All-Ages Week: The State of the Union for All-Ages Comics

By | January 5th, 2015
Posted in Longform | 9 Comments

As All-Ages Week begins, one of the most important things we can do to start is address where the comic book industry right now is in terms of serving young readers with appropriate material. Throughout much of the industry, or at least in the parts of that it that likes talking about such things, the idea continues to exist that when it comes to comics and kids, the medium is in a dark place. Publishers aren’t interested in kids, kids aren’t interested in comics, and in an era where creator-driven material is driving the bus, there just isn’t much out there for the readers of tomorrow.

Or at least so the idea goes.

The question, though, is that really the case? The short answer is no. The long answer? Well, that’s much more interesting, and today, I’ll be looking at that as I take the pulse of comics for kids in 2015, and how things look at the turn of a new year.

The Current State of Comics for Kids

In the process of putting this week of content together, I spoke to a wide breadth of people inside and outside of the industry, from creators and publishers to booksellers and comic shop owners. No matter whom I spoke to on the subject, the general opinion on the health of comics for kids or readers of all ages is this: there’s never been a better time than now.

“I do think that comics for kids have been in a golden age for many years now, meaning that some amazingly talented creators are producing some of the best comics in decades,” said David Saylor, the founder of the Graphix imprint at Scholastic.

Castellucci and Varon's Odd Duck
“There are more graphic novels being published specifically for kids today than ever before, and with those books sitting right in front of them at their schools and libraries and bookstores, kids are reading comics more than ever,” shared Gina Gagliano of First Second Books.

Raina Telgemeier, the Eisner Award winning cartoonist behind all-ages comic sensations “Smile” and “Sisters”, agreed with both of them, as she’s seen the excitement kids have for comics first hand at signings and events around the country.

“The past couple of years have been phenomenal. And things seem to be growing,” she said. “I only feel bad that seeing hundreds of kids at an event means I won’t get to spend as much time personally connecting with each one of them…but I hope the books make up for that!”

The growth Telgemeier spoke of hasn’t just been seen in graphic novels like hers, but in other many other genres as well. Beth Kawasaki, the Senior Editorial Director at Perfect Square (the all-ages imprint at VIZ Media), has seen a huge increase in interest recently, and that has led to VIZ focusing more and more on that demographic.

“There are more comics aimed at kids than any time in recent history. VIZ Media has increased its output the last two to three years especially, even creating a special imprint for those releases, Perfect Square. Other publishers have increased their output as well,” she said, before adding. “It’s exciting to see how much the landscape has changed from just a few years ago.”

Manga’s impact can’t be underrated in their impact in reaching younger readers either, as English translations of popular Japanese titles like “Pokémon” and an array of others has helped introduce enormous amounts of younger readers and teens to the comic book form. Librarians, for one, regularly underlined the importance they have in attracting readers – specifically tween and teen girls – that many other comics struggle to interest. Another aspect that has appealed to younger readers according to those I spoke to was the simple numbering manga titles have. Want to start reading a manga title? Just find the first volume and go from there.

But manga being successful isn’t exactly new. Much has been made by industry pundits about the enormous sales numbers manga has seen in Japan when compared to what comics have sold in the US, with top manga titles selling in the millions, but in the American market, we have our own meteoric successes. They’re all all-ages books, though. Telgemeier’s books “Sisters” and “Smile” have nearly 3 million combined copies in print, and Jeff Smith’s “Bone” has more than 6 million copies in print as of 2011. Not only that, but when a title from a top all-ages creator is released, they tend to dominate the New York Times best seller list for paperback graphic books, with “Sisters” opening with 11 consecutive weeks at the top and “Amulet” Volume 6 making the top 10 for 14 straight weeks. Without much attention from the comic industry, all-ages titles are the highest selling comics in all of the North American market.

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It’s not just manga and the books I’ve already mentioned, though, as there are a cornucopia of titles that have helped drive that growth. Several comic shop owners and booksellers from around the country shared what their top sellers are, and the results were wonderfully diverse.

Stevenson, Ellis and Allen's Lumberjanes
Ralph DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics in Rochester, New Hampshire cited “Mouse Guard”, “My Little Pony”, “Lumberjanes” as some of his top selling titles. Patrick Brower, one of the owners of the Eisner winning Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago, highlighted “Tiny Titans”, “Scary Godmother”, “Zita the Spacegirl” and several others as top sellers. Stella Williams of Strand Bookstore in Brooklyn said, “R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, which was published a year ago and was directed at the middle grade audience, is still one of Strand’s bestselling titles.” The point is, it’s not just the heavy hitters like Telgemeier’s books that succeed in comic shops and bookstores. There are a whole lot of all-ages books being published today, and many of them are doing very well. Incredibly so, actually.

Liz Sher at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts said, “Some of the bestselling middle grade books in the store right now are graphic novels: the new ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, Raina Telgemeier’s ‘Sisters’.”

“I’d say that a new volume of ‘Amulet’ would rank up there in terms of first month sales with some of our bigger graphic novel sellers; i.e. a new volume of ‘Walking Dead’, etc.,” said Steve Anderson of Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, Maryland.

DiBernardo hasn’t necessarily seen the same level of sales at his shop, but he emphasized that many of these books have a Terminator like disposition, never selling in large quantities but consistently selling over a much longer span than titles aimed at adults.

“’Bone’ and ‘Amulet’ sell constantly but not in volume like a new ‘Walking Dead’ trade,” he said. “They just continue to chug along sales wise until you realize ‘Wow, I’ve really gone through a ton of these.’”

Alex Schaffner shared a similar experience at Brookline Booksmith, a popular bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts, saying, “I don’t think many books are going to top, say, the new Rick Riordan or the new Wimpy Kid. But we get in a steady supply of Telgemeier, Pierce, Kibuishi, etc. Kids definitely come into the store specifically for those books, and they’re aware of the release days when there’s a new one.”

It doesn’t matter where you’re looking at, all-ages comics have proven to be a hot commodity when done well, and their heightened success has ensured that more publishers take a long look at including all-ages books in their lines. Boom! Studios, for one, has become a direct market leader, as they’ve cultivated their KaBoom! imprint to feature arguably the most impressive lineup of all-ages ongoings in the direct market.

Others have increased their focus as well, with Image Comics featuring books like “Oddly Normal”, “Penny Dora and the Wishing Box”, and the upcoming “Hinges” in their release lists. According to Jennifer de Guzman, the Director of Trade Book Sales at Image, this is an important focus for them.

“This goes along with what Image’s Publisher, Eric Stephenson, was talking about recently in relation to women reading comics. If we want to expand our reader base, we can’t just keep putting out books for the 18-to-35-year-old male demographic,” she said. “That’s a sure way to stagnate.”

Kibuishi's Amulet Vol. 6
For de Guzman, a parent herself, this is an exciting director to move in, and one that clearly energizes her.

“You know what’s so awesome about kids? If they like something, they totally like something. Having kids has taught me a lot, and one of those things is that the default state of humans is ‘nerd.’ Kids are enthusiastic about what they like and they want to talk about it. Like, talk about it incessantly. And learn everything there is to know about it. At the California Library Association (CLA) conference, there was a kid who stood at the Image table and read the entirety of two volumes of ‘Five Weapons’. He was really into it. I love that. I want to reach readers while they have that voraciousness.”

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Perhaps no publisher has been more important to the boom of all-ages comics than the Graphix imprint at Scholastic. If you’re not familiar with it, they’re the publishers of Telgemeier’s work, Jeff Smith’s “Bone”,and Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet” to name a few. In just 10 short years – they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary this year – Graphix has quickly become the 800-pound gorilla of all-ages comics, and Saylor is a big reason why.

“I had loved comics as a kid, especially the humorous character-driven comics like Richie Rich, Lil Lotta, and the Disney comics of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. Later, I reconnected with comics and started reading graphic novels as an adult. And suddenly it struck me that no children’s book publishers were publishing comics, even though our mission was to create books for kids, exactly the audience who (as I knew from my own experience) would love them the most,” he shared. “And further, comic publishers (and therefore many comics creators) were putting their full effort into creating comics for adults to prove that comics weren’t just for kids. So, after doing a lot of research and asking advice from many people and looking at the market, I thought I should make a proposal to create a comics-driven imprint at Scholastic. And that’s how Graphix was born and finally launched in January of 2005.”

They’ve been monumental in generating a whole new generation of comic readers, but even with all of the success the industry has seen with all-ages comics, the perception about how all-ages comics struggle is very real. Let’s take a look a deeper look at why that might be, and what the roadblocks that continue to keep young readers away from comics are.

Why the Perception About All-Ages Comics Lives On

There are many factors that make the perception of comics not being for kids anymore so pervasive, and many roadblocks that keep kids from reading them. One of the biggest reasons though is how oriented towards Marvel and DC the industry is, as Telgemeier noted.

“I think that belief mostly comes from the traditional comics market and its readers,” she said. “And it may be true that publishers like Marvel and DC are currently catering to a mostly adult audience. It’s a market that crosses over with what I do (and Jeff, and Kazu…), as far as the medium goes – but we’re working in a different format, that will be presented in a different environment (libraries, schools, bookstores versus comic shops).”

It’s true that in many minds, Marvel and DC are the center of the comic book universe that everything else spins around, and their failings with younger readers likely contribute strongly to misperception about comics and kids. That’s a very complicated topic, though, and one that deserves a lot more time, which we’ll cover in a full piece later today. It is an idea that is hard to disagree with though.

Saylor pointed out another prominent issue. That’s the idea that parents are justifiably gatekeepers to what their children read, and many don’t see comics as something worth their children’s time.

“I don’t think children have any roadblocks with reading comics. So the roadblocks sometimes come from adults, especially ones who either weren’t raised reading comics or who were denied them,” he said. “Some adults still feel that comics are ‘lesser’ than prose books or that they require less intelligence to read or that they don’t contribute to the correct development of a child’s brain. Of course the opposite is true: comics are great for creating readers and for stimulating the brain in ways that only enhance emotional intelligence and visual literacy.”

Telgemeier's Sisters
While Gagliano noted that comics are more widely accepted by parents, schools and libraries than ever, she agreed with Saylor that the belief of comics not being worthwhile continues to exist.

“The stigma about comics being bad for you, and not being ‘real reading’ still remains in the United States. There are lots of people in this country who’ve never read a graphic novel simply because all their cultural associations with the form are negative – and they’ve never been taught to read comics, or been told (convincingly) that graphic novels are awesome,” she said.

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“Those people – the parents and grandparents who’d rather buy a ‘real book’ for their kids to read, the teachers and librarians and booksellers who don’t feature graphic novels because they’re not ‘important literature’ – are the biggest roadblocks to the form,” she continued. “Luckily, as more kids are reading comics, more publishers are publishing comics, and more comics are winning awards, that resistance is going away! But I think it’s really a generational thing – comics are only really going to be accepted when people who grow up reading them are the ones in all those positions of power.”

DiBernardo emphasized another stigma the comic industry has, and that’s that comic shops themselves are not places for kids or even respectable people.

“I’m probably going to get yelled at by my peers but one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the perception parents have of comic shops,” he said. “Yesterday a dad and his 10-year-old son were in the store for about an hour looking around. The son was wide eyed – this was his first visit to our store. As they were walking out we overheard the son say, ‘See Dad, I told you Jetpack Comics wasn’t a bad place.’”

Jetpack Comics is a shop that has a great relationship with its community, working closely with schools, libraries and other local organizations. Yet the idea that they should be off-limits to children continues to exist.

“We could not be more family friendly, but comic book shops still have that ‘good old boys club/frat house’ stigma to overcome, especially with parents that grew up with a different kind of comic shop during the comic book boom,” he said. “The local comic book shop just isn’t now what it was then, and that’s a tough thing to educate people on.”

Shops like Jetpack and Third Eye do everything they can to do just that, but sometimes minds are hard to change. Still, Challengers Comics + Conversation has done an impressive job of adjusting the perception of many in the Chicago area thanks to opening a store-within-a-store just for kids called Sidekicks.

A Look Inside Sidekicks

This separate section of their shop emphasizes books like many of the ones we’ve mentioned, and gives kids an obvious place to find comics that are for them. Beyond that, Sidekicks delivers an “inviting atmosphere…with lower shelves, small tables to sit, read and color at, and loose action figures for kids to play with, too.” It’s a safe zone in the type of place that is often perceived to be anything but, and it’s invaluable as Brower and his employees try to “actively groom tomorrow’s readers today,” as he said they do.

That’s not to say that all comic shops need stores-within-stores like Challengers, but at least dedicated all-ages sections like both Jetpack and Third Eye offer are key in engaging that audience.

Perhaps the most underrated element in keeping comics from being as viable as they once were is a simple idea that Staros brought up: competition.

“I think in general the modern world and life in general is its own roadblock. There is so much media out there. There’s so much entertainment. There’s so many things vying for people’s time and energy, it’s just like in anything in the world and the history of entertainment, there’s always a bit of a war out there to get people’s attention,” he said.

At the peak of the comic industry’s powers, comics were both new and something that didn’t have nearly as much competition as they do now in keeping the attention of a child. Now, you can give a kid a tablet and they can spend an entire day on it without getting bored thanks to access to infinite amounts of things, like games, books, movies, YouTube, and more. Drawing a child’s attention and then keeping it is a struggle for any industry, not just the comic one.

As with anything, the comic industry isn’t a perfect one, especially when you look at it strictly through the prism of kids and teens. Are publishers doing the best job they can to serve that demographic? Probably not. Are comics pricing kids out? Quite possibly. Are there many, many more roadblocks to creating new readers than the ones I noted above? Absolutely.

But that doesn’t mean we’re in a dark time for reaching kids with comics. You put a comic in the hands of a child today, and it very easily could be their new favorite thing, especially with incredible creators like Telgemeier and Kibuishi at the peak of their powers. As Saylor said, you could very easily look at where the medium is today and call it the golden age of all-ages comics, with such a vast number of quality titles aimed so many different types of reader being released today.

But that doesn’t mean things couldn’t get better. Up next, we’ll be taking a look at two publishers – Marvel and DC – who could help in a big way if they so desire, and what they could do to do just that.

//TAGS | All Ages Week

David Harper

David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).


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