Superheroes Are For Kids, And That’s Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

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Marvel recently announced the launch of a multi-platform program entitled Marvel Superhero Adventures. Aimed at preschoolers, the initiative will involve animation, publishing and merchandise, using superheroes to teach preschoolers about positive values such as friendship and heroism. The initiative is a smart move from Marvel, recognizing that from an early age children are fascinated by superheroes and their adventures. Toy store shelves are groaning under the weight of superhero toys, while countless kids have a wardrobe bursting with superhero clothing and apparel. On one thing, kids and adult fans can both agree: superheroes are great.

From a marketing perspective, Marvel’s new initiative makes perfect sense, echoing previous attempts such as Marvel’s Superhero Squad and the mega-successful DC Super Hero Girls. Kids are drawn to superheroes, fascinated by the colorful costumes, the fantastic powers and the clash between good and evil. Yet the question has to be asked: laudable as such initiatives may be, how welcoming is the superhero world to younger readers?

Things have come a long way since the 1940s, where the huge popularity of superhero comics among children saw them being used to encourage support for America’s war effort. In the 1950s, fear over the effect of comic books on youthful minds led to Frederic Wertham’s campaign against comics, and the resulting establishment of the Comics Code Authority. Even in the 1960s, where the development of the Marvel Universe saw comics make inroads into University and College campuses, the primary readership was still children. The situation today is far different. In terms of visibility in popular culture, superheroes are at an all-time high, but all too often it appears that there’s an uneasy tension in fandom about who superheroes should be for.

In a world where there are numerous cartoons and comic lines specifically aimed at children, such a question may seem redundant, but there are two important caveats that should be borne in mind. Firstly, while superhero comics started off as all-ages material, titles are now increasingly targeted at specific age groups. Younger readers in the last few years have been expected to start with material such as the Marvel Adventures line or DC’s licensed properties, before graduating to the more “sophisticated” mainstream superhero titles. This links to the second key point: a portion of comics fandom has a deep aversion to the idea of superheroes being for kids.

Such attitudes can be traced back to the mid ’80s, when books like Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns pushed the boundaries of what superhero comics could do. Darker, more violent and more willing to push the envelope, such books were a precursor to a wider trend. Soon, grim ‘n’ gritty was in, with the term “graphic novel” increasingly used to portray something as somehow more adult and respectable than a mere comic book. In recent years, where superhero films have captivated the general public yet still been met all too frequently with media coverage that takes its cues from the 1960s Batman TV series, the desire of fans to show the wider possibilities of the superhero medium has been somewhat understandable. However, there’s a real risk that in seeking to play down the perceived childish elements, an essential part of the magic of superheroes is lost.

It’s always interesting to gauge the reaction when Marvel or DC roll out their superhero launches, taking the measure of what titles and concepts fans view as worthy. Despite their undeniable popularity with segments of fandom, characters such as Squirrel Girl and other more lighthearted concepts are often decried as being childish or for kids, as if that’s a bad thing. But is it really?

The same viewpoint has also been painfully evident on the big screen, where too many superhero movies have gone to great lengths to portray their heroes as dark, brooding and tortured, often with the cinema age classification to match the dark context. A Deadpool or Punisher adaptation that’s rated R is completely justified, but when the same thinking is applied to characters like the Fantastic Four or Superman, it seems to point not only to a misunderstanding of the characters but also a lack of trust in the audience’s ability to enjoy them on their own merits. For all their flaws, the original Fantastic Four movies from 2005 and 2007 did a far better job of capturing the team than the darker 2015 version.

This kind of flawed thinking really matters because it makes the spurious connection that dark and serious concepts are somehow more authentic than lighthearted fare. It’s a strange kind of thinking that the way to make superheroes acceptable to us as adults is to dilute the aspects that first attracted us as children. Granted, once common concepts like DC’s curious 1960s obsession with apes might appear strange to modern eyes, but there’s no reason why certain superhero characters shouldn’t be suitable for all ages. Wonderful comics such as Thor: The Mighty Avenger prove that superhero comics can deal with deep themes and emotional resonance while still remaining accessible to all. To use an oft-quoted example — if Pixar films can be enjoyed by both children and adults on two different levels, is there any reason why superhero comics can’t do the same?

On a number of occasions, I’ve spoken to young children in my local school about superheroes. With the children aged between five and nine, it’s always an enjoyable session, and what I find each time is that they have a real love for superheroes and superhero concepts. Whether Spider-Man, Batgirl or Captain Underpants, the children’s enthusiasm for their favorite characters never fails to inspire me.

It’s clear from these sessions just how much superheroes matter to kids. When they are excitedly listing the reasons for why they like a particular superhero, or trying to decide what superpowers they would most like to have, it’s tempting to wonder how the future of the comics industry could be shaped if this enthusiasm is maintained. Not all kids will read comics, of course, and modern-day kids have all sorts of competing demands on their time, but when the affection for the characters is so prevalent it seems to offer a strong foundation to build upon.

And how best to do that? Perhaps by embracing the fact and remembering that while comics can be used as blunt critiques of current affairs or to comment on social issues, adult fans shouldn’t forget our roots. We’ve chosen to keep these amazing characters with us on our journey to adulthood, but that doesn’t necessarily give us the right to bar the entry door behind us. Marvel Superhero Adventures and other initiatives are a step in the right direction but there’s nothing to fear from letting kids into the superhero mainstream instead of keeping them in their own designated section.

The correct response when someone says that superheroes are for kids? It’s not to respond with a three-hour lecture on Morrison and Moore or a lengthy soliloquy about the fact that Superman doesn’t wear his underpants on the outside anymore. It’s to smile, nod and say, “I know. They’re great, aren’t they?”