Why do guys like comics so much? Especially the super-hero variety? It’s an enigma I spent quite a lot of energy trying to unravel last week. Lord willing, I’ll polish off my World Magazine review of The Avengers tonight. (My guess is that it may appear online at worldmag.com before the weekend, so watch for that if you’re interested in a detailed look.) It’s arguably the first summer blockbuster, kicking off a summer full of guys in capes and tights, with Batman and Spiderman both vying for fanboy attention alongside the Avengers.
For girls like me, the appeal of these movies isn’t always obvious. I mean, when I attended the screening of The Avengers last week, there were only a handful of women who looked like, well, women. Most of the cheering fan-base was made up of middle-aged guys in comic T-shirts, with the best seats saved for those in costume. (Alas, my navy trench-coat and my kids’ Spiderman umbrella didn’t count.) Even in my own marriage, hubbie and I may not wear matching clothes yet, but we have just about settled into the same movie groove. Except when it comes to super-heroes. When it comes to caped-crusaders, I usually have to take one for the team. (That said, I do know some beautiful, feminine women who love super-heroes…they just aren’t in the majority, in my experience. I suspect they must have super-powers, too.)
So, why do guys like them so much?!
What Guys Say
So last week, I put on my reporter hat and here are a few things I discovered. First, one guy I interviewed said that super-heroes are all about solving problems. Since guys are problem-solvers, super-heroes are wish-fulfillment. Plus it doesn’t hurt that super-heroes are almost always male. That obviously makes it easier for them to relate.
Another guy I talked to, Marvin Olasky, who also happens to be a Christian, Editor in Chief of World Magazine, and a graphic novel author, mentioned that he doesn’t like all comics. Many of them he said, “have all-good and all-powerful heroes: Those may be useful for escapist fantasies but they don’t tell us anything about who we are as human beings. Biblical characters are three-dimensional because they mess up: Noah gets drunk, Jacob is a deceiver, David is an adulterer, and so on. The interesting graphic novels — Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, and (ahem) the two I’ve done — have heroes with human fears and weaknesses. The genre is challenging because combining words and pictures is harder than it looks.”
Words + Pictures. As a picture book editor and fan, I can appreciate that challenge, as well as the sensitivity to good storytelling. Not all comics are equal; a very good point. (Just a quick scan over the history of comic books in Wikipedia tells a tale of a widely varying genre–from innocent kids’ comics to outright pornography.)
On Wednesday, I plan to post our interview with Sergio Cariello, the illustrator of The Action Bible as well as a Marvel Comics illustrator who has drawn The Avengers. His comments are pretty enlightening, but here’s a sneak peak into one of his central points: Jesus is the ultimate superhero!!! He can fly like superman, He can turn water into wine, He can multiply things, He can raise the dead, He can see through things, He can order a legion of Angels (sidekicks) to help him.He can walk on water, calm the sea, He could even die and come back to life, He can be 100% man and 100% God, He can be tempted just like us, He can erase all guilt, can stop you from crying, He can heal any disease , He can make you be born again into a new life, He can guide you into all truth, He can Create something from nothing, He can be in various places at the same time, He knows all things, He can do ALL things!!! Yeah, I’d say He is the Ultimate Super-Dooper Hero, wouldn’t you?
Gotta love his enthusiasm…and I absolutely love hearing this picture of my Lord! If I’m honest, though, these aren’t the qualities of Jesus that first pop into my head. I tend to focus on His humility, His suffering, His compassion for other people and his quiet wisdom. Don’t usually think of Him with cartoon bubbles coming out of his mouth. I could use a little more Christ-the-Conqueror in my mental image.
Our male intern, Jack, added this qualifier, which I didn’t know: I don’t think that it is strictly true to say that guys are the only demographic that reads comics. Perhaps this is true in the U.S., but over in Japan, for instance, there are particular mangas (or comic books) specifically tailored art/story-wise to appeal to the teenage girl market—they call this manga “shojo” I think, while they call the manga intended for Japanese boys “shonen.”
For my own part, here are a few of my thoughts on why comics seem to be a male genre. First, guys are more visual, so I think they appreciate the visual stimulation of comics and graphic novels along with mere words. Second, guys are the protectors/agressers of the species, so I think they may relate easier to the physical conflict of these stories. But that’s just me….what do you think?
A Comic Renaissance?
Whatever the draw, comics and graphic novels have been experiencing something of a Renaissance lately. Wikipedia says that while the genre has been through dark days–in years past, its heroes and stories have often been less than virtuous and at times like anti-heroes–there is a trend again toward stories with real heroes. There seems to be a feeling that folks are ready for good guys and stories of heroism again. Beyond Marvel and DC, the rise of the graphic novel (which is just a longer, more literary manifestation of the comic) has become a force in literature generally. For our purposes, kids’ literature hasn’t been an exception. In fact, with kids’ lit now the engine financing the rest of publishing, I suspect more creativity and money will continue to make its way into graphic novels and other picture-based books for kids.
On the one hand, this might be attributed to our culture’s general drift away from words and to images. In that sense, the genre may not be a good sign. If we’re turning from real literature–including the Bible–to image-based art forms, we’re taking a step-down. But in the lives of young people who are getting a well-balanced diet of word-based literature, and when compared to other kings of entertainment, videos and movies, comics and graphic novels may be a positive trend. A lot of literary folks, including homeschoolers, see them as a gateway drug….For instance, note Timberdoodle’s collection of graphic novelizations of classic literature, including Shakespeare. They are even featuring several graphic novel science curriculums….maybe worth checking out for some.
Homeschoolers have actually been on the comic/graphic novel train for some time. See Janie’s post on TinTin, as well as her World Magazine article about some of the series’ political implications. But graphic novels aren’t what they used to be, and as Jack aptly pointed out, they aren’t just for guys anymore.
The Avengers and Beyond
The Avengers movie, in my opinion, is set to hit a grand slam at the box office. Except for violence and one pretty snarky good guy, it’s good, clean fun. The plot is well-tuned, though not flawless. And it has a great message about freedom vs. tyranny. Plus, it’s well-written enough that you don’t have to be a comic fan to enjoy it. If you’ve got kids, go see it. No need to leave mom or sis at home. They’ll enjoy it too, in my opinion.
But once you’ve seen the movie, why not get acquainted with the new world of graphic novels suitable for kids and young adults? Here are a few of our favorites:
- Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams. This comic book presentation of seven of Shakespeare’s plays is a steal of deal at $7.99 for the paperback. A great way to help kids learn both the plot and the vocabulary of Shakespeare’s original plays, but without the blood, sweat and tears. I’d say it’s good for precocious readers as young as 6 or 7. Can be read to younger kids.
- Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems. Willems probably needs to intro to many of you, but he may be this generation’s Dr. Suess. He certainly has enough picture books and early readers in your library and local bookstore to give him a run for his money. Books like this one flirt with characters who are rebels, like Olivia and Eloise, but in this case, the Pigeon doesn’t always get what he wants. Lots of fun for kids, and for parents who like the comic book style of reading.
- Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (graphic novel), by Barry Deutsch. Abrams (Amulet), 2010, 139 pp. Age/interest level: 10-14. A story about a nice Jewish girl who has an unusual adventure and learns, as Janie puts it, you don’t have to break God’s law to be all you can be. See Janie’s review here.
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Technically this may not be a graphic novel, but it’s an adaptation of the form with many of the same joys. Reviewed here by Janie in relation to the recent movie.
- The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Mischievious middle-grade boy candy. Great summer reading pick!
- The Action Bible, ed. by Doug Mauss and illustrated by Sergio Cariello. I don’t at all recommend this as a substitute for God’s word. However, as a supplement, it’s far better reading than Superman comics–and just as gripping. I haven’t read every single word, but I have read quite a bit, including the beginning, climax (death of Christ and resurrection) and end. And the theological content is right on. This is perfectly appropriate for older readers up through adults as well. (Watch for our interview with the illustrator on Wed, May 2nd!)
- King Lear by Gareth Hinds. While we’re talking about Shakespeare, this version is for older kids, since it includes some pretty scary drawings. But I’d say it’s good for junior high up through high school and even adults. The art is fantastic, and this author/illustrator has done a number of Shakespeare books, though this is the only one I’ve read in depth. So, there are more where this comes from if you’re intrigued.
- Babylon by Art Ayris. See our intern’s review and interview with Ayris here. Ayris seems to be something of a rising star in Christian comic circles. He’s founder of Kingstone Comics, and has even been getting good press for Kingstone’s recent graphic novel, The Book of God, in secular Publisher’s Weekly. Worth checking the PW link just for the peek inside the book. The Book of God could be a pretty viable apologetics tool.
- Echoes of Eden by Marvin Olasky. Mr. Olasky is technically both Janie’s and my boss at World Magazine, so we asked our intern, 17-year-old Jack Mertens, to review it for us. (Read review here.) He felt there were some flaws (mostly in the art, not the storytelling), but overall, he definitely still recommends it for older teens and adults. Lots of great worldview communicated in the story.
- The Avengers, Vol. 1 (Marvel Masterworks) by Stan Lee. I haven’t even peeked inside this book, but at least for older teens who like the movie, it might be a good way to turn their excitement into time spent curled with a good book.
One other book parents of kids in grades 6-12 may be interested in: Connecting Comics to Curriculum: Strategies for Grades 6-12.
So, what do you all think? Why do guys love comics? And should Christians embrace them? Any favorites?