Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Days of Thrills and Laughter
The photograph above is taken from the excellent book Great British Comics by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury. It originally appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1943 and shows kids queuing for their comics outside a newsagent. British comics were so popular back then that due to wartime paper rationing supplies were limited and sold out quickly. Therefore the newsagent in question (and, no doubt others) sold them only at 9.30 on Saturday mornings, with eager kids forming long queues to buy the latest Champion, Dandy, Funny Wonder or any of the other classics of the era. As you can see, this was the high point of Saturday mornings for some children. Comics seemed essential back then.
How times have changed!
The recent news of falling circulations, particularly that of The Dandy, has brought forth lots of comment and speculation these past few weeks. Everyone has an opinion, from concerned comic fans, to experienced professionals, to a few ever-vindictive people on the periphery of comics. Some have focused mainly on content, accusing The Dandy of featuring "poor artwork", and they have that right to that opinion of course (just as others should have the right to contradict them without fear of venom). What they don't have a right to is making nasty, venomous personal comments about artists, and good on Jamie Smart for standing up to that attitude the other day. (Not that it did much good as it brought forth more bile from some quarters, but it also encouraged constructive criticism and positive comments about The Dandy so it was worth it.)
Naturally content does play a part in the popularity of a comic. When I was a kid I'd usually skip the strips I didn't like (eg: The Steel Commando) but there'd usually be something in there (eg: Adam Eterno) which kept me coming back for more. Obviously some kids and their parents will drop a comic completely if they dislike the strips, especially at today's prices. However we need to look at the bigger picture to appreciate that sales on practically every publication, comics, magazines or newspapers, have fallen over the years. Sales of Dandy and Beano have been falling since the 1950s! Clearly, there's more to the situation than modern art styles not appealing to some kids.
Sales of comic have been falling for decades. Some of today's critics forget that many of the titles they hold up as exemplary examples of How Comics Should Be Done didn't actually last very long. (Monster Fun, School Fun, Shiver & Shake, and Jag to name but four.) Proof, sadly, that a top quality product has never been a guarantee of success. In a perfect world it would be, but it isn't in reality.
The early comics, Illustrated Chips and Comic Cuts, ran for over sixty years before succumbing to changing trends in the 1950s. Some post-war titles had a longevity of 20+ years, such as Buster, Topper, Victor, Bunty, Whizzer & Chips etc. (With Eagle coming close at 19 years.) Many other comics only lasted for a few years tops, some only a few months. Talent was never a guarantee of success. Master craftsmen such as Eric Bradbury and Joe Colquhoun could be working on big sellers such as Lion (which ran for over 20 years), but also on failures such as Thunder and Jet (which ran for 22 weeks). A sobering thought for those who insist that "content is king".
That said, even comics that only ran for a few years, such as Oink!, were not considered complete failures. Over the decades, as sales continued to slide, a run of two to five years was considered a success. Publishers knew to lower their expectations, focusing on licensed comics for (hopefully) quick hits before moving onto the next fad.
So although content and art styles might play a part in a comic's fate, it's by no means the main reason. Here's a few other factors to consider:
For the kids in the photo at the top of this post, comics were pretty much the only provider of their escapism. Today, kids have a multitude of distractions; TV, DVD's, games, mobile phones, the Internet, sports centres, and, very often, solvent parents who can afford to take them on trips at weekends. Flat pictures on paper must seem very primitive in comparison. The more distractions kids have had, the more sales of comics have fallen. Coincidence?
A disturbing factor is the falling standard of literacy amongst children. This in itself is worthy of wider debate but it's bound to play a part in comic sales. Indeed, some UK comics themselves have become "younger" in tone to try and appeal to struggling readers but conversely this may have a negative effect in putting off better readers who consider such tactics "babyish". Ironically it could be argued that today's children need comics more than ever, as an entertaining stimulus to reading. (After all, I'm sure many of us advanced our reading abilities due to comics. I certainly did.)
Comics used to be approximately the same price as a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps. Today, that would mean a comic should be about 60p. Unfortunately they're between £1.50 and £3.99, an inevitable result of retail giants charging huge sums for shelf space and falling circulations causing higher unit price costs.
Originally, the standard format for comics (from about 1890 to the 1930s) was eight tabloid pages crammed with strips and text stories. Eventually the popularity of a smaller format such as the approx A4 size of Film Fun and the Dandy and Beano became the norm, with page counts increasing. (Then decreasing due to wartime paper rationing.) By the mid 1960s, the 32 page comic was becoming the norm. However that's hardly changed since. Perhaps 32 pages today seems too flimsy for kids? With graphic novels such as The Rainbow Orchid, the Cinebook line of Euro reprints and Manga proving popular perhaps books are the way forward, as they are in other countries?
Time was when comics were displayed flat on the newsagent's counter, beside the daily papers and right next to the til. A perfect position for "impulse purchases"; seeing something that catches your eye as you're at the counter, which you buy before you've had chance to change your mind. Over the years, positioning changed, with comics relegated to other parts of the shop. In the larger shops, such as Smiths or Asda, comics are often crammed into areas far too small to accommodate all the titles effectively. It's a viscous circle; falling sales have meant that shops give comics less priority, but giving them less priority means sales fall even more.
In 1960s and 1970s, with TV being the big rival of comics, it made sense for publishers to advertise their titles on television. With only two or three channels, and only one of those being a commercial channel, it was a fair bet that most kids in the country would see an ad for Sparky No1, or for the latest free gift in The Wizard. Even though only a percentage of those viewers would buy the comic, it was enough to allow publishers to justify the expense of TV advertising. Newspaper advertising was also often used, with ads for new titles taking up anything from a small corner box to a full page. (It helped that the Daily Mirror and Odhams were part of the same group, but D.C. Thomson also advertised Bunty in the Mirror.) A very effective way to grab the attention of parents. However, as sales of comics continued to fall in the 1980s, and print-runs decreased, it was no longer practical to pay for expensive TV and newspaper advertising. Therefore comics had to hope that in the main passing trade and word of mouth would be sufficient. Hardly reliable at all.
The standard frequency for British comics was almost always weekly, until a couple of decades ago. I remember a senior IPC editor in the early 1980s saying they would never even consider a monthly comic because a month seemed a long time for a child and the reader could easily forget about the comic in that time. However, due to falling circulations making weekly comics less economical, fortnightly and monthly frequencies replaced most of the weekly schedules. Publishers were damned either way; weeklies were too expensive to keep going, but monthlies carried the risk of losing reader loyalty. This may be another reason for The Dandy's falling sales since it went weekly; have children simply gotten out of the habit of a weekly comic fix?
The end of continued stories
One thing that used to hook the reader was the use of serial stories. The exciting cliff-hangers of comics such as Valiant, Tammy, and Lion were a great way to bring back those readers the following Saturday. Unfortunately continued stories tended to go out of favour somewhat, due to readers drifting between different titles. That said, Egmont's Sonic the Comic managed to keep the momentum going and proved to be a big hit for the company, as did Marvel UK's Transformers in the 1980s. Both were fortnightly comics. This proves that if it's managed well, with the right characters and creators, a serial comic can still attract loyal followers, even with 14 day gaps between episodes.
I know some fans think that publishers should just put out more product and experiment to see what sticks. If it was that simple, we'd see a return to the days of the 1960s/70s with new comics appearing all the time. Sadly, the retail system has changed. Today, publishers are more at the mercy of retail giants who are only interested in license-based comics and titles with cover mounts (or bagged toys). It really is a struggle to get a new comic off the ground, and extremely expensive. I wish those critics who heap scorn on the industry would try it themselves. (And I hope all of those critics will put their money where their mouth is and support Strip Magazine when it launches next month, - an original, non-licensed UK comic.)
The British attitude to comics
Unlike in France, where comics are regarded as the Ninth Art, the British have always regarded them as childish trash. The industry itself isn't blameless in this, as, for the most part, comics have been simple lowbrow entertainment for children produced to a factory system. That of course does not mean the content shouldn't be respected, (anything that cheers up a child should surely be praised) but most people in the UK don't give a damn about that. (A newsagent once questioned why I was always buying children's comics. I cheerfully told him I was one of the artists on the comics. His female assistant muttered "Why would anyone want to do THAT for a job?" as though it was akin to drowning kittens.) Over the decades, as less and less people in the UK read comics, respect for the medium falls even more.
Even though sales of American comics are also down, they still have a loyal fanbase which keeps hundreds of titles afloat. Fandom for British comics has never been as united, or as numerous. The UK industry itself is partly to blame for this because it never had anyone with the vision or editorial freedom of a Stan Lee to bring in the right mixture of characterization and sophistication with a united "universe" of comics. In Britain, comics mainly focused on comics for the very young, so there was nowhere for readers to go once they grew out of those comics... except towards the rival American comics. (There have been a few exceptions, such as Warrior and 2000AD, and the Marvel UK titles of course.) This was fine when children's comics were selling huge numbers, but once tastes began to change there was less to keep readers interested. Even British fandom is mainly an extension of American fandom, with conventions focusing mostly on US product because naturally most adult attendees are not interested in UK comics aimed at eight year olds. Subsequently fans of UK comics are often only interested in comics of their own nostalgia.
Need I say more?
Toys with free comics?
Years ago, free gifts in comics were a special treat. They'd accompany the first three issues of a new comic and then be given on rare occasions known then in the trade as "boom issues" (with a new look or new stories to boost its circulation). As sales slipped, free gifts became more frequent in the 1980s. Several years back, Lucky Bag Comic presented a comic and several gifts enclosed in a plastic bag. Initially it sold well, and soon other publishers were following suit. Today, practically every children's comic and magazine comes in a sealed plastic bag with an increasing number of plastic toys, cards, stickers etc. Publishers have found that a bagged comic sells better than one without, despite the fact that kids can't even browse through the comic before buying it, and despite prices often being higher depending on the number of "gifts"! (At least they no longer all them free gifts.)
That's why The Dandy's brave move of putting out a non-bagged, no-gift weekly should be respected. For all the parents who complained about "plastic tat" and comics costing over two quid The Dandy gives 100% comics for £1.50. Unfortunately it seems that kids today expect a gift with their comic so occasionally The Dandy has started to do gift issues again, often with extra pages, for a higher price. (Usually during school holiday periods.) Those issues appear to sell higher than average.
It seems you can't go back to the old days, so the only way is to go forward. Small press and independent comics are improving both in sales and quality but the big question is; where do commercial British comics go from here? Pessimists are predicting the end, but if the history of British comics tells us anything it's that comics adapt to survive.
To discover more about the rich history of British comics I thoroughly recommend the aforementioned book Great British Comics by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury. It's packed with examples of comics from over the past 100+ years with a well-researched commentary by the authors. It was published in 2006 but is still available from Amazon.
On his own blog, John Freeman has opened a forum regarding the Dandy situation: