Comics for Kids

Musings from an anonymous ComicBookStorage.com reader:

#1: WRITERS BLOCK
Hold on to your daughters, your valuables and your integrity…I’m BACK, and I’m feeling frisky!

This month’s column marks the beginning of a discussion I intend to return to periodically (as and when the whim and the wind takes me). Writing, drawing, marketing and selling comics that are intended to appeal to younger readers forms a broad area for critical debate, but one that’s rarely been treated with the respect it deserves. Let’s put that to rights shall we dear ComicBookStorage.com patrons?

As regular visitors to this fledgling column may be aware, the predominant focus of my roving comic eye is the European scene with its oft-overlooked wealth of sequential talent and creativity. Although many of the titles featured are currently only available in their original languages they are phenomenal examples of the international strength of this art form and deserve to be held in comparison to the best in the business. That said, this month I’ll also be paying tribute to Calvin & Hobbes. I don’t really have a choice. It’s the law. Or something.

Right. Enough waffle. Let’s comic!

Children’s literature, excluding the world of comic books, has always been a fluid age-specific entity. I mean honestly… ‘age-specific’…it doesn’t really work does it? I read The Lord of The Rings when I was ten. Okay so other writers can probably draw on far better examples. I can practically hear Alan Moore muttering something about “…Iliad at six…”. The POINT though, remains. Kids have always gamed, viewed and read way above the accepted boundaries of their physical age. They stretch. They aspire. They learn. Which is exactly where our dear industry often runs into troubles. All too often writers fail to take account of this upwardly mobile creative leaning. They weave their tales and play down the intellect, replacing clever plotting and complicated characters with a retina-scorching palette and an abundance of clever banter.

The very best results, I believe, occur when one combines both approaches.

Which brings me nicely to this month’s material. Two of the largest mainland European publishers, Dupuis andSoleil, have recently (well, in the last couple of years) launched two spin off factions aimed at a younger audience. ‘Punaise’, Dupuis’s splinter, is a range of titles aimed at the 6+ readership while ‘NG’ from Soleil focuses on the 8+ market. Soleil, in particular, have been providing an exciting range of great looking, fun-reading titles for a while, Wonder City and Monster Allergy to name but two (and to name two that I shall return to in a later column). The difference here is that the companies have chosen to SPECIFICALLY group a new plethora of titles under age-specific umbrellas. Thankfully the results are pretty sublime on a number of levels and the talent on display leaves me in little doubt as to the serious approach that both publishers have taken to expanding and satisfying this audience.

Let’s start by casting an appreciative gaze over my favourite fun title from Soleil’s debut junior range, Hero Academy.

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Pretty isn’t it? Saturday morning Cartoon Network fun. Hmm? What’s that you say? Francois Debois and Carlos Javier Olivares appear to be emulating Jamie Hewlett’sTank Girl and Gorillaz stylings? Hmmmm…better take a quick look inside at the good stuff…

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Good lordy, you’re right! Okay. Confession time. I’m a big Hewlett fan and so, apparently are these boys, which partially explains my love for the work. Perhaps they’re paying homage to a master but it’s hard to criticise when they do it this WELL! From a writers point of view the story ticks a lot of the right boxes; it’s fun, bright, energetic and intelligently paced. The art compliments the tale nicely and sizzles along at a frenetic pace, with panels exploding in sparks, disappearing to full bleed or shattering under impact. In short, Hero Academy is pure popcorn munching entertainment, diligently worming it’s way into my heart through effort and pretty willpower alone. The only fault I can find is that for all the bangs and whistles there’s no soul to drive the action. Obviously this isn’t necessarily a precursor to children’s fiction, but less we forget, half the joy of writing and creating for a younger readership is that one has the opportunity to leave lasting stories that will permeate long after the covers are closed.

Which brings me to the Punaise series from Dupois. Despite being aimed squarely at children it demonstrates s a greater maturity of theme. The indisputable jewel in it’s crown is ‘Le Monde selon Francois – Le secret des Ecrivains’ (“The World according to Francois – The Writers’ Secret”), a blissful tale of the strength of a Child’s imagination.

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The sheer joy of this work is the heart of the titular hero who feels a magical affinity with the alphabet and words and simply cannot stop himself from telling tall tales. Renaud Collin has crafted a touching slice of highbrow entertainment for the grubby kneed fraternity but he never misses the opportunity to throw some wonderful artistic moments to his talented co-creator Vincent Zabus. One example sees Francoise summoning the power of books to escape a burning library, Vabus employing his considerable skills to imbue every frame with a sense of palpable danger and excitement. The colour palette and stylistic touches on display are joyous in their execution.

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The beauty here is that the story draws upon the same sense of wonder and miniature disbelief that fuelled Mike Kunkel’s Herobear, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. There are innumerable comic books devoted to lives far removed from a Child’s experience yet Watterson knew the magic of direct association; every kid has a stuffed pet, plays in the dirt and wonders at the world. The trick, neatly articulated by both Watterson and Renaud Collin is to mix the base and with the sublime.

Evidence? Happy to oblige!. Only Calvin and Hobbes could move seamlessly from example A…

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…to example B…

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My conclusion dear readers, is simply this: great children’s literature can be splashed with all shades of rainbow joy but it should never talk DOWN to its audience. It must talk TO them, safe in the informed knowledge that they’ll be standing on tiptoes to listen.

Well that’s it for this column. Next month I’ll be taking a good, long, hard, smart, flirtatious look at European traditional panel layouts, from Tintin to ‘Spoon & White’.