Sunday, September 28, 2014

THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES

A while back, someone here at Creation Point (I’m looking at you, Jack) asked me how I would define “kid-friendly” entertainment.  Considering my passion for creating stories—especially comic books—for children, I thought it was a wonderful question.  So let’s move on to the answer... 

“If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups,” Madeleine L’Engle, author of the classic Wrinkle in Time series, once said, “then you write it for children.”  When I set out to write an “all ages” comic book like Abadazad or The Adventures of Augusta Wind—or a prose novel like ImaginalisI want to stimulate the imagination and explore deep themes, creating a story that a parent and child can enjoy together without fear of the content overwhelming or seriously disturbing the child.  I say seriously because a little bit of nightmare is good for the soul:  the Wicked Witch of the West and Monstro the Whale terrified my younger self, but it was an exhilarating kind of terror.  (It could be—as some have argued—that exorcising our demons through stories is, in the long run, psychically and emotionally therapeutic—but that’s another post for another time.)      
Of course there’s no such thing as a Generic Child:  they all react differently to the stories they encounter.  I remember a friend’s daughter who could watch all manner of violent movies—absorbing images far too unsettling for my own kids—yet the stepmother in Disney's Cinderella paralyzed her with fear.  Then there’s the age factor:  What's suitable for an eight or nine year old could traumatize a four or five year old.  There's a big leap from Winnie The Pooh and Doctor Seuss to the later Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. 

When my daughter was little, she would often come to us, without prompting, book in hand (a book we’d screened and declared acceptable) and announce, “This is not appropriate for me!”  We’d put the book away and Katie would try it again in six months or a year.  My son, on the other hand, would sometimes push for entertainment that crossed the border into edgier territory we didn’t think he was emotionally prepared for.  Sometimes we drew an uncrossable line in the sand, but, when we acquiesced and set Cody free to explore, his judgement was often correct.  We continued to carefully monitor our kids’ choices, but we also learned to have faith in their instincts—and to regularly question our own.  
All of which makes it seem like my answer to the question of what constitutes child-friendly entertainment comes down to Justice Stewart’s infamous definition of obscenity—"I know it when I see it"—and, in some ways, it does:  The line between Young Readers and Middle Grade, Middle Grade and Young Adult is fuzzy at best.  As parents, it’s our job to be constantly vigilant:  We don’t want our kids to grow up too fast, but we certainly don’t want to shut down their minds and imaginations.  Still, I think there’s one essential quality that defines all the best children’s literature:  innocence.  Not a juvenile point-of-view or some cultural/societal conception of innocence, but an innocence of the soul:  a primal sense of wonder, too-often discarded when we leave childhood behind, that allows us to view the world through eyes unclouded by cynicism or despair and see the miracles of creation that are all around us—if we would only look.  
The best children’s stories (some of which come to us disguised as stories for adults) expand and challenge the mind, heart and spirit but keep that innocence intact.  As a creator, I want the experience of writing these stories to keep my innocence intact, as well.  To remind me of who I truly am, and what reality is, beneath the sound and fury of the (so-called) adult world.
©copyright 2014 J.M. DeMatteis

54 comments:

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    1. For me, Douglas, it comes down to the difference between evolving as a human being—which we should always do—and growing up. As a society, we've got some very distorted ideas about what growing up is. It makes adulthood into a kind of prison...which is why I think we've got to keep the Eyes of Wonder open, to see through , and beyond, the cage.

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  2. I agree completely. A good example of how I achieve this is my youngest son and I have a cable access show called The Basement of Baron Morbid. We show old public domain horror movies and do the horror host thing in the show. We've been doing it for the last five years and having a blast. There is also a short film competition we do every year and have been chronicling the adventures of Michigan Smith, and adventurer similar to Indiana Jones. The first one was called The Candle of Cthulhu. The second one we just did this weekend was The Castile of Caladrius. Good times,sir.

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    1. Sounds like a blast, Douglas. Your son's a lucky guy!

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  3. I think the most important thing when writing for children is not to assume they don't understand. I think too many adults think kids won't understand. Of course they won't get everything but that is were parenting comes in.

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    1. Totally agree, Stephen. You can't write down to children, you have to write UP. Challenge their minds, hearts and imaginations. And you're also right about parents: they're there to explain and illuminate what their kids might not understand.

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    2. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here, JMD. If we're not writing and reading stories to see the world with 'eyes of wonder,' then what's the point? Even professed cynics tend to agree that we ought to live as poetically as possible, even if they only mean to romanticize cynicism.

      I love that kids aren't obssessed with so-called 'realism.' I had to laugh the other day when I read an article claiming the new FANTASTIC FOUR movie will be 'grounded.' And I get that the actor involved probably meant something along the lines of psychological realism, but still...what kind of world do we live in when 'grounded' is what filmmakers are taking away from a story that begins with a flight through the stars and gets progressively wilder from there?

      Certainly not a child's!

      --David

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    3. I saw that comment, too, David—where he goes on to say that the new FF movie won't be "comic booky" (or something to that effect). Then I read the full article where the actor goes on to praise GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY...which is as comic booky as you can get. So I think his original comment wasn't quite what it seemed out of context.

      But, yeah, you don't get more "comic booky" than Lee-Kirby FF. And I, of course, mean that as the highest praise possible.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. hmmmm...

    Well, since I inspired this, I suppose I should comment.

    I do think that one thing that can be forgotten when discussing writing for kids is the effect that having them can have. I they can write in a fogged state. Parents rarely see kids in a wholly accurate way, sometimes out of subconscious choice sometimes because the child doesn't show all of them self to the parent. This creates a somewhat false view of kids. Parents may also wish to write a type of child they may hope there's is.

    I on the other hand, since I have no kids, if I decided to write a children's book it would be very different. Since the only kids I deal with really are my niece and nephew who are still VERY young, if I wrote for older kids it would be based more on my memories. While my memories may be a bit hazy in places, I can still remember certain key points of what the time and I was like. I also know what I liked and could handle... which may or may not have been what my parents would have thought. So while I would certainly hold back on many things since I would not have as strong of a protective instinct. So I might go darker in some areas than a parent would. Not because I'm a bad guy or they're a bad writer, but because we have different motivations and views.

    The thing thaty I would really like your opinion on is the sliding scale of children's writing, which I sort of, barely just touched on. Grimm's fairy tales were often darker than many things that parents might ban today, in fact if they were written today, instead of being something we all grew up on, they would be on almost no kids book shelf.

    For a better look at the idea we'll use your preferred medium. I think it is pretty well accepted that while there where some older readers it wasn't until the 60s that comics really got the teenage and up crowd reading. So kids were mostly reading those early Superman stories were he threatened abusive bosses with and batman tales were he punched criminals into acid. Further more grade schoolers were mostly reading the EC comics of the 50s. Those could get gruesome, and dark, granted most were morality tales saying why you shouldn't cheat on your husband, or plan on killing your wife, or beat up a guy for being Jewish, or this, or that, but still it plays jump rope with what maybe okay for kids in adult eyes, but Goddamn kids loved 'em. Hell, I like a good chunk of them, which brings me to my next point...

    The problem with kids works is that too many people think that it doesn't have to be good. A good kid story should be different from a good adult story because it should be able to be enjoyed by any age group. Too often kids are underestimated, which I guess is what I have been circling around, and largely what you wrote about.

    Now, a trio of gifts for indulging me:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15POdsjvjxg

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO6IhSL11Uk

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWDjfdTaWtQ



    Jack

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    1. I agree with a lot of what you say, Jack, but where I think you're off base when you say "too many people think it doesn't have to be good." The great children's stories (he said, knowing that this all comes down to personal opinion), the ones that have gone on to be classics, are superbly written, hugely imaginative and of real literary quality. I think there are writers who think that kids' stories don't have to be of the same quality as adult literature...but they're the ones who churn out junk. And you can find that level of junk in any genre.

      Now if you meant that the general public might perceive children's stories that way, I think there's truth in that. But it's less true than it once was. I think we're living in a golden age of children's entertainment (not just books, but movies, too...thanks, in most part, to Pixar; comics, alas, is another story) and I think many parents would agree with me on that one.

      Re: Grimm's Fairy Tales. I think it's interesting that many, if not most, of us know those fairy tales from other interpretations, not the originals. These stories keep adapting to fit the time and culture and the sensibilities of the audience.

      I also want to point out that (at least based on what I've heard and read), there were LOTS of adults reading comics in the Golden Age. Especially during World War II when soldiers were devouring them.

      I could say a lot more, I'm sure, but it's off into a busy day.

      And thank you for inspiring this post!

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    2. Well... it is true that many GIs red comics, largely sent in care packages, donated, and sent over by the army. In fact EC comics adopted the idea for Shock Suspenstories because Al Feldstein remembered he and his fellow GIs reading them in the foxholes. Interesting marketing to soldiers as a reminder of home is also how Coke became the dominant soft drink. And yes adults read them just the same, some of whom include Albert Einstein and Orson Welles, but it was still predominantly kids. Kids were the over all majority, so that is who you had to write to... or at least on a level for them to understand. But you also have toremember that there were also still pulps pulling in many of the same genres and comic STRIPS in the papers adults were already reading, which were often held in higher regard any way. Either way they still had to have kids present in mind. Remember the hearings in the 50s were brought up because of what comics might be doing to kids, and these were largely the same generation that were reading funny books in the foxholes worrying about kids, so they were still thought of at least as for kids. So.. I feel like my point remains valid.

      I personally wonder if the darker tones of kids stories in the war and pre-war, and incredibly pre-war years are reflective. of the fact that the mere act of being alive bombarded you with how dark things can be. This makes it a lot harder to hide certain truths about life and have certain delusions.

      I also would like top point out that the idea of comics being cheaper is a bit off. Just because they were 10 cents does not mean they were cheap. Yes they were hardly expensive, but remember this was the Depression. The rights to Superman were sold for about $100 and 10 cents was also about the same cost for a pound/pound and a half of hamburger meat.

      to be continued...

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    3. As for darkness in kids comics I do have an idea or two. As hard as it is to believe kids are still people, and people crave darkness. I have heard theories that dark and scary can exorcise fears, or draws kids in deeper into the story, or that it hardens them to future terrors like heating and drywall scams. However, I am an adult and still like dark things. People like dark things, they like danger , and they like playing with matches... or at least the illusion of it. However I think kids may crave this MORE, and part of that is that it makes them feel more connected with the world around them, a world they experience, but if they have good parents tend to make sure they don't experience much of the REALLY terrible things.

      However I did mean that producers of kids entertainment underestimate kids, and I stand by that. Don't get me wrong there are plenty of great kid stories. I have already shown my love of Seuss, and I was turned onto the show Avatar: The Last Airbender by someone who said it was one of the best kid shows in the past 10 years and I disagree, I think that it one of the best shows in the past 10 years period. Iron Giant is till a great movie.

      However, I believe that it was Robert Heinlein who said 90% of anything is crap. Now I think that is a tad hyperbolic, but the basic instinct is true. There will always be people just churning out things, and the fact is that it is even worse with kids since it is an ever present market. The idea is that kids will eat up anything, we can make it simple and dumb and they'll still at least give it a shot. This is evident I think in the Dr. Seuss.... movies of the past few years. Things were expanded out with very little thought for this reason. The sad thing is that they are more or less right. Kids have a higher tolerance for crap. Don't believe me? look over some of the things from when you were kids without nostalgia goggles, some will still hold up and give you pleasure, but there will also be things that make you question how you could put up with that crap. It is like music when you are a teenager, some things you'll never listen too again, some you might keep playing on the radio but never play on your own again, some only have nostalgic value, but some... some you'll be content listening too when your 80.

      Also, I think that thing with your daughter is odd. I don't knock it or think it id bad, but it seems so foreign. Part of being a kid was having your parents forbid reading or watching something, and then you do it any way, usually with a friend or a sibling. It's a right of passage. Like I said not wrong, just foreign.

      And how about that trio of melodic delight? go!

      Jack.

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    4. Oh yeah, right, so where the underestimating comes from, is that while yes kids might have a higher tolerance for crap, they still prefer the legitimately good and can understand that it has weight and quality. So some people skate by with not acknowledging this fact. I can't believe I forgot to put that in, and I'll probably have to expand it.

      Jack

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    5. Lots of food for thought here, Jack, and I'm hoping others here at Creation Point will chime in to discuss. (Right now I'm nursing a migraine, so I can barely type.)

      By the way: It was Theodore Sturgeon was said 90% of everything is crap. It's called Sturgeon's Law. But, of course, try and get two people to agree on what the 10% is.

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    6. Hmmm, well that is embarrassing. Wonder why I thought it was Heinlein.

      Hope your head feels better.


      Jack

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    7. Still shamed that I made that mistake about the 90%.

      Also it was supposed to be a theory about kids stories, not just comics.

      Jack

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    8. Rick here.

      "The Last Airbender by someone who said it was one of the best kid shows in the past 10 years and I disagree, I think that it one of the best shows in the past 10 years period. Iron Giant is till a great movie."

      Absolutely. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

      What I am about to write contains a bit of hyperbole, but I think it is basically accurate: there is no difference between a great kids story and a great adult story except for the length, and the levels of sophistication and depth. In other words, if you have a great idea and keep the story relatively short, and within the realm of a child's experience levels, and lay off the extraneous subplots, it will work no matter who you write it for. Kids don't need a story with gory dismemberment--a bully who threatens to punch them can be just as bad. That's why great kids stories, like The Iron Giant, still bring pleasure.

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    9. Well said, Rick.

      A number of people have recommended THE LAST AIRBENDER to me. I'd better sit myself down and watch a bunch of 'em to see what everyone's talking about.

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    10. Rick, here.

      It's very good. Let me also recommend Samurai Jack (if you can find it).

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    11. I actually worked with Gendy Tartokovsky (I may have the spelling wrong) the creator of SAMURAI JACK on another one of his shows, SYMBIONIC TITAN—which, sadly, was short-lived.

      I've heard only good things about SUMURAI JACK, so that goes on the list, too.

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    12. Another thing about kid entertainment is that it is fa more likely to infuse humor. I think when done well this gives it a certain charm. Often times adult media tries to be above humor, and if the story doesn't call for it that's great, but completely getting rid of it is bad. This does not happen all the time, but the more of an adult audience wanted the more likely it is to abandon it. In the end is there anything more uncomfortable, and just plain bad as reading or watching something that takes itself too seriously?

      Younger media tends to avoid this trap. It seems almost above such things. So (in probably more ways than just his) mature media can learn from stories aimed at younger audienes.

      Now, you have three posts to respond to chip-chop-chip. Or not, I really don't care.

      Jack

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    13. I agree, Jack. Humor is a huge part of life, so it should be a huge part of storytelling. Look at Dickens and Shakespeare (to name two): deep, human drama...but filled with humor. I think it's just a certain kind of "literary type"—I put it in quotes because there are plenty of literary types who aren't at all like this—who believe Seriousness equals Profundity. If a story's fun, they seem to think, then it couldn't possibly be of any "literary value."

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    14. I fell that those are the same people who automatically dismiss Science Fiction, thriller, horror, intrigue; and a whole host of what we call "genre fiction" as meaningless or trite. These genres are also most likely to get ideas across in more palatable way, and have humor, and mix and match. So they could be seen a a cousin on Children stories.

      Great! Two more to go Dematteis.

      Jack

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    15. You do, aye? Let's see if we can keep this momentum going.

      I think that makes it especially odd when humorlessness enters comics.

      Recently a guy I know was talking up Peter David (always a good idea) and talked about how he builds characters no tears them down, as many current writers do (his words not mine, don't think am bad-mouthing anyone). He found this odd, to me however it makes perfect sense. Peter David comes pre-Watchemn and DKR, Writers who had a major readership after these works may feel like that is the best way to tell a timeless story. It is sort of Like Man of Steel, like or hate it was a joyless film much of the time. As I said, a story should be a story, if it doesn't go down the levity road, then drag, but it does happen. However, planning to make it devoid of hope happiness, or most importantly humor, then you have a recipe for... well I don't know what.

      This is also visible in Marvel's sort of pushing to the background non-street-level characters for about 10 years.

      I wonder if movies have made comics so eager to be taken seriously, that they forgot what the charm was in the first place... sometimes not always, but more than I feel it should.

      now, explain why when BAtman came out in 1989 many people did start looking into comics, but now that comic movies are everywhere few people do. I already no the answer, but I would love to read your take.

      Jack

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    16. So the point is, that the further comics go into deciding they aren't for kids, the more it seems they lose the univerality that got them to that pint.

      Sorry.

      Jack

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    17. I think right now, Jack, we've got lots of people who love these characters, but they get their fix via the movies, the live-action TV shows, the cartoons and the video-games. You could be a massive super-hero fan and never feel the need to pick up a comic book. I think that accounts for the ever-growing attendance at comic book conventions, too. More fans than ever, just not comic book fans.

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    18. I have to disagree about the nature of growing of comic book show attendance. In reality I think it is more just the idea of it being "a scene." I think the sheer size of the event It is more along the lines of doing it because its there. While it is often said that comics are what are being lacked, it actually seems to me that at these shows the people are just standing around, and not doing much of ANYTHING the show offers, unless it is just the biggest of draws. If I had to guess I would even wager that non-comic book themed panels would out number even many of the big-budget comic stuff or at least comic based TV being outdone.

      Of course given that there ARE more comic book themed projects people can go to comic companies seem to not realize that at some point you run the risk of over saturation. There where what 4 big budget movies based off comics? As well as now seven comic book TV shows. People are fickle and fads do fade.

      It doesn't help that, whether true or not, the belief around comic shops is that Marvel and DC are racing to see who ends first. And with Marvel canceling Fantastic Four and killing off Wolverine seemingly just to spite Fox studios. And of course then there is the ramifications that small press books, even Image and Dark Horse, don't move enough product all combined to justify keeping comic shops open.

      Of course, I don't think any of this is a reason why people aren't as likely to pick up a comic book. After all hasn't it been a common to say "the book was better" since films started adapting? If you do like a character why wouldn't you want to see something more in depth? I think the larger reason is that people by in large don't read anymore. Wwhat does this have to do with the overall theme? Well, I think that this is part of an over all societal "hiccup." I think that it is in some way related to the idea of an increasing phasing out of things like humor and segmentation of works. For some reason we have decided (maybe not you and me but society) seems to think that is what quality should be. Over 15 years have been forming, shaping, and racing to this. We need that kid and genre stuff strong, not whittled away or shrunk and hidden out of shame. But it does occasionally seem that is what is going on.

      And it doesn't help that comics THINK that they are viewed as adult, and races to that odd conclusion. I mean they claim that they don;t want to be viewed as "adolescent,' but trying to be viewed as more adult and cutting out the fantastic and fun to do that? What's more painfully adolescent than that?

      Jack



      .

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    19. Interesting points, as always, Jack. I'm gearing up for NYCC, so I'll turn this over to anyone else out there in Creationpointland who'd like to chime in.

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    20. Theoretically couldn't you just wait until you weren't immersed?


      While on them I'll say something an associate and I were saying earlier today, there is nothing wrong with being goofy. truer words my friend, truer words.



      Jack

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    21. Life without goofiness would be sad indeed, Jack. (Sounds like a great idea for a kids book: A WORLD WITHOUT GOOFINESS.)

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    22. Sounds like a horror story to me. Liking something just because its stupid and goofy is as pure of a love as you'll ever find. It even rivals a child's love it's teddy bear. That's why that cheez-it commercial bugs me so much, where the cheese is cracking jokes, and is considered not ready, then the second it i serious it's deemed mature enough. And it all circles back around to the original post.

      I have honestly bought comics and watched movies simply, completely devoid of irony, because they sound stupid and goofy.

      Truly those whop know the value of goofiness go with God.


      Jack

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    23. As much as I believe that loving something solely for being stupid goofy or just being fun, goofiness can also serve a purpose. There was a comic in the 80s, that sadly you probably never heard of, I don't mean to come off as "too cool for school,: but it just never got that much attention, even though it was by the big too. The comic used a lot of goofiness, but that made the larger philosophical points in it more palatable and relateable.

      And of course let's not forget Sesame Street. A show absolutely drowning in goofiness, but it was a big part of a lot of kids life, seriously almost everyone who was a kid in the past 40 years has fond memories of the show, and not only did it do no harm, but it actually did good. As old and jaded as I get, i just can't shake the quality of that show.


      Jack

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    24. I think the key phrase there is "devoid of irony," Irony—or the modern equivalent—has ruined many a story for me. I'm a great fan of sincerity in all forms of storytelling...and in life.

      I'm also not a big fan of our cultural conception of maturity. I think we should be constantly EVOLVING as human beings, but maturity has been translated into something weighty and boring that saps the joy out of life

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    25. I'd love to know what that 80's comic was, Jack. I bet it would make me laugh. Y'know a big belly laugh, a real "Bwah-ha-ha."

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    26. I don't have the comic in front of me, but I believe it was something like, Professor Destiny. Sorry, I remember the story more than the name. And I am getting ever closer to finishing it. It is one of those comics that if you find it then its a dollar, but you have to find it. I have had a lot of luck recently with the back issues. Intereting story, the writer was actually here a few months bask, but I forgot the first issue at home, when I cam e to the next show he was awol. Long story short Captain Kirk owes me a signed comic.

      The modern view of irony... its odd.

      As for modern definitions of maturity, well that is a strange thing. I'm sure if we really delved deep into it we could uncover the origins are. But really lets just leave it to the fact that we do seem to live in a time of labels and rigid definitions that go along with them.


      Jack

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    27. Ah, yes: Professor Destiny! How could I forget?

      (Seriously: I really would love it if DC collected my DR. FATE run. That series means a lot to me.)

      I think we all label each other, and everything around us, to some degree, as a way to make sense of the world. But the minute you label anything, you've limited it.

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    28. Don't worry I'm sure Doctor Fate will be collected 6 months after I finish the run, and since I'm closing in you should probably start writing that intro now.


      Jack

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    29. Hey, reading isn't th problem, acquiring is. I'll tell you what, if I haven't finished the run by January, I'll get the remaining issues off of ebay.


      Jack

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    30. Or you can time-travel into the future and buy the collected edition!

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    31. Or you could just magic them to me.



      Jack

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  5. I would think that with their inexpensive cover price, even for the time period that comics would have been devoured by a large cross section of people regardless of age.

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    1. I think that's very possible, Doublas. Perhaps the adults that were reading them weren't advertising that fact because it was perceived as a children's medium? But that didn't seem to stop the GI's in WW II. And I also believe I've read that when romance comics hit in the 50's, they, too, were read by many adults.

      I'm sure someone out there has figures on comic book readership over the decades. I'd love to see them.

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    2. Uh...Doublas? I, of course, meant Douglas. SORRY!

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    3. Doublas? I've been called worse. I think the important thing to look at with this whole kids stories vs adult stories is that a well done story transcends any label. People will read what they want and will gravitate towards interesting, well written stories regardless of age.

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    4. Well said, Douglas (hey, I got it right!) and I agree completely.

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  6. Rick here,

    I was wondering if my three posts containing my "Golf Bird" story made it through cyberspace.

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    1. Hey, Rick...I actually replied via one of your earlier posts, but I guess you didn't see it. Email me at the address you used once before and I'll explain.

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    2. To be honest, I don't remember what it was and now I can't find it.

      By the way, did you at least like it?

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    3. Go to the workshops section of the site and use that email address.

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    4. Rick, here.

      I've started reading Evanier's Kirby book, and you were right. The writing is sparkly and it's a "fun" read. I knew something about the early days of comics from Steranko's old History of Comics, but this really adds to it. I'm also amazed Kirby could do 3 pages of illustration per day when I thought a good pace was about 1 per day, and I didn't realize he could do so many different drawing styles. I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

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    5. Glad you're enjoying it, Rick. Kirby's output was amazing. In the Marvel era he was penciling three books a month (or the equivalent), designing characters, doing covers. And let's not forget that he was either plotting or co-plotting everything he worked on. And it was all pretty much brilliant.

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