As regular readers are aware I’ve been reading a lot of older works, mostly comic strip reprints.  The bulk of the material is pre-1945, and while it shares the a basic framework with modern comics they are vastly different.  And that’s a good thing.

Let’s be clear: there’s a huge difference between all ages comics and kids comics. All ages means just that: material for everyone. Kids comics are for preschool to high school, but mainly focus on junior high and younger. Of course there’s young adult and teen but we’re looking at all ages here.

Quick history lesson, pre-comic book. Comic strips were meant to be read by everyone: all ages access.  With no televisions, newspapers and then radios were the sources of daily entertainment.  Daily strips presented a wide range of genres and interests, with full colour weekend strips defining illustrated storytelling.  Clean, mostly wholesome, easily digested by everyone.

Comic books hit the market and started selling millions of copies every month.  With the birth of the costumed superhero they took a turn towards children and were fully embraced.  Crime and horror came into the fold and the industry ended up being policed by the Comics Code Authority.  The attempt at creating adult comics failed because it wasn’t marketed properly. Newspaper strips continued on in as the dominant sequential medium.

For the next two decades comics were squeaky clean, DC going so far as to keep violence to a bare minimum.  At some point in the 1970s comic book fans became comic book creators and the superhero genre began its turn to dark and gritty.  The direct market allows adult books to be sold through comic stores, and we see Epic and later Vertigo targeting that market.

Unfortunately that left the stores themselves as self-policing what material was sold to whom.  Most comics were still all ages but there was an ever-growing move towards keeping the same comic readers entertained as they grew older instead of attempts at bringing in new readers.  And so the comic market shrank.

Fast forward to DC’s relaunch (think L.L. Cool J singing “don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years”) and we have an entire line of books brimming with violence and to a smaller extent sexuality.  Superman indiscriminately killing (image below), Batman and Catwoman having sex (image above).  All ages material has been left out of the mix, to be looked at sometime later.

I know I’m painting with a wide brush but bear with me.  We’re at a crossroads in the comics market: digital is upon us and can break everything wide open if material is presented that caters to all ages and specific reader demographics.

There’s no reason not to have comics for kids, teens, all ages, adults, and any other group.  But it needs to be labeled and marketed as such.  Book publishers know they have to put their graphic novels into age categories if it’s the reach the right market: why don’t mainstream comic publishers?

Batman can be a dark and gritty character, but can also be fun and light.  This has been wonderfully shown through DC’s animation works like Batman: Under The Red Hood and Batman: The Brave And The Bold. Polar opposites with the same character, focused on their target audience.

DC and their new 52 were the best-selling comics of 2011 and are leading the way for mainstream comics. Are these mainstream comic publishers only interested in reaching an 18 plus male audience?  It certainly seems so.