You might know writer Grant Morrison from his recent amazing runs on Action Comics and Batman, or perhaps from Animal Man, JLA, or his bestselling book on comics, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero. Or you might know his more esoteric work like The Invisibles, Doom Patrol, SeaGuy and We3, or his upcoming DC magnum opus Multiversity. Any way you cut it, you know the name. Grant Morrison is one of the creative movers and shakers in the world of comics. But did you know he doesn't just do superheroes?
Happy! is the deeply noir tale of Nick Sax, an ex-cop turned hit man whose life is in a state of quickly changing and ever-endangering flux. When a hit goes wrong, he's on the run from both the mob and a psycho killer in a Santa Claus suit. And then there's that tiny flying blue horse named Happy that only Nick can see…
Morrison's partner on Happy! is artist Darrick Robertson who most folks might know from The Boys. Like that series, Happy! is mature readers only because of excessive violent, sexual, and language content, so be warned. That said, this is a really terrific collection. This trade from Image Comics collects the first four-issue mini-series and lists at $12.99, and is available at All Things Fun! this week, check it out!
By Allison Eckel
If you visited All Things Fun! or another Local Comic Shop on May 5, you likely grabbed three free comic books. That was a small percentage of the goodness available on that Free Comic Book Day (FCBD). I was fortunate enough to gain access to a complete stack of the free comics available. Although not all of them fit with my reading taste, a whopping 25 titles out of 76 are stories I would continue to read. That is one-third of the titles pushed by publishers at this year’s event. Remember, many free comics contained at least two stories – some as many as six – so these numbers are based on titles promoted with at least a few pages of story, not the ones treated to a single-page ad.
First, a disclaimer to explain what I look for in comics. If you read my posts, you may have an idea of what attracts me to a book. I like smart storytelling with well-crafted characters. I don’t like gratuitous violence. I like pretty pictures of pretty people, and the artists get a bonus if they use their space in creative ways. Since we are all attracted to different aspects of comics, your list would look different from mine. Following is a list of the highlights, sorted by publisher. These are all stand-out stories currently outside the mainstream of comics (read: not DC or Marvel). Follow the links for any of these that sound interesting and contact your Local Comic Shop (ahem, for All Things Fun! subs or one-time orders, stop in or call) to ask about availability.
Antarctic Press: Zombie Kid is not just a snarky spoof of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (although it started out that way and got into trouble for it; details here). It is similar in concept in that each story centers on an awkward middle-grade boy experiencing physical and social changes. For Zombie Kid's Bill Stokes, however, those changes are not due to puberty but to a zombie virus. Hilarity ensues. Actually, I root for Bill more than his successful mainstream predecessor because he is not a lazy underachiever. Rather than a wimp hoping to go unnoticed by the world, Bill has big dreams of video game championships and keeps a diary as a training tactic. I am not a fan of Wimpy, but I do like Zombie.
Archaia Entertainment: Consider everything they publish. For FCBD this year, they offered a beautiful hardcover anthology of six titles they are bringing to comic shops now or imminently. Every one is worth consideration: Mouse Guard, Labrynth: Hoggle and the Worm, Steps of the Dapper Men (a prelude to Time of the Dapper Men), Rust, Cursed Pirate Girl, and Cow Boy. Visit the publisher's site and click "titles" for a full list, including age ratings, which I much appreciate.
Aspen: Homecoming and Idolized. I am not familiar with the worlds of Aspen Comics, but they look to be populated with pretty young people with super-powers or guns, or both. There's nothing wrong with that, but I expected the stories to be as vapid as the characters looked. As a suburban mom who reads comic books, I should know better than to make such snap judgments. Homecoming centers around a group of high school friends endowed with alien abilities when a long-lost girl appears in someone's pool (naked, natch). The title links several events together, including the return of this lost girl, the aliens who may have taken her, and the eponymous high school dance. The openning pages sucked me in and I didn't want them to let go.
Idolized is teased with fewer pages, but just enough to give us a glimpse of a world rife with possibility. What if the world were full of super-powered people? Stands to reason that realtiy tv would eventually feature a few. Supers on reality TV is now officially a trend, with Image Comic's America's Got Powers in full swing (I recommend this one too, by the way). The sample of Idolized introduces us to Leslie, a quiet girl who wants to be the first "superhero idol" out of a need for redemption. Cut to the flash back and remember to breathe...
Boom! Studios: The Hypernaturals. What if a world-renowned super-hero group similar to JLA or Avengers called itself the Hypernaturals and rotated its roster every few years to keep the members in their youthful prime? Then, what if the latest team disappeared on their first mission in a scary, mysterious way? The older heroes would have to dust off that spandex to find them. New concepts in super-hero comics are difficult to find, and The Hypernaturals manages to stay fresh and compelling.
Image Comics: Waiting for G-Man and It Girl and the Atomics. I already mentioned Image Comics' new limited series America's Got Powers, which you should all check out. From their FCBD issue, I also recommend Waiting for G-Man and It-Girl and the Atomics. I don't actually know a lot about G-Man, but it seems funny, all-ages goodness with a smart mind at the helm (will the title actually refer to the Beckett play? I can't wait to find out).
It Girl takes on the physical properties of anything she touches. Touch concrete, become solid and immovable. Touch a plastic shopping bag, and float with the wind off of a high building. I think that's a pretty cool concept. Plus, the supposedly reformed villain she meets is called the Skunk, complete with bushy tail. I like the way this starts; whether I stay with it will depend on the quality and depth of the stories that unfold.
Trend Alert: Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs seem to be an ongoing trend in comics. Four titles feature them, which may be the biggest trend outside of “superheroes.” Atomic Robo (Red 5 Comics) has a comical dino adversary; Dinosaurs v. Aliens (Liquid Comics) is dramatic and written by Grant Morrison; Jurassic Strike Force 5 (Zenescope) comes off like an after-school cartoon full of cool/macho soldiers that happen to be dinosaurs (well, it is from Zenescope); and Neozoic (Red 5 Comics) blends mysterious monster dinos with swords and female leads in a way that evokes Ring of Fire. I already enjoy the all-ages, super-cool Super Dinosaur (Kirkman’s SkyBound). Atomic Robo has a similar tone, though its brainy scientist is an actual robot instead of a kid. There may be room for both in my list, but I will definitely check out Neozoic – it seems the freshest of the bunch.
Although many of the above titles are considered "all ages," I have a selection of kid-specific comics to tell you all about next time. Until then, give a few of these new titles a try, and tell me what you think.
By Allison Eckel
Comics publishers and local comic shops take note: Mothers are the gatekeepers to your coveted youth market, so market to them! You already figured out that kids who read comics are more likely to become lifelong fans than if they start later in life. But, how do kids start reading comics in the first place? Moms must allow them into the house. And currently, most non-geek moms either don’t know comics still exist or don’t believe they are worth the money. I am here to help with the first part; the second part is up to you.
Non-geek moms are everywhere except local comic shops. That is your primary challenge. The potential of digital comics is promising because it means non-geek moms need never venture into the LCS. The proliferation of apps designed to keep kids happy with no parental interaction is huge and alarming, so I believe non-geek parents are likely to at least try digital comics. But bright ink on paper is still a fantastic thing for young readers. Case in point, my five-year-old girl just got her hands on Strawberry Shortcake #1 from Ape Entertainment (on sale now). She has carried it with her for three days straight and asked every adult she meets to read her any of the three stories it contains. Although digital comics are similarly portable, her access to them is more limited.
Ms. Shortcake brings me to a second point about marketing to moms. Develop more kid-friendly content and then follow through on marketing through more mainstream channels such as Facebook. APE Entertainment is currently releasing several great titles along with Strawberry, including Megamind, Kung Fu Panda, a re-imagined Richie Rich, and the upcoming Casper's Scare School. These comics are all good for grade-schoolers, most of whom have never set foot in an LCS. Facebook ads are comparatively cheap, so ads for these comics should be appearing on every mom’s wall. Dark Horse is advertising Buffy and Star Wars comics this way; now, let’s see Po’s smiling face with the word “comics.” Also, publishers should send sample copies to Mommy Bloggers for review, with an explanatory letter heavy in academic advantage-type language.
Point three: Take a moment to understand young readers. What do nine-year-old boys, for example, really like to read? Of course, every reader has different interests, but I recently conducted my own demographic test to discover what boys think of super-heroes. For a week every summer, I teach archery to cub scouts. This year, fifty kids in first-through-fifth grades passed through my range, every day. On Monday, to explain the way they should grip the bow and aim it with a strong, straight arm, I invoked images of Superman. I got no reaction. Ok, how about Captain America; you all know him because of the movie, right? Nothing. Wow. So, I ask: Who is your favorite strong hero? First silence, then one quiet voice from the back offers, “How about Iron Man?”
I didn’t expect them to know Green Arrow – the womanizing, mouthy liberal isn’t exactly a great role model for the pre-tween set, despite his JLA-caliber heroism. But I expected them to know Superman. I mean, it’s SUPERMAN. Turns out, a few of them do know Green Arrow, from his appearance in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the video game. Well, it’s not comics, but it’s a start. By Wednesday, I have ditched my references to barrel-chested heroes because I have discovered what excites the kids’ imaginations: non-super guys with gadgets. While retrieving arrows we have wild conversations concocting new trick arrows for Ollie (they didn’t know about the boxing glove arrow!). Then their minds were racing, comparing him and his abilities with the archery they were learning – how he amazingly hits his targets while running or skidding across the floor when they are working so hard to hit theirs while standing still, and thoughts like that.
I suppose the super-powered heroes are a bit too fantastic to engage young boys. Instead, most of them really like “real” people with gadgets, contraptions, machines that become other machines, etc. Transformers is enduring for a reason that really has nothing to do with scantily clad ingénues and big explosions. Boys just really like robots that they can change into vehicles. Boys also like Batman for his gadgets, Iron Man for his tech, Green Arrow for his arrows, Cyborg for that arm that changes into different things, etc.
I specify boys, because my experience with girls is a bit the opposite. I taught 12 girls in this camp week as well – the lucky siblings who didn’t have anywhere else to go. The girls were leery of archery at first: the string is too hard to draw, their fingers hurt, whine, whine, whine. Ok, that’s not fair. Some of the boys whined too. But as soon as I told the girls that the ancient Greeks worshipped Artemis the Archer as the goddess of the hunt, they were rushing for the firing line, eager to become a goddess themselves. Girls, generally, like to envision themselves as other than human, as super, better, more. That’s why princesses are so ubiquitous. My daughter play-acts as Wonder Woman, Raven, or Starfire instead of Batgirl because she likes the “magical” qualities of the non-humans.
DC Comics is doing well with Young Justice, a team that appeals to boys and girls; although, I think it was better suited for younger readers when Peter David started that title in 1998. Still, DC has a winning title, especially given its close integration with its eponymous cartoon. They also need to continue Batman: The Brave and the Bold because it’s one of the best titles they publish (my third-grader did his vocabulary homework from it because it’s that good). Given DC’s track record, I expect them to cancel it soon because they seem to not like it when a kids’ title becomes successful.
So publishers, I have just saved you a chunk of change on a marketing consultant. Develop more series like Super Dinosaur written by Robert Kirkman, published by Image Comic's Skybound imprint. It hits all of the right grade-school-boy buttons while being smart enough to appeal to older readers. But don’t stop there. Actually market the book along mainstream channels so the non-geek moms can know about it. The best book in the world can’t help anyone if no one knows about it. Kirkman has a high-enough profile thanks to his Walking Dead series that Skybound could send him to daytime talk shows. Better, send him to Conan. And take the huge Super Dinosaur suit. I wonder if Kirkman would consider adding a girl mystic to Super Dinosaur – then Skybound would be sitting on the perfect young-reader comic.
I want to see comics heroes become more important to our boys. Currently, more cub scouts in camp play Call of Duty: Black Ops – and similar violent, M-rated video games – than read stories of strong, heroic role models. At the end of his new book Supergods, Grant Morrison tells us why this is a terrible trend:
We have a tendency to re-enact the stories we tell ourselves. We learn as much … from our fictional role models as we do from the real people who share our lives. If we perpetually reinforce the notion that human beings are somehow unnatural aberrations adrift in the ever-encroaching Void, that story will take root in impressionable minds …. If, on the other hand, we emphasize our glory, intelligence, grace, generosity … capacity for love, creativity, and native genius, those qualities will be made manifest in our behavior and in our works.
My mother gave me my first comic book in 1979 because I was reluctant to read traditional, “girl” stories like Black Beauty. Stories of heroism, of fighting the good fight, of all that Morrison lists, are so important when we’re young. Help moms find these stories for their kids.
Update: 8/12/12 Formatting edits