I can’t remember a time when I did not know about Superman. I was introduced to comic books and comic book superheroes at a very young age, and to this day I still have my entire comic book collection, which numbers in the thousands. (Nomi is very understanding.)
Naturally, I wanted Muffin and Squeaker to develop my love of superheroes. I thought I might buy them some superhero comic books, casually leave them scattered around, and let them discover the comics “on their own.” But as babies and early toddlers, Muffin and Squeaker’s first impulse was to rip pages out of books. I didn’t want them extending this impulse to my own comics.
Also, superhero storytelling in comic books has changed from when I was a kid. At that time, DC Comics and Marvel Comics mostly aimed their stories at kids. No one would give a second thought to my buying a copy of Superman or Action Comics, because everyone knew that these stories were safe for kids. There was even a seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority!
But today, superhero storytelling is drastically different. Superhero comics are aimed at an older generation. The stories are darker and more violent. When I was four years old, I could choose any comic off the rack and my parents would know it was okay for me to read; today, that’s no longer an option.
So what was I to do?
Salvation came when I discovered SuperHero ABC by comic artist Bob McLeod. It quickly became one of Muffin and Squeaker’s favorite books. In the book, McLeod presents twenty-six superheroes of his own invention, such as Goo Girl and Laughing Lass, to teach kids the alphabet.
As McLeod has illustrated superheroes for much of his career, I asked him what he thought about introducing kids to superheroes at a young age. Were my kids too young to learn about superheroes?
Not at all, according to McLeod: “Any age is fine, as long as it's in the proper context, with no violence or threat. Young kids just mainly like to see the costumes, and the heroes flying.”
McLeod did agree with me, however, that today’s comics are not for kids anymore.
I also asked writer Keith R.A. DeCandido about introducing kids to superheroes. He has written many genre and tie-in novels, and his first book was a Spider-Man novel.
“Superheroes are great for children,” DeCandido said, “because it gives them a good example of right and wrong. With superheroes you have fairly unambiguous good guys fighting fairly unambiguous bad guys, and more often than not, good beats bad. That's something it's never bad to expose kids to.”
But wouldn’t such a conflict be too intense for a toddler?
“Depends on the toddler, really. Some can handle it better than others – but that's true of older kids and adults, too. Certainly the lack of ambiguity is an easy way to show good vs. evil without overcomplicating it. Even if a toddler or child misses the nuances, they can appreciate the basic setup that Spider-Man is a good person who is stopping Dr. Octopus from doing bad things.”
Of course, the fact that Spider-Man, or any hero, is fighting a bad guy might be a problem for some parents. Our fellow Brookline Patch columnist , who writes column, asked me how we explain the bad guys to our kids. Well, Muffin and Squeaker already know what it is to be naughty or nice. So rather than tell them, say, that the Lizard is planning to kill a lot of people and take over the world, we just tell them that he’s naughty. If they want details, we tell them that he’s taking toys that belong to other people, or that he’s refusing to go to bed at bedtime. That they understand.
So how can parents introduce their young kids to superheroes today? I found a few possibilities beyond Bob McLeod’s excellent book.
First of all, the I Can Read! and Step into Reading series of books include titles about superheroes. It’s not that hard to find books for toddlers about heroes such as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. Most of these books are for Level 2 readers or above, but as long as I’m reading the books to the kids with them, that doesn’t really matter.
Secondly, Bob McLeod suggested showing the kids some of the older, more innocent comics of an earlier era. I’ve actually begun showing the kids the Spider-Man cartoon from the 1960s, which led to a fascinating question from Muffin when she saw Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson with a cigar in his mouth: “Daddy, why is that man eating a crayon?” The older cartoons and comics were aimed at young kids, as opposed to the comics and movies of today, so it’s easier to find superhero stories that are age-appropriate. Even if you have to explain away the occasional cigar.
Thirdly, we can introduce superheroes through play. From the time they were little, I would lift both girls up in the air and sing a song about “Super-Muffin” and “Super-Squeaker” to the tune of the John Williams 1978 Superman movie theme. I’m confident that when they finally see the film, the music will make them feel happy, even if they don’t know why.
Finally, I’m glad to say that the comic book companies themselves started to realize that there was a problem. After all, you won’t be able to continue to develop an audience if you have no entry-level stories to share. So a few years ago, DC and Marvel started new lines aimed specifically at kids. By the time my kids are reading on their own, I know there will be modern age-appropriate superhero comics to show them. I can only hope that by then they’ll still love superheroes.
This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.