November 19, 2008

Heroes

Over the last 20 or 38 years, dozens or hundreds of features writers have explored the premise that comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. It started around 1970 when Rolling Stone ran a two-part cover story about Stan Lee and the relatively recent mainstream success of the Marvel Comics pantheon of superheroes.

The 1980s saw the appearance of some of the era’s most enduring graphic novels: Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland’s “Camelot 3000” and, of course, the grand mac-daddy mother of ’em all, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “The Watchmen.”

Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” has trumped all of the “not just for kids anymore” rhetoric with “Kid Stuff,” an essay included in his recent book, “Maps and Legends,” wherein he notes that the comic book industry, in its effort to achieve legitimacy among adult readers, has abandoned the young readership that defined the genre for the first 40 years of its existence. The essay, originally presented as the keynote address at the 2004 Eisner Awards, goes on to point out that over the same period of time, comic book sales have dropped catastrophically, from 650 million annually in the early 1950s to about 80 million a year at the beginning of this decade.

Ultimately, Chabon advises that the industry should embrace a young readership by telling “stories that (the creators) would have liked as kids.” He recommends “twist endings, the unexpected usefulness of unlikely knowledge, nobility and bravery where it’s least expected,” and narratives that “over time, build up to intricate, involved and involving mythology that is also accessible and comprehensible at any point of entry.”

As a lifelong fan of comics and the father of a third-grader, I was surprised and excited to recognize that a comic-inspired cartoon I had been sharing with my son satisfied most (if not all) of the specific recommendations Chabon outlined. The comic “Naruto” comes from Japan, where comic books (called “manga”) are appreciated by all ages, and complex yet accessible narratives are required for long-term success.

Shortly after its print debut, the elaborate storyline of “Naruto” was remounted as an animated series (“anime”), which has been airing on Cartoon Network for the last few years. The storyline takes place in a world where many people have special powers or aptitudes for magical martial arts-style tricks. The various powers involve control of fire, healing and transformation, among others — kind of like our X-Men.

When the story begins, we are introduced to Naruto and his classmates as they try to graduate from one level of ninja school to the next. Like the students in Harry Potter, the pupils have unique specialties, but they are expected to master a number of standard jutsu (ninja techniques). Unlike the X-Men or Harry Potter, the main character here, Naruto, is the least respected among his peers. He’s lazy and obnoxious. Worse, he’s the only student who fails the final exam.

Within a couple episodes we are introduced to themes involving hidden talents, secrets, jealousy, missing parents, deadly rivalries and the value of discipline in education. Ultimately, Naruto begins to inspire his comrades with his fierce determination to succeed and immoveable dedication to his friends.

Some of my adult friends have pointed out the themes are a bit juvenile (i.e. I must be a bit soft-headed for liking it so much), but I had seen the first 100 episodes (some of them twice) before I felt comfortable letting Oden join me; I thought it was too violent. I still think it’s violent, but I’ve made a concerted effort to turn my son into an educated consumer of modern mythology, and that means knowing violent behavior is for people with superpowers on television and in the movies, while real people pay close attention to math and art classes so they can be happy engineers and architects who don’t end up in anger-management classes when they grow up. So far he seems to be on board with that, but he still likes to draw pictures of the characters from “Naruto.” We’re compiling a portfolio.

For further study: Don’t miss Daniel Johnston’s appearance at this weekend’s Good Folk Fest at the Mellwood Arts Center. Johnston, who is known for his fascinating drawings of comic book characters (like Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost) as well as his brilliant lo-fi home recordings from the early 1980s forward, plays at 2 p.m. (See page 41 for details.)