Jul 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Children’s Comics

The Brown Wedge13 comments • 1,280 views

The last item (bar a bonus insert) in this series was on European comics. Two of the all-time great children’s creators could have been covered there. It’s worth noting that comics have been a medium aimed overwhelmingly at children, especially in anglophone countries, for most of their existence, so unsurprisingly some of the best cartoonists ever were in that market.

Rene Goscinny

I won’t say too much about him, because everyone knows Asterix (with artist Uderzo, who continued writing it after Goscinny died). His writing is a constant delight not just on this, but on Ompa-Pa (a Native American; artist Uderzo again), Iznogoud (a vizier in a 1001 Nights world; artist Tabary) and especially cowboy Lucky Luke, with Morris. (Asterix is easy to find, but the others are less common, though there are English-language editions.)


You’ll all know Tintin too, of course. Beautifully crafted comics, with an immensely influential clear-line style and very entertaining adventures. (Fairly easy to find, of course.)

Carl Barks

Barks is less generally famous, but rightly revered within comics. He wrote and drew Donald Duck comics from 1942 to ’68, creating a few notable characters, in particular Uncle Scrooge. No credits in those days, but fans learned to recognise the “good duck artist” and seek out his work. He was a superb storyteller, one of the best ever, both in the flow of his panels and the quality of his narrative. His stories were obviously meant for kids, but I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t enjoy them immensely. (Comic shops can sell you plenty of Barks collections.)

John Stanley

Even less well known, but a great writer in particular. He wrote and often drew Little Lulu, a strip about the antics of its young heroine. It’s aimed at an even younger audience than the series above, but it’s still an absolute joy to read. (Dark Horse have published a series of collections of his work on this.)

British cartoonists

Much as I love the work of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Mike McMahon and others, for me the greatest British comic talent ever was Leo Baxendale, creator of (among other things) The Bash Street Kids. He was as energetic and uninhibited a cartoonist as you’ll find almost anywhere, and the densely packed gags and high speed of his best work are glorious. Almost as good are a couple more from the same great era of the Beano and Dandy: Ken Reid (Roger the Dodger, Jonah) is even more virulent; and Davy Law (Dennis the Menace (UK version), Beryl the Peril) has a ragged energy all his own. All three started at DC Thomson in the early ’50s. An older great would be Dudley Watkins, famous in Scotland for Oor Wullie and The Broons, best known elsewhere for Lord Snooty. (Sadly, the great old work of these people is not easily available – DC Thomson have never shown any interest in collecting the vintage work for a fan market.)


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    james on 2 Jul 2008 #

    See also: Floyd Gottfredson, who drew the Mickey Mouse daily strips (uncredited, of course). There are times when I prefer his work to Barks’ … the story that’s collected in the Smithsonian Anthology is sublimely good.

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    Martin Skidmore on 2 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, Gottfredson was great too. I don’t like him as much as Barks, but he is well worth hunting down too. He’s more difficult to find, less well collected.

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    Pete on 3 Jul 2008 #

    This is a bit of a misnomer for an article title. A lot of the comics you have already talked about were, at least in their day, childrens comics. Certainly Lee/Kirby Marvel were seen and marketed as childrens comics, and certainly the DC stuff you have been talking about (the Flash in particular). The aging and hanging on to these issues by their baby boomer fans may have matured the market – though mature is still a difficult word in superhero comics, but doesn’t stop their initial market being comics.

    European comics are a stranger business. Whilst I am sure Asterix and Tintin have a massive childrens audience, a flea market I was at in Switzerland also suggested that these book also have a massive adult audience too (perhaps in perpetual nostalgia like the US market). The dreaded tag All Ages is wafted around, but I wonder whether you could append that to Leo Baxendale’s work – beyond admiring the terrific artwork.

    (I may have more to say on this issue via the very odd comic Tiny Titans).

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    Martin Skidmore on 3 Jul 2008 #

    Those are fair points. I guess my distinction would be that these are often generically called that – I know we can call the Disney ones funny animal and so on, but I think they have more in common with Asterix than with Superman and so on, and superheroes are a genre of their own. Superheroes haven’t really much been seen as children’s comics for a while. I wanted to highlight that some things seen as squarely aimed at kids are wonderful and have a wide appeal.

    A lot of my categories come far less from thinking “Okay, I want to say something about children’s comics” than from noting down lots of people or comics I want to mention, and lumping them together in more or less plausible groups.

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    pete on 3 Jul 2008 #

    No, fair enough. I knew what you meant, but then I know a wee bit about comics. In a beginners guide flagging “childrens comics” begs the question aren’t all comics childrens comics? I guess the bigger issues about sequential art storytelling is that it still seems to be in a weird state of arrested development. There are now a few classics which have literature status, but I think there is a real lack of understanding of the medium (not least sometimes by some of the people who work in it).

    There are bigger questions to ask about the medium which are probably better asked later, after the beginners guide is over! Lets not scare off the neophytes who have and awful lot of good stuff to discover.

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    Martin Skidmore on 4 Jul 2008 #

    I don’t actually know if genuine neophytes are reading any of this! Obviously the comments come from people who know things. I wouldn’t discourage any topics in comments.

    I can’t see comics moving out of their largely-kids position for a long time, if they ever do. There is very little for adults in comparison to the vast amount for kids/teens. I’m not sure how they got this way – they grew out of newspaper strips, which weren’t so aimed at children, with a large dash of pulp mags, which weren’t either. Obviously the Wertham-led palaver in the ’50s in America juvenilised them even more, killing off just about everything aimed at older readers.

    There’s nothing inherent in the form that makes it unsuitable for adults, obviously, and its position is not universal – comics sell to adults in Japan in vast numbers.

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    rosie on 4 Jul 2008 #

    I don’t know if I count as a neophyte but I’ve been quietly following this thread, pleased that I actually know what it’s all about in a field that often looks quite esoteric to me!

    Of course I grew up on the Beano. Also on the American comics my dad brought home from the shipyard (they were used as ballast on transatlantic ships) – there were all the usual suspects: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and so on (which amused me but never really grabbed me) but also a lot of what seemed to be one-offs, some of which I really enjoyed – good, gothic spine-chillers of a completely different order from the rather preposterous superheroes. It would never have occurred to me to identify the artists, mind.

    Astérix and Tintin are another matter, of course. I can’t bear either of them in English – somehow they only seem to work for me in French, but I got really hooked on both when I spent time in France. I even persuaded my French exchange to send me Pilote regularly. When I was in what would now be called Year 11, in a group which had already done O-level French, had no intention of doing A-Level French, and were still bound by a school policy which demanded compulsory French, our prof tried to entice us, unsuccessfully, with La Peste, Moderato Cantabile and Le Grand Meaulnes (aka “Big Moans”). At length she cried out in despair “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? Astérix le Gaulois?” And the class cried with one one voice, “YEEEESSSSSSS!”

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    Martin Skidmore on 5 Jul 2008 #

    My French is weak enough that reading comics in it is slow, and I would miss puns, which matters in Asterix. The English translations are generally highly regarded, but a good friend once wrote an article where he thought far less of them.

    Also, re gothic spine chillers: the next piece will be on horror comics. I’m not sure what you’d have seen, but what I am covering seems unlikely to be what you’re talking about, I think.

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    james on 5 Jul 2008 #

    I was in a used bookstore this afternoon (in the US) where I picked up a book called “Clean Cartoonists, Dirty Drawings,” a sort of not-to-deep summation/collection of nudie pin-up drawings by famous cartoonists of yesteryear.

    Not nearly as shocking/explicit as the Tijuana Bibles material, it’s more like: “oh, this Disney animator used to get bored at his desk all the time and draw pin-up girls”

    The most startling revalation by far: the nudes drawn by Carl Barks. What’s really bizaare and creepy is when you can actually recognize Bark’s unique linework on like, a girls’ legs in the drawing. Your brain starts reading it as both a naked woman AND a Barks duck simultaneously. It’s not intentional, of course — it’s just how he drew — but it’s still really weird to look at.

    also: Will Eisner cannot draw breasts! who would have guessed?

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    Martin Skidmore on 7 Jul 2008 #

    Wow – I’ve never seen nudes by Barks. Not ducks, I take it?

    Eisner’s occasional topless woman in his graphic novels fits with your opinion there.

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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 7 Jul 2008 #

    “porky pig style” <— ie wearing a jacket but no pants

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    J on 15 Jul 2008 #

    I have to chime in to agree with the people who remarked on the misleading title. I actually find the works of Goscinny or Hergé a lot less ‘children’s’ comics than the superhero genre, despite the stylised artwork. To ‘get’ Asterix in full, for example, you need to be versed in history, literature, culture old and contemporary, whereas to read most Superman or Spider-Man stories you need next to no prior learning since they exist in archetypal, self-contained universes.

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    Tom on 15 Jul 2008 #

    I dunno if “getting in full” is a good metric for whether something is for kids or not, though. Speaking personally, I think I probably enjoy Asterix LESS now I get more of the slightly donnish sense of humour in it, whereas when I was a kid it was all ‘LOL menhirs’.

    re #3: 60s Marvel certainly wasn’t JUST marketed to kids – Stan Lee very much had hip teens and college students on his mind too, all the “A POP ART PRODUCT” stuff, beatniks in the X-Men, etc etc. There’s a semi-ironic “for men who should know better” style to the whole thing.

    Of course Lee’s great, possibly accidental, marketing genius was to hit on a style which worked AMAZINGLY well at attracting 8-12 year old kids too. I should try and read up on the history of marketing to kids – you can see echoes of the whole FOOM!, MMMS, bullpen hijinks style in almost every for-kids communication ever since*, and I wonder the degree to which Lee invented it.

    *it’s why I found 80s Smash Hits so appealing, for instance.

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