by Rosie Knight
Over the last year I spent some time in comics retail, working at my favourite local comic shop, London’s renowned Orbital Comics. In this series of articles, I’ll be looking at some of the trends I observed whilst I was there, focusing on the positive changes that are happening in the industry. Welcome to “I Used To Sell You Your Comics”
“Comics are for kids.” How often have you heard that refrain? How many times did teachers, parents, or the general population question your love for a medium which, in their eyes, could be summed up with this one generic statement? For me, it’s been a regular occurrence — the misunderstanding of comics or cartooning as a lesser art form. The strange implication that something that is aimed at children or young people is not worthwhile or valid. The oddest thing about that statement, though, is that for over three decades it hasn’t been the case.
Let me take you back to the 80s. Comics had long been seen as the format of choice for kids. It was often disregarded as a lower art form, something for the saturday morning cartoon crowd. Even though the academic view of comics had already begun to change in the 60s and 70s with Stan Lee’s university tours, the rise of the underground comics movement, and great big two runs like Panther’s Rage by Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, and Billy Graham, generally comics and superheroes were seen as child’s play. But in 1986, two books would change that forever.
The impact of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns on the comics industry cannot be overstated. These overtly violent and explicitly adult books subverted the blunt symbolism of the early Golden Age by creating heavily thematic tales reflecting the political landscape of the time. Though comics, sci-fi, and fantasy have always been a cipher for political ideas and radical thoughts, these two books used sequential art to actively tell stories for a demographic that, though recognised, had never truly been embraced. The legacy of these books can still be felt to this day. From DC’s now infamous New 52 relaunch to their dark and gritty film universe, the idea of these books being the pillars of authenticity and “good comics” has been one that the industry has time and time again found hard to break.
Growing up as a queer woman, reading comics was a strange balancing act. I juggled the pressure to embrace the problematic classics with striving to find my own version of representation in a culture heavily focused on straight men. I repeatedly avoided any comics that seemed specifically feminine because my own internalized misogyny told me they were uncool and unworthy. But as I became more sure of myself in life, I also became more sure of what I wanted and needed in my comics. Luckily, my own internal limitations began to break down just as the landscape of comics began to shift.
From Harry Potter to Hunger Games, young adult fiction has become prevalent and, more importantly in this context, incredibly profitable. With huge teen franchises dominating the box office and novels aimed at young people topping bestseller lists, the comic book publishers have taken notice. Finally, after decades of predominantly aiming their books at mature audiences and teenage boys, suddenly comic book publishers have introduced magical girl scouts, teenage muslim polymorphs, and stylish girl detectives into the mix.
I began my stint with Orbital Comics amid the peak of this wave. My love for the art form was reignited by a flurry of more inclusive books by more diverse creators, and it just so happened that many of these fantastic comics were also aimed at young adults or all ages audiences.
I spent large amounts of my workday giving people wildly enthusiastic recommendations. One of the questions I was asked the most whilst sitting at the counter was: “I want to buy a book for my kid who’s just gotten into comics. What do you suggest?” Personally, that was one of the most exciting things anyone could ask! The potential to give a child their future favourite book — the book that may make them want to make comics or draw or even just inspire deep passion for an art form — is a thrilling feeling.
One of the best things about Orbital (and there are many) is that it’s always been committed to serving and embracing a diverse customer base. The shop is constantly working to create an inclusive and welcoming space for all. Along with that, everyone who works in the shop is an expert in some part of comics and comics history, taking great joy in introducing people to their favourite books. Working at the register, I was able to facilitate great experiences between my colleagues and the customers, whilst also imparting my own passion for books that I knew would encourage and engage new readers.
Here are four series that I saw create new and enthusiastic readers. They not only embrace an inclusive and exciting way of storytelling, but they were huge hits for us at the shop.
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur – Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos
Lunella Lafayette is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe. That’s not hyperbolic. She was recently announced as the most intelligent character that currently exists or has existed in Marvel canon. That just might be why, when he comes hurtling through time into modern New York, it’s Marvel’s newest genius who Devil Dinosaur teams up with. This story about a black girl genius and a huge pink dinosaur is one of the best and most exciting team-up books I’ve ever read. Lively, heartfelt, and smart as all hell, this book is unmissable.
Lumberjanes – Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen
One of the biggest selling books in the last few years wasn’t about an angry man in tights. It wasn’t even about men. It was about a group of girl scouts at a summer camp that just happens to be in a magical forest. Navigating first crushes, riding velociraptors, fighting three eyed wolves and solving mysteries, all the while learning about the real magic in the world… Female Friendships.
Gotham Academy – Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl
The elevator pitch for this book is simple: Hogwarts in Gotham City. And, yes, this book is as exciting and as fun as that sounds! It’s also so much more. A beautifully illustrated look into loss, friendship, magic, and legacy all set under the shadow of the Bat himself. With a main cast of three young women of colour, this book breaks all the rules for what a “Batman” comic has been and it’s all the better for it.
Goldie Vance – Hope Larson, Brittney Williams
A wonderfully stylish and sugar sweet book about a curious girl named Goldie. She lives in her father’s hotel and longs to be the hotel detective. So when the current detective mysteriously vanishes, Goldie is on the case! One of the most lovely books I’ve read in a long time, this miniseries and its perfect protagonist are a complete joy.
Although this article is specifically written with younger readers in mind, these are all books that I have, along with many of my colleagues and friends, greatly enjoyed. They’re wonderful starting points for new readers of any age or seasoned fans who want something new to explore. Not to mention that these titles really just provide a tiny taste of what contemporary comics have to offer.
The current landscape of the industry has been a long time coming and still has a long way to go, with many creators, grassroots movements, and online contributors leading us to where we are now. The refreshed focus on younger readers has had a sizeable role in this new state of play, with creators able to craft entirely different kinds of books for this recently recognised demographic. Newly acknowledged audiences mean more diversity in stories, characters, and creators, which is a wonderful thing for anyone who enjoys comics. This is all part of the push for more inclusive storytelling, which embraces comic book fans of all ages and backgrounds. That’s not only great for fans and creators of comics who have long been ignored, but it also means better comics for everyone.