The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Comic Books: Friend or Foe? August 18, 2011

DC comicbook heroesMy daughter is 5, but thanks to her dad, she already knows which superheroes belong to Marvel, which to DC.

On the one hand, I’m impressed.

On the other hand – the one with the super mama-cyborg powers – I’m not sure if comic books are good material for these young, impressionable brains.

Don’t get me wrong: I may have an MFA in poetry and thus sometimes qualify as a literary snob, but I have some comic-cred, too:

1) I read Kavalier & Clay twice

2) I owned Wonder Woman underoos

3) I got my Storm figurine when I was 21.

At first, I was all about my daughter getting exposure to super-girls. I even started seeing correlations between heroine storylines and goddess mythology – even the art can look similar, if you’re talking about some of the new Hindu goddess pictures. Strong women with power? Absolutely.

Well, not exactly. I have some concerns:

1) Ethics. Most of the storylines are extremely simplistic – no nuances or subtleties that question perceptions of right and wrong – just very childish black and white thinking. Jo asked one morning, “Why is Cat Woman a bad guy?” and I realized that I don’t like the values of painting people as “good” and “bad.” It’s unrealistic. And these books don’t really explain or investigate motivations. They teach moralistic opposition, punishment and judgment, but not empathy and understanding.

2) Violence. Don’t think I really need to explain this one. I don’t cringe so much that violence exists in these comics – certainly my son needs to have some way to exercise his need for speed – but fight after fight after fight – it’s overwhelming. It’s the main source of action. It’s the only way problems are solved.

3) Power. Sure, my daughter sees strong women – but they are definitely warriors, not goddesses. There power is all physical, not spiritual. These images of exaggerated muscular domination absolutely transfix my kids – but are they learning that might makes right?

Josephine and Sam love comic books – from the old-school editions to the new and strange made-for-preschoolers Super Friends series.

I’m not sure how I feel. I think I prefer Super Woman to Cinderella – and DC to Disney. But are they equally negative? Am I being too reactive?