Before I get started, Iíd like for you to take a trip with me back in time for a moment. I want you to cast your view with your mindís eye back down that hazy, shadowy road known as memory lane and remember the first time you were ever exposed to a comic or a comic book character in any form.
How far back in time did you go? Iím guessing most likely you went far enough back that you were at a height too short for most theme park rides and at an age young enough to get into movies for half price. Most children at some point get their first exposure to Superman, Batman, the X-Men or Spiderman, either in a comic itself or more often from running across a cartoon or a movie featuring those characters. Even if you never read a comic when you were a kid, you probably saw Spiderman and His Amazing Friends or The Super-Friends.
I personally ate heroes up as a child. Even though I really enjoyed the Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno Hulk series and the aforementioned Spiderman cartoon, I was an especially huge fan of DCís characters. I watched reruns of the Adam West Batman series everyday after school and had seen Superman II at least twenty times by the time I was ten. While other children pestered their parents for candy or cheap toys during trips to the local grocery store, I was begging my mom for the latest issue of Superman, Justice League or even the most recent DC Digest.
Now look at me today. Iíve had a lifelong love for literature which led me to become an English instructor, so that I could share my love for reading with others. And of course I still read and enjoy comics, even if my tastes have expanded a bit from the four-color adventures of the spandex-clad heroes of my youth. Comics helped shape me into the well-rounded person I am today.
Itís not something a lot of parents think of when they see their kids reading comics, because they have the image of the socially inept fan whose mental growth has been stunted from reading too many of those damn funnybooks. But comics can actually improve development if you get kids reading early enough. Comics improve literacy and help build kidsí vocabularies. In fact, in an article about comics in the June 2003 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, the author quotes a 1993 study by the Journal of Child Language in which "researchers concluded that the average comic book introduced kids to twice as many words as the average children's book" (George no pag.).
(If youíll allow me a brief aside for a moment, Iíd like to wonder aloud why there was such hype over the Entertainment Weekly features on comics and not this. Better Homes and Gardens is a hugely popular magazine giving comics the kind of direct exposure to those who may have a negative view of what comics are. The article went out of its way to show what comics are REALLY about, to portray comic readers and fans in a very positive light, and my bet is no one even knew about this article until reading about it just now. And thatís a shame.)
Anyway, my point is that getting kids hooked on comics when theyíre young is beneficial to everyone. The comics industry will be gaining fans who will grow up and buy their books. The kids themselves will learn to read better, and the parents will have found for their children an essentially harmless pastime that engages their imagination much more than television or video games.
If you donít believe me that kidsí books sell, then you should take a look at a recent column on Newsarama about how well Archie books sell. The publisher reports around 800,000 copies of Archie books are sold each monthÖ sold directly to kids and without any cartoon tie-in. Why arenít DC and Marvel trying harder to tap into that market? DC offers their "Adventures" versions of their animated series while Marvel has created Tsunami as a publishing initiative to younger readers, but I canít help but think those lines donít really accomplish that much. It doesnít seem to me that DC and Marvel are doing enough to attract kids by drawing off of the popularity of their cartoon, TV and movie tie-ins.
One of the key factors that led to those sales for Archie is the price, a cool $2.19, less than any DC or Marvel book produced. If DC and Marvel followed suit and reduced the price of the Adventures books, it could lead to a sales increase. Publishers donít need new books to draw in new readers; they need cheaper books that are more widely available.
But more important than what the publishers need to do to draw in young readers is of course what you can do yourself. Every now and then in this column I issue out some demands of those three or four loyal readers who follow my ramblings, and Iím calling those few of you to arms again this week. You see, kids love presents. I loved going to the grocery store when I was a kid, not because shopping for produce was fun, but because I knew that if I behaved well enough I might get a reward, a gift.
Iím challenging you then to become some childís favorite grown-up. This week I ask you all to find a friend or relative with a young child thatís just starting to read and give that kid a comic or two. Make sure itís age-appropriate of course, so that the parents donít get mad at you, and also make sure itís a child you know, so that the child or the childís parents donít get creeped out by you. But also try to give them something you think theyíll enjoy. It doesnít have to be expensive, just a cheap copy of Ultimate Spiderman or a Disney book. Perhaps you could give them a Cartoon Network book or even an Archie.
What you give them in the end really doesnít matter (though if youíre in need of suggestion, you can pop by my message boards and ask me for one). All that matters is you just get the kids interested in reading. They could quite possibly become the next generation of comic fandom and theyíll someday thank you for it.
George, Stephen C. "Comics With Class." Better Homes and Gardens June 2003: no pag.