I have been around for a bit, read my fair share of comics. One thing that I have discovered about comics is their fundamental confusion on what is appropriate and not appropriate. A lot of people read comics now. It’s not always about crafting a story that targets children or young adults. Vertigo is one of many mature comics publishers that now provides stronger themes and controversial subjects to their readership, which is primarily those that grew out of the Bronze Age and early-Modern Age of comic book stories. What we as creators can learn from this is that our options are open. We can make a comic for any audience. But making a comic for an all ages audience is by far the most difficult.
Thinking that an all ages comic is something akin to a PG rated film is a bit misleading. First, what determines whether or not a film is rated PG has changed with time. Splash has nudity clearly, but it’s rated PG. Maybe it was just 1984? Who knows… Second, I would also say that those who read comics have already been exposed to mature subjects from other comics, or are generally more keen on heavy subjects like death, crime, and human suffering. Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern is full of blood /gore and sexual elements, and it was a nationally syndicated DC title. So, what is acceptable to some isn’t to others. Thankfully, our market is open.
I’ve struggled with the prospects of doing an all ages comic. I go back and forth, but my main problem is considering how the story could change. I favor stories that are realistic, but not necessarily gritty. “Gritty” is an aesthetic that exalts the use of strong themes (violence, sex, language, etc) to execute a subversive story. While I enjoy Sin City’s film noir edge, there is not really much going on beneath the surface. One could say that the film is about corruption and the decay of urban institutions, but what is depicted relies upon cultural stereotypes. A story that is driven by realism, on the other hand, would depict a pedestrian hit and run because these things happen in the real world. Children watch people die every day, so sanitizing a comic from these themes is disingenuous. My emphasis focuses on the presentation.
Presenting violence is easy, as there are ways to depict death off panel, but it’s cool to be experimental when it comes to writing the panel descriptions. I like to use sound to depict death, by having a panel sequence be silent and without dialogue or sound effects. Using symbolic imagery is also great. The Walking Dead did a great job of this in the pilot episode by depicting a crow picking apart at some roadkill in the middle of a sweltering Georgian road. It showed the visceral quality of death using fairly sanitized visuals.
How to depict sex is a little different. I actually don’t fancy myself as a very skilled writer when it comes to sex. It was just never a topic that interested me. However, out of a need to depict it in my upcoming graphic novel, I tried to find ways to show the physicality of sex without actually needing my artist to draw it. I like silhouettes because they urge the imagination to work for what is happening in the scene. Also, younger readers who might stumble upon one of these pages won’t be immediately exposed to what is happening. Sound is also a good way of depicting sex without the use of crass imagery. I use environmental audio to depict sex in my writing, like squeaking furniture and fluttering of birds, to name a few.
I would say that Language is the easiest to handle. I just use jumbled specialty characters to illustrate “bleeps,” which I prefer to the actual language. Hearing someone say, “@#$# You!” is way more funny than actually reading, “Fuck You!” To me the elusive wording makes the usage of the language more powerful.
The main rule of thumb I say is to enjoy your writing when it comes to venturing into strong themes. If you don’t feel comfortable with writing particular beats, I would find other ways to depict them. Likewise, if you do enjoy this style of writing, always remember that you need to be aware of your audience’s taste. After all, you do want them to buy it, so be nice.