Lately the words “All-Ages” have become a buzz phrase without a clear definition. Some publishers use it to brand their comics for kids, while others have geared it towards a polarizing audience outside of anything branded “Mature”. BOOM! associate editor Whitney Leopard has recently led discussions at various cons about the importance of all-ages comics. Sunday at Wondercon the latest informative session was held; among her group for this particular one was Derek Fridolfs (Lil Gotham), Shelli Paroline (Adventure Time), Mairghread Scott (Transformers), and Melissa Paglucia (Above The Clouds).
After a rundown of the groups first experiences as comic fans (ranging from Bone, Star Wars, and even Manga), the panel delved into the meaning of what all-ages books should be. These topics are something all comics fans that want to see the industry thrive and be around for future generations to read should be talking about. Today’s market caters towards older readers (age 18-49). Places like Boom! and IDW, who are publishing a fair amount of inclusive comics, are still too rare of an occurrence. Fridolfs talked about how children’s bookstores are carrying graphic novels and how they demonstrate how important that audience will be once the older generation phases out. When you think about it, regular Batman books aren’t even for kids. Children who’ve only heard about the Nolan movies don’t always get to see them cause some parents might not feel like it’s appropriate for their kids, but every child has heard of the character and might want to see it in whatever form they’re allowed.
Typically words like “silly and fun” are associated with all-ages, but can there be heavier stories in this genre? One of the points made by the group is how polarizing this type of book is suppose to be. Even though books like these should be inclusive for kids; if the heavy stuff is handled responsibly then the story is even more valuable for that piece of its intended audience. Editors are around to decide if you’ve gone to far or not far enough as a storyteller. Paglucia gave the example about how David Peterson’s Mouse Guard nails an all-ages aspect by how immersive the world is for kids to look at while teaching them about real issues in life they’ll have to encounter.
Another stereotype of all-ages books is there association with licensed properties such as Adventure Time, My Little Pony, Skylanders, etc. Is there room for original material in the world of all-ages? While the group believes there is a market for it; licensed properties have a “joy” according to Scott. One of their latent effects is the ability of the books to sort of trick kids into reading. In today’s –YouTube let’s play– world most young children have dismissed the pleasures of reading, but they’d be open to reading a comic about their favorite licensed property and that could be a gateway into reading other things.
According to the group another challenge in pushing all-ages comics lies with the retailers. Every shop is different and some merchandise smarter than others. Some shops separate them out from the rest of their catalogue, while others hide them in the back. According to Leopard, smarter shopkeepers make sure they’re featured and within reach of the audience they’re intended for. One problem that still puzzles creators who want to do all-ages books is the trepidations shown by publishers. Scott’s first issue of Guardians of the Galxy animated sold out in stores to everyone’s surprise but her’s. Most major publishers spend much of their time enticing older readers that they find themselves afraid of alienating them by making comics geared towards younger audiences. “I’m surprised it took DC years to grasp the idea that little kids like Batman,” according to Scott.
As for the future of all-ages comics, Fridolfs feels small companies are picking up the slack of the bigger publishers, but keeping the books accessible is paramount. In addition to making them easy to find, it also means keeping the stories short and always welcoming to new readers. Scott would like the medium to expand beyond the boundaries of the page, making them have a level of activity or immersion that lets people play with the story. Even if imploding Transformer cupcakes would never be done in the book, kids should be able to express that idea somewhere if they really like the characters. Paroline wants to see more educational comics and long form stories such as the coming of age nature of a Harry Potter type story. Paglucia had ideas for shops to be more inviting for younger readers by having rewards programs such as “tell us what you like” and “read so many and you’ll get a free one”.
When the subject of recommendations for books came up; the mix was eclectic ranging from Gotham Academy to Reed Gunther. In a way Gotham Academy is a true all-ages book even though it isn’t marketed that way.
The panel was a great subject for comics fans. By no means is all-ages a new concept. When you think about it, the medium itself began as all-ages. Superhero comics were intended for kids but military soldiers in war time were reading them on the front lines in WWII and back then the books were always geared towards attracting new and young readers. As an industry, comics should return to that aim. Once the industry figures out how to really once again say comics are for everyone, they can start saying comics go beyond all-ages to all-races and all-sexual orientations.
I hope this panel appears at every show. If you’re a fan that wants to voice your opinion on the future health of comics publishing, it’s an opportunity to engage with one of the most responsible gatekeepers in the industry.