How do you solve a problem like Siobhan?

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Superheroes are for boys!

With these four words, my five year-old niece Siobhan cut right through my chest and pulled out my heart. She was so adamant when she said it, you’d think it had been on the news or something. Admittedly, five year-olds tend to be adamant about everything, from why the purple crayon is critical for coloring success to how mean little sisters can be. For a moment, though, I was crushed. This point-of-fact explanation about what was right for boys and for girls struck me harder than I would have expected, despite already hearing about princesses and ponies for hours on end. I love princesses and ponies, so it never occurred to me that the little girl standing in front of me wouldn’t like superheroes. I mean, she’s a human child, right? And we’re related?

As I am not a parent myself, I naturally take any grand pronouncement by a child more than 30 years my junior as a challenge to be met head-on. I get to go home or to my hotel if it ends in tears — for either party — so there’s no reason not to meet this crazy talk with a bit of moxie. It turns out though, “Nuh-Uh!” proclaimed over and over does not make for a compelling argument, especially when shouted by a gentleman pushing forty. I had to get organized, develop a strategy. This was war and I needed to marshal my troops. But just what was going to convince a little girl that superheroes can be for everyone? And more importantly, is it going to be something I can stand to read as well?

Age 5

I knew right away that I had to wow the kid. Nothing says “wow” quite like Art Balthazar and Franco. This magical creative team has produced many outstanding kid-friendly comic books, but none so unbelievably fun as Tiny Titans. Published as 50 monthly issues by DC Comics and collected in readily available softcover books, Tiny Titans features kid versions of practically every character to ever grace the pages of seminal superhero comic Teen Titans. Robin, Batgirl, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, Starfire and all their friends attend Sidekick City Elementary School, have short adventures, meet for play dates, and just generally have an awesome fun time. Full of gimmicks, puns and kooky jokes, Tiny Titans pulls out all the stops to entertain the kids but never forgets that adults are the ones buying the books for them. Whether the team inexplicably change into monkeys for an issue or just wear berets and round up penguins loose from the Batcave, there are hilarious antics in every story that will delight little girls (or boys) and grown-ups alike.

Tiny Titans

In fact, savvy comic book fans will find in-jokes peppered throughout the series, such as young Wonder Girl discovering her “secret orange.” Every issue introduces at least one additional hero to the cast, opening up a world of characters and possibilities for your little girl to fall in love with. As far as introductions to the world of superheroes go, I really don’t think one can do better. And for beginning readers, Art Balthazar also contributes to a series of DC Super Pets books that have already received rave reviews from more than one of my nieces. The plan is coming together well.

Age 8

Now we’re getting into less pliable territory, as I find it much more difficult to tell an eight year-old girl what to like and have them not just roll their eyes in response. “Why would I like what you like, Uncle Matt? You’re old. . . like twenty!” Torn between feeling flattered and devastated, I soldier on with a book that’s already been vetted by a kid.

Published by the Icon imprint at Marvel Comics, Takio is the brainchild of Powers creative team Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Oeming, with byline earning assist from Brian’s young daughter Olivia. Takio introduces Taki and Olivia, sisters in a blended race family with a single mother, who get super-powers after getting caught in a mysterious explosion. Olivia (age 7) immediately wants to don tights and become a superhero, while Taki (age 13) remains much more skeptical of their developing Kung Fu Telekinesis Yes, you read it. Kung Fu Telekinesis. Rising from this accident is also Taki’s best friend Kelly Sue, who seems destined to become an archenemy of sorts to the lead actors. What results from this brilliant casting is a book that sounds more real and honest to me than any other depiction of girls today.

Takio

Taki and Olivia are uniquely intelligent, conscientious (but adventurous) girls with the kind of hot/cold relationship that just rings true for sisters separated by six years. Oeming’s art style is attractively cartoony, yet succeeds in conveying real fear or glee with his characters’ expressions when necessary. Bendis never forgets that the girls are indeed children, but also never dumbs down their dialogue to what a kid “should sound like” to an adult. When this book debuted in 2011, I purchased multiple copies to give as gifts to pretty much anyone who likes good writing and would appreciate seeing girls kick ass without resorting to titillation. Reportedly, my eight year-old niece Leela devoured the book in one sitting upon receipt in the mail. I’m not sure any compliment I could give the book can measure up to that.

Age 11

Given the popularity of teen-centered dramas on television, especially among even younger tween girls, you would think books like Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane would be falling off the trucks on Wednesdays. Telling the tale of high school freshman Mary Jane Watson — famously known as Spider-Man’s girlfriend — from her own perspective, writer Sean McKeever crafts a story that would put any ABC Family show to shame. Mary Jane is smart, talented, happy at times, conflicted at others, and always making her own decisions about life, good and bad. Like many teen girls, Mary Jane has boy trouble, but McKeever is careful to never let the boys in her life define her, even the titular Spider-Man himself. She’s a free thinker, emotional and, in some instances, refreshingly raw. Crushing on Spider-Man isn’t about wanting to be a damsel in distress. Mary Jane sees someone out in the world pursuing a passion and mostly she just isn’t sure what hers is.

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane

Artist Takeshi Miyazawa beautifully conveys a quiet seriousness, even amid dialogue-heavy scenes, shedding light upon Mary Jane’s teenage façade. The bright and large-paneled pages reflect the extremes of adolescent emotion and reinforce just how hard-felt every experience is at that age. With no swearing, drugs, alcohol or sexual innuendo, this book is the perfect comic to slide under an eleven year-old girl’s slammed door without having to worry about sending the wrong message. Who knows? A book like this may inspire a lifetime of superhero love. And if it doesn’t, Mary Jane is still one shining example of what the comics medium can do to represent the complexity of young girls, even if they don’t dream about running around on rooftops in a mask and cape.

Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.

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