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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The DFC: Dead, Folded, Cancelled?

Sad news just in: what was considered to be Britain's brightest hope for the future of UK comics, The DFC, is up for sale and faces imminent closure if it can't find a buyer by the end of the month.

Launched amidst a blaze of media publicity in May of 2008, The DFC aimed to revive the weekly humour / adventure variety comic. It was a "proper comic" too; 36 pages of strips, with no DVD reviews, toy promos, or any of the other magazine material that has elbowed out comic strips in most children's titles. Just solid, well told, well drawn strips.
There was a little bit of "reinventing the wheel" type hyperbole from a few creators who didn't seem to know that anthology comics had existed in the past, or that comedy-adventure serials had already been done in British comics, from Harris Tweed to Combat Colin, but it was hard to fault their enthusiasm and top notch talent.

Publisher David Fickling, backed by Random House, intended to bring British children's comics back to basics, but with a modern twist, and in that respect they succeeded. The DFC refused to be yet another Beano or Toxic clone and established its own unique identity, allowing a wide variety of artistic styles to grace its pages. The result was a colourful, lively, and intelligent comic that many children eagerly looked forward to every Friday.

Philippa Dickinson, MD of Random House Children's Publishing, said: “We are very proud of the DFC and the reaction it received from families, schools and especially the children who have enjoyed reading it. It is an innovative concept which we have been very happy to back. There can be no successes without taking risks, after all. Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, we have decided that the DFC is not commercially viable within our organisation."

“David Fickling, the staff at the DFC, and all the comic’s contributors have worked tirelessly to produce what is an amazing weekly publication and we would be delighted if a buyer could be found who would like to take the DFC on as a going concern”

If no buyer is found, the title will close on March 27th.

So what went wrong?

Admirably, The DFC ignored the standard retail trade and its ever-expanding shelf-rent fees, in order to focus solely on reaching readers by subscription-only. Fantastic, if you can reach enough readers. Prior to, and during, its publication, The DFC was promoted via the pull out "The Comic" section in The Guardian on Saturdays. Perhaps this made The DFC's readership potential too limiting, particularly amongst the percentage of Guardian readers who are not parents?

Limited to just one avenue of distribution it was imperative that the subscription method should work. Sadly it was not infallible. I haven't mentioned this online before because I didn't want to jeopardise The DFC's chances, but as a subscriber I experienced problems several times with missing issues. The first 25 issues were impressively bang on time, every Friday morning. After that, things started to go wrong, with renewals not starting with the issues they should have, copies missing, and subscription confirmation emails not arriving. Other subscribers I've spoken to experienced similar problems, which makes me wonder just how widespread this problem was and how many subscribers it cost them.

I would have been happy to support The DFC every issue, but when too many glitches started hitting the subs, and the momentum of the serials was lost, I decided enough was enough. The final straw was the "four issue" promo over Christmas that only delivered three issues, to me at any rate. I gave up on the comic after that.

The quality of The DFC's material was very high, and it was great to see such a diverse range of strips in one comic. Although at times I felt the material was a bit too diverse. For example, having a joyfully innocent strip such as Vern and Lettuce and a dark, creepy strip such as Mezolith in the same comic made The DFC a tad schizophrenic.

One thing we learned from Oink!, and its mixture of traditional slapstick with knowing satire, was that it's downfall was partly because it fell between too stools. Although variety in a comic is good, and having humour and adventure strips in one comic can obviously work, (see numerous comics of the past), it's important to establish the same tone throughout a children's comic. Otherwise you end up with the younger readers being put off by the more sophisticated material, and the older readers finding the younger stuff too "babyish". (This is the same problem that footie comic Striker found a few years ago, with classic children's strip Billy's Boots reprinted alongside new pin ups of topless CGI models. Who exactly were they aiming at?)

I'm sure there were readers who enjoyed everything, but on the whole kids tend to like some consistency of tone throughout a comic. On their own merits all the strips in The DFC were absolutely brilliant, but perhaps they didn't sit well under one roof as it were.

In case this is perceived as kicking the comic when it's down I'd like to emphasize that I have the greatest respect for all the contributors, several of whom are friends of mine, and all of whom were clearly at the top of their game and having a ball with their work.

The DFC was a noble, unique comic that I'm sure would have worked if more kids had seen it! It'll be fondly remembered by its readers, and rightfully regarded with pride by its contributors. Sadly, its cancellation is likely to discourage other publishers from trying new comics. However those publishers should bear in mind that it wasn't the material that killed the comic, it was simply that it didn't reach enough readers. The subscription-only method was always going to be risky. Asking a parent to commit to a £30 (or more) subscription for a new unfamiliar comic was asking for a lot of faith.

Unless The DFC finds a buyer things look bleak for the title, but the talent and enthusiasm is still out there. Next month, on April 1st, (no joke!), boys mag Toxic gives away a free 16 page Crazy Comics supplement featuring brand new humour strips. It's just a one-off special, but it proves that in the ongoing history of British comics you never know what's coming next.


Dave Shelton said...

Cheers, Lew.

Garen said...

Yes - good write-up.

Anonymous said...

Gosh. I always thought the business model was a dreadful one, but some part of me assumed they knew what they were doing. I'm sad to discover that they didn't. Any idea what sort of price they're asking for?

John Freeman said...

A good analysis Lew. The subscription problems you faced are the kind of thing that can kill any publication and it's the sort of thing we as creators aren't necessarily aware of when we see a title in trouble. Of course, I imagine subs would have been hauled by a third party, I doubt Random House would have set up a subs house specifically to deal with DFC mail outs: and from past experience, we know some of these subs houses are better than others.

Lew Stringer said...

No idea Tom. Perhaps we'll see David Fickling on Dragon's Den.

Peter Gray said...

i had some issues missing in the subscription as house number was wrong it was later found out...when they send replacements I got the same issue I already had..
which made me stop buying..But then I tried again mostly to see Jamie and Laura's work as I found the adventure stories boring at the time...

DFC adventure stories got 100x better from the Christmas issue onwards...quite strong stuff..clever ideas..and quite nightmareish..But I liked it..
So I really hope they find a new buyer soon..hope DFC can has got better..

Matt Buck said...

Hello Lew,
Thanks for the thoughtful piece on a sad story, although perhaps a small miracle will occur and someone will rescue it yet. We'll link to your piece on Bloghorn in the morning.
Matt Buck
Bloghorn for the Professional Cartoonists Organisation

Emsie said...

Thanks, Lew - it's sad news indeed.

Mark Roberts said...

Sad news. Although, I suppose, not exactly surprising.

I actually hadn't heard of The DFC until BICS last year. Granted, I'm not of the demographic which the book was aimed at, but I do think it was a noble endeavour. The problem I always saw was not in terms of the quality (I have seen a couple of copies, and the production quality look good) but in the circulation.

It's almost needless to say it, but if you don't put your book out on a shelf it cuts out a lot of prospective purchases. The DFC was effectively relying on word of mouth to increase its subscribers. But it didn't seem to know quite where it needed to spread it. I agree with Lew's comments on the Guardian pull out. Limiting? Yes. It's the Kids' attention you need to grab.

A great shame, because like I say the content seemed good. Certainly a vast improvement on the lack of content provided by its competitors. It really wasn't given the kind of airing it perhaps deserved.

Anonymous said...

This has got me off my arse and finally getting back issues, which is the only positive thing I can take from the story. All ages, totally original, and creator owned - we needed this to succeed, and influence other comics (especially the creator-owned part).

Rol said...

I really wanted to support this comic from the first issue, but by the time I tried to subscribe I was told my subscription would start with #2 - and there was no way to get hold of issue #1 once I'd missed that window. As a result, I gave up. Missing the first issue might not have matter to younger, non-comic reading audiences... but to die-hard collectors, I think that's a big turn off.

Piley said...

Very sorry to read this Steve. Have been in there from the start, and as a 40-something thought it was a realy gem. Was hoping to introduce my son when he was old enough, but alas it looks unlikely now... only as a piece of history will he now find out about those stories.

It all seemed so promising too... my subscription number was over 48,000, but i'm guessing that maybe a significant amount of those 6 month subscriptions didn't get re-newed in these 'credit crunch' days.

I don't think a take over looks promising either. It's obviously not taking the money it needs, so who is going to be interested in taking on that... don't supose there are going to be many charity cases taking it on for the good of the kiddies either.

DFC? Done For Comic?? I hope not, but it looks that way. Shame.


Lew Stringer said...

Hi Piley,
Who's Steve?

If The DFC had 48,000 subscribers it wouldn't have any problems. The actual figures were much lower than that.

barnaby gunning said...

save the DFC!

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