Like all good comics, I’m going to start with the origin story; a sort-of potted history, before unleashing the good stuff. Here goes…
Something weird happened to comics a few years ago – the grown-ups snatched them.
It happened in the late 80s, not long after Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was published; comics got dark, broody, sweary, gritty and grim. Previously infallible superheroes suddenly got decidedly fallible and they even, occasionally, did the previously unthinkable and died.
Soon, broadsheet newspapers began running articles declaring that ‘Wham, Pow, Boom! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore’. These thunderingly onomatopoeic headlines were usually illustrated with examples of contemporary 80s and 90s comics to back up the claim: Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns were all regularly trotted out as trailblazers of this gritty new wave. The word ‘comic’ became unfashionable, it was replaced with a self-consciously grown-up term: graphic novel. *Shudder*.
Which was all very well for the grown-ups, suddenly inundated with grown-up comics to buy from grown-up shops. Meanwhile, actual comics for actual kids began to disappear. Where corner shop shelves were once stuffed to bursting with brilliant, bonkers titles for young comic-crazy kids: Beano, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Nutty, Tammy, Misty, Scream, Action, TV21, Eagle, Cor, Oink, Tiger and many many more – the sheer exuberant variety and choice for kids began to dwindle. None of which should come as a massive surprise, the kids’ comics of the 70s, 80s and even the 90s existed in an almost competition-free world. Other than tea-time telly or a trip to the pictures, comics were primetime media for kids in search of entertainment. In 2017 it’s an entirely different story, comics are a minor distraction in a blizzard of entertainment – most of it electronic – and lots of it very, very good.
And what kind of comic rose in the wake of this sad decline? I have two words for you: bagged tat. You’re a parent, so you’ll know what I mean. A magazine (usually tied to a licensed property such as a TV show or movie) in a plastic bag with a crappy toy. The magazine element of this package usually contains two or three pages of actual comic story (sometimes a lovely, well-made comic, sometimes not), padded out with fact-files, spot-the-difference games and quizzes. All filler, not so much killer.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news is, like any good superhero, comics are unstoppable, invincible, and bulletproof.
You may or may not know it, but there’s a quiet revolution going on. Amazing comics for kids exist in increasing numbers; you just need to know where to look for them. Luckily for you, I’ve written you a short starter list of three must-read titles:
1. The Phoenix Comic
(Ages seven plus)
Firstly, I must declare an interest. I was involved in The Phoenix as a designer, writer and artist during its first few years. BUT if I hadn’t been involved, I would STILL think that The Phoenix was the best thing to happen to kids’ comics for many years. It’s an amazing publication; a weekly burst of fun, drama, excitement and silliness. Kids literature superstars such as Philip Pullman, Jamie Smart, The Etherington Brothers, Kate Brown and Gary Northfield have all contributed ace stories and eye-popping art. The Guardian declared it “the best kids comic” and they’re quite right. You can pick it up in most WHSmiths and bigger branches of Waitrose. Or even better, go to their website to subscribe right now. You can thank me later.
NB: The Phoenix Comic has also started collecting stories from its back issues into a neat series of books. Search for The Phoenix Presents or find them on the Phoenix site, as above.
(Age seven plus)
If you’re of a design-y inclination, you’ll know all about Nobrow. Perhaps, like me, you used to pop into the Nobrow shop near Old Street in London. Or maybe you’ve bought some of their lovingly produced books or prints. But did you know that their roster of creators includes Luke Pearson, quietly creating a future-classic of kids’ literature? His series of Hilda comic books are a joy: charming, funny, exciting and beautiful. Buy them quick before the currently-in-progress Netflix animated series is finished and Hilda becomes a household name.
NB: Parents of younger kids might like to check out the Nobrow imprint Flying Eye Books, who are doing a wonderful job of making great picture books. You can even buy some here on the D.A.D site.
(Age eight plus)
Looking for a nine volume epic comic that mixes zany knockabout humour with a grand on-going quest story, poignant observations, dramatic action and beautiful drawing? Then look no further. Jeff Smith’s original Bone series of indie comics ran from 1991 to 2004 and along the way managed to bag ten Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards. In the world of comics, this is considered pretty impressive. My son (10) is working his way through the series and loves them. Start by searching out Volume 1: Out From Boneville (published by Scholastic) and see how you go.
Happy reading! And if those three recommendations go down well with the young comic-crazy kid in your life, here’s a grab-bag of titles for further exploration, very kindly recommended to me by kids’ comics experts Louie Stowell (@Louiestowell) and Zainab Akhtar (@comicsandcola). You should be able to find them all online or (even better) ask your friendly neighbourhood comic shop. And as you may know, the mighty Beano sails on and is available (shouting for attention amidst the bagged tat) from your newsagent.
Vern and Lettuce – Sarah McIntyre
Teenytinysaurs – Gary Norhfield
Ariol – Emmanuel Guibert and Marc Boutavant
Fungus the Bogeyman – Raymond Briggs
The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza – James Kochalka
Anna and Froga – Anouck Ricard
Asterix – Goscinny and Uderzo
Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson
Little Vampire – Joann Sfar
Fish Head Steve – Jamie Smart
Tintin – Hergé
Good Dog, Bad Dog – Dave Shelton
How To Make Awesome Comics – Neill Cameron
Adventure Time – Various
The Adventures of John Blake – Fred Fordham and Philip Pullman
The Amulet Series – Kazu Kibuishi
The Boss – John Aggs and Patrice Aggs
The Rainbow Orchid – Garen Ewing
Mezolith – Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank
Coraline – by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
Matt Baxter is the creative director and co-founder of Baxter and Bailey, an award-winning Brighton-based brand design studio. He has an occasional (and top secret) double life as a maker of comics for kids, contributing to The Phoenix Comic, Moose Kid Comics and drawing covers for Titan’s Doctor Who comic. He has been reading comics since he could read and is now running out of shelf space.