When one looks at the astronomical success of big-screen superhero movies and television series, it stands to reason that flocks of young boys and girls across the country having a growing interest in looking into the source material for their favorite caped (or not caped) crusaders would be concomitant with that. With sparing exceptions such as Deadpool, Logan, Suicide Squad, and perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, these box-office-busting movies have been more or less kid-friendly. Many of these young fans may have already dressed up as their favorite character for Halloween or superhero-themed birthday parties. Given all of this, parents may want to get their children reading more by handing them some comic books. They may, then, be surprised to learn that the vast majority of comic books are not kid-friendly in the slightest! This could quickly become a cause for concern, as a well-meaning parent could just see the title Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, etc. and unintentionally hand their child something exceedingly violent or mature.
Up until the early 2000’s, comic book publishers would put a seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority on the cover of their comic books. This private regulatory group was established in 1954 from a combined result of the growing concern over juvenile delinquency in the 50’s and the published work of psychiatrist Fredrick Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham incorrectly associated the number of boys and girls who were reading comic books at the time with the number of instances of delinquency, asserting that the former was endemic of the latter. This stance on the matter did not, however, account for the majority of comic-book-reading children and adolescents being largely mild-mannered and well-behaved. Despite Wertham’s false hypothesis, the self-policing agency was formed as a defacto oversight committee for American comic book publishers. Under the numerous regulations imposed by the code, the lion’s share of publishers saw a marked decrease in sales and profitability. This was not caused by a decrease in interest, as the readers they had gained prior to the CCA’s inception still wished to read their wild tales of the supernatural, horrific, and science fiction; however, the CCA’s pull with retailers all but eliminated locations for the comic book publishers to distribute and sell their works if they lacked the Comic Code Authority’s stamp – their seal of approval that the given work adhered to all of its (excessive) regulations and limitations.
The CCA held strong power over the success or failure of comic books based on their content and adherence to their authority for decades while undergoing some minor alterations to slowly allow for comics to have a broader range of topics and content. This broadening trend continued until 2001, when one of the largest and most well-known publishers, Marvel Comics, withdrew from the CCA and chose to adopt their own form of self-rating instead. This move, which within the following decade would be replicated by both DC and Archie Comics Inc., saw a far more natural form of self-regulation within each publishing company whereby parents could make informed decisions on purchases for their children. With the quixotic CCA no longer relevant, comic book publishers have been free to succeed or fail based solely on their catering to their reader base alone, and many of said publishers have a number of books that they now produce specifically for young readers, which I’ll go into in short order.
BEST COMIC BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS:
Bone by Jeff Smith
A perfect blend of beautifully painted set pieces and high-fantasy monsters contrasted against simplistic characters, with stories that can be likened to that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Bone has a sense of humor that is more deftly comical and smart than almost everything else out there and can also be looked at as a sequential, sci-fi Calvin & Hobbes.
Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
Less a traditional comic book and more a collection of comic strips in book form, however, the timelessness of the tale of a boy and his tiger cannot be understated. Watterson’s undeniable wit and ability to relate so many of the imaginative adventures that young boys and girls create to get them through the myriad of typical annoyances with which they deal. His nuanced and fantastical approach to Calvin’s day-to-day life presents each new strip as a wonderfully comical adventure.
Herobear and the Kid by Mike Kunkel
Writer and artist Mike Kunkel’s background as a cartoonist for Disney’s animation studio (where he worked on giant projects such as Hercules and Tarzan) shows through with the brilliantly penciled panels of this story about a lonely young boy with a teddy bear that transforms into a butt-kicking superhero when needed. This fairy tale is child escapism at its finest, and the whimsical art and endearing story is a perfect story of triumph for boys and girls of all ages.
Li’l Gotham by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen
Despite the immense popularity of the character, Batman is one of the most inaccessible comic books for young readers with regards to content. Bruce Wayne is known as the Dark Knight for justifiable reasons, as there is no shortage of dark tonalities and plots, brutal violence (including torture), and other mature and suggestive themes. Li’l Gotham is one of few books staring the Cape Crusader that is more than appropriate for children with even the most cautious of parents. Dustin Nguyen’s colorful and child-like super-deformed, watercolor style lends itself perfectly to the goofy stories contained within. Many of the stories put a heavy focus on Bruce Wayne’s son, Damian, who is an atypical kid but still relatable, and the pairing of the Waynes dynamic duo is a great read for fathers and sons to go through as their own shared adventure.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Former Rose City Roller Victoria Jamieson lets her veteran experience on roller skates shine through on every panel of her self-written-and-penciled Roller Girl. The book follows a young girl named Astrid, who desires to roll on 8 wheels instead of take dance lessons. Jamieson’s approach to the story is less rebel kid vs. preppy kids and more about finding a way to harmonize and be amicable with everyone regardless of their differences.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane by Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa
Most Spider-Man comic stories don’t feature the level of violence other superhero adventures do, but many still wouldn’t fall under the “kid-friendly” category for a number of stories. McKeever and Miyazawa’s story geared towards young girls has Peter Parker’s favorite fiery red-headed girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, front and center. The adventures don’t involve much of Spidey’s web-slinging and instead keep the spotlight on MJ as she navigates the angsty high school years and all of the emotions and trials that come with it.
Teen Titans GO! By J. Torres, Michael Norton, and Todd Nauck
Without their adult mentors watching over them, the Teen Titans are left to fend off evildoers on their own. This series combines the artistic style of the early 2000’s Teen Titans animated series with the more light-hearted and goofball antics of the current Teen Titans GO! cartoon. The book tackles issues that many young children may encounter with a comedic flair, as the young superheroes babysit werewolves, fight miniaturized versions of themselves from other dimensions, and struggle against their own writers and artists via 4th wall shenanigans, all while desperately trying to find the time to enjoy a pizza together (when Beast Boy isn’t inhaling it all by himself!).
The Batman and Robin Adventures by Paul Dini, Ty Templeton, and Brandon Kruse
Originally published in 1995 and based heavily on Batman: The Animated Series, which aired during that time, these adventures following Gotham City’s Dynamic Duo and friends can now be found via collected trade paperback volumes. The books involve easily accessible stories (with regards to both content and reading level) for readers ages 8 and up, and entertain and delight with the colorful art direction as Batman, Robin, Batgirl and more take on Gotham City’s rogue’s gallery of villains.
As the number of superhero films continues to reach for the stars, parents should educate and make themselves acutely aware of the types of stories and content that are typically associated with a given character (I’m looking at you, with the 7-year-old in the theater to see Deadpool and Logan). Superheroes are invariably important for young kids to have something that inspires them, spurs their imagination, and in some cases even helps get them through whatever unfortunate tribulations they may face at school, in their neighborhood, or even at home. But not all comic books are right for readers of every age, in the same way that not all movies would be. Thankfully, both DC and Marvel Comics have rating guides to help cautious parents feel more comfortable with the books they put into their precious child’s hands.