This week we're celebrating kids comics, and how comics inspire and influence people from an early age. Comics are often a gateway into fiction as a whole, and for many, the characters we met as kids remain some of our personal heroes to this day, whether they wear a cape or not.
The question we put to our contributors this week is: Who was your childhood comics hero?
My first comics hero was Optimus Prime.
I got obsessively into the Transformers for the entire Generation 1 running time, and if you loved Transformers, then Optimus Prime was the bomb. He was defined as not the strongest Autobot, but the wisest; the one who made everything seem a little more manageable just by virtue of his stoic calm — aided by a faceplate that gave him the ultimate poker face.
Even as a kid, I was twigging to the fact that comics was a different narrative than television; in comics, threads could weave in and out of a narrative and the status quo didn't have to stay strictly the same each time out. (You also didn't get the cartoon's gnarly sound effects, but: pros and cons.) In the comics, Optimus Prime could occasionally fail; soldiers could fall under his command, even on a successful operation; he could wind up captured for the better part of a year, reduced to a head (and figuring out how to detach the toy's head was my first use of a screwdriver.) But he was still Truck Dad From Space, still the one you could count on — and if he fell, that's when you knew things were serious.
Licensed tie-ins aren't the most glorious introduction to comics, but they're still an introduction, and the adventures of the Autobots and the Decepticons in comics format were mine. And out of all the heroic Autobots, there was one who was the hero's hero... even if occasionally he had to rip his own head off.
This feels like a weird title to bestow, in a couple of ways, but I bestow the title of childhood hero upon Dennis The Menace.
Dennis wasn't really the kind of character I aspired to be like. We certainly weren't similar. Dennis was exactly what his name suggested: an agent of chaos, all slingshots and pranks and grazed knees. He was basically the Joker of British kids' comics. As a quiet bookish kid, I was much more like his sworn nemesis, Walter the Softy.
Besides, I never really thought of the Beano — the weekly magazine he starred in — as a comic. The way I understand that word now. I wouldn't have seen any connection with my other childhood hero, Batman, a guy I knew from cartoons and toys.
But Dennis was the reason for that weekly pilgrimage to the corner-shop magazine rack. He was basically how I taught myself to draw — a habit that would be key to my induction into American comics years later. So yeah, it might feel weird to say, but Dennis was undeniably my first comics hero.
Kids are pretty small, and the world seems pretty big and pretty scary when you're that size. That difference in scale and power was a major part of Asterix's appeal to me as a kid. He was a little guy from a little village, but thanks to a touch of magic and a lot of cunning, Asterix and his friends were able to hold their own against the might of Julius Caesar's Roman Empire.
Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the books in the Asterix series were a constant presence for me on our family's summer car trips to Asterix's (and the creators') native France. The struggles of Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix as they visited Germany, Egypt, Britain, Spain and beyond — or held the line against spies, soothsayers, fearless Normans, and devious property developers — were captivating to me thanks to Uderzo's cheerful bigfoot cartooning, the witty and ingenious translations of Andrea Bell and Derek Hockridge, and Goscinny's often fantastical satires. And these were stories that got richer as I grew older, taking me from my earliest reading experiences to my first dirty Vertigo book.
Asterix has stayed with me ever since, as has the word "indomitable," used to describe his little village at the start of every book. Even the smallest among us can defy the crush of empire. We just need to be smart, and strong. And we need a touch of magic, which is what great stories provide.
I know Alex has written about Dennis The Menace, who was very formative for me as a child, so I’m going to zag in a different direction and talk about Beast and the X-Men. Growing up as an awkward kid is tough, so when the X-Men cartoon came out, I loved it so much, and started reading UK reprints of Scott Lobdell X-Men stories that were incomprehensible to me.
You know how you hear stories about people disappointed they never got the letter from Hogwarts? When I was about seven, all I wanted was to develop mutant powers and attend the Xavier School. I gravitated to Beast as a character because he was smarter than everyone, but most importantly he didn’t let being different stop him from being awesome — and that’s important to kids.
Now that I’m older, I look back and see that I was a pretty normal kid, but when you’re growing up, alienation is tough to deal with, and the X-Men helped me through that a lot.
Where continental European comics tended to favor the small-town hero like Asterix or Tintin, and America always went for big-league superhero justice, the UK has a surprising passion for stories about postmen. Whether they have a black and white cat called Jess, or are constantly hounded by Alex's aforementioned Menace, you can't take five steps in the world of English comics without bumping into a postman, red cheeked and smiling.
Created by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, The Jolly Postman was a seemingly ordinary postie who delivered messages to all kinds of extraordinary recipients — and the hook was that each time you turned the page, you could open the letter, attached into the paper, and pull out the letter to read at the same time as the witches, monsters, princes and princesses who received it.
I adored those stories. Here was a man who spent all his time doing his job, sturdy, passing on these messages that made other people so happy. It delivered to me this idea of how important words can be — and how nothing is better than using that power to make other people smile. I love The Jolly Postman. He was my hero, and I'm just now starting to think that maybe he's part of the reason I'm even on ComicsAlliance right now, writing this!
From a very young age, I’ve loved monsters.
Not evil monsters that want to kill people, although when I got a little older I learned to appreciate those too, but good monsters. Friendly monsters who mean well, but are alienated by their size or appearance. And of course the other thing I loved was superheroes, so how could I resist a character who was both? There have been plenty of monstrous superheroes over the years, but the all-time greatest, and my childhood favorite, was Ben Grimm, the Thing.
Maybe it’s because I was a weird kid who had trouble fitting in, or maybe it’s just because he’s such a great character, but the Thing always spoke to me like no other superheroes did. Sure, at times he could whine and be self-pitying about his own monstrousness, but he never lost sight of what mattered: That he always did the right thing, and that he had a family that loved him.
When it comes to role models, you could do a lot worse.