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