Children’s titles have been a vibrant sector within the comic book industry of late: in bookstores, on digital platforms, and even in comic book stores. And licensing plays a big role in bringing kids to the genre for the first time.

“Manga started opening doors for younger readers 10 to 15 years ago,” explained Terry Nantier, president and founder of Papercutz. The company publishes licensed titles that include Nancy Drew, Power Rangers, Annoying Orange, and Lego Ninjago, which has sold more than one million copies of four volumes. “Kids flocked to those sections in bookstores. That success gave us the inspiration to take it a step forward. We wanted to see if we could take pieces from manga, but bring in American properties like Nancy Drew and take it to a mass audience.”

“[The kids’ sector] will always be the smaller side of the industry, but it’s also growing all the time,” said Shannon Watters, editor at Boom! Studios. Boom!’s first all-ages comics were produced under a 2008 deal with Disney/Pixar, and it has since expanded into other properties including Adventure Time, Peanuts, and Garfield.

Kirsty Melville, president and publisher of Andrews McMeel’s book division, which launched AMP! Comics for Kids in May with a series of Big Nate compilations, echoed other publishers when she credited the success of comic-style books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Babymouse for spurring interest in the genre. “Wimpy Kid broke ground and lots have followed,” she said. “Retailers have seen the success and made more space.”

“Educators and librarians also have been instrumental in this trend,” Nantier added. “They have championed comics as a way to get kids to read.”

Digital distribution, embraced by children and their parents, has helped drive the kids’ sector as well. “That opened up the marketplace for us in a way,” said David Hedgecock, CEO of Ape Entertainment, publisher of all-ages titles for DreamWorks Animation and the mobile games Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope, among others.

Digital distribution is also an important channel for kids’ titles, with publishers reporting generally strong sales of iPad, Kindle, and other e-editions.

Licensing Leads the Way

“I can’t imagine any publisher in kids’ comic books launching a new book that had no brand awareness,” said Greg Goldstein, president of IDW Publishing. IDW’s roster of all-ages comics includes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and My Little Pony.

In kids’ comics, brand awareness typically means a TV, film, interactive, or toy license. “It helps to catch kids’ interest,” Nantier said. “They already know and love the property and, as long as we’re being true and faithful to the property and entertain them well, it brings them into the comics.”

“It’s less of a decision-making process and more of an ‘I want that’ impulse,” added Ashley Andersen Zantop, group publisher and general manager, Capstone Publishing. Capstone’s Young Readers unit sells hardbound editions of DC Comics to educational retail stores, as well as a variety of book formats based on DC Comics properties to book, comic, and mass retail outlets.

“Having a brand with momentum on TV and at retailers—such as Winx Club, which airs on Nickelodeon and has toys in major retailers from Target to Walgreens—is a huge help,” said Beth Kawasaki, senior editorial director, Viz Kids. Viz’s other licenses include Voltron Force and Mr. Men and Little Miss.

Licensing can lend creative benefits as well. “It’s a little easier to tell stories through the lens of storytelling that already exists in a TV show or videogame,” said Paul Kaminski, executive director, editorial, at Archie Comics, which has held the license for Sega’s Sonic for nearly 20 years, and added Capcom’s Mega Man two years ago. “You can move past a lot of exposition. The blanks are filled in by the kids, who are familiar with the character.”

Direct Market Rising

Most all-ages comics, licensed or otherwise, are distributed through bookstores and mass retail, in kid-friendly formats such as compilations, graphic novels, and digest-sized comics. Comic book shops can be more difficult. “Some comic book shops aren’t family friendly and aren’t an accessible point of entry for little kids anymore,” Goldstein said. “You have to search them out,” Hedgecock added. “They’re not on every corner.”

Despite that, the direct market is a growing channel for youth titles. “I love it when I walk into a comic shop like Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles and see a huge chunk of their floor dedicated to kids,” Kawasaki said. “The Beguiling in Toronto opened up Little Island Comics next to its flagship store and it’s all about children’s books, the majority of them comics and graphic novels.”

“We believe in the direct market, and in the comic book store as a gathering place,” Watters said, noting that titles such as Adventure Time do very well in this channel. “The all-ages comics are bringing people into direct market shops who aren’t going to be going into comic book shops otherwise.” Boom! typically publishes “floppy” comic books for the direct market first, later releasing compilations for the bookstore channel.

Papercutz focuses almost exclusively on trade formats, although it has done floppies for licenses such as the Hardy Boys and Tales from the Crypt. Nantier reported that business has been growing in comic book stores, especially for nostalgic properties. “The Smurfs did very well in the direct market,” he said.

Expanding Demographics

While a few publishers aim for a narrow target audience, such as Papercutz with its sweet spot of tweens, most are going after the all-ages market. “I don’t like putting things in age categories,” Hedgecock said. “With Fruit Ninja, we’re appealing to Fruit Ninja fans, no matter what age they are.”

In many cases, the diverse audience is reflected in a multitude of formats under one license. IDW offers Transformers Universe as the core program for that property, but also sells hybrid readers/comic books tied to the younger-skewing Transformers Prime TV show, digests for younger kids tied to the classic animated series, and other sub-brands and formats to satisfy fans of all ages.

Capturing the multilevel humor and themes of the original property also helps bring in all-ages audiences. Kawasaki noted that Voltron Force appeals to adult fans who grew up with Voltron, as well as to younger fans. “Viz is definitely aware of that and we often have some subtle and not-so-subtle winks and nods for those [older] readers,” she said.

Ape Entertainment is experimenting with a very young demographic under its new Sesame Street license, to debut next year. The publisher is being careful not to rush the development process, Hedgecock said. “We’ve done a lot of design work to make the comics as easy to read as possible for a five year old, with or without a parent.”

Even as comics are aging down, they also are increasingly targeting girls. Ape has several Strawberry Shortcake series, which sell out in the direct market; Papercutz is adding the female-skewing virtual world Stardoll to its roster of girls’ properties; and Viz Kids offers graphic novels based on Winx Club.

Goldstein reports that, out of all the titles IDW introduced at Comic-Con in July, “none got as good a reaction as My Little Pony,” which will launch in November. In a unique twist, the book will appeal not only to girls, he believes, but also to boys and young men—the latter known as “Bronies”—who watch the show on TV. “There’s a lot of crossover between the Bronies and comic book collectors,” Goldstein said, noting that they appreciate the TV series’ writing and sophisticated humor and were asking for Pony books. “Our goal is to really capture the spirit of the show in the comic book, to appeal to all the fans.”

Grooming Future Fans

Many licensed comics are paired with well-known writers and illustrators. Some have credibility in the indie comics world while others may have a connection to the original property. IDW has brought in Kevin Eastman, one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to write its new Turtles comics, while its Popeye books are being done in the style of the original artist and writer, Elzie Segar.

Boom!’s Adventure Time series is written by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. “Many of our creators have lots of really deep affection for these characters,” Watters said. “Bringing in writers from indie comics and Web comics elevates our licensed material to be a great comic book, not just a great licensed comic book. If you allow them to interpret the property in their own way, it makes for some really unique comics.”

Ian Flynn writes Archie Comics’ Mega Man and Sonic titles, as well as its original New Crusaders series. “The kids probably don’t know it, but industry legends are working on these titles,” Kaminski said. “They’re getting a great sampling of what American comic storytelling has to offer.”

A key mission of publishers of all-ages and kids’ comics is to create lifelong fans of the genre. “Ice Age on the shelf is probably going to grab kids if they already like the movie,” Watters said. “But we hope they also check out what else is in the store. For a lot of kids, this is their first exposure to comics, and once you fall in love, you’re hooked for life.”