The most clichéd statement a writer can make about comic books is that they're "not just for kids anymore." Lost in that hackneyed sentiment, though, is the fact that comics, well, really aren't for kids anymore. There are exceptions, of course—Jeff Smith's excellent Bone series, some of Dark Horse's Star Wars comics, and kids' lines from local publishers Top Shelf and Oni Press, to name a few. When it comes to capes, though, superhero comics are more likely to cater to aging fanboys than children, and the attendant sex and violence can be decidedly un-kid friendly. So where does that leave kids who are looking for some good old-fashioned superheroics?
It was just this question that inspired the creation of Smash, a web comic by Portland writer Chris Bolton and his brother, Seattle-based artist Kyle Bolton.
As Chris explains, "My brother and I grew up reading and loving comics. [In the late '90s], I visited him in Seattle and we went into a comic shop for old time's sake. We walked out empty handed and disillusioned. Kyle and I asked ourselves what comic we would start reading if we were eight years old today—which is when we decided to create the series we would have loved as kids, that's fun without being condescending or lightweight. And that was the beginning of a very long (10-year) genesis for Smash."
Smash follows the adventures of 10-year-old Andrew Ryan, a bullied kid whose fortunes abruptly change when a freak accident grants him an arsenal of superpowers as well as a supernemesis, the menacing Magus.
Season one of the comic, available at smashcomic.com, describes Andrew's transformation from regular kid to superkid: he can fly, but he's afraid of heights; he's got the strength to take on the bullies who harass him, but he doesn't want to reveal his secret identity; his old Halloween costume doubles as a superhero suit, but it's soon in tatters and he can't risk asking his mom to fix it. Plus, his parents have split up, and his big brother has been acting angry and strange since the divorce.
This sympathetic balance of superhero problems and kid problems makes Smash relatable without being pandering, leavening pre-teen angst with plenty of fight scenes, explosions, and near-disastrous heroics. While Smash's tone and storyline have clear kid appeal, reaching kids via the internet—which, in most schools and homes, is restricted and well policed—poses a challenge.
"There are a lot of websites for kids, but for obvious reasons, they're enormously selective of the material they feature," says Bolton. "We've connected with several of them, but these are adult-run sites aimed at kids, and I'm not convinced too many kids actually visit them. We've made Smash safe for all ages, and while we're eager to reach younger readers, we find a lot of adult readers who enjoy the series so much they pass it on to their kids. But there's also a number of childless adults who seem to love it, which is doubly reassuring."
An upcoming print deal with Candlewick Press will doubtless help Smash to better reach its intended audience. Currently in the editing stages, Candlewick's release of book one of the series will feature more than 30 pages; season two of the web comic, meanwhile, will kick off on Thursday, August 25.