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At Little Island Comics, they’re giving superheroes back to the kids

There's a new little store in the Annex where Spiderman and his fellow leotard-clad superhero friends can take a break from the hard, dark times of the last 40 years.

Life has not been easy for our heroes, nor for younger readers.

There was the drug overdose of Spiderman's friend in the early 1970s, followed by, at the end of the decade, the alcoholism suffered by Iron Man.

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The 1980s got even darker, with sexual violence in the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, and all the progressively adult mayhem that has happened since. In a matter of decades, the comic book industry had all but jettisoned its youngest fans.

"There is a sense that comics were aging with their audience and had been for a generation," said Peter Birkemoe, owner of the long-established comic store The Beguiling, just around the corner from Honest Ed's. "Comics were no longer catering to that evergreen, male adolescent market, but to an arrested adolescent market that was just getting older."

"I think there was a feeling [within the industry] that they were losing traction with children to television and other things, but that they were not losing traction to this core of middle-aged men who wished they were still 12," he said.

Enter Little Island Comics, a few steps away from The Beguiling on Bathurst, just south of Bloor.

Far brighter and more approachable for young children than The Beguiling, Little Island Comics is billed as North America's first comic shop specifically for kids.

It fills an obvious need, as any parent with a young superhero fan knows.

Even as regular comic titles continue to trot out mature storylines, and Hollywood remains unable to conceive a superhero film without dystopian darkness, the industry has nevertheless been swinging back to younger fans with cheerier versions of the familiar superheroes.

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Some stories, like the print versions of the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Teen Titans, appear in regular comic-book format. The shop even has them stacked in a vintages spinning Gold Key Comics wire stand, which aficionados of old comics will appreciate. And on the shelves are paperback anthologies of these series.

At the same time, other non-traditional comic publishers have been introducing a wide selection of kids' graphic novels, from the silly space misadventures of Kaput & Zösky to the tween-oriented Smile,which, despite its almost manga-like drawings, touches on the serious social trauma of getting braces.

Many parents will undoubtedly see this repositioning as targeting the rightful market for comics.

"On a certain level, it's ridiculous to be telling adult stories with these [superhero characters]," Mr. Birkemoe acknowledged. "However, we are now in a period of a complete renaissance of publishing comics … for children."

One theory is that even middle-aged fanboys are having kids and want to introduce their children to the pleasure of comics. Comic books are also great reading tools for children, a fact which educators have come around to. Much of Mr. Birkemoe's business involves supplying and advising teachers and librarians on titles.

"People are focusing on how well-suited this medium is to children who are learning how to read, or perhaps learning English for the first time. People who are usually involved with young readers, like teachers, school librarians and parents, are sort of waking up to the fact that comics are perfectly suited for this," he said.

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Rowan Davidson, 10, who was browsing through the shelves, fits the bill. His interest in comics and graphic novels started with the popular Bone series of comic-fantasy graphic novels. "He was a totally reluctant reader, then he picked up the Bone book and read half of it in the bookstore. And then from there on, he was a happy reader," said his mom, Jennifer Turner, who used to shop with her son at The Beguiling.

"Some of the grown-up ones are not as funny, but they are kind of cool," her son said. Among the various kids' titles he likes is Amulet, a science-fiction/fantasy series about kid resistance fighters.

"Things have really started to shift back. And so many of the people who are involved with the industry creatively – the people who produce these comics – are producing, in part, in reaction to this absence of kids' comics," Mr. Birkemoe said.

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Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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