Everyone knows that what kids these days crave is a heaping helping of continuity in-jokes. Obscure, off-hand references to Bendis-birthed secret societies, Gwen Stacy’s death, or multi-hued Hulks — lord knows, five year olds love that kind of stuff, right?

The answer, oddly enough is — yeah, they do, at least in this case. Chris Giarrusso’s Mini-Marvels volumes prove that an inventive artist can make even the worst ideas work. Where most other Marvel all ages titles (the Marvel Adventures books or Franklin Richards) studiously avoid the continuity quagmire, Giarrusso and his collaborators happily frolic in the quaggiest bits. Uatu pops up for a gratuitous single-panel gag (“Wha? Me change a diaper? Dude I don’t even want to watch!” See, that’s funny because Uatu is called the watcher, and he spends all his time watching so…oh, never mind.) A whole short story is devoted to the fact that Thor was replaced with a clone (which is funny I think because there was a Thor-clone in the Civil Wars mini-series?) And so forth. Mini-Marvels is, in a lot of ways, the great grandnephew of Fred Hembeck. It’s affectionate, insider parody, delighting in meta-geek mockery of geekishness. It’s a kid-friendly version of Marvel Zombies — just another example of the self-cannibalizing decadence that has consumed the super-hero genre.

Except, as it turns out, when you make your decadence kid-friendly, it kind of stops looking like decadence. Super-hero zombies are a mannered affectation for the jaded palate. Super-heroes as big-headed, manga-looking kids though — that makes the characters more accessible, not less. I mean, awww, look, little Venom has a single square tooth sticking out of his mouth! That’s just adorable.

I think mini-Venom is probably my son’s favorite character in the book, as it happens, and he really highlights Giarrusso’s talent for finding the Marvel heroes and villains core appeal, cutting out the icky bits, and serving up an all ages version that is superior to the original in almost every way. Giarrusso’s Venom isn’t a slavering, violent, scary monster for teens and up. Rather, he’s a slavering, largely harmless monster who keeps repeating “I want to eat your brains!” Over and over. And let me tell you, my son loved it. Half a day and all he said was “I want to eat your brains!”

But despite its bad influence, I still like Mini-Marvels. I like the way Giarrusso and his collaborators are able to take a single goofy fan-scruff notion (“Why doesn’t Iron Man make suits of armor for all the Avengers?) and spin them out into absurdly escalating nonsense (Spider-Man’s armor doesn’t have jet boots, because, Iron Man explains, spiders can’t fly. But, Spider-Man points out, in some irritation, people can’t fly either. “They do when they’re wearing one of my suits of armor!” Iron Man replies.) I like how the books mix in simple, intuitive plots (Wolverine goes to buy a box of cereal) with the multi-part Civil War parody/tributes. I like that Reed Richards’ hair is still greying even though he’s, like 10, and I like the fact that there’s an extra-bonus Avenger named Elephant Steve and that Peter Parker wears his costume all the time, even at breakfast in his house, but that Aunt May still doesn’t realize that he’s Spider-Man. And most of all I like that though all of this stuff is based on what is presumably a life-long obsession with Marvel continuity, you don’t actually have to know anything about the continuity itself to find it funny. Hawkeye climbing a magic beanstalk and finding Galactus at the top of it is amusing whether or not you know who Galactus is; Elephant Steve is funny even if you don’t know he’s not really supposed to be an Avenger. Giarrusso has done the seemingly impossible; he’s created an alternate world where initiates and newcomers alike can appreciate the Byzantine monstrosity that is the Marvel Universe. In fact, if you didn’t know better, reading these books might even convince you that super-heroes were created for kids in the first place.

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This is the first post in a roundtable on kids comics, which will be running throughout this week. second post here.

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