On a recent attic purge at the in-laws, we acquired something new to us: two boxes of the most varied ’80s comics you can imagine. The Toxic Avenger, Jello Man, Animaniacs, Spider-Man, you name it. My 4-year-old son could barely contain his joy. Having discovered comic books at PortCon last summer, he has read the few comic books he has so many times over they don’t even pretend to hang together anymore.
So for the last few weeks we have spent the early morning hours, little brother’s afternoon nap, and much of bedtime, curled up in the big armchair reading, but also not reading comic books. How do you not read a comic book you are reading? Well, it turns out that not all cutesy comic books are created equal. (I’m looking at you Warner Brothers.) Some that seem to be good for a younger audience on the surface, actually contain some interesting language and metaphor choices that we’d rather not explain at this stage. So we selectively read for some time, skipping over certain frames and pages, before determining that the collection needed to be culled.
We sat down one evening and went through hundreds of comics, determining which ones were good for now and which ones could be put aside for a few years. Now, some things are obvious. Most comic books that my friends read are not suitable for my 4-year-old. But some of the characters he loves, and that seem age-appropriate, aren’t always the best reading for little ears. So, if you get handed a collection of similarly random comic books, here are our criteria:
1. The Wolf Whistle Test. Any comics that depict a male character momentarily morphing into a wolf when a girl passes by—instantly gone. Don’t get me wrong; there are classic cartoons that contain this kind of imagery that I would love to share with him in years to come. At this young age, when he is absorbing the world around him like a sponge, that’s not an ideal I care to teach him.
2. The Language Test. None of the comic books we had in our stack contained any actual cursing, but there was a great deal of snark and sarcasm. Now, I am all about the snark and sarcasm. My pastor would say that sarcasm is one of my spiritual gifts, but on a 4-year-old, it is not cute. Animaniacs J’accuse!
3. The Violence Test. Some of the superheroes that my son adores are much more violent in the comic books than they are in the cartoons and movies. The language often describes what’s going on, but a picture speaks a thousand words. On the whole, I avoid many of the superhero comic books at this stage, but some of the more cartoon-like ones can still contain more violence than you would expect.
4. The Nudity Test. Closely linked to the Wolf Whistle test, this speaks more to the clothing of a character than the relationships depicted. A lack of clothing, on either sex, is a big no for our comic book library. My son gets more curious each day, and images in comics like The Toxic Crusader prompt questions that I’d rather deal with in about eight years’ time.
When all was said and done, we packed away about half of the Animaniacs comic books, most of the DC/Marvel lines, and were left with a good collection of Looney Tunes and Hanna Barbera comics. My son is perfectly happy with Yogi Bear, and hasn’t noticed the shrinking pile. It is much easier to read to him now that we aren’t stumbling to edit a sentence every page or so.