Sunday, October 1, 2017

OPINION: How DC Comics can have a real !MPACT

So, here's the thing — as I was writing my review of SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP #30, I wondered aloud if kids might actually write in to DC Comics wanting to see more of the Challengers of the Unknown, or any of the other "forgotten teams" featured in that issue. But then it occurred to me, not only, "Hey, why wouldn't they?" but why wouldn't parents, teachers, and others want kids reading those comics. After all, many of these characters — created in an era when it was presumed the main readers of comics were kids, not 40-year-old fanboys — seem tailor made for use as educational tools. I mean, hey, how do I know mercury is the only metal that's a liquid at room temperature — because Mercury made a point of mentioning it in every fourth panel he appeared in, that's why!

It's no secret that the direct distribution model is dying. Comics are worse off now than in the newsstand crisis of the late '70s. WAY worse off. If the comic book industry is to survive, publishers like DC need to find other modes of distribution. And the problem is, DC really can't just give up publishing and focus on movies and television to exploit its library. With the number of characters it controls, and thus needs to maintain trademark on, it simply can't pump out movies and tv shows fast enough.

As the saying goes, publish or die.

IMHO, what DC really needs to do is not so much abandon comics books as abandon the fanboy. It needs to accept that in playing to the front row it's lost the rest of the house. It needs to go out and find those kids again and trust that the fanboys (or at least most of them) will follow.

So, what can DC do? One option might be to partner with Scholastic (I believe it has done so before) to produce a line of educational comics, with each title explicitly prepared to offer instruction on the topic or topics most appropriate to the lead character of that series. DC could distribute collections of the titles through Scholastic to school libraries and even for use in classrooms, while individual issues could be pushed through school fundraisers (kids sell all kinds of things to raise money, why not comic book subscriptions?) and vending machines placed in high-volume spots where kids and parents tend to congregate.

Now, I think there would have to be a couple of caveats.

One, the comics would have to be written in such a way that they are not obviously educational. At least to the kids. Yes, there would necessarily need to be a fair amount of exposition in each story, but it would have to be handled in a such a way as to be entertaining, without coming off as overtly instructional. Call it The Theory of LIFE. Kids, you will recall, wouldn't eat LIFE cereal explicitly because it was supposed to be good for them. But why did Mikey like LIFE? Because Mikey didn't know it was health food. Mikey just knew it tasted good! And so with comics.

Secondly, we do not want these books to talk down to kids. That's the worst problem with young reader comics these days. They all seem to presume every young reader to be a lobotomized infant. Kid's are a lot smarter than you think. You don't need to write on a DICK AND JANE level, not should you. When I was 7 years old, I learned a lot of things from JLA comics, like the meaning of the word "origin" and what a "geosynchronous orbit" was, but I never knew I was learning. After all, there was no homework, but for reading a comic over and over again until it literally fell apart in my hands. And when the JSA popped up, I was able to grasp the entire concept behind the multiverse in a single panel caption and move on, thoroughly enjoying the tale without confusion. So, write for kids, but not to kids. Basically, a comic book story that would make an old Silver Age fan go, "Yeah, now that's what I'm talkin' about!" — that's the ticket.

Thirdly, while I do believe we want a traditional open comic book art style, we do not want something that is overly cartoony. I'm thinking more Ty Templeton than Art Baltazar. Although Art didn't draw the 2008 SUPER FRIENDS series, it is that kid of style I'd want to avoid. That says to kids, this is not a comic book for kids, it's a comic book for babies.

So, if I had a channel to the ear of DC editor Kristy Quinn, I'd say, "Hey, Kristy, you should go to Mssrs. DiDio & Lee, or even right over their heads direct to DC President Diane Nelson, and propose a line of 16 bi-monthly educational comics (meaning eight per month, or two per week), to be distributed to schools and bookstores via Scholastic." And, the line-up, along with the topics each series would cover, would include:

• ANGEL AND THE APE — social studies, culture, psychology, criminology
BLACKHAWK — diversity, teamwork, science, technology, math
• CAVE CARSON — geology, earth sciences
• CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN — science, technology, engineering, math
CONGO BILL — zoology, environmental studies, diversity
• THE DANGER PATROL (a.k.a Dingbats of Danger Street) social studies, social justice, diversity, anti-bullying, teamwork
FIREHAIR — U.S. history (19th and early 20th century)
THE GREEN TEAM — economics, U.S. economy, manufacturing, math
• THE MANIAKS — art history, music theory, culture
• THE METAL MEN — chemistry, science, math
• RIP HUNTER AND HIS TIME MASTERS — U.S. and world history
• THE SEA DEVILS — marine biology, ecology, environmental studies
• THE SECRET SIX — U.S. and world government, law, civics
SPACE RANGER — astronomy, physics, science
• TOMAHAWK — U.S. history (colonial and revolutionary era)
TOMMY TOMORROW AND THE PLANETEERS — science, technology, engineering, math, astronomy, physics

The stories sort of write themselves, really. A Cave Carson tale about some evil baddie trying to crash Australia into Asia is, of course, an excuse to explain plate tectonics. A Green Team story in which the gang discovers price gouging of supplies while helping hurricane victims becomes a lesson on the principle of price discovery. Tomahawk helping young George Washington deliver a message to the French tells us how the first real world war started. And, of course, whatever the Metal Men do, Mercury gets to mention his physical properties. He's  liquid at room temperature, I don't know if you knew that or not.

But what to call the line. Initially, I thought of calling it the DC Explorers series. But then it occurred to me, why not revive the !IMPACT brand? Doing so might actually help Scholastic move the books among teachers and parents, the idea being that in order for young people to grow up to have a positive impact on the world around them, they need to be educated. And, as most teachers and parents know, the reason God invented play is because we learn best when we are having fun. That is, of course, the entire concept behind recent trends in STEM education and exploratory learning. And what are comics, if not fun?

To turn an old phrase on its head, "Comics: They're not just for kids anymore -- but they should be."

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