Captain Nihilist is for the children

It’s one of the biggest jokes in comic reading circles when a newspaper publishes a “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” article. First of all, anyone savvy enough to even read one comic book knows that most comics haven’t been kid-oriented in a while. Second, all these articles do is expose newspaper writers as writing on a subject that they don’t know much about.

Yet, at the same time, it’s also a lament. Why can’t comics be for kids again? I’m certain a lot of current webcomic readers remember lazy days burying your faces in comics and/or the comics section of the local newspaper. Don’t you want the same thrill to be available for future generations?

Is it even possible for a kids comic/webcomic to thrive in today’s modern world were precious young faces are buried in the pale glow of the Nintendo DS or glued 24-7 to the Cartoon Network. I think so. I believe kids’ webcomics can thrive for the same reason that an even more archaic form of media, the book, can succeed as long as it’s written by someone as adept as J.K. Rowling.

Since “kids” is rather nebulous term, I’m going to address kids ages 4-8 as a ground rule, which is under the School Library Journal’s umbrella of Young Readers. I suppose I can skew a little older too, even up to, say, 11 years old.

Dawn of Time, by Michael Stearns

Dawn of Time, by Michael Stearns

Incidentally, I’m no authority on the subject. Most of the thoughts below were gleaned from internet articles and half-remembered memories about writing stories to my own siblings (the youngest of whom is 10 years younger than me). Thus, I’ll be including references to people who know better. Many are from the world of kid’s books, by the way… tips on how to write a good kids’ comic are very scarce. Besides, the lessons learned are easily transferable from the world of the printed word to the world of sequential art.

“So Captain Nihilist,” you say, “hit me with some tips about how to write a good kid’s webcomic!”

1.) You’ve got to think like a kid.

Here’s the problem: the current crop of webcomic creators are between the ages of 20 to 40. Most don’t have kids. Even those who do have kids have a hard time understanding what kids like. I mean, seriously, how many of you remember being a kid and saying, “Boy, my parents sure understand me!”

Take Axe Cop as a case study. The comic effectively shows a child’s unique thought process. We never dispute its validity (and for the remaining doubters, there is a Youtube video as proof) because WE remember that’s how we made up stories in our childhood. But, man, assuming you’re a well-adjusted adult, you have to work HARD to have a thought process like that.

So how can we, us boring rational adults, ever tap into a child’s imagination? Well, I suppose you can hang around kids like Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie used to do, but these days that’s pretty suspect, and will probably lead to you having to register your name on a federal watch list.

There’s an easier way. From the essay Writing SF for Kids, a highly essential piece by young adult fiction writer Justin Stanchfield about kids’ books that I will be referring to again later in this post:

Write what you know.
All right, we’ve all heard this one before. But with children’s lit it takes on a new perspective. Reach back into your childhood. Try to remember how it felt to be a kid at five years old, at eleven, and again as a teenager. Pick out specific times and instances that stand the most clear in your memory, and try to put those same emotions into your characters.

The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo, by Dwight MacPherson

2.) Kids can embrace a lot of dark stuff.

Author Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) describes his own books as “dark, painful fiction that has been embraced by a lot of kids, even though I wrote it for adults.” Here’s what he has to say about fairy tales, which is a double-edged sword but comes out on the side of darkness.

“…fairy tales are truly dark and cruel at their core. They come from an era when death, dismemberment, and the mistreatment of women and children were not uncommon. Our image of fairy tales as light and fantastic comes from sanitized — and less meaningful — versions of the stories.”

The article “Chidren’s books need to be dark and challenging now in order to succeed” by Greg Brian elaborates:

Some might automatically blame the times and kids used to seeing horrific things on a daily basis why kids have suddenly shifted to wanting to read stories that explore the darker sides of life. In reality, kids likely just changed psychologically to a point where they need to explore darker territory in order to appreciate the fleeting utopia moments in their own lives. Even adults are astute enough to admit that exploring the most deeply disturbing elements to life in fiction (or unreality shows) can help us cope with the real world a lot easier. It wouldn’t surprise me if kids would say the same thing today if asked point blank why they’re attracted to these stories.

In the world of webcomics, I think that Dwight MacPherson’s The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo (reviewed here) illustrates how to effectively use dark elements in service of a story aimed at kids.

The Dreamland Chronicles, by Scott Sava

3.) Kids love adventure. Character development? Not so much.

All this talk about how kids are more “mature,” though, can be taken the wrong way. “Mature” doesn’t mean complicated studies in pathos or, even, realistic characters. I mean, heck, Robin Hood? Not a realistic character. But kids have been thrilling to his stories for a thousand years now.

At the core, there’s one thing that kids always love: adventure.

From Debra Doyle’s YA SF Rant:

Once, at a science fiction convention, I was part of a panel discussion of YA science fiction, where I heard a librarian explain what it was that teachers and librarians (and, apparently, a lot of hardcover YA editors) look for in YA sf. They want lots of subtext and character development and Growth. They’re big on Growth. Those of us on the panel who actually wrote YA sf for a living, and who remembered clearly what we read when we were that age, sort of exchanged glances and shook our heads. When we were kids, we didn’t want subtext and character development and Growth. We wanted Adventure. Good authors, of course, managed to sneak all those literary vitamins and minerals in there along with the fun stuff, but it was a real smuggling act. (Still is, too.)

TVO Kids agrees:

Out of 496 kids polled by TVOKids, 229 wanted action and adventure in their books and 106 wanted to laugh. As long as they are reading, what makes a book great is up to them.

Which is why I enjoyed The Dreamland Chronicles and think it ‘swould be great for kids. This is a webcomic that remembers that kids love adventures and delivers in kind.


Roza, by Kelly Hamilton

Roza, by Kelly Hamilton

4.) Don’t talk down to kids.

When I reviewed The Dreamland Chronicles earlier this week, a reader brought up the difficulties of writing for kids. There’s a risk, the reader said, that writers (of all media, not just webcomics) often underestimate the intelligence of children. I think, when it comes down to it, that this reader was really saying, “Kids don’t like to be talked down to.” I don’t think The Dreamland Chronicles commits this misstep, but it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.

No one, especially kids, likes to be treated like a kid.

I’m going back to the Writing SF for Kids essay for this point:

Write older.

What does this mean? For one thing, if you are targeting ten year old boys, your protagonist better be at least twelve. Kids won’t read about somebody younger than themselves. It also means that you should never talk down to your audience. Don’t intentionally simplify your style. Younger readers need to be challenged just as much as older ones. More than once I’ve written stories with teenagers in mind, only to have them printed in magazines for middle graders. The point is, kids are a lot smarter than we sometimes realize.

Pros like Louis Sachar (Sideways Stories from Wayside High, Holes) and Roald Dahl (tons of stuff) were excellent children’s writers who were also absolutely clever. In webcomics, the smart-alecks behind Snowflakes do a great job penning witty and snappy dialogue which remind me, of all things, the fantastic work that Beverly Cleary (Ramona) did in her books.

Of course, it’s also a problem if you have you’re kids talking like they just stepped out of Juno. There is a craft involved in writing dialogue that’s smart, charming, but yet not too self-aware. And this is probably why I heard said many times that writing for children is harder than writing for adults.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 11, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. dwightmacpherson

    A wonderful, insightful article. Oh, and thanks for the Edgar Allan Poo reference! 🙂

  2. Here’s another good quote for Section 2:
    “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ” – GK Chesterton

    • By the way, I remember one of my favorite stories from childhood being Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Traveling Companion.” It’s not brought up much in schools, I’m guessing, because it includes the following: grave robbers. Some guy hacking off a swan’s wings. A princess with a garden full of decapitated heads. An evil wizard who eats eyeballs. Seriously, that was DISTURBING, but man I loved it.

      “Marsh King’s Daughter,” another Christiansen favorite, wasn’t quite as filled with grotesque imagery. It did, though, have a murdered priest and horse rising from a grave. Also a princess-turned-into-toad who bloodied and tore the webbing between her fingers to dig the aforementioned priest’s grave. I think another reason dark imagery is so prevalent in classic children’s lit is because they tend to stick with you for a long, long time.

  3. I just read Dawn of Time. It was pretty nice. I’ll have to follow it now. Wouldn’t have known of it if you hadn’t put up that page.

  4. I agree. Writing childrens stories and for young adults is much harder. And Louis Sachar is FANTASTIC. He was a genius.

    I think Roza and TDC are the best examples you’ve got of children’s books. Maybe check out Good Cheese, too, which is for young adults.

  5. Great post, great links. Thanks!

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