Are you a parent looking to encourage a love of reading in your child and introduce them to the madness that is DC Comics at the same time? Well, Scholastic Incorporated has your back. Well, sort of.
As part of the marketing push for Warner Brothers / DC Films’ slate of movies, Scholastic has introduced the “Backstories” line of illustrated biographies, which explore DC Comics’ most famous characters. Aimed at kids aged seven to twelve, the line launched earlier this year in the lead up to the theatrical release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with three titles: Wonder Woman: Amazon Warrior by Steve Korte; Batman: Gotham City’s Guardian by Mathew K. Manning; and Superman: The Man of Tomorrow by Daniel Wallace. With the approaching release of the Suicide Squad film in August, Scholastic has continued the line with the release of Harley Quinn: Wild Card by Liz Marsham, with further titles rumoured to be released later in the year.
Divorced from the overall context of DC Comics and the larger media machine the line is part of, the “Backstories” books are solid – if disposable – reads for young readers developing their literacy skills. Each book is written in a simple and direct style, with plenty of illustrations provided to break up the text and illustrate key points. Glossaries are provided to help young readers with words they may be unfamiliar with (including terms such as “aversion therapy,” “countertransference,” “codependency,” and “separation anxiety.” Have fun, parents!), along with indexes to help navigate back through the text. Indeed, as a general introduction to textual features found in biographies of real individuals, one could do worse than this line of books.
As biographies intended to introduce readers to the characters of DC Comics, however, the “Backstories” line is rather peculiar. Given that the release of the books thus far has been timed to promote the feature films released by Warner Brothers and DC Films, one would assume that the books are intended more or less as introductions to the current cinematic incarnations of these characters. That assumption, however, would be incorrect. Each book blends various versions of the characters together to create a rather odd synthesized history for each character, with scenes, visuals, and ideas swiped from the New 52, the current DC Cinematic Universe, Batman: The Animated Series, and both the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the DC Universe. The intent seems to be to have the books serve as primers for any version of DC continuity, but Heaven help the kid who reads these books and thinks they know all they need to dive into any incarnation of the DC Universe.
Manning’s Batman: Gotham City’s Guardian is arguably the best book of the bunch if your kid is looking for a primer on current DC Comics’ continuity. While the history is streamlined and simplified, the book covers a surprising amount of ground, including the history of all four Robins, while Steve Gordon’s illustrations are clearly modeled off of recent Batman artist Greg Capullo’s work. By contrast, Wallace’s Superman: The Man of Tomorrow is rather perplexing, presenting readers with a mishmash history that works on its own, but does nothing to prepare new readers for any particular incarnation of Superman. For example, it is neat that Wallace chose to include the Man of Steel’s time with the Legion of Superheroes as part of the narrative, but given how small a role the Legion of Superheroes has played in the New 52 continuity (and no role whatsoever in the Zack Snyder films), how does that information benefit a young reader looking to dive into what is being produced now?
Speaking of children, the choice of what story details from the comics and films are considered “child friendly” is rather inconsistent across the whole of the line. While none of the books are particularly graphic in their detailing of the darker and more violent parts of the histories of these characters, it is strange how Gotham City’s Guardian never shies away from mentioning violent events such as the murder of Jason Todd while The Man of Tomorrow makes no mention of Superman’s death and resurrection (which might have helped a kid or two who were devastated by the ending of Dawn of Justice). Likewise, Amazon Warrior for some reason brings up the time Wonder Woman saved Superman from being mind controlled by Maxwell Lord — a detail that is hardly important in the overall narrative of Wonder Woman as presented in the book — but sidesteps how that event ended with Wonder Woman snapping Maxwell Lord’s neck. In no way am I advocating for graphic, violent details to be featured in these books, but I can’t really make heads or tails as to just how it was decided what details were considered appropriate or inappropriate for inclusion.
Which brings us to Harley Quinn: Wild Card, easily the best book of the line thus far. Author Marsham has a thankless task in trying to detail Harley Quinn’s history in a manner appropriate for children, particularly given how deeply problematic her New 52 incarnation is and how kid unfriendly the upcoming Suicide Squad film — the very movie Wild Card has been released to tie into — seems to be. Amazingly, Marsham pulls it off better than could be reasonably expected. Blending together details from Batman: The Animated Series and toned down versions of key events from the New 52 continuity, Marsham carefully structures the narrative of Wild Card around Quinn learning to stand on her own by ditching the toxic influences in her life. If it sounds a bit reductive and moralistic for a character such as Quinn, that’s because it is. However, I find it difficult to be too hard on a book which makes an honest effort to be more than a simple cash-in product by taking on some more difficult subject matter in a way that is accessible to young readers.
So is the “Backstories” line worth bothering with? Overall, I’d have to say it depends on what your kids are looking for. As far as children’s literature goes, the line is not particularity impressive as a whole, but it isn’t awful either; certainly, as a superhero loving kid, I would have gone nuts for these books when I was younger. However, if your child is already a fairly strong reader, a DC fan, and/or is able to navigate Wikipedia with relative ease, there is little here that cannot be found elsewhere. For parents simply looking for some light superhero history to read to their youngest before bed though, the “Backstories” are solid enough to be worth your while.
Just be prepared to have an answer ready as to how Wonder Woman defeated Maxwell Lord and saved Superman, okay?
Korte, Steve. Wonder Woman: Amazon Warrior. 126 pages. Illustrated by Marcus To. Published by Scholastic Incorporated. 2016.
Manning, Mathew K. Batman: Gotham City’s Guardian. 128 pages. Illustrated by Steven Gordon. Published by Scholastic Incorporated. 2016.
Marsham, Liz. Harley Quinn: Wild Card. 127 pages. Illustrated by Patrick Spaziante. Published by Scholastic Incorporated. 2016.
Wallace, Daniel. Superman: The Man of Tomorrow. 128 pages. Illustrated Patrick Spaziante. Published by Scholastic Incorporated. 2016.