Guest post by writer and creator of the SMASH webcomic for kids, Chris A. Bolton.
My brother Kyle and I were very young when our oldest brother gave us a paperback collection of early Amazing Spider-Man comics from the classic team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. We read that book so voraciously, we broke the spine. (For years afterward, loose pages turned up under beds, in toy boxes, and between books on shelves.) Hooked, we raided the comics on the spinner racks at the 7-11 near our father’s apartment. Then, in the mid-’80s, we ventured to our first comic shop, which was paradise to our eyes.
Each month thereafter, our poor mom sat in the car for an hour while we perused the store: gaping at covers, flipping eagerly through the pages, making the time-honored calculation of how much allowance we could part with for one book vs. how many times we’d read and reread it.
In our teens, we outgrew comics and focused on social lives. We gradually returned to our first love — in my case, through adult-oriented graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sometime in the late ’90s, feeling nostalgic, Kyle and I popped into a comic book store for the first time in years. We wandered the aisles, much as we had in childhood, only this time our expressions were very different. We staggered out with empty hands — a concept that would have been unthinkable when we were kids.
Talking about it afterward, both of us unpleasantly dazed by the onslaught of sociopathic supermen, nearly naked women with impossible proportions, and extreme, over-the-top violence, we asked each other: “If we were eight years old today, what comics would we read? Would we even want to read comics?”
From the late 1980s through the ’90s, nearly every article about the comic industry bore the headline, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” This was accompanied by campy sound effects of the “Zap! Pow! Biff!” variety, to remind readers how childish and goofy comics used to be. The comic industry was desperate to be taken seriously as entertainment for adults. Well, it got what it wanted — to an extreme it likely never anticipated; for much of the past decade, the headlines were more likely to read, “Comics aren’t for kids at all!”
The comic industry tends to confuse “all ages” with “insipid, whitewashed, and sanitized to the point that it can only be enjoyed by very young children.” The most successful works of pop culture, from Pixar films to Harry Potter novels, may be aimed at a young audience but are universal enough to entertain a broad spectrum of ages.
As with fairy tales and myths, comics have always contained dark elements. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents leads him to become Batman. Peter Parker’s uncle is killed by a burglar he ignored as Spider-Man, teaching him a valuable lesson about power and responsibility. In Smash, the all-ages webcomic Kyle and I created, ten-year-old Andrew Ryan’s superhero idol is obliterated by his arch-enemy, and Andrew accidentally gains his powers. Even very young readers understand there’s darkness in the world. These stories teach them that darkness can be overcome, and there’s a brighter light at the end of it.
That fateful day at the comic shop was the beginning of a ten-year journey for us. Kyle and I set out to create the comic we would have loved as kids: age-appropriate but not condescending, funny without being snarky or satirical, full of fast-paced action but with an emphasis on characters readers could relate to and hopefully fall in love with.
Then we hit on the crucial element to bring the series alive. When I was ten, I wanted super-powers. I didn’t want to grow into an adult with powers, I wanted to be a kid who flew, ran faster than anyone else, and was so strong I’d never have to flee from a bully again. And I wanted to be the hero, not some second-banana sidekick.
Ultimately, Smash is nothing less than a love letter from our mid-thirties selves to the comic-loving kids we once were, whom we still carry inside us.
In just the past couple of years, as the mainstream comic industry struggles to hold onto a diminishing older readership, graphic novels aimed at younger readers have been exploding. Visit your favorite bookstore or library and find the kids’ graphic novel and manga sections — I guarantee it won’t take more than a minute before it pops out, surrounded by a crowd of younger readers eagerly devouring the pages. Fantasy adventures like Bone and Amulet sit alongside more realistic stories like Smile and fast-paced manga like Naruto.
We’re thrilled that, soon, Smash will have a place of its own on those shelves, thanks to our upcoming publication from Candlewick Press. Our greatest hope is that a couple of young siblings will stumble across Smash and it will lead them to many more comics, and a lifetime of memories to cherish and inspire them.
In years to come, I hope to start seeing the headline, “Comics are safe for kids again!” I won’t even complain about the campy sound effects.
Bio: Chris worked for eight years as a writer and performer in a sketch comedy troupe and has acted in several independent films. He wrote and directed the web-series Wage Slaves, had his first professional short story published in Portland Noir and is currently writing a novel. The first season of SMASH will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.