Why The Problem With Kids And Comics Goes Way Beyond That Powerpuff Girls Cover
For the past week, a debate over a variant cover to IDW's Powerpuff Girls #6 has raged on the internet, seemingly dividing people into a "it's sexual and kids shouldn't see it" camp and "it's harmless and you're gross for thinking it's gross" camp.
The chief spokesman for the former camp, Dennis Barger, Jr. of WonderWorld Comics in Michigan, said the cover sexualized young girls and was just not appropriate for children, who are the future of the comics industry. He's got a point, but whether it's the Powerpuff Girls cover he should be going after is debatable.
Let's get that out of the way first: I don't think the cover is all that sexual if you don't come at it with some baggage first. The intended audience for this book is young girls who have dolls that look exactly like the plastic figures of this cover marketed to them every day. Now, I'm not saying that toy marketing is particularly edifying or good, or that these images are anything close to what girls should model themselves after, but these aren't really strange or shocking images for girls who are used to seeing Bratz dolls on TV or in their rooms at home.
It's only if you're a grown-up who has done a few Google image searches you wish you hadn't or been to a corner of the Tumblr fan-art community you wish you hadn't that you start making connections, and you start thinking about how genuinely sexualized these characters for kids can be and have been. (Which actually makes it weird that this was a variant cover strictly for the direct market, as if this image is actually meant to appeal to adults rather than tween girls.) That doesn't necessarily make you a pervert like the cover's artist, Mimi Yoon, has charged. It just means you're seeing things in a particular context, that's been informed by things you've seen elsewhere.
My point is that it's all in the eye of the beholder. What looks like something inappropriate to you might look like some cool, tough teen girls to someone else.
What I find really interesting is how Barger's offense at the cover was so focused on the fact that The Powerpuff Girls is a comic that's been designated as being for kids -- it's part of IDW's line of comics based on cartoon properties, along with Samurai Jack and My Little Pony. Maybe that's because The Powerpuff Girls book is one of the only books retailers know they can sell to parents coming in looking to get something they can feel safe giving to their kids.
That is where I see a problem. Most people don't get upset when Cyborg horrifically turns inside out in the pages of Justice League. No kids read it.
Several years ago, when I was still working at a newspaper, I had an editor whose 5 or 6-year-old son was absolutely crazy about Spider-Man. I knew this because he had his son's drawings of Doctor Octopus and The Green Goblin up at his desk. He knew the characters from the movies and cartoons. One afternoon we got to talking and I mentioned how big of a Spider-Man fan I was as a kid and still am.
My editor asked me if I could recommend any Spider-Man comics for his son. He told me that he tried to find a few issues to get him, but he'd paged through them and seen one of those scenes most people who read comics every week would flip right past with no problem: a woman (I assume Mary Jane, but he didn't know who, and I didn't know what issue he meant) getting out of the shower with just steam covering her nipples and genitals. I came back later in the week with some digests of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man for him.
Marvel doesn't even publish that line of comics anymore, presumably because they didn't sell all that well. And it figures. If you're a parent wandering into a comic shop, trying to find something for your kid that loves the Avengers, how are you going to know the difference between the book that's called Avengers and the one that they can actually buy for their kids?
Look, I want complex, challenging stories from my superhero comics, too. Sometimes that means violence. Sometimes that means having to wrestle with tough issues that may involve something sexual. But jeez, can't there be one superhero comic that's OK for kids to read, especially since we've got as many superhero cartoons and movies as ever in the culture at large? Don't kids love Starfire and Raven just as much as they love SpongeBob?
Even the stuff that seems safe, like Ryan Choi as the The Atom, makes it really hard to follow characters kids could really like, because things like this happen:
I'm pretty desensitized to violent images--I dig horror movies a lot--and something about this drawing has disturbed me ever since I saw it. I think it's that it's happening in the moment in which Choi is still conscious of what is happening to him, watching the fatal blow that ends his life, as it happens, on-panel. It's gruesome and has stuck with me. I can't imagine what I'd think if I was, say, 8 or 10, and saw this.
People often respond to arguments like this one like they're being persecuted, that if you take away one or two of their dark, "mature" comics then they'll all suddenly be for kids, and that conception that "Pow! Bang! Comics are still for kids!" will rear its ugly head, risking embarrassment for them. Suddenly their lifelong hobby will be what everyone who wants to deride it has always said.
But look, folks, there's plenty of room for everyone. If you keep buying comics made for adults, they'll keep making comics for adults. Anyone who knows even a little bit about comics knows full well they can be literature for grown-ups with brains.
There should also be Batman and Wonder Woman and Justice League and Hulk and Avengers comics that children can pick up without seeing Cyborg getting turned inside out or Ant-Man performing oral sex on the Wasp.