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So... Define 'All-Ages'

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The sense of awe and wonder ignited by the new, imaginative and cool stirs something in all of us. That passionate feeling is like nothing else we can experience in this life. All-Ages comic books light that passion in kids both young and old, if given half a chance…

First off, thank you to all the wonderful folks who have sent in a tidal wave of support for this column. While I'm not writing this to get an 'atta boy' it would feel useless if the only response we received was crickets chirping. So, thank you for letting us know we're doing something right and please don't stop.

Over the past few weeks, we've talked about what "All-Ages" isn't and how the term frustrates book buyers and others seeking to tighten the cue down to a smaller demographic. Unfortunately for them, the term casts a wide net. It's sort of like 'Pulp Fiction' wherein it's not easily compartmentalized into a certain age bracket or genre.

All-ages comics can be anything from a series like Muppet Babies all the way to variations of Batman and back again (and no, I don't just mean the Batman comics based on the cartoons). Any solid adventure writer who can craft a story that doesn't rely on cheap shock value or strictly mature themes can create an all-ages story with just about any character or group of characters in the existing comic world.

We need look no further than the majority of "mainstream" comics that came out in the 70s and 80s to see exactly what I mean; the storytelling sensibilities that existed prior to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Runs of books like Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, All Star Squadron, Firestorm, The Micronauts, ROM: Spaceknight and many more that filled the spinner racks back then were, for the most part, appropriate for all ages. Even books like Nexus, Starslayer and Justice Machine worked for all-ages, although Nexus flirted with a lot of things the average second grader may not benefit from.

I think this is where too many people get tripped up these days, by mistakenly assuming that "all-ages" means "dumbed down." I've said it before and I'll say it again, kids aren't stupid, they're just not as knowledgeable and wise as they will be in their adult years. Since no one likes to be treated like they're stupid, dumbed-down comics don't fit the all-ages definition. Not even close.

To illustrate a point proving that "all-ages" is not synonymous with "dumbed-down": I was on a college reading level by the time I was in fifth grade, thanks almost entirely to comic books.

But, in those comics, never once did I read anything that wasn't appropriate for a kid, or a grandparent or the current, highly coveted 25-35 demographic. They were great adventure stories, told with creativity, intelligence and skill that captivated my imagination. They didn't rely on cheap tricks to make my eyes widen - which is why so many of us fostered a love for comics. We weren't being fed a diet of cheap filler, we were devouring great stories. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of highly skilled storytellers doing mainstream comics these days and saying otherwise isn't my intent. But, there are those creating stories for TV, movies, video games and, yes, comics that rely heavily on such antics.

That's also what made pulp fiction, the progenitor of comic books, such a hit with the masses during the Great Depression: creative, imaginative tales that stretched your thinking and nourished the desire for escapism. While many people in that era decried pulp fiction as worthless garbage, which many did for years with comics, our current society actually embraces the new "geek chique" to a certain extent, which gives us the potential for a wider audience than ever before.

However, these days it seems too many of the books that fall into the same market placement as the ones I mentioned above rely on shock value (the Hulk discussing his sexual impulses? Rape in major DC books?) foul language or both. I guess the old saying of art imitating life is applicable here, as our society has grown more toward the cheap shock value sensibilities, but that doesn't mean the medium of comics has to chase that tail - let the dog wag it as it will.

As someone alluded on my Facebook page the other day, "All-Ages" stands in the gap between "mature-readers only" and "kiddie books." Comics shouldn't be confined to those two polar opposites, and thanks to the efforts of many, they aren't all strictly falling into those camps. Unfortunately, the majority of them do, however.

Don't take this as an assault on mature books, as they absolutely have their place, value and merit. But, just like the gap between the rich and the poor that keeps widening daily, the gap between mature books and kiddie books widens as well. Our societal structure needs a middle class, and comics need all-ages. It's simple, really.

For the most part, despite the stereotype of a lack of social skill, most comic fans I've ever encountered are at least of above average intelligence. Many are in the genius category, per Mensa standards. I can't help but draw the conclusion they got that way by exercising their minds reading comics. That point circles us back to the initial request to put comics in the hands of younger readers. If a kid starts reading comics, not dumbed-down comics, but all-ages comics, at a young age and that experience is nurtured into a lifelong love, imagine the implications.  

Last week, the comic shops were awash in DC's The New 52, DCnU, or whatever you chose to call it. DC seems to be trying to be all things to all readers with the wide-line reboot. I've read some assertions that the entire line is all-ages appropriate, which would be absolutely fantastic, but I've also heard claims to the contrary. Since I can't afford to buy fifty-two new comics a month, here’s one tip:

Amulet Volume 4 from the all-ages master Kazu Kibuishi.

For those who haven't read any of the charming Amulet series yet, you should start with volume one and get caught up before the Warner Brothers' movie based on the series hits the theaters.

Until next week, keep the fires of imagination burning bright!

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Mike Bullock is an international award winning all-ages comic creator and author. His all-ages work includes LIONS, TIGERS AND BEARS, TIMOTHY AND THE TRANSGALACTIC TOWEL, SECRETS OF THE SEASONS and several others. Bullock is also the most prolific PHANTOM writer in American comic book history.

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