In my regular monthly round-up of the best comic titles I always make it a point to include all-ages releases. Just as video games have, comics seem to have "grown up" with my generation, and finding fare for the ten-and-under reader is increasingly difficult. Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for all the dark, cynical, and deep stories from the likes of Matt Fraction, Gail Simone, and Scott Snyder, but won't someone think of the children?
Well, Art Baltazar did. I first picked up a few volumes of his Tiny Titans about a year ago to share with my young daughter, and that went swimmingly. Baltazar offered comic strip-level stories with ultra-cute versions of the Teen Titans doing things like going to class to show off their pets and making friends. How more adorable can you get?
The success of Tiny Titans helped start a wave of these Comic Babies titles, and at first I thought it was a brilliant way to ease kids into comics. Now, I'm starting to think the whole thing has gotten out of hand,
My unease started with about the third read-through of Tiny Titans. It is, of course, peppered on every page with nudge nudge wink wink references to regular continuity stories. Just fun little Easter Eggs for the adult fan to snicker at and promise to explain later to his or her child. The latest incarnation of Scooby Doo does the same thing with cameos by Pinhead and whole episodes parodying Andy Warhol.
After having absorbed most of these through the repeated readings that any kid forces upon you, though, it feels less like fun and more like out and out dishonesty. It's not dissimilar to the mild feeling of betrayal you get when you discover the Narnia books are all purposeful Christian allegories. It has nothing to do with religious propagation. It's just the weirdly hurt acknowledgment that something you thought was one thing was actually something else.
I know it's difficult for veteran comic writers to not leave in these references, but doing so comes at the expense of allowing stories meant for young children to exist on their own.
There's also the fact that the amount of franchises that are getting the Tiny Titans treatment is getting out of hand. Baltazar and Franco Aureliani took the idea to Dark Horse and came out with Itty Bitty Hellboy (Still say it should have been Heckboy). Now, there's nothing wrong with Hellboy. I probably would let an eight-year-old read it or watch the movies. Especially the animated one.
But Itty Bitty Hellboy left me feeling very, very weird. It was the first of the kiddified comics I read whose source material was definitely not intended for children, and as such you can feel a creepiness about it. Things that aren't that bad in the original context start to seem more like the cartoonish thoughts of a disturbed adult rather than an attempt to bring the idea of Hellboy to a lower reading level.
This month I came home from 8th Dimension with a stack of "L'il" comics from Dynamite and it's gotten even more bizarre. There's a little version of Vampirella, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, and even Battlestar Galactica. Each one another perfect example in this odd genre, and each one increasingly weird because of it.
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It's like we have this need to find some way to make the things that we used to like when we were kids somehow more palatable to our own children. It's the comic book equivalent of telling a kid in a high chair that a spoon full of food is a choo choo train. In the case of Vampirella it's actually almost obscene.
Fond as I am of Vampirella she's a two-dimensional dark sexual fantasy masquerading as a character. She always has been. That's not a knock on her, it's the reason she exists. What's next, though? L'il Omaha, where instead of being a stripper, Omaha the Cat Dancer and her friends are in a ballet class?
There are plenty of great original children's comics out there. Princeless for instance, and Herobear and the Kid. There are long-running franchises like em>Sonic and My Little Pony as well to keep kids in comics. This pint-sized version of what we love has run its course. We don't want that Watchmen Babies: V for Vacation joke from The Simpsons to come to hideous life, do we?