Kids & Comic Book Culture
Stefan Petrucha and Michael Petranek tell why your kids love comics...
The halls of Denver Comic Con are filled with marvels. Like a symbolic Jericho of old, the walls between comic book maker and comic book fan have come tumbling down. Suddenly, wonderfully, anything feels possible.
Costumed superheroes mingle with their similarly decked-out archenemies, right there in the food court. The Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, sweats through his makeup, earning $40 a pop for posing in pictures with his fans. A pristine, “Very Fine” copy of Fantastic Four #1 sells for $30,000. And everywhere you look, parents and children are filling the exhibition floor with laughter and excitement.
In the midst of this fantasyland sits the Papercutz publishing booth, where kids are snapping up autographed Power Rangers posters, getting lost in LEGO Ninjago comics, and asking staffers for more adventures in the Nancy Drew Diaries. PopFam has stopped here today with one goal in mind: To find out why kids love comics. Fortunately, Papercutz creators Stefan Petrucha (writer) and Michael Petranek (editor) are willing to share their secrets. So we steal a table in the jam-packed “Kids Corral,” turn on the digital recorder, and the rest, as they say, is history…
Stefan Petrucha and Mike Petranek. Wow, it’s an honor. Thanks for taking time with us. Let’s start this way: How did you guys discover comic books?
It was how my grandfather taught me how to read! It was an issue of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen…It was Jimmy’s birthday and the League of Super Heroes gave him a ring and their costumes that gave him their powers temporarily. I didn’t know who any of these people were, but I was totally fascinated. Gripped. And it went on from there.
I was introduced to comics through the 1980s Justice League TV show, the cartoon. After that I was like, “OK, well, where’d this come from?” and I went to the comics. Then, through going to comic stores, I got into the X-Men and Spider-Man after that in the late 80s and early 90s. That cartoon show really got me into it, though.
Why do kids love comics?
Because they’re very discerning! (Laughs)
People think you’re somehow not reading when you’re looking at a comic book, but you are. It’s a part of the brain that deals with visual and spatial information, and when you’re growing up, when you’re a kid, we pay attention to both of those things. So there’s an appeal and there’s a lot of power in the media that they—and a lot of adults now—tend to recognize.
It’s almost ironic because, really, reading a comic takes more parts of your brain. And kids are imaginative. I wish I was still as imaginative as I was when I was four years old. Kids are more open. I never get a question about—I think Grant Morrison said this—about ‘Who puts the air in the Batmobile tires?’ from a kid. The kid accepts it.
A Comic Con like this one attracts all ages—parents, preschoolers, teens and preteens, even grandparents. What makes Comic book culture feel so much like a family for these people?
Here you can be whatever. Here is a very warm and welcoming atmosphere for the most part, not always, but mostly. I think walking into the halls of this exhibition center can be a lot less scary than walking in the halls of a high school.
To get sociological for a second, when you become a teenager you’re identity changes. You’re finding your power in the world for the first time, which connects itself perfectly to the superhero myth. For the first time in your life, outside of your family, you’re becoming tribal. There’s a natural inclination to gather around your favorite band, your favorite this, your favorite that. But once again, the more discerning people are the ones who love comic books. (Laughter)
Why do YOU want kids to love comics?
It’s a very special medium. It has an intimate affect that watching a movie or reading a book doesn’t. When you’re making the panels move, when you’re hearing your own voice as the characters’ voices, it creates a very unique—and in many ways personal—experience. I value that and try to reproduce it for readers.
And having had so many great experiences with comics myself, I want to pass it along. It’s one of those things. My passion for comics is something I don’t think I can keep if I don’t give it away.
Stefan, you’ve written some very popular comics like Power Rangers, Rio, Nancy Drew, Mickey Mouse, and even the X-Files. Michael, you’ve edited many of the same. What should parents know about the work that you do, and the way you do that work?
I have to work well with others, let’s say that! Especially as an editor, I really have to work well with others. I started out making copies at Papercutz, and I’m an editor now. I would say that there’s a lot more that goes into it than it might seem. I went to school for theatre, as a director, and creating a comic can be a lot like that from my standpoint. Like putting together a whole production.
The thing I would tell parents is that we’re conscious of our audience. Papercutz is for all ages, but it’s mainly for tweens and up, and we’re very careful with the licenses. Nancy Drew comics aren’t going to be written like Game of Thrones. But within that context we do exciting stories that teach valuable lessons, and at the same time present interesting characters in a fun way. So there’s that reassurance. And Michael seems to want to say something else...
I do, I do! I also want to say that we really respect the kid who reads our stories. We don’t want to talk down to the kid, but we want to make sure that almost anybody could pick up our graphic novels and be engaged.
Veteran comic book writer, Chuck Dixon, has suggested that comic book culture is influenced too much by political views, and that the art form suffers for it. What’s your take on that?
At Papercutz, we make a conscious decision that there should be nothing in our comics that would ever deter somebody from picking them up. I think having a political agenda falls under that. So I just don’t touch it.
What’s the best advice you’d give to a kid who wants to create comics?
I’d say, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t create comics. And just keep working at it. It’s tough to break into comics. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. As a woman maybe the odds are stacked against you a little higher, but that’s changing more and more.
Is talent going to win out in the end?
Maybe. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. My advice to mothers who have kids who are interested in a career in comics is to do the work, put it up online, start developing your own audience. And as you get better, then the majors may become interested. Or you might wind up not needing them. Just keep working at it. As long as you’re enjoying it, continue. You’ll get better.
I’d also say, Number 1, keep working on your craft. Two, keep working on your craft. No, I’m kidding. Number 2 would be read as many comics as you can. Number 3 would be, never give up.
And read a lot of stuff that’s not comic books. Look at art that’s just art. Figure out how it works. See what you like. Read books. You can bring things from your personal experience to the medium. Now I’m done.
All right, last question: What’s the most important thing in life—and how is that reflected in your work?
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
That’s what you do when you write a comic book?
No, the villains always win. (Laughter) I asked Stan Lee a similar question once: Good versus evil, who wins? He said that good would tend to win, but evil would always manage to take it down. So it’s a balance.
I’d say, you are not your job. You are not how much money you make. You are not your physicality.
In my opinion—and this is so corny, and I hate to say it—but you are your spiritual and emotional condition. The way that’s reflected in my work is that I want to enable somebody to pick up a book and really enjoy it from a totally pure standpoint.
No other hidden agenda. Just enjoy a comic book for the experience it is.
All product-related graphics in this article are standard publicity/promotional shots and are owned by their respective publisher.
Denver Comic Con
Michael Petranek & Stefan Petrucha