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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Comic Books Are NOT Supposed to Grow Up With You!

I’ve read the following statement from numerous comic fans on message boards and their blogs:

“Comic books are supposed to grow up with me.”

That’s the most selfish statement I have ever heard. So when you turn 40 Spider-Man is supposed to do an entire issue on how he invests his 401K at the Daily Bugle? When you turn 50 Superman is supposed to be flying out in space looking for Viagranite™ to deal with his erectile dysfunction? And when you turn 65, Batman riding around in his Bat Hoveround™ is supposed to stop the Joker from stealing Ensure cases at the drugstore?

I’m sorry this is STUPID.

Comic books are not supposed to grow up with you. They are a children’s medium meant for Independent readers ages 8-12 and Young adult readers 13-18.

It’s this type of wrongheaded thinking that has the comic book industry stagnating for the past 20 years.

And it has many a comic fan stuck in a stage of arrested development. It’s why a group of 35-46 year-old men want superheroes and characters they grew up with to remain a part of their lives.

I’m sorry but that’s trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. Something that’s part of your childhood is not going to work in your adult life.

Comic book characters are meant for children and teens. They’re not supposed to grow up with you. They’re not supposed to be complex. They’re not supposed to be deep. They’re not literature.

The reason why an adult can read through a stack of comics in a few minutes is not just due to the content, it’s because their brain has evolved. As we grow into adulthood, our brains process material faster.

That’s why an adult can read through a 300 page novel in two days and a child needs a half-hour or forty-five minutes to read a comic.

Here’s the horrible truth many comic fans don’t want to hear: We’re supposed to grow out of comic books and superheroes. It’s a natural progression of life.

The commercial product known as the 32-page comic book is intended for CHILDREN. Superheroes and cartoon characters are the stuff of escapist fantasy for tweens and teens.

One of the reasons why the industry has been going nowhere for the past twenty years is because people keep trying to make a children’s medium into an adult one. Trying to make fantasy more real. Projecting their personal issues as adults onto fictional characters. Finding catharsis through fantasy.

Comic books aren’t supposed to be real.

They’re escapism.

Sure we relate to and identify with the characters, but their lives aren’t supposed to be our lives. We read their stories to get away from our lives.

We’re not supposed to want their lives to be like ours. No one cares about Batman or Superman’s sex life. We’re not supposed to know if Lois Lane is getting banged in the Daily Planet bathroom stall by a dude on her lunch break. We’re not supposed to know if She-Hulk slept with Hercules. We don’t need to know Bruce Wayne’s feelings on the George W. Bush’s Tax cut policy or Spider-Man’s skill at cunningulus.

That’s not their job. Their job is to stop bad guys and fight crime, and brighten up a part of the reader’s day by showing that good always triumphs over evil.

Now I know the medium known as comic book art can be interpreted in many ways. And if writers and artists want to go these adult routes I suggest they head over to another imprint and create a graphic novel where they can explore more adult themes and adult-oriented content.

And there are tons of older adult-themed strips with mature content for older readers. I’m urging the over 35 crowd to go find them. Stuff like Something*Positive, Girls With Slingshots,  Quiltbag or Shortpacked! will satisfy an older readers fix for comic strips and provide them with the content more appropriate for their age.

But leave the 32-page comics and their related characters to children.

My brother grew out of comic books at 18. I grew out of them at 23. While we both love the characters from Marvel and DC Comics, we found other forms of entertainment more appropriate for our age.

I wish many more older comic fans would do the same.

As we get older we’re supposed to put down the comics. Usually when people graduate high school and head off to college, they’re exposed to literature in core classes. As young adults study the novel in college their minds expand. These different perspectives make them want to seek out other forms of literature.

Some move onto genre fiction like fantasy or sci-fi. Others move on to political intrigue stories like Tom Clancy, the Bourne series or romance novels. Others move on to Contemporary commercial fiction. A few move on to literary fiction and literary criticism. And a handful of us become writers and screenwriters.

But eventually, most of us move on to read larger and more complicated forms of literature.

Now I’m a fan of comic books and superheroes. But I understand that there was a time for me to put them down and move on to other forms of literature.

After college, I discovered African-American fiction. As I read dozens of Black authors I came to a greater understanding of African-American culture. The fiction I read was so fascinating I started reading more and more novels.

Along with novels, I also discovered the joy of great African-American nonfiction. Books like Black Bourgeoisie, Our Kind of People, Manchild in the PromisedLand, Think and Grow Rich and Free at Last? Gave me some perspective on African-American history that helped me out when I became a serious writer.

In addition to those literary classics I read magazines like Essence, Ebony and Ebony Man. Sometimes I’d pick up a GQ or a Playboy (The articles are actually better than the pictorials if you take a moment to read it) or I’d peruse the articles in the Sunday New York Times.

As I grew older my life wasn’t just comic books. As I discovered other forms of literature and its richness and complexity I began to distance myself from them. By the time I was 23-24 I was barely picking them up.

At 38 I still enjoy comics. But as I get older I realize how important it is to share comics with younger readers. I want them to see how great these characters are

I want to see the medium of comic books overcome this dark period and move forward. And the only way for it to move forward is for older readers to realize that comic book characters are a unique to their medium. They’re not supposed to grow with the reader. They’re supposed to remain the same so as one generation of children outgrows the characters another generation can pick them up and pass them on to the next.


  1. Interesting commentary. However the comic book industry has turned its back on kids as the places where kids go to get comics are no longer there. And the character kids want to read about like Static keep getting trashed because the 18-75 year old white male doesn't want him or anyone who looks like him in their books. So how do you deal with them? They have the money and the ability to get to where the comics are.

  2. at 32 (going to 33), I still read comic books, collect action figures, and, play video games BUT I take care of adult stuff first and foremost....I prefer reading a comic book (besides encyclopedias) than boring-ass novels (unless its requires in college). I seriously find nothing wrong with that.

  3. The fact that you say comics are not supposed to be complex begs the question, Why not? Why are they not suppoesed to be interesting and complex, why can there not be comics for kids and adults, there kid friendly comics out there and there are deep complex comics such as Marvels Cvil War series, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and The Killing Joke. Why can't a kid read Teen Titans Go and an adult read The Walking Dead? The same thing could be said about cartoons, cartoons were a kids medium but as cartoon fans grew up we got South Park, Family Guy, and Bobs Burgers. Also, just so you can't dismiss me as an immature adult trying to justify his behavior, I am 15.

  4. Here's the deal:

    Superhero comics aren't supposed to grow up with you. 32-page comics, especially superheroes are for children. You're supposed to grow out of them and start reading other literature.

    Now I read comics when I was in college. I still crack a trade paperback open here and there. But I understand that the content in a superhero comic is supposed to be for primarily tweens (8-13) and teens (14-18).

    As you grow older you start to realize you want more complex material like novels and leave the superhero comics for the next generation to enjoy.

    That's not happening. Today we have grown men trying to hold on to superhero characters and make them fit into a complex adult wold. Stories like Civil War and Killing Joke sucked the fun out of superheroes, and took away the sense of wonder and fun superheroes had.

    Walking Dead, Watchmen & V for Vendetta featured mature content and presented itself as mature content targeted at adult readers. They don't present themselves as material targeted for children.

    Now the comic art medium like Animation is great for telling stories. And if you want rich complex material then there's a place for it: The Graphic novel or the indie comic.

    But my issue with many in the industry is instead of taking a risk and writing an Original Graphic novel they try to shoehorn superheroes into stories that don't fit them tarnishing the character and preventing new readers from accessing them.

    Yeah, you're 15, but the 8-13 year olds don't care about comics these days. And that's killing the comic industry long-term. That's where the money has always been with comic books: KIDS. The median age for a comic reader today is 40. And if we can't reach more of the youngsters can access comics the medium will never have another golden age.

  5. I think it takes a lot of courage to condemn an entire form of media as being unsuitable by some ridiculous adult standards of intellect and artistic integrity. I mean it, it takes a lot to unabashedly write something that sings to the world “I’M CLOSED MINDED.”

    And, what’s great is rather than read comics you give plenty of other forms of media that are more acceptable for adults: novels, cinema even poetry. And everyone knows that these forms of media have never produced works specifically for children, young adults and teens that exist side-by-side with their adult themed “serious” counterparts.

    And your right, Comic Books are mere ESCAPISM. An attribute never sought out by adult consumers in other forms of media; Novels, Television and Film are never utilized by adults for such a crude release.

    In short, thank you so much for clearly defining what art ISN’T. Perhaps you can give us a reading list of suitable mature art forms that would be acceptable so that friends, family, co-workers and everyone else associated with us will know how advanced our tastes have become.

  6. o_O
    Wow. Just wow.
    Yes, the comic medium is an art form. But Comic books, especially superhero comic books are specifically written for CHILDREN. And they don't grow up with you.

    What's killing the comic book industry today is the fact that comics aren't for kids anymore. Dads and Moms want to share comics with their kids but CAN'T due to the overly graphic violent and sexual content. Comics used to sell 250K units 30 years ago. Now they barely sell 25-30K units due to the overly mature content.

    There's a place for that kind of content and it's not in a superhero comic or any comic with characters targeted towards kids. Original Graphic novel cool, but leave the 32-page comics for the kids. Comics are America's Mythology, they're supposed to be passed on from generation to generation. Only the Baby boomers and some Gen-Xers are too SELFISH to let that process transpire.

    1. WRONG.

      I've been reading comic books from the 60s and upwardes for years, and sorry mate, but if I had read these things as a kid, I wouldn't have understood half the plots.

      There are things kids simply do not understand. You can have a kid read a comic book and just like the silly pictures, but when the writers bother to write intricate plots and use concepts and words average children cannot understand then the books become literally NOT for children.

      You're completely mistaken, sir.

  7. What exactly is your argument here? Is it that comics are for kids? Is it that comics are too violent for kids? Is it that adults and kids can't share comics the way they did once upon a time? I’m really asking, because whatever point was trying to be made seems to have dissipated.

    But that doesn't matter because I’m going to level with you; so here's the deal with comics. Comics are a literary and artistic art form. Yes they really are, even superhero comics. So treat it like an art form. Don’t denounce comics, even superhero comics, for being a form of media or a kind of genre. Be a consumer, read the comics and then form your opinions based on individual works. Or don’t read them and form opinions on something else. Maybe comics aren’t for you, even if they once were for you. That’s okay, but there’s lots of us that still read them. We’re not naïve, uneducated or psychosocially stagnated. We just happen to have an interest in comics, and we’re not going anywhere.

  8. My argument is this: We have two generations who won't let superhero comics grow up with the next generation of readers. And because they're holding onto their favorite characters, the industry can't evolve and change to meet interests of the next two generations. We've already lost Generation Y to video games, and we're losing the Millenials to smartphones and social media.

    I'm watching 30 and 40 year olds hold onto characters they should have let go of years ago.

    Are people trying to hold onto Sesame street the way they're holding onto superheroes? Big Bird and Mr. Snuffeleupagus have moved on and now we have Elmo, baby Bear and a host of other Muppets that reflect the world of the kids from the last two generations. Sesame Street evolved as the audience for it moved on.

    Yes, comic storytelling is a medium. But the medium can't survive if older people won't let the kids discover what's great about it. If they don't see their stories in the pages of comics they have no reason to care about them. The industry has been in a 20 year slump thanks to the dysfunctional way of thinking of adults who insist comics especially superhero ones reflect their childhood and not the childhood of kids today.

  9. You know, this article is old, but I like it. I agree with the pretext that comics shouldn't be some virtual life, they shouldn't be serious and get into all that adult, marriage, and other silly business. I mean, are they really escapism any more when it's so much about people arguing over who belongs with whom, or who is going to die and come back to life next? Seriously, some people need to go back to the old stupid stuff from older years that wasn't about punching homicidal maniacs and more about some goofy plot to steal money by the riddler or some crap like that. Something that can be laughed at. Your article was spot on, especially with some people making a deal nowadays about who Superman sleeps with. Come on, does that really matter? DO I really need all that stupid break up and marriage drama? Kids already deal with enough of that stuff with their own problems. It's like comics aren't the comedic escape from reality that they once were. I think they should be childish, more innocent stuff that beats drugs or booze or having to relive the #$%^ we have to deal with in our real lives. Some people need to either grow up, or accept that superheroes don't need to dig into real life issues sometimes.

  10. Comics are just for kids? Tell that to the French.

  11. Comics are just for kids? Tell that to the French.

  12. This is old, but I kind of find myself agreeing with it. I guess it would keep characters stagnant, but it would just be good if comic books sold to a wider audience.

  13. I have to agree with you Shawn James. Your point is simple: superhero comic books were written specifically for children, some adults in their 30s and 40s simple won't let go. That's the end of it if you ask me. Now, if people want to split hairs and carefully dissect more details in order to defend the simple point, then that's a whole other discussion. Are superhero comic books pieces of art and literature? Sure I can agree with that because over the last few decades the stories have evolved and have become more complex that young children may not necessarily comprehend it all initially. But I do feel like some adults' obsession (because I believe that's what it is) with superheroes is just like that with children's toys. But because these adults aren't actually playing with the toys as if they were when they were children, the way they are reading comic books, then there is some vague area that makes them feel like they are not children not letting go of their toys. When I see photos of these comic conventions, yes it's great that you're bringing your kids to enjoy with things you grew up with, but it's a little odd to me that the majority of people who attend these things are the adults themselves, graying-hair, still wearing their superhero logo t-shirt, literally arrested development. And yet I say, hey that's your obsession, your passion, your interest, it's your choice. BUT, you don't have to deny or be afraid to say, "Yes, I SHOULD let go of these children's superheroes, BUT I don't want to." And I think that's OK. In my opinion, it's not OK when you have to build paragraphs of arguments akin to a legal defense instead of just admitting that you don't want to grow up from these particular childhood nostalgia. SNL's Star Wars Toy Commercial parody pokes fun at adults obsessed with Star Wars toys in particular, but I think it illustrates well the point Shawn James makes, which now is clearer to me: this is little about comic books, and more about adults not wanting to grow up and let go. SNL Star Wars Toy Commercial:

    1. You know, Letting Go, I actually found that at some point, some of these themes work well being enjoyed with your children. I just grew up enough to realize that I didn't need to be an overobsessed fanboy about how it wasn't for me anymore. For instance, the new Spider-Man animated shows are about Peter Parker as a teenager, pretty clearly directed at audiences younger than myself, but I don't mind, because I am willing to admit it's more for my kids than it is for me. It's just that possessiveness that I learned to let go of, mostly because I learned that it's just not worth my fuss compared to numerous other issues.

    2. But at this point, the comic books specifically will be a dead industry without the older adults. I don't see the big two reconciling that. I don't see them admitting that as being a problem until it is too late. I do find it annoying all the adult fans who make a big deal out of certain trends in comics when they probably shouldn't be so worked up about it. But the other problem is on the publisher side, where they feel just fine with reaching fewer people from a direct market.