Let’s not waste time with an ‘introductory post’ where nothing gets talked about except next week: let’s jump straight into this one.
The idea that “comics are for kids” is one which has been debunked by everybody apart from newspaper editors, who leap at any chance they can to suggest comics are for children (whilst of course, newspapers are only for smart and handsome adults). You can’t easily find a current Batman comic which kids can read, whilst Spider-Man spent the best part of last year being possessed by the mind of a supervillain, who went around and violently hospitalised a load of villains.
The mainstream of comics, such as it is, is not the greatest place for kids. But then, the mainstream isn’t actually the mainstream at all – it just pretends to be.
Comics is a very strange community, in that everybody likes to say that superhero stories are the most popular comics – when in fact that’s hardly true at all. For every issue of Batman that sells around 100, 000 copies a month, there’s a book like ‘Smile’ by Raina Telgemeier, which has sold well over a million copies by this point. Everybody pays attention to the guy with pointy ears and a swishy grim cape, when he’s being beaten by kids books every month.
With Batman getting all the attention (and in fairness, there are three or four of the fifteen Batman books which children can read without getting regularly traumatised – L’il Gotham, Batman 66 as two examples) it can be fairly frustrating working out where to go to find books that children can read. So here, let’s have a look around and see what the current climate is like for all-ages comics.
I’ll start in the UK, because that’s where I live. Even as I type this, YALC is taking place in London. This would be the Young Adult Literature Convention, founded by Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. She’s a name to remember, because since her appointment to the role last year she’s worked tirelessly in promoting the fact that comics and books aren’t necessarily that different! The convention features a whole range of stories for teenagers, and for all-ages. As such, it features a number of comic makers.
Amongst them is the person who could handily be described as the current reigning Champion of Comics Sarah McIntyre, a British-American comic maker, endless supporter of all-ages books, and wearer of fantastic hats.
She’s massively prolific, having released a number of books over the last few years – working with other people, or by herself. The most recent of these would be Oliver & The Seawigs with Philip Reeve, which was released last year.
She’s also, like Blackman, associated with a lot of events around the country. She tours extensively around, visiting schools and every literature convention she can get to – including ones like the Hay Festival, where nobody would have expected her ambush. She’s also currently running the Summer Reading Challenge, which you can find here. Later this year she’ll be releasing even more books, including Cakes in Space (with Reeves) and Jampires (with David O’Connell). The latter is to be published by David Fickling Books.
Which is where we jump into one of the biggest initiatives for kids comics in the UK. David Fickling Books are responsible for many of the most well known kids stories of the last few years, with the biggest feather in their cap being The Phoenix Magazine. Released every week, the comic lets writers and artists create their own characters and tell whatever stories they want with them. It’s been hugely acclaimed as a serial, and has seen many well-known names get involved. You can read a free issue of the comic at that link above, as an idea of what they do. In the UK, they offer a digital subscription.
They’re also slowly starting to release a series of book collections of the various strips and stories in the magazine. Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy sounds morbid but is an incredibly entertaining collection of educational strips in which Murphy (appearing in his own comic as an interviewer) talks to various dead celebrities about their lives. In the process he offers a look at history which doesn’t appear in the national curriculum – and is dead interesting (sorry, pun intended) as a result.
There are also a few books by Neill Cameron, a robot enthusiast who has channelled that interest into producing books for all-ages like ‘Mo-Bot High’, The Pirates of Pangaea’ (with Daniel Hartwell). You can also find Cameron in Oxford, where he is the artist in residence for the Story Museum. You may have heard of a recent exhibition he was involved in, where different authors dressed up as their favourite characters from fiction – Neil Gaiman dressed up as Badger from The Wind in the Willows, memorably.
Gary Northfield is one of the best-known and admired people working with The Phoenix. He does a strip called ‘Gary’s Garden’ for the comic, but also has a number of books of his own. TeenyTinySaurs was one of the more recent releases, as it came out in 2013. It’s a series about very very small dinosaurs, as you may have guessed, and is a terrifically funny book.
Two further books they’ve published are ‘Fish Head Steve’ and ‘Bunny Vs Monkey’, both by Jamie Smart. Smart has worked on a load of other projects as well, but the one I most want to tell you about is Moose Kid Comics.
Another anthology, this was released online a few weeks ago – and is totally free to read. In it are stories by several of the other people mentioned here, as well as various storytellers for The Beano, The Phoenix, and elsewhere.
One final David Fickling Books… uh, book I’d like to mention is The Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing. A mystery series in the sort of Tintin/Hardy Boys style, the series was nominated for The Young People’s Comic Award last year – and won! These awards were set up a few years ago by Adam Cadwell, and have seen nominations for people like Vivianne Schwartz and Luke Pearson.
Schwartz’s work in particular is absolutely incredible stuff – she encourages a hands-on approach, which was most brilliantly captured in ‘Welcome to Your Awesome Robot’.
This book contained a guide for readers to make their own fully-functioning robot out of cardboard! And if you like arts and crafts and making things, you can’t go much better than getting hold of some of Philippa Rice’s books, either!
Pearson is also a name you maywell have heard of, having published the Hilda series to ongoing acclaim. He’s got a new one in the series coming out this year in the form of Hilda and the Black Hound, which you can find out more about here. Every year, more and more books are coming out for the all-ages demographic, with each new release offering a stronger range and breadth of comics for people to try out.
Everywhere you look, in fact, new ideas are coming forth. Laura Ellen Anderson released her first picture book ‘Snowflakes’ last year, written by TV presenter Cerrie Burnell. Following the success of the book, later this year she’ll be following it up with Princess Sleepyhead and the Night-Time Bear at Orchard Books, with writer Peter Bently. Jamie Littler has spent the last few years turning Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books into graphic novels. Dave Shelton has found great success with his recent canine crime catching series Good Dog Bad Dog.
Art Heroes are made up of Daniel Clifford and Lee Robinson, who tour schools around the country and hold art workshops. Their own projects have been featured in places like The Phoenix, and they’re most well known for the superhero story (with a slightly scary twist) Halcyon & Tenderfoot. Dungeon Fun by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance swept the Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards only the other week, and can be found online here.
The centrepiece of the UK all-ages market has for years been The Beano, a weekly magazine available in most newsagents and supermarkets (or at least was back in the day – under pressure from other weeklies like ‘Ben 10’ and ‘The Simpsons’, the comic has struggled a little recently). Featuring many of the most well-known characters in UK comics, like Dennis the Menace, Ivy the Terrible, The Bash Street Kids, this is the longest running comic in the country, I believe!
It’s hugely influential as a result. You can trace direct influences running straight from the anarchic, rule-breaking world of The Beano to almost every other person mentioned in the list so far.
With it somewhat on the wane at the moment, it looks as though Titan Comics are going to be picking up the baton of ‘biggest comics publishers’ in the UK over the next few months. And they’ll be doing so solely through one franchise pick-up they’ve made: Doctor Who. Yes, the franchise has headed into the hands of the UK after being at American publisher IDW for several years. Taking their time with the license, their first comics won’t be released for a good month or so still, but will see the Tenth (David Tennant), Eleventh (Matt Smith), and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctor all get a series of their own. There seem to be some issues with licensing, however, which means UK readers may only be able to get the title digitally. Hmm.
Speaking of digital – comics are certainly not restricted to print anymore. A variety of people have been making webcomics over the last few years which anybody can read. One of the biggest UK ones is likely Bad Machinery, by John Allison. Telling a series of comedic mystery stories with a cast made up of sarky Yorkshire schoolchildren, he’s been showered with much-justified awards for years. If you want something more recent, then Paul Harrison-Davis’ just-completed first Astrodog story can be found here.
Matt Gibbs and Sarah Dunkerton unveiled MULP recently, an anthropomorphic webcomic about mice explorers in Egypt, who have to stop an ancient artefact from falling into the wrong hands – and that’s been a really enjoyable series, which’ll be published in five parts. Gibbs is best known for also being the editor of Improper Books, who publish all-ages stories like the ‘choose your own adventure’ book Knight + Dragon – by Gibbs and artist Bev Musson. For slightly older readers, they also have books like Porcelain available.
There’s a lot of comics, basically. This isn’t even including the Newcastle Science Comic published in newspaper format and developed by Lydia Wysocki. Each edition has a number of artists like Jess Bradley and Kate Brown working with scientists and experts to produce educational strips with an inherent charm and appeal for younger readers.
This doesn’t scratch the surface. Well, to be fair, it does KINDA scratch the surface a little bit. Consider this a look at the basic skeleton of the UK comics scene, at least sofar as books for kids, teenagers, and all-ages are concerned. Next: let’s take a look at the US! I feel exhausted already just thinking about it.
If there are any books you’d like to recommend also, please mention them in the comments below! I’m sure I’ve missed a thousand, at least.