It is a constant frustration to me that people continue to regard comics as something “just for kids”. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do – Maus can win the Pulitzer Prize, we can have graphic novels of immense subtlety and grace*, heartbreaking tragedy** or clear, fascinating, reportage***. None of that makes any impact on the mundane world. To them all we are is blokes in tights, talking animals and Dennis the Menace.
I wouldn’t mind, but as soon as you take most of that off the page and put it on a screen adults have no problem with it. I’ve had people talk to me with great enthusiasm about the new Will Smith opus Hancock. “It’s such a cool idea!” they opine. “Like, a superhero with problems, who people don’t like!”
Been done. Many times. It’s even been done as comedy I think. Seems to me that every time we get a superhero on the screen, from Unbreakable to The Incredibles via Batman and all points in between people who dismiss comics as being beneath them because “it’s all blokes in tights” flock to see. And don’t even get me started on Heroes.
Talking animals? Adults flock to movies like Happy Feet or A Bug’s Life**** even when they don’t have a small child with them as an excuse. “Oh, but they’re not just for kids – they work on so many different levels…”
I’ve complained before about this strange double standard, whereby content which is lauded when it’s on screen is dismissed as kid’s stuff when it’s on a printed page***** is derided when it’s presented as patterns of ink on paper. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by lack of consistency from the general populous, but this is a phenomenon which is so irrational in its prejudice I really haven’t been able to get my head around it.
But recent events and discussions in another area of publishing have caused a bit of a lightbulb to start flashing in my head, and I think I might be getting a handle on the whole thing.
There has of late been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK publishing market about plans to introduce age ratings on children’s books. Many authors are up in arms about the plan to label books as being suitable for children who are “5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen.”
Philip Pullman****** is leading the resistance claiming that such labels will limit readers. What if you have a kid who is perfectly capable of reading your 11+ book when they’re only 8? Will they or their parents think to pick it up and look at it? And frankly, if you’re 13, why shouldn’t you pick up and enjoy a book that’s labelled 11+? But I bet a lot won’t, put off by the stigma of reading “kid’s books”. Worse, I can also forsee the possibility where pushy parents load down their kids with books from the next age bracket up so that they can boast about how advanced a reader their child is, regardless as to whether to poor little sprog is enjoying the books or not. Either scenario ends up with lids being put off reading altogether.
And this would be a shame, which is why Pullman and others are so set against any such age guidance. I have to be honest – instinctively, I’m with Pullman. The idea that people should be told that a book is “too old” or “too young” for them seems to me to be absurd. People should read the books they want to read. If I want to read Huckleberry Finn I bloody well will. I was nine when I first tackled The Lord of the Rings. I only understood about one word in ten, but nothing was going to stop me having a go. In the process I learned a lot, and that was a good thing.
And yes, I can guess what some of you are thinking, but you’re wrong. I really don’t believe that we need to “protect” children from the content of novels. Do I think it’s a good idea for your average eight year old to read the sort of sexually explicit stuff you might find in a Jackie Collins sex romp? Of course not. But the thing is, I think your average eight year old******* wouldn’t read such a book in any case – they’d be bored by it. And if they’re not, well, chances are they know too much already and reading a bit of Jackie’s smut is the least of our worries on that score.
But, (and this was the revelatory bit for me, so pay attention) having said that, I do support the sort of age ratings that are given to movies. Movies are a much more passive experience than books, and as a result there are some things that kids didn’t ought to be shown. They’ll put the book down, but they’re far less likely to look away from the screen. It’s hypnotic.
In any event, film classification******** has been around a very long time. We’re used to it. And I think it might be the reason why films which feature comic strip motifs are more accepted as worthy of adult attention than the comics which inspired them.
Let’s just run through the UK classifications for a second. We have:
U – Universal, suitable for all.
PG – Parental Guidance, some scenes may be unsuitable for young children.
12 – Unsuitable for children under 12.
12A – Unsuitable for children under 12, and some scenes may be unsuitable for older viewers.
15 – Unsuitable for children under the age of 15.
18 – Unsuitable for anyone under the age of 18.
So, what’s my point? Well. Don’t be fooled by the wording. These are prohibitions. If you’re eleven, it is illegal to show you a 12 rated film. In film classification, “12” doesn’t mean “suitable for twelve year olds”, it means “only suitable for people over twelve”. It’s a subtle difference from the age rating system that is suggested for books, but it’s an important one. And look at the “U” rating. It’s not “suitable for young children”, it’s “suitable for all”. Unlike books and comics, movies come with a little tag that gives you permission to watch them, so long as you’re old enough*********. The implication inherent in that label is that you can never be too old to watch something, only too young.
A message which comics would do well to send. Some publishers, most notably Marvel, have indeed begun to display age advisory labels on the covers of their comics – something I was rather dismissive of at the time. But now I begin to wonder. The “Mature Readers” tag has never worked for me, since it invites comments along the lines of “Mature comics readers? An oxymoron surely?” But a straight age tag?
Well, it has its advantages.
For a start, it might stop my local branch of a well known newsagent and bookseller from racking manga publications like Battle Royale with the children’s books – something that will at some point really come back to haunt them. It might also make the lives of responsible comics retailers a little easier when they try to ensure that adult material isn’t bought by kids who shouldn’t see it – “look, it’s not me, it says here you can’t have it!”
Of course, there is a clear flaw in my theory. If age restrictions encourage older people to sample product, and Marvel have been using age labelling for years, how come it hasn’t made any impact yet?
Well, there are two things really. In the first place, movie age restrictions are mandatory, and on comics they’re advisory. I think that makes a bit of a difference. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, comics are slightly more ghettoised than films. People go to the cinema. They see posters and trailers and ads for movies on TV. They don’t see comics, so the age labels have far less impact.
At the end of the day, perhaps that’s what we need to sort out.
*You know, like “Pride of Baghdad”.
**Like “Fax from Sarajevo”.
***Like everything Joe Sacco ever wrote.
****Which are actually aimed at children, for crying out loud!
*****To add insult to injury, a significant amount of what is dismissed because it’s on the page is superior to the drivel that is splashed across the screen. And yes, Heroes, I’m talking to you…
******One of my favourite writers, and recipient of my favourite ever book review when the Catholic Herald declared his “His Dark Materials” trilogy to be “More worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter”. Still makes me chuckle.
*******Not that there is really any such thing as an average eight year old…
********Because that’s what we call them now. Back in the day, they used to be censors. These days, they’re classifiers, which, apparently, is much cuddlier…
*********Which of course encourages kids to try to see movies of the next classification up – I don’t think I’ve ever taught a fourteen year old who hasn’t seen at least one 18 rated film…