When Ratings Get Squirrelly

I took a trip to Newbury Comics with my oldest daughter yesterday. It’s a treat for both of us, and while I don’t really read comics anymore (mainly because I already spend way too much money on video games and something has to give), she loves them, and I’m happy to encourage any of her potential routes toward geekdom that she wants to pursue. There’s a problem, though; it’s incredibly difficult to find comics that I can feel good about giving her without reservation.

This came into stark relief today when we went over to a new rack that this particular store had put in highlighting all their comics that were intended for kids. I’m used to this rack; it’s usually full of My Little Pony, Archie, and Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s nothing wrong with any of those, per se (My Little Pony is a big hit with the younger girls, in fact), but my seven year old is beyond that, for the most part; I bought her a few of the Legend of Zelda manga books and she devoured each of them in an afternoon apiece. It’s been a struggle finding any super hero comics that are appropriate for her; she loves super heroes (DC, primarily), but comics I can give her to read are few and far between. Even the good ones like Superman Family Adventures and Tiny Titans are definitely aimed toward early readers and aren’t challenging for her at all. What I’ve been looking for is a series that’s written at a more mainstream reading level but with content that’s appropriate for someone at her age.

That’s why I was excited when I saw The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 on the rack today. I’ve heard a lot about Squirrel Girl; everything I’ve seen ahead of the series’ launch was funny and well written, and Squirrel Girl’s alter ego, Doreen Green, is starting college to major in computer science, so she seems like a positive role model for my daughter as well. There’s one problem, though: That letter T on the cover.

This is the problem that I run into constantly with comics. Between both Marvel and DC, comics that are rated All Ages are rare. I still remember the first time that I brought my daughter to a comics shop, having not read comics since the mid-90s. I opened up a random Spider Man comic to find depictions of a fairly grisly murder scene, and decided that the T rating wasn’t to be trifled with. Even when I find series that I thought might be OK for her to try, like the new Batgirl, I discover that it broaches subjects like revenge porn in the early issues of the current run. Next to nothing is rated All Ages, though, so the fact that this T comic was in the “Comics for Kids” section was perplexing.

I read through it quickly in the store while she looked at some other things, and confirmed that this issue was OK for her to read. In fact, not only does she defeat Kraven the Hunter, but she ends up doing so not by using her super strength or super speed, but by figuring out what makes him tick and convincing him that he was hunting too weak a foe and should aim higher. I think that’s a pretty great message, that even if you have superpowers, sometimes it’s just being able to think on your feet that can help you save the day. All in all, I think this particular comic is fantastic and I can’t recommend it enough.

The issue is that I keep coming back to the T on the cover. As a parent it’s my job to filter the stuff that my kids see before they see it and decide if they’re ready for it. That doesn’t mean that they can’t see “mature” scenes eventually, but they’re seven and five now. They should be allowed to be kids without understanding what serial killers are for a while longer if I can help it. So what the T on the cover says to me as a parent is, “This issue might be fine, but this series may stray into directions that are more mature eventually, so be on guard.” If this was a movie or a video game, then I could either preview the entirety of it myself or go to a site like Common Sense Media that would help me make a call if I wanted to watch it together.

The thing that makes comics different is that they are episodic, though, and by getting involved in a series, we’re starting a relationship with it. If my daughter likes a series she’s going to want to get every issue that comes out, because that’s kind of the point. So a T rating makes me very hesitant to start that relationship, because it means that we might have to skip issues based on their content, and that’s going to leave me with a very disappointed girl in the comic shop. It’s hard for a kid to understand that she can have this issue but not that one for reasons.

In the case of Squirrel Girl, my public fretting on Twitter eventually led one of my awesome followers to reach out to the writer, who put my fears at ease. But what if that didn’t happen? I’ve had several people reach out to me recommending the new Ms Marvel series, which also looks fantastic, but that’s rated T+. I can reach out to the author of that series on Twitter as well, but I shouldn’t have to do that every time I want to introduce my daughter to a new series, and that shouldn’t be the writers’ responsibility either. Further, if a book is being written for all ages, why not rate it that way so that I can know that there aren’t going to be any subjects that my kids aren’t ready to read about yet?

The problem here, from what I can tell, is that Marvel and DC seem to be using their ratings as marketing and classification and not as a tool for parents to make an informed decision, which is what ratings are supposed to be for in the first place. I want to get my kids more into super hero books because that’s something they’re interested in, which has to be good for the publishers both in the short term (they sell more books) and long term (because they get future customers who are starting younger and then more inclined to buy comics of their own once they have their own money). The way they’re running their ratings, though, it’s hard for me to feel good about introducing new series. So I don’t. And I know a lot of other geek parents who often feel the same way when faced with the same decision in the comic shop.

So, Marvel and DC, help me help you. I’ve got money to spend and I come home with it burning a hole in my pocket every time we leave the comics shop. My kids and I are starving for comics that are for all ages that we can enjoy together. So please rate your comics appropriately so we can read some of them together as a family. You’re turning away potential customers by doing otherwise.