Kid’s Stuff: Making Comics for All Ages

Kid’s Stuff: Making Comics for All Ages was the main panel I had wanted to see at King Con since comics for non-traditional readers is something I’m very interested in. With Nick Abadzis, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman and Colleen AF Venable, I knew it had a high probability of being good.

Moderated by Heidi MacDonald and shamefully under-attended (yes, I know it was 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday, so most people were probably recovering from the night before and there was a marathon going on right outside, but still …), it did not disappoint.

MacDonald opened by asking Telgemeier how her tour for Smile had gone and what sort of reaction she’d gotten. Telgemeier said it had gone “amazingly well” and talked about a girls’ school that did a school-wide purchase of Smile and she got to make comics with 150 girls. She said in two weeks and 15 stops, she was able to connect with 1,000 kids and that Smile really resonates with them.

Abadzis was asked about Laika and he said he didn’t intend it to be a young adult book and was surprised it was marketed as such. The book’s publisher, First Second told him not wot worry since it would widen the audience and not reduce. That was later echoed by Venable, since people who love comics don’t really pay attention to age groups, just if something is good. (It’s maybe the opposite way to look at this, but Laika is one of the few graphic novels my mom has read.)

Roman then talked about the history of his upcoming Astronaut Academy — it started as a webcomic and a few minicomics and then he reworked it as a graphic novel. He also said there will be a lot of new stuff in it and he redrew about 80 percent of it (so you see, you will really have no reason not to buy it when it comes out, even if you have read it online). He says he doesn’t necessarily intend to make comics for kids — it’s just what he likes.

Both Roman and Telgemeier then talked about the X-Men manga from Del Ray and how the second book was canceled (sniff) and that there wasn’t one reason, but several (but mostly, it came down to the licensing cost). I am happy they got paid for the second book, but I’m going to continue to be upset that I’ll never get to see it.

Venable talked about the series of books she writes for Graphic Universe, Guinea PIG, Pet Shop Private Eye. The series is aimed at second to fifth grades and she said she’s having fun and getting good letters from kids.

MacDonald asked about some of the covers Venable has designed for First Second, including Foiled. Venable said she’s always been a big Jane Yolen fan so it was fun for her, but she always got nervous when she had to call her to discuss the cover.

The discussion then turned to how comics get shelved in libraries and bookstores. Abadzis said that kids don’t want to read books that are too “young” for them, but comics are mostly missing those sorts of divisions. Roman said that shelving comics can be hard because usually, they can only be in one place. He was a fan of multiple sections for graphic novels — not just one huge section that has everything.

Venable said that librarians have figured this out a little bit more quickly than booksellers.

Everyone basically agreed that comics can be great gateways to reading. Telgemeier said she’s had a lot of parents say that Smile was one of the first books their children read voluntarily. Roman praised teachers for taking the initiative in introducing comics into the classroom. Abadzis agreed with all of this, but said that comics still need to get past “gatekeepers” — people who may doubt their value.

MacDonald then asked the panel what they thought of the big two publishers — Marvel and DC — and their failure to market to kids.

Roman said that the direct market is the problem — kids don’t go into comic book stores. And while I know of stores that have really wonderful sections of kids’ comics, if kids aren’t going into these stores, the comics aren’t getting to them. Roman said that other publishers — like Scholastic — are able to sell through school book clubs to kids directly.

Telgemeier brought up there’s almost too much variety in mainstream comics and it can be hard for a parent to pick which Iron Man would be good for kids. Roman said that while there are things like Marvel Adventures, kids don’t want to read Spider-man Jr. when dad is reading regular Spider-man.

MacDonald asked how kids where getting into comics. Venable said web comics were big with teens and that actually, she didn’t read comics until she discovered web comics. Roman said kids don’t discriminate about reading on a screen and that classic newspaper strips like Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield are still gateways for kids … they’re just not reading them in the newspaper (and there was some painful and knowing laughter from the audience when that was said. Or maybe just from me).

A question from an audience member asked the panelists what they thought of the floppy/pamphlet format for kids. Roman said it wasn’t dead, but it was once again the matter of the direct market. MacDonald brought up that kids are more used to reading larger chunks — like manga volumes — so floppies aren’t necessarily as satisfying. But everyone seemed to agree that electronic versions of floppies could still probably work, and no one was declaring print dead.

MacDonald asked if anyone had any final advice for kids who wanted to make comics. Telgemeier said they should learn to write short stories and start small as well as draw. Venable said they should read constantly.

I didn’t take a photo because I forgot, but it would’ve been bad anyway (it was a dark, warehouse-y space and there were windows behind the panelists) so I grabbed a panel from Abadzis’ “Cora’s Breakfast”, which he did for the Guardian before they cut their childrens’ comics pages (sigh). This story needs a publisher right now.

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