When someone says “DC Entertainment,” your brain probably conjures thoughts of Superman and Wonder Woman, big-budget Blockbuster films and classic TV cartoons, or maybe even Robert Pattinson’s upcoming turn in the Batsuit. Whatever your mental list, middle-grade (MG) and young adult (YA) graphic novels are likely not at the top of it — but they should be.
Last year, DC unveiled two new graphic novel publishing imprints: DC Zoom for MG readers and DC Ink for YA readers. The MG novels are geared toward readers ages 8-12 and are centered on friends, family, and growing up, while the YA novels aim a little higher to readers ages 13 and up and focus on everyday aspirations, struggles, and triumphs.
Although superheroes never go out of style, DC’s new focus on the MG/YA publishing space begs the question: Why now?
“Superhero stories have exploded in popularity — we’ve seen the excitement everywhere, [on] billboards, on TV, in costumes and toys, in games, and at theme parks,” says Michele Wells, DC’s vice president and executive editor of Books for Young Readers. “This, combined with interest from parents, educators, and librarians for stories that entertain and empower while teaching visual literacy, makes this the perfect time for DC to publish content for middle-grade [and YA] readers.
“Sales for graphic novels and books for younger audiences also continue to grow, so making DC’s iconic characters accessible to young readers through thrilling, intimate, and relatable coming-of-age stories is an important part of DC’s publishing strategy,” Wells adds.
The first titles were released in the fall, and this summer, during a Book Buzz panel at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual convention in Washington, D.C., the company shared its plans to expand the program. The new stories feature classic DC characters and superheroes reimagined for a younger audience. While the names may be familiar, the stories — and even the faces — are new.
“To tap into this younger audience, DC is partnering with bestselling authors of middle-grade books and artists with unique styles to tell original, standalone stories that reimagine DC’s popular characters and make them accessible to readers who have never picked up a comic or are unfamiliar with superheroes,” Wells says.
Some of the authors and illustrators include Meg Cabot, Shannon and Dean Hale, Amy Wolfram, Kirk Scroggs, Ridley Pearson, Mariko Tamaki, and more, many of whom are new to graphic novels, DC, or both.
Take veteran author Ridley Pearson, for example. Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, published in April as the first novel in a new Super Sons trilogy, was his first graphic novel. The second title, Super Sons: The Foxglove Mission, hits shelves later this month.
“The fun thing with DC, and really one of the things that attracted me to the offer, was that I’m working with two editors and an illustrator, so there are four of us at any one time trying to make a single piece of coherent fiction,” Pearson says. “Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we don’t. And it’s just as much fun when you don’t as when you do because it builds a better ship. That partnership — that collaboration — is surprising and exciting and fluid.”
Similarly, Meg Cabot, author of the famed Princess Diaries series and countless other YA and adult novels, also took the graphic novel plunge with DC, penning the new Black Canary: Ignite.
“Well, this is obviously a completely different process than writing a book; … it’s more like writing a screenplay,” Cabot says. “But you’re also writing, you’re describing, every single panel, which I did not know when I first started doing it, that that’s how these are written — that the writer actually tells the artist exactly what to draw and lays out the entire scene of the book. I was a little in shock.” On top of this fresh blood particularly lending itself to reimagining the tried-and-true storylines, there’s the added bonus that it also helps make these novels super accessible to fans new to the DC Universe (DCU).
“DC was excited to reboot the Super Sons,” Pearson says. “The Super Sons have a really successful comic book line, and we didn’t want to wade into those waters and be anything like that because the author/illustrator of that is doing gangbusters well and he has such a cool world he’s built, but at the same time, we wanted to reach younger readers. We knew we needed to do something markedly different.”
While a fresh look certainly helped Cabot and Pearson bring the Super Sons and Black Canary to life for younger audiences, sometimes a lifelong fan has the perfect touch to breathe new life into a classic. Kirk Scroggs, author and illustrator of The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid, which was released at the beginning of the month, has been a fan of Swamp Thing — and its illustrator, Berni Wrightson — since he was a kid.
“When I found out that he had drawn the original Swamp Thing, I was definitely on board as a young kid,” Scroggs says. “So I wanted to kind of take it, and I thought it would be fun to turn Swamp Thing into sort of an Obi-Wan [Kenobi] type character, where he’s like a mentor — still a little spooky, but a good guy at heart, which he always was.”
The new MG and YA graphic novels are a bit more educational than those written for general audiences, and they deal with issues of interest to younger readers, with the authors taking special care to create relatable, teachable content without being preachy.
“Not simply comics for all ages, which are generally considered appropriate for readers across the board, the content of these graphic novels … is evaluated from an educational perspective and leveled to ensure the stories we’re telling and the issues addressed are perfectly appropriate to these readers,” Wells says.
Issues vary from timeless ones, such as friendship and acceptance, to more current, targeted ones, such as climate change and sexism.
“Ultimately, I wanted to make sure it was like a fun comic book adventure,” Scroggs says. “I’m writing for DC, I want this to be a comic book that’s gonna be action, intrigue, scares, meet some giant monsters, but it definitely tries to weave into the story the nice little story about acceptance and about friendship and about being comfortable in your own skin.”
While Black Canary: Ignite definitely embraces those same adolescent issues, Cabot infuses a call to action, too.
“I think one of the great things about her is that she’s a hero, not necessarily because she has super strength, but because she has a voice that she uses, and that’s something I think we really need right now in the world is using your voice to speak out against evil,” Cabot says. “You don’t need to have a superhuman voice. You can just use your regular voice and speak up when you see injustice, and that’s what she’s learning to do.”
Not only do the graphic novels feature messaging and storylines geared toward younger readers, but DC has also made sure they’re accessible in other ways, too. The novels feature fonts specifically chosen to be easier to read for struggling readers, the layouts are designed so that readers just starting out with graphic novels can digest them easily, and the stories themselves challenge advanced readers to expand their vocabulary with language supported by visual context clues.
Coming up this fall, DC will release a veritable slew of graphic novels under both imprints — including new stories about the Justice League, Swamp Thing, Green Lantern, Harley Quinn, Batman, Wonder Woman, and more — with more than a dozen other titles slated to hit shelves between now and 2021.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!