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Hey, Kids! No, Really! Kids! Comics!

Comics aren't just for kids anymore. Sure, we knew that. But the bigger lament in the industry may be that comics just aren't for kids anymore. At least, that's how popular wisdom has it. Nobody seems to pay much attention to Archie Comics, tooling along quite successfully and definitely being for children, and the manga explosion - which clearly proves that kids will read comics. Even Michael Chabon, in his keynote speech at this year's Eisner Awards, promulgated the idea that we need more kids' comics - and by more, maybe we really mean more that we adults can recognize.

Within the past few months, both DC and Marvel have made more of an effort to cater to young readers than they had for a while. To be fair, DC has had a steady children's line for years, with titles culled from their corporate Cartoon Network connection. But to catch the attention of the public, you've got to rebrand, and get that brand out there.

So now we have Marvel Age, a slight retooling of the usual Marvel logo, which has taken to rewriting the work of Kirby, Lee and Ditko and often simplifying and removing narrative sense. But the new imprint has tried a few other ideas, telling the story of Mary Jane as a teen soap. The girl in question has all the good and bad moments of a typical teen, except that someday she will grow up and marry Spider-Man. After three issues, Marvel has had to put the book on hiatus while it regroups and figures out how to actually get it into the hands of its intended audience.

A shame, really, because though on my first reading it left me cold, it grew on me. Old-time fans might have trouble reconciling this high school girl with the one we grew up with, who even as a teenager had a knowing John Romita face. This Mary Jane is more real, a little more innocent, and definitely somebody for girls to identify with. Face it, tiger, this book ain't for us, but Marvel really needs to find a way to tell them.

That them also needs to know Marvel Age has temporarily split Jubilee off from the X-Herd and into a California public high school. (Why, I'm so old that I remember when Kitty Pryde would have been the logical choice.) Robert Kirkman follows the formula for giving an X-Man a solo book, character "goes home," which is a little difficult to do for the long-orphaned Jubilee.

Now she has an aunt that conveniently did not know Jubilee existed for years, but who invites her mutant niece to live with her the minute she finds out. So now the mutant is in an old neighborhood that seems strange, and she has a few dark family secrets to uncover. The same thing is going on with Rogue. Kirkman, however, at least has some wit about it.

A new reader might not recognize it as formula. Though inconsistent, artist Derec Aucoin makes most of the high school students look believably high school age. It's a style just cartoony enough that it might attract a manga fan's attention. The catch is, it's not in a format that kids have come to recognize.

DC takes their shot this week by launching a new book and a new look. Yes, the Johnny DC mascot exults in the upper left corner of the cover, hopefully alerting parents that this title is "safe" for their kids. Justice League Unlimited #1 definitely fits the bill, though it does have a plot that could have ended in the destruction of the Earth.

Kids should be drawn in by a story that opens with Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Atom forcefully quitting the League. In flashback, writer Adam Beechen justifies the action, as some mysterious force takes over each of those heroes and causes them to rampage, doing mostly superficial damage. Of course, if Zatanna is in the story, you know there has to be a trick here somewhere, and kids might enjoy the logic of it (lightly borrowed from an early Mark Waid story in JLA). Penciller Carlo Barberi manages to duplicate the look of the show on Cartoon Network while still having a style of his own, keeping the layouts clean. Inking him, Walden Wong also makes sure the figures have bold outlines, almost as if they were cels placed on the paper. It's all big and bright with action that only hurts the really, really bad guys.

The only odd choice is in Beechen's inclusion of Hawkgirl into the line-up. Sure, all the characters used here have already appeared on television. Fans must hope for the eventual return of the Thanagarian Warrior. But knowing the obsessive nature of kids' continuity knowledge (that's why they grow up to be fanboys), those that watch the show might be very confused by her presence. Okay, fine, I want to know when she came back.

Cleverly, DC also changes up the advertising and editorial content in the book. In direct contradiction to their main line, the company is actively encouraging kids to write letters. Not e-mails -- actual letters on paper, perhaps even with crayon drawings. And the back page helpfully points out what other kids' books they have this month, not just a spotlight on one. (I'll be keeping my eye out for the "all Duck Dodgers" issue of Looney Tunes, unless I've missed it, in which case never mind.)

Will all this activity get the kids into the comic book store? Or will DC and Marvel figure out an effective way to get comics to where the kids are? Let us all kow tow to the Wal-Mart toy department and see.

Derek McCaw

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