I’ve been banging on a bit about how comics are moving ever further away from younger readers* and painting a pretty gloomy picture. Well, school’s out, summer’s here and I’m determined to rise above my depressive nature and be a bit cheerful for a bit. There are, after all, some grounds for optimism. For a start, DC Comics, bless ‘em, is “drawing the line at $2.99. Finally! One of the big comics publishers realises that kids (and adults, for that matter) have a finite budget, and one of the things that stops us buying comics is the face that we can’t bloody well afford them. Mind you, $2.99 US translates as something like £2.25 GBP, and that’s still an increase of 450% over the 50p a comic I paid when I started reading American comics in 1988,** so I’d still have to say they’re pretty expensive. Still, it is a step in the right direction at least, and I’m grateful for that. I’m not sure the price ceiling is enough of a good news story to protect DC from my wrath and furious anger regarding the whole “let’s start everything from issue #1” thing they’ve got going on,*** they may have to let me write a Batbook or something if they want to win me back over that one, but it is, as I say, a start. There are other reasons for optimism too. A while back, for example, I wrote about the launch of The Stan Lee Excelsior! Awards, in which kids at schools in Sheffield**** would be encouraged to read a carefully selected shortlist of comics and vote on a winner. I went over that list in some detail back in February so I won’t go through it all again now. To be honest, those of you with an interest probably also know the results, since they were announced way back on July 1st. The fact that literally hundreds of kids not only read a wide selection of graphic narrative, but also engaged critically with it, debated its merit amongst themselves and came to their own well thought out conclusions is encouraging enough. When I saw what they’d chosen, well, I confess I was walking around with a big damn grin on my face for a week at least! You see, in spite of the stereotypes about “what kids like” that seem to be so fondly held by the major publishers there wasn’t a thread or fibre of spandex to be seen in the final three. The bronze medal position***** was taken by the Graphic Novel adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s saga of teenage angst and sparkly vampires Twilight. Now, I know what some of you are thinking – and up to a point you’re right. At the moment, anything with the word “Twilight” in it is going to do well in a competition where a large proportion of the voters are thirteen year old girls. You’re also right to point out that the Twilight saga is, on any sensible literary scale, a steaming pile of horse doodoo. Except it isn’t. Not really. As I’ve said before, Meyer isn’t going to give the likes of Austen, Dickens or Bronte****** any cause for concern. But her plots aren’t actually all that bad – and I for one found the sparkly vampires a nice change from the ones that catch fire at the drop of a hat, you can’t have too much glitter, that’s what I always say! Besides, the Twilight adaptation is rather beautiful. The art is presented in subtle black and white and is frankly something of a joy to behold. Love it or loathe it, the Twilight comic is a quality piece of work, and in the end that’s all that really counts. Besides, it got beaten by a Manga offering, the everyday story of a satanic manservant, Yana Toboso’s Black Butler which won by a comfortable margin. I have to say I’m not at all surprised because I haven’t read it. The reason I haven’t read it is because in spite of the fact that my school’s library holds several copies, every single one of them is always out on loan when I go in to see if I can borrow one. Now that’s popularity! The thing that made me smile the widest smile however, was the fact that second place was taken by Bryan Talbot’s Grandville Mon Amour. Batman, Spider-Man even Twilight, all beaten by a Steam Punk “funny animal” book starring a talking badger. This book didn’t do well because it rode in on the coat tails of an already popular phenomenon, in the way you could accuse the Twilight adaptation of doing. Nor did it do well because it was the sole representative on the shortlist of a style that is trendy, as the cynic might say about Black Butler. No, Grandville Mon Amour did well because no matter how much the popular psyche chooses to underestimate them, kids today can still recognise a great story when they read one. If that isn’t grounds for optimism I don’t know what is. There are still things that need to change of course. Attitudes to women – both characters and readers – are still pretty poor in what we are pleased to call the “mainstream”. Marcia Allas, an old acquaintance of mine and founder member of Sequential Tart pointed me in the direction of this blog from the San Diego Comicon, which detailed the less than positive reaction of both panellists and fans when a woman******* dared to suggest that female type people like herself were neither well represented not well catered for by the majors. Bad enough that this needs to be pointed out. Far, far worse that the creators are so damn complacent about it and worse still that the self satisfied fans don’t see it as a problem. It seems to be that big two continue to hunt the 14-30 male demographic – that would be the one they already have – at the expense of all else. This would be bad enough, but they also seem to think that the best bait to use when attracting this demographic is well muscled men in spandex suits, and well endowed women in dental floss. The results of the Excelsior! Awards show the error of this thinking. I hope that DC won’t just “Draw the Line at $2.99, but also draw a line under this current gender blinkered attitude. Then I really would be optimistic about the future! *Well, potential younger readers – if they were readers already there wouldn’t be a problem. **Note to maths pedants. Please feel free to check my figures to make sure they’re correct. If they’re not correct however, please also feel free not to inform me. ***Which I started to write about for this week’s column, but I had to stop because I realised I was starting to foam at the mouth and there was red mist in front of my eyes! ****And Doncaster, since my very own school would, at the insistence of our remarkable librarian Lynne Coppendale, also be involved. *****Not that they were giving out medals, you understand, but you know what I mean… ******Not even Branwell. Although she’d be a lot more sober than him. *******At least so long as I’m in earshot… ********I know! A woman at a Comic Convention! What will they think of next?! Farewell to the Shuttles I’ve mentioned my love of the Space Shuttle here before. The big white birds have been a major part of my life since Columbia blasted into my consciousness when I was nine. The last of them flew to Earth last Thursday, and there will be no more. Yes they were expensive. Yes they never quite lived up to expectations. But they were beautiful, and they achieved great things that nothing else built by the hand of man could have done. We will not see their like again, and in this more timid cash strapped age we may never see anything even close. So thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. You have been an inspiration and our lives are richer for your work. Thank you too to all those at NASA who worked to keep you in the air and to return you to flight when you faltered. This column is dedicated to you, and to the final crews of Challenger and Columbia. When we look up and see the International Space Station we will remember that there is a new star in our sky only because you put it there.