When I was a kid it was easy to find comic books.
A quick bike ride to the local convenience store rewarded me with a rack of new comics every week. All the big titles from Marvel and DC were there. They didn’t sell sleeves and boards to help me preserve them, but I could pick those up when I was lucky enough to have my Old Man drive me to one of the many comic book stores in our town.
Every rack had the same sign on top: “Hey kids, comics!” It was the simple siren song of my generation (Generation X). Here was a place in the store where my interest, and my spending money, was welcome.
The industry has changed a lot since I bought my first issue of Marvel’s Secret Wars mini-series. The stories have grown up with me. Many books are written for adults instead of youngsters. The ability to find super hero media has never been easier: Movies, TV shows, web comics, etc. But the magic of being an adolescent with a few dollars in your pocket and the ability to find the unique combination of graphic and literary escapism just isn’t there anymore.
The reasons are mostly economic, but the absence of this simple childhood memory troubles me now that I’m a father of two. My son is 3, my daughter 5. He’s more interested in Lightning McQueen than he is in superheroes. (Yes, that breaks my heart a little. But his day will come.)
My daughter, however, has always been fascinated with my Spider-Man tattoo, and with superheroes. How do I, a geek parent, share my passion with kids who will not see this as a birthright? How do any of us raise kids on comics when they’re no longer a part of the childhood cultural landscape?
The answer is we must try a little harder, and make sure they share our passion before we fall into the ranks of stage mothers who push the innocent toward our way of life.
We cannot lazily rely on the modern movie and cartoon incarnations of our favorite superheroes. I don’t believe my 5-year-old is ready for the violence portrayed in nearly every modern comic book film. And the ones that play best to kids – The Fantastic Four films – are so awful that I can’t stand to watch them or subject my innocent kids to them. The same goes for most of the current cartoons. Kids cartoons have always been violent. You realize that when your 5-year-old daughter is watching with you. Worse, they don’t often convey the magic of the characters – their origins, their endurance as icons, their importance as modern myths.
There has to be a better way.
I have a respectable comic book collection. It’s mostly Spidey, reaching back into the late 60s and early 70s. They’re all bagged and boarded and stored neatly in long boxes in our dry, cool basement. I love my kids but I also love my comics. The idea of rearing my indelicate children on 30-year-old pristine issues at the risk of ruining the books does not appeal. However, I have a lot of compilations, hero encyclopedias and the like that aren’t worth much for cash or posterity. My daughter and I flip through these books nearly every night. If one hero or villain stands out to her we’ll read their bio, discuss their powers and decide if they’re good or bad. That’s a big one for kids. In a world of grey they like black and white. Spidey’s a good guy. The Hobgoblin is a bad guy. Fine. But how did they get that way? What changed them? Do they ever go against character and do the right/wrong thing?
You know, are they like us? Human?
This background survey of the comic universe gives her the working knowledge of the mythology, and helps when we run across these characters again. We do that by reading from the stacks of comics I was either given or no longer care for that I don’t mind sacrificing at the altar of their education. They may not be the best books, but they serve the purpose of teaching her what a comic book is all about. How they work, how the pictures tell as much of the story as the words, and how to get excited about seeing where the story goes in the next issue.
Then we go to the comic book store.
Having a good comic book store is like having a good mechanic or bartender. It is a place where you feel safe, respected, and guided. In this place we are free to explore whatever new character she’s discovered. We can slowly walk the isles looking at inexpensive back issues or consult the owner about graphic novels or collections that are appropriate for a 5-year-old (and her Old Man). And we can usually find a loose action figure or small toy that sweetens the deal for my daughter.
Then we go home, sit on her bed and read our new comics.
She may never be able to ride her bike to the neighborhood convenience store to buy her comics, but she’ll want to. And if she wants to, if these characters take hold in her and sparks the desire to read everything she can get her hands on – as it did for me – that I can boast at least one success as a parent.
And the geeks will inherit the Earth.