All Ages

Friday, October 08, 2004

SPX - Writing for Young Readers Panel

A few more SPX remnants trickling in...

One of the few panels I attended this year was the Writing for Young Readers panel with Jeff Smith (Bone), Andy Runton (Owly) and John Gallagher (Buzzboy). When asked whether or not the panelists had the intent to specifically create kids comics, the three responded that they were creating the stories that they would've liked to have read when they were young. In fact, Smith commented that kids never even occured to him as an audience but he knew that if Bone was ghettoized as a kids book, especially in a time when there were very few trade paperbacks and when the hottest material out there was darker fantasy type stuff like early Vertigo books, that it would die a very quick death. In the early 90's comics for kids had no place in the Direct Market so creators didn't even consider creating material solely for kids. Of course this is a still an ongoing issue even in the market today.

Definitely one of the challenges in publishing kids comics will be overcoming this desperation to be viewed as a mature medium while at the same time being able to break out of that same desperation to create content-appropriate comics for kids. Of course, this doesn't mean dumbing down stories, which was another concern that came up in the discussion.

I ended up asking the panel whether they thought that outside influences were key in creating good kids comics, especially in a medium that so often refers back on itself. Gallagher said he prevents this by letting his wife read his scripts and pointing out any references or in-jokes that she doesn't get.

Gallagher brought up another interesting point concerning children's perception of value. He recounted a story about a kid who was questioning the price to page count ratio and how he can spend less money on a prose novel and get more story as opposed to a graphic novel which has less pages, less words but costs more. Here's another challenge -- changing the mass market's preconceived notions that art plus story has less value than just straight-up prose. Kids books stick to very similar formats across the board along with uniform pricing and the pricing of kids graphic novels needs to try and somewhat reflect this uniformity as well.

Surprisingly positive was the enthusiasm in the audience. About 70% of people in the room were interested in creating their own comics for young readers. But also there was a sense of discouragement with anecdotes told about artists being advised to draw in a more realistic style or coerced to move away from kid friendly material.

Jeff Smith pretty much ended the panel with this quote: "Kids stories should traumatize you." At first, I thought this was insane but quickly ran through the catalogue of some of the greatest kids books ever -- Charlotte's Web, Bridge to Terabithia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- all very disturbing at times with images and feelings that have an impact on any child who reads them. Smith is definitely right -- it's these kinds of stories that stay with you forever and it's these kind of stories that need to be created in comics to fill that kids comics core list that Chabon refered to in his Eisner speech.

3 Comments:

  • Great notes on an event I wish I'd seen.

    You know, though, it's time to start breaking thing up a bit. "Kids" comics can't and won't fall into one big category. It's time publishers, cartoonists, and editors who need a shave (me) start discriminating between various genres, formats, and audiences.

    First off: NO--I'm not saying everything has to be pigeonholed into constricting categories. OF COURSE unique stories, attitudes, and formats and content that "kids and adults love" should still go on!

    But, personally, when I hear that Jeff Smith said "kids stories should break your heart" I think "oh, all of them?" Yes, he meant the classics that linger and really push you. Those are irreplaceable. But what about comics that are more like a poems Shel Silverstein? (I don't know if there are many, but certainly Basil Wolverton is close.) If I did a book of amusing 1-page comics for kids that were playful weird and funny--why would I want it to break anyone's heart.

    Not sure if that Wolverton point makes sense, but what about comics in the magazine I edit? No kid picks up a magazine to have his heart broken. (Well, not many.) Our comics are meant to amuse, provoke, and show creativity in two page blasts.

    Not sure if I should still keep riffing here. The main thing I mean to say is that there isn't one thing called "kids comics." Just as there's no such thing as one type of book for kids. And any publisher hankering to do a kids comic that sells to kids and parents should think about what KIND of kids comics they're making. What age? What do kids that age traditionally like or not like? Who is reading it, parents or kids? What shelf will it go on?

    Just thinking "I like this and kids should step up and like it to" ain't going to work.

    What time is it? I gotta go.

    By Blogger chris duffy, at 11:56 AM  

  • Chris...what I got out of Smith's comments was not necessarily that kids comic should break a kid's heart...thats just mean but rather they should have striking themes, images, characters and stories that will disturb, fascinate or inspire kids so much that they take those feelings into their adulthood. I remember reading the Neverending Story by Michael Ende (in fact I still have my tattered old copy i bought when I was 10) and there's plenty of sad, happy, scary and awe-striking images that I definitely still remember.

    As for looking at kids comics as not a singular beast -- I wholeheartedly agree. It's just a matter of convincing people that graphic novels are not a genre but a medium to tell stories and the content of kids comics should be as diverse as children's publishing in general -- from Judy Blume's Freckle Juice to Lane Smith's The Happy Hocky Family to Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. It's pretty exciting to be at the start of all this isn't it?

    By Blogger Scott Robins, at 6:18 PM  

  • Scott:
    Yeah, that's probably the right message to take out of that sentiment--not treating kids with "kid gloves" as it were, but intriguing them in all the ways "serious" writing should.

    I totally agree with you that it's exciting to be somehow the part of comics as the medium (industry?) is in transition... I'm not worthy!

    Incidentally, an interesting list could be made of "classic" kid's comics that have already been published in book form--without 'benefit' of the label graphic novel.

    There's Raymond Briggs' work, James STevenson Grampa Story books, Super Diaper Baby, Mercer Mayer's silent picture books...might be good examples of the amount of text that's appropriate for different age groups. There's gotta be more.

    Man...I can't stand starting to think about this stuff...'cause it's hard to stop, publishing nerd that I am.

    By Blogger chris duffy, at 7:19 PM  

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