Thanks in no small part to the enormous success of the Batman television show in the 1960s, media articles about comics have a penchant for including Pow! or Zap! in them as a shorthand means of communicating some of the effects that tend to be used in comics more than other forms of media. I know many comic fans, myself included, who got quite sick of the trope back in the 1980s when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen seemed to be the subject of any number of articles talking about the “maturity” of contemporary comics. These days, even saying that “Wham! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” is an overused title is in itself tiresome.
Although specific demographic data is hard to come by, a recent study of 1.2 million self-identified comic fans found that 63% were between 18 and 30 years old. Another 23% were older than that. Which leaves a mere 14% under the age of 18, just under half of which are in high school. This speaks to what the industry as whole anecdotally “knows” -- that their primary audience is not the historical 8-12 year old kid that 1950’s parents feared saw too much gore in Tales from the Crypt, but an adult population that is at least reasonably well-educated. (28% reported having a college degree, and another 12% cited being in college.)
So the complaint often lodged against comic publishers these days isn’t so much that some of their books might be inappropriate for young children, but rather than NONE of their books are appropriate for young children. A reasonable claim, since the publishers tend to cater to their largest (adult) audience.
But, it should be noted that kid-friendly comics need not be saccharine fare. The Grimm Fairy Tales could be very violent and frightening, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is rife with references to death. More recently, the Harry Potter stories get quite dark in places. And while traditional publishers tend to be skittish around such “risks” it leaves the field wide open for webcomic creators.
Brothers Chris and Kyle Bolton are helping to fill that void with their webcomic Smash. The concept is fairly straightforward -- what if a ten-year-old boy suddenly gained the powers of a superhero? But they were clear from the start that they wanted it to be a story that ten-year-olds could read. Chris recently summed up their intent...
Kyle and I set out to create the comic we would have loved as kids: age-appropriate but not condescending, funny without being snarky or satirical, full of fast-paced action but with an emphasis on characters readers could relate to and hopefully fall in love with.
It sounds like a dastardly simple concept, but it can be difficult to execute well. As adults, we think in adult terms and bring decades of experience to everything we do. We understand that our actions have consequences. We’re essentially biased against thinking like kids. So, to Chris’ point, many people talk either down to or way above kids’ level, missing that potential audience entirely. And while that may be deliberate in some cases, often it isn’t.
I suspect one of the most common approaches to creating stories for younger audiences is to deliberately try to recall the stories you responded to as a child. Depending on your age, that may have been Astro Boy or The Legion of Super-Heroes or Bone. Chris alludes to this as well...
Ultimately, Smash is nothing less than a love letter from our mid-thirties selves to the comic-loving kids we once were, whom we still carry inside us.
In Smash, they don’t really tone down the danger or violence that you might find in a modern superhero comic from Marvel or DC. People get hit and beat up and, in some cases, killed. But there’s a sense of wonder about the story as well. The title character is not only exploring his new-found powers, but he’s exploring the world he inhabits. Just as every ten-year-old does every day. Just because a creator may have seen more than his/her share of the world doesn’t mean her/his potential audience has!