Many's the time while standing in the playground or schoolyard that I've struck up a conversation with another parent about how we wish we could find more comicbook and cartoons that are appropriate for really young children. Oh, sure, our kids are going to grow up soon enough, and we won't have to worry so much about sheltering their little minds, as they fly to Mars or get bionic enhancements (all the kids are doing it, Dad!) But in the meantime, while they're young and adorable, wouldn't it be nice to have some good, clean, innocent comicbook fun to share with our little critters? Get them into that groovy, geeky, magical medium that we all grew up on?

So, here's my list of picks for some cool comics you can read with your little kids (and some books that parents might like as well...) Many of these reviews first appeared in my children's book review column (which you might also enjoy...) I am always on the prowl for other comics my kid might enjoy, so your recommendations and feedback are always welcome... )

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Read That Again: New Reviews | Picture Books | Main Index

"Alley Oop, v.1: The Adventures Of A Time-Traveling Caveman"
Written and Illustrated by V. T. Hamlin
(Kitchen Sink, 1990)

Although perennially out-of-print, and a little far afield, Alley Oop is one of my favorite classic newspaper strips, and a delightful fantasy/sci-fi romp for older (tween-to-teenage) readers. The story involves a macho, heroic caveman named Alley Oop, an ill-tempered, super-strong, rough-and-tumble big lug who tames a pet dinosaur and becomes the champion of his tribe. The series ran from 1932-1973 and was one of the most popular newspaper comics of its time. Unlike other newspaper strips, Alley Oop moved along at a fast clip -- like its hero, the cartoon was all action (and a lot of humor) and because it was set in a different time period, it also isn't as stuck in the past -- modern readers can jump on board right away. The artwork is fantastic: creator V. T. Hamlin was one of the finest draftsmen in the newspaper business, penning mysterious jungles and other densely-layered backgrounds, while giving his characters a fine comedic touch. At first, the series centered on the prehistoric caveman world, with Oop either protecting his tribe from their enemies (and being the big hero) or him opening his big mouth and ticking off King Guzzle, the leader of the Kingdom of Moo (and becoming an outlaw). In 1939, "Alley Oop" busted wide open when Hamlin introduced Dr. Elbert Wonmug, a 20th Century scientist with a time machine, who befriends Oop and sends him on adventures throughout the centuries. Other sci-fi elements were introduced, including space travel, making "Alley Oop" one of the most unique, cross-genre cartoon strips ever published. Most of all, it's a lot of fun... Only a few archival collections of these great strips have come out, and they're all kind of hard to find, but well worth the search; this book includes a year's worth of stories from 1946-47, when the strip was in a rock-solid groove. Highly recommended! (A+)

"Alley Oop, v.2: The Sphinx And Alley Oop"
Written and Illustrated by V. T. Hamlin
(Kitchen Sink, 1991)

This volume, which covers about a year's worth of strips from 1947-48, has Oop traveling in time to ancient Egypt in the time of the pharaohs, where of course he gets in all kinds of trouble and mix-ups. Great stuff, with cartoonist V. T. Hamlin at the peak of his powers. (A+)

"Alley Oop, v.3: First Trip To The Moon"
Written and Illustrated by V. T. Hamlin
(Kitchen Sink, 1995)

Another high point, a 1948-49 science-fiction epic where Oop and his pals blast off for the moon. Fabulous artwork and some interesting, old-fashioned concepts about the technology involved in a space flight. (A+)

"Alley Oop, Book 4"
Written and Illustrated by V. T. Hamlin
(Manuscript Press, 2003)

Picking up where the earlier Kitchen Sink Press series left off, this volume is the same size and length, and also covers the same general time period, reprinting strips from the same era. Also highly recommended! (A+)

"The Amazing Spider-Man" -- see: Spider-Man

"Amelia Rules, v.1: The Whole World's Crazy"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2007)

In this volume we are introduced -- rather abruptly -- to nine year-old Amelia McBride, a feisty young girl who has recently moved, along with her divorced mother, from New York City to the far-off suburbs, moving in with her Zen-cool aunt while her mom gets back on her feet. In a new town with a new school, Amelia sets out to conquer her surroundings, making friends with three fellow outcasts who form a goofy "super-hero" club and share in life's bickering and blunders. The series is well-written and appealing, although it has the adults-looking-back-at-childhood feel of TV shows such as "The Wonder Years" and "Malcolm In The Middle," etc. that imposes a more mature, irony-laden viewpoint onto the characters. Although the artwork is cartoony and Peanuts-esque, the themes and editorial viewpoint is pitched more to the older end of the "kids" bracket, junior high age and above. Adults will like it, too (in fact, I would say this may be more aimed at adults than one might imagine...) and whether you're actually going through the days of childhood restlessness and angst, or looking back at it all and laughing, these are funny, engaging stories, with kid characters whose wiliness and mischievousness seem totally real. The cover sports a quote saying this is "Peanuts for the 21st Century," but I'd peg it more as "Calvin And Hobbes" with an all-star cast, touching on the imaginative flights of young kids, and the points where those imaginations smoosh up against the gigantic, indifferent thumb of reality. Good reading. (B+)

"Amelia Rules, v.2: What Makes You Happy"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2007)

In the second book, we delve more deeply into Amelia's family and inner life. One episode is devoted to her super-cool aunt Tanner, who we learn is a former rock star who walked away from it all, a Lilith Fair Tucker Crowe whose alluring past gets dredged up when a music magazine names her the top female rocker of the decade. We also see Amelia reconnecting with her dad, a schlumpy but sweet guy who lives in Manhattan and tries to include Amelia's friends in various outings. More importantly, we meet the nemeses of her superhero group, the Park View Terrace Ninjas, who feud with Amelia and her friends over control of a local park. With the characters and setting more firmly established, the series becomes more compelling and addictive... And are you read now to move onto Volume Three? (B+)

"Amelia Rules, v.3: Superheroes"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2007)

This volume brings to full fruition the plot elements set up in the first two books: we delve deeper into several of the established characters and Amelia widens her social circle when she discovers that she really, really likes some of the kids in the neighborhood of a rival club, the Park View Terrace Ninjas. One girl, Trishia, writes creative fantasy stories that the other kids avidly read in a self-published 'zine, and Trishia and Amelia soon become fast friends. But for various reasons fate, as it often does, pulls the friendship apart and this subtle story arc proves to be one of the most bittersweet of the Amelia stories. The book ends on a strong note of closure and finality which adds to the poignancy of the Amelia-Trishia plot -- apparently it was meant to be the end of the series. Fortunately Gownley kept going (see below) but this is really where he comes into full force as a graphic novelist. Great stuff! (B+)

"Amelia Rules, v.4: When The Past Is A Present"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2008)

This book starts with Amelia and her peeps moving up into fifth grade, while their problems and perspectives begin shifting along with them. It follows a delicious initial three-volume story arc that had an air of finality to it, and while we are glad to see Amelia and her friends again, cartoonist Jimmy Gownley has to do a little extra lifting to get the series started up again. A couple of the episodes seem a little forced, exploring big, boldly defined, occasionally dark themes that interrupt the soft, slow flow of the series. One story stands out, in which one girl's father, a captain in the Marines, is deployed abroad (to an unnamed country) and while the girl's heart breaks, the world still doesn't stop. It's a sentimental, self-consciously topical story, but in the end, emotionally resonant and doubtless appreciated by readers with connections to the military. Also of note is the title story, "When The Past Is A Present," in which Gownley shows off his skills as a graphic artist, mimicking various old newspaper strips -- "Gasoline Alley," "Brenda Starr," "Terry And The Pirates," "Peanuts" -- while telling Amelia's family history, then cleverly bringing it all together in a puzzle in the final pages. The artistic triumph is both intuitive and technical, and builds on the series' themes of nostalgic regret, bittersweet acceptance and playful adventurousness... Meanwhile, Amelia goes out on a date (with a boy! and dancing!) and slowly becomes more reflective about her life and her relationships t family and friends. Another fine volume in this classy comicbook series. (Joe Sixpack, ReadThatAgain children's book reviews) (B+)

"Amelia Rules, v.5: The Tweenage Guide To Not Being Unpopular"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2010)

This volume shows Amelia and her friends grappling with social pressures at school, mainly the pressure to not seem uncool... which is difficult since Amelia's clique are self-defined nerds, and have been for a long, long time. Teased by the cheerleader in-crowd, Amelia and her friends respond in different ways. Reggie, who still likes to dress up and play superhero, doesn't really care, but lanky-limbed, crazy-haired, sarcastic Rhonda, does. She's decided she doesn't want to move into her middleschool years still being an outcast, and makes a determined effort to change her course. She wants to pull her friends along, too, and forces them to read the same insidious, submit-to-peer-pressure self-help book ("The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular") that she's adopted as her road map. Gownley's self-help book parody isn't very subtle, but the decisions that the kids make are pretty interesting, particularly with Rhonda, who manages to successfully change her image and social status at school, and Amelia, who is urged to join her. Meanwhile, Amelia's home life has its ups and downs, and there's more drama with her too-cool aunt Tanner, who's had to move in with Amelia and her mom after the roof of her house collapsed. Various characters and their relationships are subtly modified, and while the series sometimes seems a little static, many of the slower-moving plot elements, with boy trouble and whatnot, do get tied up in the next volume... so stay tuned!) This is still one of the better, more thoughtful kids-level graphic novels out there... quite satisfying and highly readable, and still highly recommended! (B+)

"Amelia Rules, v.6: True Things Adults Don't Want Kids To Know"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2010)


"Amelia Rules: The Meaning Of Life... And Other Stuff"
Written and Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum, 2011)

This is the seventh volume in the "Amelia Rules" graphic novels, a thoughtful, surprisingly challenging series that I am a big fan of. That being said, I have to admit, this is not my favorite volume, as the characters seem caught in a lull and I wonder where the story is headed. Amelia and her pals are growing up, slogging their way through middle school and continuing to shape their identities. Some characters, notably the boys Reggie and Pajamaman, are basically put on hold here -- Reggie develops a crush on a girl, but that's about it. Meanwhile, Amelia confronts various unpleasant realities, including being labeled "a bad kid" at school, and having to knuckle under to a stern school Principal. Her rockstar aunt is off on tour, and is largely absent from the action (which is okay by me) and Amelia is caught up in making new friends while reconnecting with old ones. The book whizzed quickly by, and I found myself weighing whether to show it to my kid, who is a little young for the series, but loved the earlier books. I am particularly hesitant as the author pushes the characters into darker territory -- nothing too harrowing, but more appropriate for older (tween-to-teen) readers. In literary terms, it's better than a lot of popular fiction for kids, although I did find the ending, in which the kids confront the sorrows of modern war, after one girl's father is lost in combat, to be a little maudlin and strained. It's an issue that does confront a lot of kids these days, but the scene didn't ring entirely true for me. Anyway, I was psyched to see a new Amelia Rules out, although in this volume the series does seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern. Looking forward to the next volume, and hoping there will be more forward growth ahead. (B+)

"American Born Chinese"
Written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang
(First Second Books, 2006)

A great one for older kids. This deft, fast-moving, semiautobiographical graphic novel is a multi-layered memoir in which an American-born Chinese man (Gene Luen Yang) examines his childhood as an Asian student in a white-dominated suburban school, bringing remarkable honesty and clarity to his inner struggles as he attempts to find himself and to assimilate. These goals are often at odds, and bookending the grade-school narrative is an enchanting retelling of the Chinese myth of the Monkey King (a symbol of potency and recklessness) and a parallel storyline about "Chin-Kee," a vicious amalgamation of centuries-old racial caricatures. The Chin-Kee character is both disturbing and laughable... Chin-Kee looks and talks funny -- buck-toothed, small, dressed a cartoonish "Asian" outfit, transposing his Ls and Rs, bowing low while lusting after "pletty" white women. That these stereotypes could persist to the current day is as surprising as the power they still hold. The Chin-Kee plotline is framed as a television sitcom (eerily similar to the CW's "Aliens In America") where an embarrassing Asian relative visits his white American cousin Danny and even attends his school, which shames the cousin and crushes his social life. It isn't until the end of the book, when Yang merges the three stories, that we realize that it is Danny who the narrator sees as an alter-ego, not Chin-Kee. Although this book has a strong sense of humor, Yang's exploration of ethnic identity, social pressure and self-loathing is powerful and rings true. He explores deep themes without hitting us over the head with a hammer -- this would be a great book to use in a classroom setting, and is sure to provoke good strong discussions. (A)

"The Amazing Spider-Man" -- see: Spider-Man

Archie Comics -- a short list

"The Astonishing Secret Of Awesome Man"
Written by Michael Chabon
Illustrated by Jake Parker
(Balzer & Bray, 2011)

This kids' picturebook started out as a series of bedtime stories told by author Michael Chabon to his son (...lucky kid!!) and was honed down to a crisp, captivating, clever narrative about a superdude with many awesome powers and many fabulous adventures. Chabon, whose novel "Kavalier And Clay" brought classic pulp/comicbook culture to a mainstream, highbrow audience, walks the walk in many ways -- he recently invested in a local comic shop -- and he knows how to write a fun super-story. This bright, cheerful book is full of good humor and hits a nice emotional tone, helped immensely by the bold, kinetic artwork, drenched in primary colors and dynamic lines of action. You can see the book's "hook" coming a mile away (who is Awesome Man??) but the obviousness is part of the fun, particularly for younger readers who love to guess the endings to short books like this. It's a fun book that many children can enjoy. On a minor aside, I would love to see Chabon write a regular comics series aimed at younger children, an audience sorely neglected by today's industry... I'm pretty sure he would do an Awesome job. (B+)

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