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Comics: not just for grown-ups

In the March 2012 issue of Q&Q, Kenton Smith explores how the revival of quality comics for kids has seen an uptick in sales at traditional children’s houses.

David Saylor, vice-president and creative director at Scholastic U.S., grew up obsessed with comics. So when he entered children’s publishing, it struck him as odd that no traditional children’s houses were doing them. There was no particular reason that children’s publishers shouldn’t publish comics, so I thought, ˜Well, why not try to create the sort of comics that I loved when I was eight?’ Saylor says.

A decade ago, there was very little in the marketplace specifically for kids and, what’s more, a distinct lack of quality comics for young readers. Given the pains artists and publishers had taken over the years to win greater legitimacy for comics as an adult medium, the irony was inescapable.

Some of the best comics ever have been made for kids, says journalist and critic Jeet Heer, a vocal champion of Little Lulu creator John Stanley. In 2009’s The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (Henry N. Abrams), the volume’s editors, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, even suggest that some of the best twentieth-century literature for kids was in comics form.

Thankfully, the recent vacuum is starting to be filled. The past five years in particular have seen the imbalance corrected, says Peter Birkemoe, owner of Toronto comics bookstore The Beguiling. At a time when independent bookstores are almost uniformly cutting back, the resurgence in children’s comics was a major factor in Birkemoe’s decision to open Little Island Comics, billed as North America’s first comics shop exclusively for kids.

Since the store opened in September, Birkemoe has seen sales for kids’ comics double over what they were at The Beguiling alone, to the point that sales of comics for adults and children are now roughly equal. We’d always had a market for kids in the store, he says. It just previously hadn’t been a growth market.

Jeff Smith’s Bone (Scholastic)

Much of this revival can be traced to the success of artist Jeff Smith’s Bone series, the flagship title of Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, founded by Saylor in 2005. With millions of copies in print, the series is among Scholastic’s top sellers. Especially after being reprinted in colour, Bone opened eyes to the artistic and commercial possibilities [of children’s comics], Heer says.

Scott Chantler’s Tower of Treasure (Kids Can Press)

Canadian publishers have added to the trend. Last summer, Kids Can Press won the Joe Shuster Award for best kids’ comic for Scott Chantler’s graphic novel Tower of Treasure, the first in an ongoing series. We’d already been combining images and words in picture books, so it made for a great fit, says Karen Li, an editor at Kids Can. The entire trend, she adds, is building critical mass right now.

Even Drawn & Quarterly, one of the publishers credited with the breakthrough of comics as an adult medium, is discovering a new young readership. In 2006, the Montreal-based publisher released its first title specifically targeted to kids: a reissue of Scandinavian writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s Moomin comic strip. The series, which has grown to seven volumes, has become the company’s most successful reprint, says creative director and editor Tom Devlin.

This fall, under its children’s imprint, Enfant, D&Q will publish another title with crossover potential: Pippi Moves In, the first in a three-volume set of original Pippi Longstocking comics appearing in English for the first time.

Another factor in the success of children’s comics has been their championing by librarians and educators. At Little Island, more than half of all sales have been institutional. Also doing well in the school market is Victoria’s Orca Book Publishers, whose Graphic Guides series boasts an educational component. Sales to schools and libraries have been strong, says publisher Andrew Wooldridge, adding that they account for roughly 60 per cent of the company’s graphic novel sales.

New research has also been a factor, such as a notable 2009 study from the University of Illinois that found children benefit as much from reading comics as from other types of literature. We’d looked with interest at these kinds of studies, Li says. We feel comics are a fun tool for literacy. Like Orca, Kids Can has seen a significant return from direct marketing to schools and libraries.
The net result is an all-around re-education about the value of comics. And it’s young readers who are benefitting as much as anyone.