Gone are the days of parents rolling their eyes in exasperation as little Suzie begs for the latest issue of Spider-Man, carefully placed near the candy bars at the grocery store check-out. Archie Comics might still appear in that coveted spot above the latest issue of The Enquirer, but long gone is the variety of comics that used to be available on the local newsstand. Comic stores remain an option for kids seeking their comic fix, but such niche stores aren’t always readily available and, in some cases, aren’t always welcoming to younger audiences. There is a prevailing notion in mainstream society these days that comics are just for kids (although the trend of superhero movies leans towards more adult themes), yet, we don’t see comics readily available for that market, unless you look to school book fairs or libraries. There, Scholastic largely holds down the market, promoting literacy in all its forms to children of every age, but there are still many other comics for young audiences that are trying to get their foot in the door. How do we get more comic books (back) into all of those little hands?
That’s where the unicorns and cookies come in.
That is, Einhorn’s Epic Cookies. The company combines the magical powers of comics, unicorns, and cookies—”A Match Made In Awesome.” Each package contains a uniquely flavoured cookie as well as a random issue of the Royal Einhorn Force, where four kickass unicorns battle bad guys. According to Staffaroni, their goal is to “get comics into kids’ hands in a way that’s fun and focused on enjoyment.” Cookies and a wallet conscious price point makes them perfect for parents and kids. Collect ’em, trade ’em—Einhorn’s Epic Cookies were the official cookie of the recent New York Comic Con, and will now be available at Six Flags resorts, as well as online on their own website.
As the Chief Creative Officer of Einhorn’s Epic Productions Staffarnoi doesn’t do the baking himself, but he does co-write the R.E.F. comic, working alongside his wife, Einhorn’s Epic Productions’ CEO, Heather Einhorn. But cookies and unicorns weren’t what I was expecting to discuss with Staffaroni after we first chatted about kids comics at San Diego Comic-Con. As the former Senior Editor of ROAR Comics, the all-ages imprint of Lion Forge Comics, Staffaroni has some valuable insight into the world of kids comics, which is something that is very important to me as both a parent, and a long time comic collector. Prior to his position at ROAR and after receiving his MFA from The Center for Cartoon Studies, Staffaroni spent three years with DC Comics, then moved on to BOOM! Studios, where he helped launched their all-ages imprint, KaBOOM! Titles like Adventure Time and Peanuts reside at BOOM!, with readership numbers averaging about 10,000 per issue. But, while these numbers are considered successful for a kids comic, explains Staffaroni, those are cancellation level numbers for a mainstream superhero comic. By packaging comics with cookies, Einhorn’s Epic Cookies succeeds in recapturing the read and pass-along comics culture of the ’50s, but how can we get more single issue comics into the hands of young readers?
While at SDCC, Staffaroni participated in the panel, “How (And Why) Kids Started Reading Comics Again,” with Scholastic favourite, Raina Telgemeier, who explained that her book, Smile, did not pick up in sales until it started appearing in Scholastic book fairs. Those sales numbers drove the market and got others—libraries, bookstores—to catch up. “Without the unique set up that Scholastic has,” Staffaroni adds, “putting the purchasing power directly in the hands of kids, the book might not have done everything it did—not just in terms of the books it sold, but the doors it opens.”
Graphic novels have become more and more popular thanks to Scholastic as well as other publishing companies like First Second. They’ve helped to reduce the stigma that comics are just for kids, or worse, that comics are low brow, trashy reading material. The mainstream audience is coming to know the term “graphic novel” as a separate entity from “comic books,” though I have overheard one library patron commenting that the term exists simply so that “nerds can feel cool about reading comics.” Staffaroni disagrees with this sentiment, noting that hardcore comics fans don’t care about the distinction, while creators and people employed at a comic company simply mark the difference in terms of page numbers. In other words, “industry insiders believe it is all comics, while casual fans or those on the periphery make the distinction [that] allows regular people to read comics without feeling like nerds.”
When it comes to younger readers, Staffaroni strongly believes that getting kids reading is the most important priority and “if the term ‘graphic novel’ gets the content passed the gatekeepers and into the hands of the kids, great, use it.” He hasn’t personally polled kids about their preference, but he’s pretty sure they don’t care, as long as the comic they are reading is great. I am happily sharing my love of comics with my two daughters, ages eight and ten, and am pleased to see graphic novels being incorporated into the curriculum of my local school board. Based on anecdotal evidence, Staffaroni can attest to a definite proliferation of graphic novels as a teaching tool.
“It’s becoming more acceptable and more teachers are understanding the value because it switches things up and adds variety to keep students engaged. […] It allows students to focus less on the assignment and more on the ideas in the piece of literature.”
He cites Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis as a prime example of helping kids create a connection to an experience through images. Schmoop, the teacher resource, agrees, and includes a detailed teaching guide on their site.
“It tells a first-hand account of what it was like to be raised in Iran. Unfortunately, we live in a world (especially post-9/11) that considers Iran and Iranians in general to be “the bad guys.” Reading what it’s like to grow up in Iran is like reading what it’s like to grow up as a young stormtrooper on the Death Star.”
Staffaroni feels that the images in Persepolis bring a power to the particular piece of literature that would not have come across the same way in prose. Graphic novels can meet the needs of children who learn visually, expanding the options for engagement to encompass different learning styles. “Teachers I know are happy to have more weapons in their arsenal to maintain engagement,” he says. “Anything that can influence what sticks with the kids when they walk out of the classroom.”
Scholastic is doing a lot of good work beyond simply providing an outlet for such works. They also offer “A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens:”
“No longer an underground movement appealing to a small following of enthusiasts, graphic novels have emerged as a growing segment of book publishing, and have become accepted by librarians and educators as mainstream literature for children and young adults — literature that powerfully motivates kids to read. Are graphic novels for you? Should you be taking a more serious look at this format? How might graphic novels fit into your library collection, your curriculum, and your classroom? Want to know more? If so, this guide is for you.”
Both in and out of the classroom, adaptations of classic literature into graphic novel form are doing their part to encourage literacy. Staffaroni notes that FSG’s publication of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in 2012 caused a spike in the sales of the actual prose book. The adaptation gave the media a reason to talk about it and renewed public interest in the childhood favourite.
What does this mean for single issue kids comics? Many publishing companies still produce single issues for the direct market as well as the few places that still maintain newsstands, that relic of the past. “Without the direct market popping up, comics would not have saved the newsstand,” explains Staffaroni, but those direct market comic shops are a double-edged sword. “When the direct market became the main sales driver in comics, and all the content was made for that market out of necessity, it didn’t leave a ton of room for kids stuff.” That market was largely populated by a hardcore fanbase that calls to mind The Simpons’ Comic Book Guy, and spaces that were—are—unfriendly to women and kids. While this image of comic stores is slowly changing, the availability of such shops and the availability of kids comics within them is still limited.
Fortunately, digital comics are more easily accessible; though, Staffaroni notes, it’s difficult to confirm how the sales numbers reflect the younger audience as there are no such demographics available. Comics specifically targeted at a younger audience, such as Lumberjanes and Adventure Time do have a strong digital following, but who exactly is reading them? Speculation can be made based on anecdotal evidence, but there is no definitive answer to the question of digital comics market demographics.
Staffaroni fervently believes that it’s a great time for kids graphic novels. Barnes & Noble is expanding their graphic novel section. More libraries are stocking graphic novels, which is increasing their traffic. “For the longest time, not targeting kids limited the adult audience. What we’re doing now will be great for readers in the long run. The more readers, the more opportunities for creators.” He’s confident that in a decade or two, as the industry slowly diversifies and becomes more robust, the positive echoes will be visible within an industry that creators can thrive in. “It’s great to be putting out good content that can hopefully engage kids and have them become life long comics readers. The same way I engaged with Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, which inspired me to do what I do now.”