We get asked a lot about whether a particular comic is "suitable" for a particular age group. It's a good question - to which we have no real answer. Here's why.
If you're reading this it seems unlikely that you take the view that comics are just disposable nonsense for kids. As a comics retailer I know that most of our customers are over thirty - and as a comics reader I know that I'm now forty seven years old. If comics were just for kids, surely I'd have lost interest by now.
But if you're reading this, then you're special. The vast majority of the public doesn't read comics, and has a very clear idea that they really are just aimed at children. And this can be a problem.
Before we go any further, I need to lay our some credentials. I was an English Teacher for sixteen years - getting kids to read, and enjoy reading was a part of my job for a significant chunk of my life. I also spent a lot of time talking to kids between the ages of 11 - 18 about the kind of stories they wanted to consume, and the media in which they wanted to consume them with. In addition to that since my teens I've spent my life around comics, the people who make them and the people who read them. As a result of both of these things I have opinions which I regard to be informed.
So. A statement of principle. It is my view, as an individual, a trained educator and a purveyor of fiction, that the classification of stories - in any medium - as "for children", "for teens" or "for adults" is essentially bogus. As a teacher I was very much against moves to put age ratings on books - if a book is labeled "Teen" does that mean a twelve year old shouldn't read it? If I, as a middle aged man were to read and enjoy it would I be in some way regressing?
Of course not. Sometimes I want to read something challenging, sometimes I want a bit of escapism, something light, something easy. So, as a full-grown man I'm sometimes going to reach for a volume of Harry Potter. Because sometimes that's what I fancy reading.
Equally, telling a child that they shouldn't read a book because "It'll be too difficult for you" is both immensely patronising and genuinely detrimental to their development. In my experience if a kid picks up a book or a comic that is too advanced, they tend to decide pretty quickly that it's not for them and move on to something else - but sometimes they discover a lifelong passion, as I did when I first tried to read Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings when I was nine. I struggled with it, and didn't understand all of it, but I've been passionate about it ever since.
Now, that doesn't mean I'm advocating a total free for all. Complexity of language and plot is one thing, but as responsible adults we do need to have some consideration for content. I'm still somewhat against straightforward age banding though - it depends very much on the child involved, and we're in a world of shades of grey here, but there are some firm lines that can be drawn.
I mean, I'd never sell a copy of Crossed to somebody who was under eighteen. The levels of violence and debauchery depicted in your average issue of that comic are extreme by pretty much any standards and I reckon you need to have some experience of other forms of horror to be able to understand the context and the twisted humour that prevent that book from being mere torture porn. So I guess I do have a boundry.
But what about comics like The Walking Dead? On the face of it, it's a horror comic about zombies and a knee jerk reaction would be to say "that's not for children". But I was a teacher for a long time, and I had many conversations with eleven and twelve year old kids who reckoned that Walking Dead was their favourite TV show. I was initially inclined to dismiss this as them just talking big, but on closer interrogation it was clear that they were well familiar with the intricacies of the plot - they clearly were avid fans.
So if a kid watches the TV show, why not let them read the comic? If anything the levels of violence and gore are lower in the comic - it's in black and white, for a start - the only real difference is the language. The TV show is made by AMC, who have strict limits on the amount and level of verbal profanity that is permitted in a season. The comic is published by Image, who are happy to give their creators free rein.
Which leaves us with the question "is exposure to bad language in a fictional setting more damaging than exposure to extreme violence in a fictional setting?"
And there's no definitive answer to that one. Which is why at Destination Venus we take a pragmatic view. We're not going to sell The Walking Dead to a kid unless we've spoken to their parents, shown them the comic and let them know what to expect. If their parents are cool with it, that's fine by us. If their parents are not fine with it, that's fine too. Ultimately what your kids can or cannot have access to is not our call to make - we assume that parents know their children better than we ever will.
All of that said, it's good to know that there are some comics that you can safely put in the hands of younger readers that won't insult their intelligence, and won't contain themes you'd rather not have a long discussion about. So. Let me recommend some.
We'll start with The Unstoppable Wasp. In 2016 Nadia Pym, the fifteen year old lost daughter of Hank "The First Ant-Man" Pym and his first wife escaped the Red Room, where she'd been trained as a killer scientist, and made it to America, where discovering her dad was dead, she set about building a life.
She is perhaps the most positive character in the whole of comics, using her father's "Pym Particles" - and her own genius level skills to fight crime as The Wasp - with the blessing and assistance of Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp, and Pym's second wife.
In addition she founded the Genius In action Research Labs to harness the intellectual prowess of other young women with special skills in science and engineering, and fights crime with The Champions - who we'll get to later. That book as cancelled after just eight issues, but now it's back!
I'm mentioning Nadia first, because her book illustrates perfectly how rating comics for "age appropriateness" is hard and, frankly, a bit dependent on your opinion. Everything about The Unstoppable Wasp - the art style, the level of peril in the stories, the language, everything, suggests to me that this was a book created to attract readers in the "Tween" to "Early Teen" age range. If its relentless fun and positivity happens to appeal to fat forty seven year old comics store owners so much the better, but this book is definitely aimed at people more than thirty five years my junior. It promotes critical thinking, encourages young people - and especially girls - to get into S.T.E.M. subjects and is all 'round brilliantly kid friendly. As a former English Teacher I reckon this should be in every school library.
And yet Marvel in their wisdom have rated the book "Teen +". I was puzzled by this, and have given a lot of thought to the reasons why they might have done that, and I can only think of one. Two of the girls who work with Nadia at G.I.R.L. are in love with each other. It's an incredibly sweet relationship, but it is two young women in a relationship. There's no agenda here, no "in your face" pro-gay propaganda (whatever that would be) just two characters who, amongst other things, happen to be in love.
Marvel of course has to live in the real world, and so has to recognise that there are parents who would not want their children to see that. I might disagree with such a parental decision, but I accept that as a publisher Marvel has to deal with that - however disappointing I find it. I really wish they had the courage of their convictions. So. Marvel suggests this is a comic suitable for people in their late teens. I say it's perfect for the 10-12s. I guess you have to judge accordingly...
Over at what the late, great Stan Lee would refer to as the Distinguished Competition we have another book that launched in 2016, was cancelled after far too short a run and has been revived - the brilliant Adventures of the Super Sons.
Jon Kent is the son of the Rebirth Superman and Lois Lane. He's a good kid, slowly coming in to the powers he inherited from his dad, respectful of his parents' authority, and indeed the authority of his elders in general. He tries hard to do the right thing and stay out of trouble - which includes not using his powers until he's old enough to use them responsibly.
Damien Wayne is the son of Batman and Talia Al-Ghul. Raised from birth by the league of Assassins and only finding his father (who knew nothing of his existence) aged nine or ten, Damien is arrogant, over-confident, outageously intelligent, quick witted and has no respect for anybody.
There's honestly no reason for these two boys to be friends, except of course, their dads are besties, and so they are thrown together - and of course, who else can understand what it's like to be Superman's kid, except Batman's kid? The dynamic of their relationship is pretty simple. Damien gets them into trouble, Jon tries to get them out of it. They both try very hard indeed not to have to call their dads.
Like Unstoppable Wasp this is an immensely witty, relatable and fun read. Again, it's clearly not aimed anywhere near my late forties self, but as a jaded and cynical adult I find it a breath of positive fresh air. There's no condescension to the younger audience here - just solid, fun storytelling, something we could do with more of for all ages.
So, having tried to explain why pidgeon holing books into age ranges is problematic, next time we'll be back with some more recommendations of books that are suitable for kids of all ages - from six to six hundred. Because there are a lot, and while we hate to use the "C word" in this context, some of them may well make great Christmas presents...