Can comics still cut it with multimedia kids?

'As long as there's dirt, there will always be competition for comic books,' waxes Jim Palmiotti, a comic artist and writer. The comment stems from the popular opinion that the comic book medium has lost a significant chunk of its kid...
July 1, 2001

‘As long as there’s dirt, there will always be competition for comic books,’ waxes Jim Palmiotti, a comic artist and writer. The comment stems from the popular opinion that the comic book medium has lost a significant chunk of its kid readership. There are many things vying for kids dollars these days, and comics aren’t at the top of the list. So what are comic creators doing? Are they trying to skew younger? Older? Are they getting out of the medium completely? Far from it. Whether they’re independents or hired guns for New York-based Marvel Entertainment and/or DC Comics, creators have never been busier.

‘In one way or another, I’ll always be in comics,’ says Palmiotti, whose industry-derived income has nearly doubled over the last couple of years. ‘It’s the cheapest and quickest way in media to get an idea out there.’ In addition to his indie efforts, Palmiotti works on Gatecrasher, a Black Bull comic that Vancouver-based Mainframe Entertainment has adapted into 26 half hours. The prodco was in development deal negotiations with MTV at press time. Palmiotti is also working on a Cyclops mini-series and wrote on Deadpool and Punisher for Marvel, Catwoman and Batman for DC, as well as recently signing on to co-create a new version of DC’s Superboy with Mainframe’s Dan DiDio for launch this October.

The duo is revamping the title in the same vein as Marvel’s Ultimate line-Palmiotti will acknowledge the backstory, but the goal is to contemporize and mix it up a bit. ‘He’s still 16 in this version,’ explains Palmiotti, ‘but we’re giving him his own place to live in.’ The teenage Superman obviously can’t sign a lease, so Palmiotti dreamed up a scenario where the super-adolescent makes a deal with a building owner to stay for free if he acts as the. . . building super. The idea should skew to a younger reader, but only if they know it’s there, and Palmiotti cites marketing, pricing, packaging and distribution as key problems the industry has to address as it aims to reclaim the youth audience.

Packaging and pricing aside, what does a writer do to appeal to younger readers? Down-aging the main character doesn’t automatically engender a younger readership for a revamped title. Comic creator Peter David looks at it in simple terms: ‘Number one: No sex. Number two: No profanity. So those people who are looking for the hot Superboy/Wondergirl sex scene are going to be disappointed. Can I have them neck? Sure. But you aren’t getting past first base. Not on my watch.’

David is currently working with Portland-based Dark Horse Comics on a title called Spy Boy, and with DC on Young Justice. ‘Spy Boy is a book I’ve deliberately aimed at tweens and teens,’ he explains. Full of typical teen angst and a constant target for bullies, Alex Fleming (a.k.a. Spy Boy) has reached his limit. Yet unlike most kids that lash out, this martial arts master has hardware a-plenty with which to retaliate against his foes, and a foxy sidekick named Bombshell to boot.

Young Justice features Superboy, Robin and Impulse-three younger, super-powered DC characters united in their fight against evil. David is also working on a Spy Boy/Young Justice crossover slated for December release, as well as a title for California-based indie outfit Claypool Comics called Soulsearchers and Company, about a group of paranormal investigators with super-powers. Outside the comic realm, he’s writing Powerpuff Girls Choose Your Own Adventure books for Scholastic.

The appeal for kid and teen readers lies in the purity of the storytelling, says Brian Michael Bendis, a writer for Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Team Up, who’s also signed on for a stint on Marvel’s Daredevil. The tip may sound somewhat holier-than-thou, but it makes sense when you remember that a writer on a Spider-Man title is burdened with 40 years of history to stay true to. ‘Continuity can be a lot of fun, but it’s also a big anchor around the necks of creatives.’

Ultimate Team Up brings creators and characters together on the page. Bendis comes up with a story line teaming Marvel heroes, and then brings in different artists to help put the ideas together. Team Up issue four is due out later this year, promising Iron Man and Spider-Man, among others. The Ultimate line (brainchild of Marvel’s president of publishing and new media Bill Jemas), Bendis explains, is a nice launching pad for new readers. ‘Stan Lee created these ideas that translate no matter what the time or setting. It’s like Shakespeare. They keep redoing Hamlet, and it still works.’

But while some creators focus on revitalizing the history of established comic characters, others look to reinvent history in the creation of theirs. Usagi Yo Jimbo is a 17-year-old title rooted in Japanese history. Created by Stan Sakai and published by Dark Horse, the series (which recently won a Parent’s Choice Award) is based on the life of a 17th-century Samurai called Miyamoto Musashi-a master swordsman, poet, philosopher and painter. The twist? In Sakai’s book, the character is a rabbit. ‘One day while sketching, I drew a rabbit and tied up his ears. I just loved the design, so instead of Miyamoto Musashi, the character’s name became Miyamoto Usagi, which means rabbit in Japanese,’ says Sakai.

His story lines may be peppered with historical reference, ‘but the story is still the most important thing. The research probably wouldn’t interest kids. It’s more of an aside to enrich the story,’ says this creator, who is also working on a Simpsons-based story for Matt Groening’s Los Angeles-based Bongo Comics. ‘I’m a big Simpsons fan,’ says Sakai, ‘and I did a pin-up in last year’s Treehouse of Horror. Matt Groening’s sons thought it was the best thing in the issue, so they got their dad to get me to do some stories.’

Creator Jay Stephens thinks the future of comics is in kid mags. He’s worked with Nickelodeon Magazine and Canadian kid titles Owl and Chickadee for some time, stressing that piggy-backing on their footprint is one of fewer and fewer ways to hit the mass market.

He also has a bi-monthly title with Oni Press called JetCat Clubhouse, spun off from characters that he’s developed in the past. JetCat previously starred in Dark Horse mini-series The Land of Nod and has since been developed for TV on Nickelodeon’s Kablam! (aired intermittently and interstitially over 1999 and 2000). Tutenstein (26 half hours), based on another JetCat Clubhouse character, is being developed for Discovery Kids. Tutenstein is, or rather was, a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. Despite the fact that he’s been dead for millennia, he has entitlement issues and insists that he’s still a ruling Pharaoh. Stephens is also doing some designs for a Disney project called Super Dog and Mr. Monkey (working title), the details of which were unavailable at press time.

Ken Olshansky, senior VP of creative affairs for Sunbow Entertainment, has sought out and fostered relationships with comic creators extensively, believing that the comic medium is a viable creative model, if not necessarily a good business one.

‘There aren’t a lot of media where the artist can be unmediated,’ says Olshansky. ‘The nice word in TV is collaborative, and even in kids books there are editorial- and market-driven decisions that impact upon the final work. With comics, it’s still very much the artists working by themselves.’

Comics can also provide an opportunity to adapt proven characters, but it’s not easy to get a foot in the door. ‘If there are 1,000 comic titles published a year, three of them can get you a network slot on the basis of their title and characters-we’re usually looking at the other 997,’ due in part, explains Olshanksy, to corporate situations. DC is part of Warner Bros. and Marvel has ties to studios and networks, so their respective creative output isn’t as accessible contractually as what indie creators churn out-anything created under those imprints becomes the property of the company, not the artist.

At the end of the day, the medium can’t help but appeal to any entertainment sensibility. ‘It’s an inexpensive, creative medium,’ Olshansky says. ‘And every so often you win the lottery with a Men In Black or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’

Sunbow’s Fat Dog Mendoza (based on the Dark Horse title by Scott Musgrove, and currently airing in 18 territories including the U.K., Spain and Italy) and Skeleton Key (penned by Andi Watson, published by Slave Labor Graphics, and in development) are examples of comic properties that had to be rejigged extensively to work for TV. From the outset, many comic incarnations may be somewhat inappropriate for a young audience, though it is usually the original look and feel that sells. ‘The original Fat Dog comic was very different,’ Olshansky acknowledges. ‘There was one strip where he ate the Pope.’

So it seems that in an industry of comic store closures and sliding sales, creators are content to battle on. None of them are banking on the day when their work hits the big or small screen, nor are they expecting a miraculous revival. ‘The industry is strong,’ says Sergio Aragonés, creator of 20-year-old Groo the Wanderer, currently a Dark Horse title, and a writer/cartoonist for Mad Magazine since the early `60s. ‘But it’s not mass. Comics are here to stay, but they will become more specialized.’

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