This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 5, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What do you feel makes a work truly “all-ages”?
This is one of those questions that seems obvious, but exposes a tangled knot of language and definitions. All-ages comics are clearly comics for all-ages, right? How much more complicated could it be?
Well, that common sense statement exposes that how we define a supposedly simple concept like “all-ages” varies wildly. If you raise this term in a comic shop or internet forum, it’s likely to be treated as synonymous for something else, namely “children’s entertainment”. Some people reading this might look at that as a bit of common sense too. Of course a comic that’s for all-ages must qualify as children’s entertainment. That’s not entirely untrue, but it misses the key difference between intent and accessibility.
If we look at a comic that is definitely children’s entertainment and that might be referred to as all-ages, that difference should become more apparent. Let’s examine the Owly comics for an example. I’ll start by saying that Andy Runton’s work on Owly is fantastic. I have a few volumes in my own library and would encourage others to check out some of the free PDFs on his site. Owly features the word-free adventures of a young owl, filled with important early themes (e.g. friendship) and devoid of any cynicism. They are delightful and pure.
So when I say that Owly is children’s entertainment, that is not an insult. Owly is produced primarily for children and it offers young readers, even those possessing little to no vocabulary, with rich, enjoyable stories. That’s not to say an adolescent or adult couldn’t enjoy Owly, but it’s not really being made for them. To call Owly simplistic or basic as a criticism is to miss the point entirely. If a 50-year old man told me he thought Owly wasn’t any good, I’d probably use some language you won’t find in any children’s entertainment in my response.
Owly is intended for children, but is accessible by anyone. That’s part of the nature of being a maturing reader, after all. As you continue to read you can access more and more art, but don’t lose the foundation upon which you built the new skills you’re using. All-ages entertainment also ought to be accessible by just about anyone. It shares that element with children’s entertainment, which is probably where this confusion derives.
The difference is that all-ages entertainment is also intended for everyone. It’s not just that you can or can’t read it, but that the story offers something for your level of reading ability and intellectual acumen. I think this is also what establishes the unique challenge of making good all-ages entertainment. While it’s relatively simple to make a story accessible to everyone, making it for everyone is something far more difficult.
Now we know that no story is actually for everyone and that trying to make one that is is a fool’s errand. Everyone has different tastes and their own aesthetic preferences. The quest of an all ages comic isn’t to really make one that is for everyone, so much as one that will not create barriers for readers based upon their age, reading level, or maturity. While not quite as specific as making a story for absolutely everyone, it’s still a monumental task.
I think it’s possible to find a great example of a true all-ages comic that also features a fowl, albeit one that sticks to water this time. I’m thinking of Don Rosa’s magnum opus The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. If you’re not familiar with Rosa or Carl Barks’ work on the Disney Duck properties, you are missing out. They are truly masters of their craft and created all ages comics that endure more than half a century after their initial publication.
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is a historical adventure on its surface. Rosa’s pitch-perfect cartooning details a variety of suspenseful and hilarious incidents that follow Scrooge from his childhood into the old age with which most fans are familiar. The individual moments of the story are entertaining in their own right, and the vocabulary and storytelling are accessible to almost all levels of readers.
Within this decades-spanning adventure is a story that concerns the identity of America every bit as much as The Godfather though. It is a narrative about immigrants, poverty, and how the circumstances of one’s youth shape their perspective in life. As a character study it reveals the hidden depths beneath even someone so clearly defined as Scrooge himself, and suggests a more charitable take on humanity. This is a comic that is as thematically potent as it is important to the history of American cartooning, offering something for novices and experienced comics readers of any age.
That brief description of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck suggests one word to me: layers. I think that’s the key to crafting an all ages comic; it must offer layers in its story, storytelling, and style. What looks clear to someone new to comics or reading must also appear complex to someone experienced in either. It must be accessible to both these readers and offer them value, no matter how it is read.
When you think about all ages comics in those terms, I’m sure plenty leap to mind. They’re the books many of us discovered early in our comics reading careers and still return to as adults. I love to recommend comics like Jeff Smith’s Bone, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, and Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. They were eye-opening adventures when I was young, and now I discover new depths upon each new visit.
I think that’s the attraction to all-ages entertainment too, and why the successful endeavors in any medium tend to be so incredibly successful. We want stories to challenge and reward us. As we grow up, the things that brought us the most satisfaction often dull or rust. What appealed in Stephen King’s novels to a 13-year-old seems formulaic to a college student. Returning to these sorts of stories tarnish the joy and nostalgia associated with them. But in a great all-ages story, we can return to the things that inspired our imaginations once, only to find new inspiration. The story of a duck making his fortune becomes an interrogation of the American dream, manga of a little boy becoming a martial arts champion becomes a treatise on approaching life with joy and wonder, and the adventures of three cartoon brothers becomes a narrative of sacrifice and family. All-ages stories aren’t simply those that can be read together as a family, they’re those that continue to reward us throughout life.
Sometimes you can go home again, if you have new eyes to see it with.