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The Wednesday Waffle: Issue Eleven - Ages.

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.

The Untoppable Wasp!