Trends in Kids Graphic Novels

By Victor Van Scoit

The comic book industry fought hard to establish that comic books should be taken seriously. In doing so the content became more mature, and choices for quality comics aimed at younger readers diminished. The industry has taken years to course correct and now younger readers are a rapidly rising audience. So how do publishers spot trends that will resonate with young readers? The  Trends in Kids Graphics Novels panel, held at the San Diego Central Library during Comic-Con, aimed to find out.

Moderated by Brigid Alverson (Good Comics For Kids) while Charles Kochman (Abrams ComicArts) and Filip Sablik (BOOM! Studios) rounded out the panel to discuss the trends. Before the panel discussed where kids comics were heading, Alverson wanted to cover what got the panelists into comic books in the first place. This helped to look at the industry’s past trends with some hindsight thrown in.

Sablik recalled, “I picked up an anthology of Batman stories at a used bookstore around the time the Tim Burton [Batman] movie came out. A kid in my class on the first day of school saw me reading it, and assumed I must be a comic book fan.”

That new friend then shared more comics with Sablik. “I was a product of that unfortunate era of comic evolution known as the 90s”, said Sablik, a reminder to a time when comic books themselves were a trend and barely survived the overexposure of a speculative market.

Kochman talked about his road to comics from a professional standpoint, working on I Love to Read: Batman and I Love to Read: Batman and Superman. These were successful magazines published under Redan in the UK that licensed DC Comics characters, and allowed readers to jump in without years of continuity or being in the middle of a several issue story arc. It seemed DC Comics missed out on continuing their foothold in what would later be the current trend of kids comics and graphic novels.

Kochman said later, “I find it frustrating that a company like DC or Marvel—they should own kids comics. Given their ability to make amazing comics, and given the characters that are a part of their arsenal, they should be able to tell the best stories for kids. It’s just not a part of their interest.”

Alverson moved us along the trend timeline by asking the panel when it was, as publishers, they starting looking at kids comics as an opportunity, or when they noticed a tipping point. Both Sablik and Kochman had examples that spoke to their adoption and success.

Sablik began, “For us at BOOM it was when we started with Adventure Time. We came to Comic-Con one year and it was just starting to take off as a show. One of the assistant editors saw it, and we went out and got the license. We came back the following year and the cosplay was everywhere.”

Kochman spoke to his first Comic-Con working for Abrams ComicArts. “First year at Comic-Con I met Jeff Ginney and he pitched a project to me and he said, ‘Would you be interested in a web comic that’s for kids?’ And he handed me a pamphlet for something called Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Kochman took it home that night, and called him the next morning to take it on. Less than a year later it was published and on shelves based on Kochman’s approach to publishing. “I wish when I was a kid there was a book like this. That’s kind of the way I approached it.”

In the case of Diary of a Wimpy Kid it was an almost immediate success in schools and amongst librarians. “The novel came out in April ’07. We hit [The New York Time] list of May ’07 and we haven’t left it since. Within a month it hit and it was one of those viral things. A kid has 29 other kids in his class, and he’s got 7 other classes, and every week he’d tell a friend who told a friend. That was the first instance of something really going viral.”

Sablik then explained how librarians and their influence in the industry is an area of particular interest to publishers. “What you have to understand, particularly, from a comic publisher that has been born and developed in the direct market—librarians are very mysterious. We don’t know how to reach you, we don’t know how you get your information, or how you find books.”

The audience then laughed as Alverson took a well timed opportunity to mention her Comics For Kids blog as a resource to remove a little bit of that mystery.

Luckily the stereotype of old librarians that turn their noses up at comics seems to have passed according to Kochman. “They are all gone, those gatekeepers. Now the new gatekeeper librarians love comics and appreciate what it is—which is reading. I think they’ve been instrumental. There’s a couple shifts that happened that allowed comics to grow. I’m very, very grateful”

Finally Alverson guided the panel to the present by asking what books were they looking at right now. Kochman worried about sounding cliché, but for him it was diversity in making comics that everyone could see themselves in. “One of the reasons [Diary of a] Wimpy Kid was so successful was that it was in black and white, it was a line drawing, and it didn’t matter what race or color you were. You could project yourself onto the character. I’m seeing a lot more of that now.”

Sablik agreed by noting the adoption of the books they publish representing women and girls in all sorts of stories. “The conventional wisdom was that girls don’t read comics. As it turns out they will, if you publish things they want to read.” He mentioned how San Diego Comic-Con and other convention’s attendees look less and less like him—middle aged white men—and how that’s a good thing. “You walk the convention floor and it reflects our world.” This called back to something Sablik said earlier in the panel.

“The great irony is we spent decades trying to convince people that comics aren’t just for kids—and like everything we do in the comics industry we went overboard—and now we’ve spent the last 15-20 years trying to convince that, they are also for kids.” It seems the best takeaway was that comics can be for everyone if created by everyone.

The panelist didn’t leave the audience empty handed either. Alverson asked them to share some of the books they’re publishing that have done well for them based on today’s trends.

Sablik suggested LumberjanesGoldie Vance, and Giant Days (“A great example of a book that was not intended for me.”). He also was excited about the recently announced Mega Princess.

“And just to be clear, she is thusly named [Mega Princess] because she has the powers of all the princesses—all of them. There’s only one problem. She doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be a detective,” said Sablik. “[This] will be a positive favorite in my house.”

Kochman suggested The Best We Could Do (“What it means to be first the child, and then the parent.”), My Friend Dahmer & Trashed, and Economix (“The history of our economy and our country and how we’ve gotten to where we are.”). On the horizon he was most looking forward to the adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

To end the panel it was asked what tends to resonate with audiences regardless of trends. For Sablik, “We get new creators coming up and the work they do tends to reflect their influences.” While for Kochman, “From the beginning with Eisner, it’s been about memoirs and personal stories. The books that have crossed over in big ways have been memoirs.”

As for spotting new trends both Sablik and Kochman agreed it comes down to keeping your eyes open, asking their own children and their friends’ children what they’re liking. Kochman would ideally want a crystal ball, but sometimes you’ll just never know where a trend is going to come from. Take Pokémon Go, for example.

“Sometimes you’re in the middle of a trend—like Pokémon Go is now this thing that just happened. A couple years ago I was proposing doing a book [on the collected cards]. Somebody then said ‘I think that’s over.’ I wasn’t a Pokémon fan so I was too old for it, but I thought ‘I guess they’re right.’ And we were wrong.”