvention abroad, clearly defining the genre of superhero from the pulp-style characters (though many were super powered) the Golden Age had bore before it.  And they were read en masse…well…or so we figure.  Distribution was a bit dodgy back then and so was the record keeping, but we’ve heard the stories: how kids all over had issues tucked in their back-pockets, pinned towels to their shirts and began the longstanding game of “What if these two people fought/I bet MY favorite character can beat YOUR favorite character!”  The idea though, is that when books were sold, they were read and getting people to read comics today is an ever increasing issue.
As its often been pinned a “kid’s medium,” comics have had the unfortunate task of competing with the ever growing media market of kid inclusive television, movies, video games and what have you, with comics drawing the attentive short stick.  Against the bevy of season 6 collector’s edition DVD sets (TOASTY!), those must see, summer blockbusters (EXCELLENT!) and 64 hit super-mega-hyper combos, with the juggle (FINISH HIM!), the persnickety, still images of comics come up a little short.  At least, that’s what some people think – I’m not so convinced.  It would seem that these media venues can work towards our favor – at least the almighty, “Big Two” seem to think so.  DC’s Batman franchise and Marvel’s growing Avengers franchise have netted huge returns at the box office, Justice League Unlimited is one of the best series EVER and Next Avengers set a new standard in direct-to-video movies.  As the preeminent forces in the mainstream and definitively THE face of the American comic book industry, I think it speaks volumes to the “could be” factor of other media venues to leading people back to comic readership that they so actively take part in these “distracting” genres.   But while, the potential is there, the follow through is inherently lacking.  Still, the answer lies in the Big Two. 
As tastes matured even further and creative minds brought forth the most brazen characteristics of exploitative cinema (the classic elements of sex & violence!), there came a need to draw a preemptive line, denoting the age appropriateness of issues as they hit the stands.  An attribute of feature films since the 1930’s, a ratings system seemed to spring up all at once, roping in both videogames and comics, simultaneously.  In videogames, it served as an early warning beacon for parents who weren’t game-savvy enough NOT to give in to their 10yr old’s whine for Grand Theft Auto IV; but for comics, I’d say, the impact is still far from constructive, particularly with books’ graphic imagery arguably reaching, if not crossing that line they claim to maintain (Invincible has often been criticized for its portrayal of violence and reference to sex).  And while the Big Two do actively support the rating system, I wonder…what would happen if they adopted it, not per title, but en masse, per company…? 
The Setup:

Instead of acting as competing forces within a dwindling market of their own making – and I say that considering that they ARE the dominant power in the American comic book market and as such have a hefty responsibility for the viability of the form – Marvel and DC work in tandem to secure and maintain a long-term readership system.  By delegating an age appropriateness per brand, culminating in an 8 year stint, each company would maintain a unique hold on its particular market that ensures a customary level of profitability (YAY for them!), as well as an easier path of accessibility (YAY for readers!).    Assigning which company should tackle which age group is as simple as defining the key characteristics of the companies themselves: Iconic vs. Realistic.
DC Comics: Ages 3 – 10 Years:
DC characters have earned the reputation of being “iconic,” with their characters not only dominating the marketable face of American comics, but also with their standing as modern-day interpretations of classic Greek figures.  This iconography is typified by their ability to use symbols to represent character brands, a hallmark of the simplicity needed to resonate with younger audiences.  While current storylines do much to contradict, there was a time when DC’s characters operated with a clear and distinct sentiment of right and wrong that culminated in an optimism towards their efforts to end crime and suffering.  Even taking into account the origins of the Holy Trinity of DC’s pantheon, two are clearly steeped in tragedy (Superman & Batman), but neither character are culpable for that which befell them, nor do they dwell on their misfortune, per se, but use it to motivate themselves toward success.  
Taking the first leg gives DC an enormous amount of responsibility to actually attract readers to the comic book form, but taking a cue from their current efforts in other media jaunts, this should be fairly easy.  DC characters have maintained a better standing as animated concepts, another crudely defined “kid’s medium,” with such series as Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited (JLU), and The Legion of Superheroes all reaching vast critical and commercial success.  It’s far from improbable to imagine kid-verted versions of characters or their pseudo-sidekicks, rendered in the same “big head, big eyes, big hearts” style of Ni Hao Kai Lan, helping early readers understand shapes and colors, numbers and letters.  Perhaps a series of “discovery books,”  narrated by Krypto  the Superdog, who uses his telescopic, microscopic and x-ray vision powers to give 1st Graders a glimpse of space and the celestial events that make up our universe, or the many pieces and systems of the human body (I’m not pitching, I’m just sayin’!!!).   Just like their mythic counterparts, as well as a lot of the cartoon series aimed at this age demographic, this revamped line would use morality as a constant theme, introducing kids to the various ideas of sharing, unity, effort and accomplishment that define, or at the very least are the foundation for success in our society.
Another element of note is that a lot of these series are structured with self-contained episodes, accounting for the limited, though developing, ability for children to receive, maintain and apply story beats through multiple episodes.  While shows like JLU certainly orchestrated a larger tapestry of story (a feat gone unnoticed by younger viewers), they kept each episode independent, requiring, at most, a 15 second recap of what happened prior.    Following suit, most of DC’s line would feature little to no continuity per issues, ensuring that easier path of accessibility I mentioned before.  Sure, characters would still have back-stories, but they would initially be used only to define their core concepts, allowing readers to focus more on reading the story at hand, than focusing on (or even being made aware of) their lack of other components.  As the readers themselves grow, the stories produced for their particular age would grow in complexity as well, first with chapter breaks through individual issues, capping with three issues arcs (embodying the 3 Act rule of literature).  

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