Thursday, June 25, 2009

Better Comics for Kids -- The Batman Question

Michael Chabon and A Call for Better Kids' Comics
I recently re-read Michael Chabon's fantastic essay entitled "Kids' Stuff" from his recent collection entitled Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. In this essay, which is basically a reprint of his 2004 Eisner Awards Keynote Speech (available for free here), Chabon bluntly takes the comics industry to task for not focusing its energy on creating high quality kids comics. If you haven't read it, I suggest checking it out. I'll give you a few minutes...

Personally, I couldn't agree more. Heck, the whole reason I started this blog was because I was having great difficulty finding age-appropriate titles for junior high students. The majority of American superhero comics tend to be either too overtly violent or, on the other end of the spectrum, talk down to students who can handle more mature issues. For an example of the difficulty I face in providing truly appropriate superhero comics for my kids, let's take a look at Batman.

The Batman Question
My students already love Batman, and they want to read more great Batman stories They love Batman, of course, because they've seen "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" (though, being "R" rated movies, the students shouldn't have been allowed to do so). These films, of course, were rooted quite heavily in the fantastic Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween, respectively, which also are better suited to more mature audiences. The question then becomes what exactly it is that my students admire in the character of Batman. Is it that Batman attempts to bring wrongdoers to justice (vigilante justice, but justice nonetheless), a quality they find admirable in policemen and soldiers as well? Is it that rather than succumbing to depression or rage or self-medication, Batman uses the tragedy of his parents' death as a catalyst to make the world a better place? I hope it's both. I fear that it is neither.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if my students are anything like me, they like Batman because of the dark side of his nature. He is compulsive about avenging his parents' death, sometimes inflicting ultra-violent punishment on those who break the law. Which brings us to the lawbreakers themselves. I also have a suspicion that my students, who have admitted to being horror movie fans, are somehow attracted to the seedy, brutal, demented villains they've seen in the movies. As a twelve year-old, I can understand this. But as their teacher, by acknowledging this affinity for The Caped Crusader, am I validating 'inappropriate' behavior?

Possible Solution
Next school year, I'll be putting copies of Batman: The Brave and the Bold in front of my students as a possible solution. This comic, a tie-in to the Cartoon Network series, contains no objectionable content (check out some clips from the television series here). I'm hoping that by at least acknowledging that the students have seen the Batman films, they'll carry their previous knowledge into this age-appropriate title, and both parties will be happy. Does this title 'talk down' to my students? Maybe. But I guess given the limits of what materials I'm permitted to present in my classroom, it will have to do.

That is, until more writers heed Michael Chabon's call for better comics for kids.

Oh, and for a great 'adult' read about the (fictional) creation of superheroes and comics, check out Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. A wonderful summer read.

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