FanExpo Canada: Kids Comics Go North!

Sunday was the last day of FanExpo Canada, which meant one thing: Kids Day! Or at least, ever so slightly more kids content than usual, including a panel with some experts on making comics for a younger audience. On the panel were Faith Erin Hicks (Bigfoot Boy), Willow Dawson (Hyena in Petticoats), Scott Chantler (Three Thieves), and Jack Briglio (Growing Up Enchanted), moderated by Jennifer Haines, owner of the Eisner winning comic book store The Dragon.

“It sometimes feels like a niche market, but it shouldn’t be,” said Haines before introducing the panel. Things then kicked off talking about writing your own material, versus licensed material - which is obviously a large part of kids comics. “With Scooby Doo, I remembered the ‘60s ones, and I wanted to be faithful to that,” said Briglio, adding that beyond that, it has to go through multiple levels of the Editorial process. With his own work, “doing my own series is far more liberating.”

Talk then turned to educational comics. “With comics, you’re creating a story,” said Dawson. “That’s going to inherently make it more exciting than a textbook. Teachers are moving in that direction.” Continuing, Chantler said, “Making it an appealing story is what’s important.”

As for targeting to a specific audience - parents or children - Chantler noted that J. Torres, who wasn’t on the panel, has the skill to target specific age groups, which is a great benefit when pitching to publishers. “I don’t have that skill,” said Chantler. “I just appeal to my inner ten year old. If it appeals to him, it’s in, and if it isn’t, it’s not. I don’t think about the audience, parents or children.”

Dawson agreed, adding that her Editor helps get the tone and the language correct. She also noted that with her current book, she wasn’t even sure about the age range until she was done with the book. “Sometimes through the entire process, even to the point of artwork, you don’t know the age range,” said Dawson.

Continuing on this, Briglio said that, “Maybe in a story not geared for kids, there may be an underlying theme. In kids books, that theme might turn into a lesson. Otherwise, it’s about creating a good story that can be read by parents or kids.”

Chantler has a theory called The Pixar Theory, which is about making books so broad, they can appeal to anyone. He noted that Dreamworks and other studios make films appealing to adults by putting in fart jokes, while Pixar makes them appealing by giving their characters adult problems.

“We have a really long history of babying kids,” said Dawson. “And kids are often dealing with some really big stuff.” She added that even if a book is fantasy, giving it real themes helps the book connect more with children. Chantler also noted that with comics, its easier to get away with more, because of the graphic nature of the medium. “It doesn’t need to be simpler than prose, we can actually make it more complex because of the pretty pictures,” said Chantler.

Hicks added that her first book was a book aimed at the “eleven year old me,” and she made the mistake of selling it through a publisher - Slave Labor Graphics - that only sold through the Direct Market. “That’s aimed at thirty-five year old guys,” said Hicks, so no one bought it. On the other hand, outside of the Direct Market kids comics actually get into kid’s hands.

Haines jumped in, saying that the problem isn’t necessarily age range, but reading level. Some kids read much older than their age, while some read much younger. Chantler added that he wrote a book with some violence, and gets asked whether it’s good for a twelve-year-old. “Well, what twelve year old?” asks Chantler right back.

“I really feel like there’s a gap in the comic book market,” said Hicks, taking a little side-step. “There’s this perception outside the comic book market that they’re for kids, and the content isn’t there.” Chantler added that it’s the “strangest thing,” that people outside of comics won’t read them because they’re “for kids,” but inside of comics, there’s no content. Chantler also added that things are getting better for all-ages comics, that twenty years ago you couldn’t even mention you were working on a kids comic.

“It sort of sucks, because if you make a good comic, they won’t notice the skill,” said Hicks. Dawson added that, “This is a bit of a tangent, but there’s literacy with words, and literacy with pictures, too.” “Comics is the best of both worlds,” said Briglio.

On the same note, Chantler said that you can use “whatever tool in the toolbox is best,” citing a time he needed to portray complex battle plans, so he used a map with captions. “Kids will pick up on those visual cues,” said Haines. “It overcomes their fears of reading.”

So the question turned to what makes a good kid’s book? Chantler said, “a youthful protagonist,” though he doesn’t hold back other than that. Hicks said, “art style. With Bigfoot Boy, I made a specific decision to change my art style, made it a little simpler.” She also noted that a black and white book tends to make the book look like its for an older audience, versus color.

On the topic of whether you need to know kids to write kids comics, Chantler said that he didn’t even think about writing books for kids until he had one... And then made his son stand up and wave. Dawson said she didn’t have kids, but is, “a really big kid. Doing art comics keeps you youthful in a lot of ways.” Briglio also said it was having kids, because, “We write what we know.” Hicks also doesn’t have kids, but is, “a big fan of kids.”

Then it was over to questions!

The first one was about how to introduce kids to comics, specifically superhero comics. Luckily, the guy who actually wrote the book on the topic was in the audience, and said the big problem is they don’t sell in the Direct Market, so they become very rare. A librarian in the audience, echoed this complaint, noting that the kids love things like the Marvel Adventures books so much, they don’t give them back! Despite that, the books are going out of print.

Chantler added that, “Darwyn Cooke is fond of saying that you shouldn’t need to specify that a Superman book is all-ages. It’s Superman!” Hicks on that note added that she’s doing a gag strip called “The Adventures of Superhero Girl” specifically because she was frustrated about the more adult take on Supergirl in comics. “I didn’t see what I wanted represented by superheroes in the books,” said Hicks, which then led to her being able to pitch a Supergirl story. “It got rejected,” added Hicks.

Asked about whether the genre of superhero comics, of the characters attract kids, Hicks said that it was probably the characters, while Briglio felt that with movies, TV, and video games, “sadly, if you want superheroes, you don’t need comics anymore.” Chantler deferred, saying that he felt, “it’s the idea of power that’s appealing.”

Then a young audience member jumped in, saying, “You don’t need powers to be a superhero, just look at Batman!” The panel laughed, agreed, and praised the young fan for his comment.

And that was it!