My latest series of children’s books brings together all my favourite things about comics. There are daft jokes and a great deal of silliness, but also action and adventure. Like all good superheroes, Squirrel Boy has a sidekick (although in his case it’s his 73-year-old neighbour, Mrs Onions), and there are some predictably despicable villains. (In the first book, the baddy is Jeremy Winkleman-Grubb, who, whenever he picks his nose, turns into The Bogeyman. Don’t ask.)
I’ve loved comics pretty much all my life, though I was a grown-up when I really got into the whole superhero thing. The comics I read as a child were The Beano, Whizzer & Chips, followed by Roy of the Rovers then a brilliant though short-lived comic called Oink! full of (from memory) daft comic strips and jokes about poo and farts. Aged 13 or 14, I moved on to illicit copis of Viz, bought for me by my mum (thanks, Mum). In my early-20s, a friend of mine lent me some dark Batman graphic novels and a collection of early Fantastic Four comics. I was hooked. They had me at ka-pow! Here are my favourite superhero books:
1. Max by Bob Graham
Bob Graham is one of our family’s firm favourites and, for my money, one of the best picture book writer/illustrators around. Max is the story of a not-so-superhero: a kid in a family of superheroes who finds it hard to live up to expectations. His mum and dad (aka Captain Lightning and Madam Thunderbolt) can’t wait for him to join them on their missions, but Max isn’t quite ready, and no amount of encouragement seems to help: until a baby bird needs rescuing, and our young hero saves the day. It’s funny and touching, beautifully illustrated, and teaches kids (and non-kids) the virtues of patience and persistence.
2. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda may not be most people’s idea of a superhero but, apart from the costume, she has all the other ingredients: an unhappy childhood, a secret superpower, a person (Miss Honey) to share her secret with, and a monstrous supervillain (Mrs Trunchbull) to battle against. One of the best things about having kids (other than constantly picking up Lego) is being able to revisit my childhood favourites with them, and Matilda may be my favourite of all.
3. Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
The "Captain Underpants" books (I think there are 11 to date) are not deep. They are, in fact, very, very silly. Very few lessons are learned. But my kids (and millions of others worldwide) really enjoy them. Captain Underpants is the alter-ego of the school principal, Mr Krupp: he turns into Captain Underpants whenever someone clicks their fingers, and only changes back when he’s soaked in water. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you should, I think, be able to judge a book by its title. One of the books is called: Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. And what self-respecting eight-year-old wouldn’t want to get stuck into that?
4. Powers by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
This and my next pick are not for kids, by the way. Not at all. The content is most definitely adult, but I chose them because they’re tremendous reads, whether you’re into superheroes or not. The books in the "Powers" series (there are 15) are great graphic novels, and more police procedurals than superhero stories. Think NYPD Blue with capes. Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim work in a special department investigating homicides involving superpowers. The dialogue is smart and funny, the pictures are incredible, and the whole thing scoots along at a cracking pace.
5. Watchmen by Dave Gibbons & Alan Moore
Since writing Squirrel Boy, I’ve been annoying people (family, friends, passers-by) by claiming that I’m now a graphic novelist. It sounds cool, and is kind of a-bit-true (the books do have great comic-style panels drawn by the wonderful Cate James, of Lollipop and Grandpa fame). But there are pretend-graphic-novelists (me), and there are geniuses (Alan Moore). Calling Watchmen a superhero book is like saying that Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy. It is, but it’s also so much more. If you read one superhero book as a grown-up, and you should – let it be Watchmen.
Squirrel Boy vs the Bogeyman by Dave Lowe is out now from Phoenix Yard Books for £5.99.