Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Soul Surfing with JMD and the Kids...

Psst! Comics aren't just for adults anymore. But whatever you do, don't tell the kids. I'm not quite done with my copy of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #19...

I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night and several of the jokes revolved around Leonard meeting a hot girl in a comic book store. And it suddenly occurred to me how fast that gag is becoming irrelevant. It's not that unlikely to spot an attractive woman interested in comics these days. (I've joked with my wife that I was born ten years too soon.) But--and this is where things get really weird--you're much less likely to run into a kid looking for his weekly Spider-Man fix.

There's a lot of talk about sex and gore in comics, but that's just a sideshow. A distraction. The simple truth is we've alienated younger readers, not their parents. To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign's slogan:

"It's the Storytelling, Stupid."

Let me give a recent example. My son and I were browsing comics the other day. I was thinking about getting us a subscription to ASM, so I teased the idea by asking him what he thought of this comic:

"Face, it Tiger! Boys think I'm 'icky'!"

He looked at me like I'd just suggested we frost some rainbow cupcakes while catching an episode of My Little Pony.

But just in case you need more evidence of the industry's disconnect with younger readers, look no further than the solicitation for this comic:

"'Spider-Island' PART FIVE Now the moment you've been dying to see, Tiger! Mary Jane Watson finally spiders-up! Plus a giant battle pitting brother against brother. But let's face it, you just care about that cover!"

So there you have it. Marvel half jokingly suggests that a cover ripped straight from Maxim is a selling point. And maybe they're right--but only if you exclude nine year old kids from the mix. Personally, I like it, but more as a pinup piece or a screensaver than an invitation to buy a story. So if I were going by that alone, I'd treat it exactly like an issue of Maxim. I'd admire the cover and pass right on by.

The funny thing is, the comic itself is everything a nine year old boy could want. Action, monsters, heroics. The whole nine yards. It just goes to show that the disconnect has gotten to the point where we take it for granted. When you put a 'cooties' cover on a comic with such broad appeal, that's a missed opportunity.

This week J.M. DeMatteis talked about writing a story for Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, a title that falls under Marvel's 'all-ages' brand. "You can't write down to kids," he argues, "you have to write up." And he's absolutely right.

For one thing, kids are hard to fool. If you promise a story to a kid, you pretty much have to deliver. Adults, on the other hand? C'mon. We're the saps who go to the polls every year and vote for the guys who get us into messes and then promise to do a better job next time. And let's face it, we're easily distracted. At the lowest level, we'll take something less than a story if you throw in sex. At the highest level, we'll take something less as long as we can discern some intellectual point the author is making.

Maybe that's why I've rarely felt shortchanged by either Marvel or DC's all-ages titles. Some stories are better than others, but every one is just that: a story. If you want to learn craft, I think you're better served by looking at these done-in-ones than a super-ambitious seven year story arc that leads into the next Big Thing.

Take J.M. DeMatteis' ten page "Going Cosmic" story, which is not only an absolute blast, it's Storytelling 101. The tale doesn't kick off with Peter getting up, packing his school bag, having a Pop-Tart and kissing his Aunt May goodbye as he heads off to school. Oh, no. We get thrown into the action right away. Spider-Man is riding the Silver Surfer's board, headed straight into outer space where he's certain he'll die.

Something isn't about to happen, it already has.

So yeah, pretty much hooked from the first page. Wait, wha? Spider-Man is on the Silver Surfer's board? How did that happen? How does that even work? And how's Spider-Man going to survive? This is what Stan Lee meant when he said "Stay tuned, true believer!" :)


Don't worry, I won't spoil anything for you. Suffice to say we get a compelling mystery, a cosmic threat, an identification character that helps you see this world with the wonder of a child, several laugh-out-loud jokes, a bit of poetry and philosophy thrown in, a gentle inspirational message that's conveyed through the action, and an ending that will make you smile (and maybe tear up just a little).

And no, you didn't misread earlier: TEN. PAGES.

Sean Collins' Kraven story is killer, too. He opens on action, keeps up the pace, throws in laugh out loud dialogue, an identification character, and an ending that's funny because it rings so true. So you'll get two stories here, one cosmic and one grounded, but both very enjoyable and more profound than the wealth of writers out there trying to be oh-so-serious.

So do yourself a favor and buy Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man 19. If your resident professor or art critic asks, just tell him Watchmen was sold out.

Or better yet, pass some joy along and let them borrow your copy!

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