Comic book stores are a challenging place for kids to find books, even with their parents help. There’s two problems that will confront a parent: 1) comics are by and large not aimed at young audiences, and 2) just because they aren’t aimed at kids in their tweens or early teens, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily all off-limits. A lot depends on the maturity level of the child.
With all of the big superhero movies this summer, I’m sure more than a handful of kids are going to want to start reading comics, so here’s a quick guide to help the befuddled parent.
Check the Rating: If you look near the bar code of Marvel books, you’ll see a rating that will say something like ‘All-Ages,’ or ‘Teen,’ or ‘T+’, for teens and older. You can use this as an idea as to whether or not your child’s old enough.
These ratings can sometimes be misleading. For instance, a lot of X-Men books are rated T+ although the violence is often stylized and bloodless, and are usually less violent than the video games most kids play, but then T+ can also be gory or contain sexual references. Common sense rule: thumb through the issue before buying it (most comic book stores are okay with this).
Look for Titles Specifically Aimed at Kids: Marvel and DC both produce lines of books aimed specifically at kids. Often times these tie in with shows your kids might already watch on Cartoon Network. These are a good, safe bet if you’re unsure. For example, the TV show Batman Brave and the Bold was aimed at younger audiences, and was quite entertaining (I’ll admit to watching most of the episodes myself). There’s a comic book spinoff of this show that is also fun an appropriate for young audiences.
Go By Title: With Marvel and DC, they usually like their flagship series to reach the largest audiences possible, meaning they’re rarely explicit or risque, and are generally okay for teens and some tweens (again, exercise your own discretion). For instance, I’ve read a lot of issues of Superman, and they are very rarely objectionable on grounds of decency. Sure, Superman flies around punching people, but he never kills anyone purposively and he’s usually nice enough not to make them even bleed somehow. The same goes for Wonder Woman. These are both characters who stand out in pop culture for moral righteousness, so writers rarely have them lower themselves in any way. Batman would have to be an exception though. So much of what he does involves petty criminals, especially in the 90s, so you’re likely to come across a lot of references to drug dealers, junkies, prostitutes and so on. I’d say this is fine for most teens, but use your better judgment with younger kids. With Marvel, Spiderman is usually a safe bet, and I haven’t seen anything all that bad in any Avengers comics I’ve read. Also, Fantastic Four are geared toward all ages.
Go By Company: Some companies specifically write comics for adults, and others specifically write for children. The clerks at the comic book store should be able to help you sort this out. I’ve already written about Marvel and DC, but here’s some generic comments about the other companies. Vertigo is a subsidiary of DC, and writes mature content, although much of it really isn’t that bad, like Fables and The Unwritten are marked mature, but rarely have blood or anything worse than swearing and occasional tasteful nudity. Marvel has a subsidiary called Max, but these comics are much more violent and sexual than Vertigo’s (and from what I’ve read, none are particularly good anyways). Wildstorm, Image, and Top Cow are comics specifically for mature readers. Dark Horse I’d say straddles the line. To my mind, Hellboy, B.P.R.D., Witchfinder are perfectly fine comics for mature-for-their-age teens, but some parents might find fault in their occult subject matter. Also, from what I’ve read, Dark Horse’s Star Wars books are fine for teens.
Recommendations for kids:
Bone: I can’t recommend this enough. I would say that out of all the comics ever written, Jeff Smith’s comic Bone has the widest appeal. College students like this book, and ten year olds. I still go back and reread it from time to time. Not only is it kid friendly, but I’d say it’s actually friendly to kids. The artwork is great, the writing’s great, and there’s all sorts of adventures to keep kids’ attention. If you’re a parent, you can sneak off and read it too. What’s awesome about this series too is that it’s all part of one big story. It’s not one that just goes on and on until reader’s drop out and it’s cancelled. It contains one massive story arc and many smaller arcs that tie together. The best part is, the entire story’s been collected in one big volume, available for about 40 bucks. It’s also available in smaller volumes. A lot of libraries carry this series, so maybe check it out first and see if you’re kids actually like it, then invest in the $40 edition. If you’re kids do enjoy this, Smith also wrote a spin-off called Rose that contains wonderful watercolor artwork by Charles Vess. Another kid-friendly one by Smith that’s quite good is Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil, available in hardcover for about $30. Smith’s series RASL is for adults specifically.
Disney comics: I can’t vouch for what the current Disney books are like, but a lot of the older ones are actually pretty good. There’s a Scrooge McDuck series by Carl Barks that influenced Jeff Smith. In the 90s, Disney put out comics for Duck Tales, Scrooge McDuck, and even one where Goofy solved mysteries that had surprisingly good stories, and were actually much better than their cartoon equivalents at the time. A good comic book store should have back issues of Disney books available.
Older Superhero Books: If you’re kids are obsessed with superheroes but you’re on the fence about letting them read what’s on the shelves, look into older books. Generally, most superhero books that came out before Watchmen in 1986 are okay for teens and smart tweens. Silver Age comics were specifically aimed at children. These are sold today in big omnibus editions too that give you a lot of pages for not that much money. Flip through them first. Some seventies comics are dark. I’d recommend Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man vol. 1. I don’t remember anything too racy happening there, and kids generally like Spider-man. Older books contain more text, so scan through it and see if they match your child’s reading level.
Don’t Forget the Funnies: When you’re a kid, books like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Far-Side, and Garfield are compulsively readable. Peanuts, Garfield, and Fox Trot are perfectly fine for tweens. I love Pearls Before Swine, but some parents might find it too subversive. Calvin and Hobbes, Over the Hedge, and Far-Side fall into that category, but when it comes to newspaper funnies, I’d urge parents just to loosen up.
Comics I would not recommend for teens or tweens.
Just about everything by Alan Moore: I think since so many movies have been made of his work, parents have been going to comic book stores and buying graphic novels by Moore, only to return outraged. For instance, why in the world was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen made into a PG-13 comic? I heard that the original director, comics scribe James Robinson, wanted it to be R-rated but the studios insisted otherwise. The problem with the rating is that the comic itself is the raunchiest, raciest comic I’ve ever read. I’d say it’s a good comic, but I’m an adult. The same goes for Watchmen. Mature teens are probably fine. If I had read Watchmen when I was sixteen instead of waiting a long time to get around to it, I probably wouldn’t be changed in any adverse way, but that’s largely because I was already playing video games and watching action flicks. So again, exercise discretion.
So I guess with all of these rules and recommendations in place, choosing comics for your kids might sound difficult, but I’d still recommend you give comics a chance. For one, it will at least get your kids reading. It could also very well get your kids inspired to pursue artistic careers, since kids who pore over panel illustrations might just want to be filmmakers, or kids like I was might get so invested in the stories that they’ll want to become writers themselves.