It was my great honor to stand at this podium a couple of years ago and hand out one of the Eisner awards. I guess I’ve made some progress in the world, because on that other occasion I felt like even more of a fraud than I do now. Now, as the author of two comic book scripts, I can face you guys with my head held a little higher.
By the wide world, for at least the first forty years of their existence, comics were universally branded as juvenile. They were the ultimate greasy kids’ stuff. They were viewed as the literary equivalent of bubblegum cards, meant to be poked into the spokes of a young mind where they would produce a satisfying—but entirely bogus—rumble of pleasure.
We all know that. And we know how over the years, little by little at first, and then with increasing vigor and determination, a battle has been waged to elevate the medium, to expand the scope of its subject matter and the range of its artistic styles, to sharpen and increase the sophistication of its language and visual grammar, to probe and explode the limits of the sequential panel, to give free reign to irony and tragedy and other grown-up-type modes of expression.
All along, a key element—at times the central element—of this battle, has been the effort to alter not just the medium itself but the public perception of the medium. From Will Eisner insisting on the artistic credibility of comics in the Baltimore Sun in 1940, to the nuanced and scholarly work of recent comics theorists, both practitioners and critics have been arguing passionately on behalf of comics’ potential to please, in all the aesthetic richness of that term—the most sophisticated of readers.
The most sophisticated, that is, of adult readers. The adult reader of comic books has always been the holy grail, the promised land, the imagined lover who will greet us, at the end of the journey, with open arms, with acceptance, with approval.
A quest is often, among other things, an extended bout of inspired madness. Over the years this quest to break the chains of childish readership has resulted, like most bouts of inspired madness, in folly, and in stunning innovation. In the latter category we can put the work of Bernard Krigstein, say, or of Frank Miller. In the former we can put all the things that got Dr. Wertham so upset, the syringe-pierced eyeballs and human-organ baseball diamonds, the short lived slapping of certain Marvel titles in 1965 with a label that said “A Marvel Pop Art Production,” and all those tooth-gnashing, bloodletting quote-unquote heroes of the post Dark Knight-era.
An excess of desire to appear grown up is one of the defining characteristics of adolescence. But these follies were the inevitable missteps and overreachings in the course of a campaign that was, in the end, successful.
Because I believe that the battle has now, in fact, been won. Not only are comics appealing to a wider and older audience than ever before, but the idea of comics as a valid art form on a par at least with, say, film or rock and roll music, is widely if not quite universally accepted. Comics and graphic novels are regularly reviewed and debated in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, even in the august pages of The New York Review of Books. Ben Katchor won a MacArthur Fellowship, and Art Spiegelman a Pulitzer Prize.
We all know that, too. We also know that as the reputation, the ambition, the sophistication, and the literary and artistic merit of much of our best comics work has been steadily rising over the past couple of decades, comics readership, viewed in terms of sales and circulation, has pretty much been in freefall. More adults are reading better comics than ever before; but far fewer people overall. I know that a lot of us worry about that.
For a while now, some people have been wondering: what if there were comic books for children?
A lot of publishers will tell you that there’s too much competition for the kid dollar these days, and that comics will inevitably lose out to video games, sfx-laden films, the Internet, etc. I’m sorry, I know there’s some truth to the claim, but I just don’t buy it. I think it’s a cop out. And I think it’s typical of our weird naïveté about how sophisticated we are vis a vis our parents and grandparents, the sense of retrospective superiority we tend to display toward the them and their vanished world, as if there has not always been tons of other cool stuff for a kid to spend his or her time and limited funds on besides comic books. In the early days of comics, in fact, unlike now, there was all kinds of stuff to do that was not only fun and exempt from adult supervision but absolutely free. And there is no competition like free.
I also don’t buy the argument that kids today are more sophisticated, that the kind of comics that pleased a seven-year-old in 1959 would leave an ultracool kid of today snickering with disdain. Tell that to Zeke. Then ask him how sad and moved he was when he read about the death of Ferro Lad.
Children did not abandon comics; comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children. And for a long time we as lovers and partisans of comics were afraid, after so many long years of struggle and hard work and incremental gains, to pick up that old jar of greasy kid stuff again, and risk undoing it all. Comics have always been an arriviste art form, and all upstarts are to some degree ashamed of their beginnings. But frankly, I don’t think that’s what’s going on in comics anymore.
Now, I think, we have simply lost the habit of telling stories to children. And how sad is that?
The equation, as it’s usually formulated is a simple one: create more child readers now, and we get more adult readers later. But maybe the equation isn’t so simple after all. Maybe what we need, in this second golden age, as Neil Gaiman described it in his keynote speech last year, is not more comics for kids, but more great comics for kids.
So, how do we make great comic books for kids? (How should I know? I’ve only written two comic book scripts in my whole life!)
I guess I have one concrete suggestion in that regard, which I’ll get to in a minute. First I have a few general principles. I have drawn these principles in part from my memories of the comics I loved when I was young. But I think they hold true as well for the best and most successful works of children’s literature.
1) Let’s not tell stories that we think “kids of today” might like. That is a route to inevitable failure and possibly loss of sanity. We should tell stories that we would have liked as kids. Twist endings, the unexpected usefulness of unlikely knowledge, nobility and bravery where it’s least expected, and the sudden emergence of a thread of goodness in a wicked nature, those were the kind of stories told by the writers and artists of the comic books that I liked. The first two, very generally speaking, you tended to find more often at DC; the second two at Marvel.
2) Let’s tell stories that, over time, build up an intricate, involved, involving mythology that is also accessible, comprehensible, at any point of entry. The intricacy, the accretion of lore over time should be both inventive and familiar, founded in old mythologies and fears but fully reinterpreted, reimagined. It will demand, it will ache, to be mastered by a child’s mythology-mastering imagination. The accessibility will come from our making a commitment to tell a full, complete story, or a complete piece of a story, in every issue. This kind of layering of intricate lore and narrative completeness was a hallmark of the great Superman family books. I think it’s a trait also shared by the Potter books, the Lemony Snicket books, and many others.
3) Let’s cultivate an unflagging readiness as storytellers to retell the same stories with endless embellishment. Anybody who thinks that kids get bored by hearing the same story over and over again has never spent time telling stories to kids. The key, as in baroque music, is repetition with variation. Again the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman books, written by unflagging storytellers like Edmond Hamilton and the Otto Binder, were exemplary in this regard. The proliferation of theme-and-variation there verges, at times, on sheer, splendid madness.
4) Let’s blow their little minds. A mind is not blown, in spite of whatever Hollywood seems to teach, merely by action sequences, things exploding, thrilling planetscapes, wild bursts of speed. Those are good things. But a mind is blown when something you always feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.
Okay, now we get to my one concrete suggestion. If it seems a little obvious, or has already been tried, forgive me. But I can’t help noticing that in the world of children’s literature, an overwhelming preponderance of stories are stories about children. The same is true of films for children: the central characters are nearly always a child, a pair, or a group of children. Comic books, however, even those theoretically aimed at children, are almost always about adults, or teenagers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Maybe somebody should try putting out a truly thrilling, honestly observed and remembered, richly imagined, involved and yet narratively straightforward comic book for children, about children.
My son Zeke is here tonight. He’s seven, and he likes comic books. In 1944, if you were a seven year old, you probably knew a dozen other kids your age who were into Captain Marvel and the Submariner and the Blue Beetle. When I was seven, in 1970, I knew three or four. But in his class, in his world, Zeke is unique. Comic books are so important to me—I have thought, talked and written about them so much—that if he didn’t like them, I think he would be obliged to loathe them. I have pretty much forced comics on my kids.
We can’t afford to take this handcrafted, one-kid-at-a-time approach anymore. We have to sweep them up and carry them off on the vast flying carpets of story and pictures on which we ourselves, in entire generations, were borne aloft, on carpets woven by Swan and Hamilton, Kirby and Lee. They did it for us; we have to pass it on, pay it forward. It’s our duty, it’s our opportunity, and I really do believe it will be our pleasure.