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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?

Falling literacy
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.

Changing Habits
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.

Retail attitudes
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.

The recession
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.

UPDATE 16/9/2011:
On his own blog, John Freeman has opened a forum regarding the Dandy situation:


Unknown said...

Fantastic post! It's so great to see a thoughtful, balanced look at the current state of comics. I'm in Canada but these issues are industry wide. Especially as I do kids comics.

Darrell said...

I think pretty much everything you said is spot on, Lew. In short, times have changed. The internet has had a huge effect on so many businesses and industries and there seems no sure way of coming out on top. Just as corner shops are being slowly phased out by supermarkets, the printed page is being superceded by online reading matter. I know you highlighted a lot of areas of change and not just the www revolution, but technology is certainly at the root of most of it. For example, a link between literacy and 'text-speak' is accepted by most people!

The comic industry could learn lessons from the parallel experience of the music industry. In the late 1990s, when most people didn’t know what an mp3 was, a number of technology-savvy artistes made recommendations to the major labels that they create a kind of ‘online jukebox’. In other words, they foresaw that this emerging technology could change the way their art was sold and wanted to try and lead the revolution. The idea was rejected across the board as CD sales made them far too much money and they were not interested in anything that made them less. The industry then spent most of the decade that followed complaining about falling sales, file sharing, copyright theft and trying to scare its own customer base with threats of legal action. It came off looking like a bit of a giant money-grabbing git, so no wonder most people that once supported it now sided with the pirates!

Incredibly, and against my own predictions (just in case I am coming off as a know-it-all here), the industry seems to have settled down and found ways to actually make money again through online ventures like iTunes; and more regrettably by branching into the wider “entertainment” medium with tawdry talent shows as a cover to sell music.

If only the comic industry could find a way to accept the changes being forced upon them, switch to a new sales model and actually make money! I don’t claim to know what the answer is, but I do think that if the music industry had been less stubborn to accept change it could have led the revolution instead of chasing it.

Lew Stringer said...

Some excellent points there Darrell. I suppose it's a time of sink or swim. Commando now has online editions, and in America DC have all their titles on sale digitally the same day as in shops, so I'm sure something similar will happen to other comics, sooner or later.

OxfordDickie said...

What can i say? Superb!

I remember when Whizzzer and Chips came out, it had a feel to it, read every issue, along with the Beano.

Was it just a great collection of characters? or something else. I don't know, but i remember looking at some comics and just putting them down.

The same goes today. You do appear to champion The Dandy, and in it's day it was good, but not quite as good as the Beano.

Today i think it's dreadful.

But on the other hand i feel The Beano has some of it's magic returning, and actually enjoy it.

Sad to see comics go the way they are, but it's the same with other childhood hobbies, like building kits. Most kids nowadays wouldn't have a clue what to do if they had an Airfix kit dropped in front of them. They'd probably say it was broken LOL

I love this blog, will link to it from mine. Keep up the good work.

Lew Stringer said...

The following comment came from someone who used an alias that would undoubtedly inflame a certain critic had I published it. However, I thought his comments were sound so here they are:

From (censored):

"There was also 'Goody-Bag Mag' that DC Thomson published, but it ceased that title some months ago. By all accounts it was selling well, but they still closed it. It's hard to interpret what is considered successful when that happens.

The Dandy is safe. But we don't want to be laughing at it for the wrong reasons. We'll just have to see what they do next.

My hope is that they make it cheaper, £1, have front covers similar to The Beano (big illustrations), and have a lead character that kids can associate with. An anti-Dennis, so to speak. And bring back the rivalry.

Maybe not a formula for success for some, but at least its an idea."

Thanks for your thoughts. (You're always welcome but please use a non-inflammatory alias, or better still your own name, in future.) I don't think they could make The Beano or Dandy any cheaper, but I like your idea of a new lead character. I suppose they had that with Jak, in 2004's revamp, but he never really caught on presumably.

Lew Stringer said...

@OxfordDickie, Personally I always preferred The Dandy when I was a child because it had more variety of styles, but each to his own of course. (Most kids preferred The Beano, and still do. Perhaps that unified Beanotown aspect has a lot to do with it?)

Your comment about Airfix models made me laugh. :)

OxfordDickie said...

By the way, just ordered the book, thanks for the tip

Retail Sexism said...

Well put, Lew. I know it's not really your field, but how much of this applies to newspaper strips as well? I recall Guardian readers (successfully) demanded a reversal of the removal of Doonesbury a while ago. In fact, it was only a couple of weeks ago Tom Tomorrow used his strip to rant about the situation facing artists who rely on syndication -

Interesting that the longest surviving examples of serialised comics - Sonic & Transformers - were based on solid franchises from outside of comics rather than completely original content. I was very fond of these publications, in spite of being fairly indifferent to the Sonic franchise itself; I knew a good story when I saw it.

I have to admit to being guilty of not supporting comics as much as I'd like to. I even stopped reading my beloved Viz (sorry, Lew) as benefit cuts and rising living costs made it increasingly difficult to keep it out of the 'optional luxuries' list. I have to admit, the easy availability of content online - be it free webcomics or the content gift economies on blogs, deviantart, 4chan etc - raises serious questions about how long we'll have professional full-time comic artists as opposed to hobbyists.

And that's before we get into the dark area of torrents and mediafire. One of my favourite Manga, The Guyver, no longer has an English translation, and none of the stockists near me can even get the versions that are printed. My options here are fan-translated downloads that technically fall on the wrong side of IP law, or nothing. I'm certainly not advocating the willy-nilly piracy of content that is the basis of the creator's livelihood, but in cases such as this it's very difficult to find a practical way to pay in to support the artist.

Related to that, perhaps, would be Radiohead releasing In Rainbows on pay-what-you-want. Wasn't a disaster for them, but then they'd already got a very solid brand and fanbase, and there's on so much you can generalise from that medium to comics. (Though the iPad and similar systems seem promising.)

Perhaps the answer might lie in stuff like the Arts Council. Comics are as much a part of cultural heritage as theatre, pottery et al; maybe a lifeline for the medium might lie in the establishment leading the way in a greater social recognition of its value in promoting literacy, imagination, storytelling and draftsmanship; pushing a Continental attitude to comics against the market forces threatening to batter the medium to a pulp.

As an aside - I was a regular Beano & Dandy reader, but always preferred the Fleetway family's reprint stuff like Funny Fortnightly and Big Comic. I guess they had a darker and more 'proletarian' feel to them, with stuff like the Swots and the Blots and Store Wars quite blatantly promoting class warfare :D

Simon said...

Have to agree with Darrell - if publishers put the complete archive of their comics online and charged a subscription fee enabling full access to every past and ongoing issue of, say, Dandy or Buster, their sales would go up - kids and adults would love that. Comics should also make more of their unique humor - what's special about British comics is often what's special about British humor, and, Harry Hill aside, the comics could ask the comedians to campaign on their behalf... Also, it's true comics adapt - just look at DC sales this week in the US! In the hundreds of thousands...

spleenal said...

Very cogent of you Lew.

With the literacy point I always question if that's a proper fact or a daily mail "stat."
I know as a father of two boys entertainment comes to children so easily with 24 hour cartoon channels, x-box and DS etc.
It seems to me kids can read, but that takes so much more effort compared to everything else.

"Read!?! What, with my own eyes!?!"

Lew Stringer said...

Falling literacy does seem to be true unfortunately, according to that link I provided.

Lew Stringer said...

Hi Lindsay, Newspaper strips have been on the decline for years too, with editorial budget being cut. Cartoons in papers have mostly vanished also.

OxfordDickie said...

Stephen has a great idea. The chance to re-read the Beano (and others) from the past on-line would be great.

Wonder if they've ever thought about offereing such a service?

Peter Gray said...

I think the lack of good reading in junior comics with good drawings is also a factor...bring back Little Star type..Pippin..Playhour..etc..
Get young kids and adults used to comics earlier..instead of a jump to The Beano and Dandy..Marvel DC etc..

Also no girl comics which is a shame..

the lack of competiton for DC Thomson from Fleetway etc..

Lew you have covered some very good points..

Anonymous said...

OK, here’s my comments on the factors listed on the post, not that anyone cares, but just my two cents:


Actually, the advent of film didn’t kill theater, nor the advent of TV killed film. Each medium caters to it’s own audience (heck, isn’t that a radio term?), but are also non-exclusive, so anyone who can enjoy an episode of “Life on Mars” can enjoy The Dandy. The pie isn’t smaller, but more DIVERSE…

Falling literacy

Indeed. What better tool than comics to teach kids how to read?


That and the fact print is actually large chunks of dead trees and ink. Digital comics are perfectly cheap and on the Internet most are free as well.


Thick comics with a spine (called graphic novels, as a way to get into book retail) seemed to be the way into reaching larger audiences years ago, but recession killed that. Books won’t go away by any means, but it seems like the whole market is obsolete, from production, to distribution, to sales.


Again, you should be mighty thankful comics are still found on regular shops… that isn’t the case in about 98% of the World.


Word of mouth is a very valid form of promotion, but I don’t see any publisher investing millions of ponds on TV ads, unless sales are incredibly good from starters.

Changing Habits

Again, you have no idea how lucky you are to have weekly comics in the UK, and comics that are actually well geared towards children to boot!

The end of continued stories

I’m not so sure about that…

Retail attitudes

Comics on PAPER might be expensive, digital comics on the other hand…
Again, there’s nothing wrong with comics based on licensed properties from TV, etc. They drew ME to comics as a child, and they might draw other kids as well!!!

The British attitude to comics

HA! I’ve never been to France, but if you think that’s a UK-only attitude, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
I also think being disregarded as disposable, childish entertainment has it’s benefits, and it’s made every one of us warriors of the trade, rather than self-indulging prima donnas!


If a publisher aims only at a hardcore fanbase (like US superhero publishers do), the business is dead before it begins. American comics continue to survive within an aging fanboy-run/fanboy-sold bubble market, but the reality of it is just sad, and I’ll pick DC Thomson over DC Comics anytime!

The recession


Toys with free comics?

Heck, I LOVE comics that come with free toys!!! Wish i saw more of those down here in Chile!

Lew Stringer said...

Fair points Diego.

What I meant re the fanbase one was not that we should mimic the US exactly but there wasn't really anything to keep readers interested in a unified way. We needed an editor with the same freedom Stan Lee had to modernize UK comics. Something that made readers really feel part of the scene. 2000AD is the closest thing we had like that, and was successful, but comics that followed usually went back to the same old approach.

Anonymous said...

You're right Lew, though i see the MAD magazine gang and later the 1960's underground movement lead by Crumb as the true modernizers of comics rather than Mr.Lee... In any case, what's modern and groundbreaking one day, becomes a "classic" some time later.

The way i see it, best we can do is give our work the very best, but adapt to changes when life demands it.
Bottomline here is, if we're thankful for what we do have at present moment (present = gift) , and capable of taking a few steps back to look at the future with true perspective, things won't seem so terrible.

Bob said...

I agree with you on pretty muche every point except, Falling literacy standards which I find unbelievable also the continuing stories that would put me off comics more than anything. Cos you'd be starting reading something whilst straight in the middle of the story. Back when I was a kid, 5 years ago, what i liked in comics (or at least i think i did but i wouldnt be consdered the average comic reader) was busy scenes, cartoon violence, toilet humour and i absolutely hated adventure stories but i did buy a spiderman comic on holiday once. holidays were pretty much the only time i ever bought a comic that wasnt the Beano mainly cos i actually had access to a shop then. But I loved Classics from the comics and got into it mainly by reading my dad's old Beano annuals which i either found at my granny's or he gave me after i saw a promotion for the Beano on a packet of crisps. I think i've drifted far from my original point but the new dandy is alright i guess but i preferred the Beano growing up only ever bought a couple of issues of the dandy as a kid and my fave bit was Puss n Boots. Also maybe books is the way forward cos the annuals and such still sell well. Also are any of the old dandys or beanos in the public domain yet they shud put em all online I would pay to see that but that wuddnt be good for da kids, only nostalgic adults and curious people, because of changing attitudes and stuff which are really noticeable in old comics and they cant get away with today even though i did like old beano annuals from eons ago when i was kid got that facsimile beano annual 1940 when i must hav been 11 and loved it even if it was a bit dodgy in its racial caricatures but i noticed that and didnt really care. I have drifted off my original point again but erm the dandy's still good better than the Xtreme at least.

Bob again said...

I think the real problem for the Dandy is the lack of any real popular characters like The Beano has Desperate Dan and Korky the Cat are alot less recognisable and popular than say Dennis the menace and The Bash Street Kids. If i were the Dandy editor i'd make the comic fornightly and bump up the page count with some reprints, which is a good way to cut costs and what the Beano does and very few notice if the reprints are old enough but i have noticed some of the beano's reprints only because they're from comics i have and im not the average reader. Reprints might be a bit dishonest but i dubt the readership will care or even notice which sounds a bit ha ha kids are dumb but I rarely notice reprints or are bothered by then.

Anonymous said...

Newspaper and magazine sales are also falling off the edge of a cliff at the moment.

It's a bigger issue than just comics, a wider view needs to be taken.

I personally feel that ALL types of publications - not just comics - need to get to grips with the new technology, get over their problems with piracy and figure out how to profit from the new opportunities that are out there.

Anonymous said...

On a further note, when i look at British comics i see a wide range of fun, creative, colorful publications, filled with fun toys, and widely sold across retail stores, supermarkets, comic shops, at fairly reasonable prizes. Sure every industry has it's shortcomings, but do they really need to sell in the millions to be successful? The fact the Dandy has reinvented itself almost from scratch is a victory in itself. The fact The Beano has been read by generations of people in the UK, passed on from father to child another! The UK edition of WWE Kids mag comes out almost twice a month, while its American counterpart barely does so every two months! And i could go on, but i'm sure you're better informed than i do... i say let's be thankful for what we got :)

Lew Stringer said...

Good points again Diego. Also thanks for letting me know that comics aren't widely available on newsstands in some countries. I knew this was the case in the USA but always thought other countries had them on the High Street. (They did in various countries I've visited but that has probably changed over the years.)

I know Norway has a thriving comics industry with comics in shops and booths, - or at least they did last time I was there eight years ago. For such a small country their attitude to comics is great.

Kimota said...

Excellent post. And you're right - Paul Gravett's book is essential.

I've been aware of the literacy issue for a while and for those who doubt, the evidence can be found within comics themselves.

I collect UK comics and story papers all the way back to Ally Sloper in the 1880s. Not long ago, I assessed the language used in one of those early papers (a copy of The Gem from 1921), using the standard Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The results showed that these early storypapers - intended for kids of about 10-12, required a reading level by today's standards equivalent to a university education! My favourite example remains:

"With that monosyllabic rejoinder, Arthur Augustus D'Arcy disappeared down the staircase."

So, yes, the reading level of children's popular literature has gone down significantly over the last century. Although, this has to be balanced with the observation that education levels also varied dramatically - often by class - a century ago, as well.

Also, compare the word count found in those early comics - even those with only 8 tabloid pages - and today's magazines may have more content but far fewer words. I would do a comparison (word count, vocabulary, readability) of some of the early 1940s Dandy's I've got with today's version - but The Dandy hasn't been available here in Australia for at least a decade.

Mike D said...

My tuppenny worth on the creative side?

DCT should invest in character development. It's hard guessing what the editorial team are looking for.

And profit share with the creatives. DCT (nearly always) buy all rights to your character in perpetuity for zero pounds and no pence. Accept this deal or don't get published. Grrr…It isn't the 1950s anymore! I know the history of 'creator owned' is chequered, to say the least, but it's got to be the way forward as page rates decrease.

And digital comic archives are too little too late. The Dandy need a small team of new media developers to work on motion comics, games and apps. Systems like Flash and Unity3D make the development a breeze (almost). I guess The Beano site is testing the waters, I hope DCT will stop taking baby steps and start investing serious cash… A competition to develop a game based on a Dandy character would be a start - promoted on Deviantart and other such sites.

My kids read comics, but none of their friends do...depressing, isn't it? I'm guessing the future isn't in print. :-(

Anonymous said...

I have to reiterate what others on here has said Lew (less eloquently than they I have but just as heartfelt) - this is a really wonderful, well researched and very very interesting blog (I loved the photo at the start) this is the type of stuff we want to read not rants and fantasy / delusional and sometime vicious comments about what is needed (ie a return to 1960 content etc)- without doubt the best UK blog I have read this year (and there have been some good ones) excellent (I’ve even printed it off) - McScotty

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks McScotty. Much appreciated!

MikeD; Yes sadly things sometimes move slowly with the decision makers in publishing. Presumably they want to be sure of what they're investing time and money in, especially in a recession. I haven't heard if they're developing into digital, Flash etc but it wouldn't surprise me if they were working on something in that direction.

Anonymous said...

interesting old photo!
yes kids had strange habits in the past. i even read they used to go up chimneys before the invention of comics!

Bob again again said...

on some of the older Beano websites (and maybe the dandy ones could check they had simple flash games so they are employing people who know how to use it or did do at least. Also DC Thomson own Friends reunited thats on the internet but its dead a pretty bad investment if you ask me.

John Freeman said...

Superb post Lew - plenty of food for thought.

alexander matthews said...

Brilliant article, Lew. A lot of very valid points. I think people always look for one 'killer' reason for these things (lack of free gifts seems to be the main one as far as I have heard), but it's obviously all of these things.

Thanks for using an image from my strip Nuke Noodle to illustrate the article!

Chris Wood said...

Wish I could Offer a solution here, but sadly I think you're banging a drum no-one wants to listen to. Whenever I hear anyone moaning about kids not reading comics it makes me sad, but not in the same way it makes you sad. Kids don't want to read comics, that's it. Nothing you do will change that. It's a dead medium that should have been dropped years, if not decades, ago, and the proof is there in the falling sales and apathy on the part of the shops, publishers etc. Your post is well written and from the heart, but you might as well be listing he reasons why kids don't play with hoops and sticks any more. I, like you, grew up reading comics. That was because it was the 1970s and there was bugger all else to do. If I had had a ps3, or a ds, or even a VHS in those years I don't think 2000ad wOuld have exerted the hold it did. You needto let kids comics go. The kids don't read them, the kids don't buy them. I'm willing to bet that most are bought by adults, either for a burst of nostalgia or to foist on their kids. Which is a shame, but I'm pretty sure that if, in 1979, my dad had tried to get me to give up my Raleigh Chopper and try using his old butc hers delivery bike I would not have been happy. This is what you are doing. There will always be the need for cartoonists (I hope so, I am one) but there is now no need for kids comics, in the same way that there is no need for traditional animated films now we have Pixar etc. Things change. Sorry, but it's a fact. If my boy wants to read my 2000ads, great. But I'm not going to force him to read comics, no way.

James Spiring said...

The Dandy's Youtube account has put up a couple of the recent celeb stories. However, the frame by frame technique leaves much to be desired, it's a good idea, but they should use voiceovers and animation on them. Motion comics like Mike D suggested.

Kimota - you can subscribe.

Bob - fortnightly? You can't be serious, that's a backwards step to Dandy Xtreme. They should never have stopped being weekly in the first place. They already do use reprints, My Own Genie is one, from only six years ago. As for public domain, yeah, some issues are downloadable, but the uploads are illegal scans - piracy.

Peter Richardson said...

Fabulous posting Lew and for me as I am sure a lot of other visitors to your blog, the best analysis of the decline of UK comics that I have ever read.

Damian Tasker! said...

It looks like the real future of comics lies in webcomics. The internet is littered with seriously good comics that will never make it to print. It's very sad that printed comics in Britain seem to be bitting the dust and it's a shame that few seemed to take them seriously. I feel like I'm guilty of this myself. I have always been a massive fan of comics, however, I rarely buy the british ones and I know why. For a start, there aren't that many to choose from nowadays. Those that are available, though, are usually unimpressive. When it comes to kids titles, you would be lucky to be getting more than four pages of strips. Everything else in the magazine is just full of filler carbage made up by unimaginative editors.
Adult comic Viz has always been consistent with its content but they seem rather hesitant to refresh any of it by introducing new artist, concepts or characters. 2000 AD is about the only comic in this country that stayed fresh and innovative over the years. The Beano and the Dandy are decent reads but I have always felt embarrassed by most of the writing, even as a 7 years old. Now that's where these two titles went wrong for me.
I occasionally show a copy of the Beano to friends who may have been readers in their childhoods and the negative reactions usually stem from the artwork and the character designs. If you look at Dennis the Menace, he has worn his strippey jersey for over 40 years and no matter how much they try to update his appearance, he still looks very old fashioned. I couldn't relate to Dennis as a child, and I don't think any of today's kids can either. Child characters in the Beano and the Dandy simply do not act like real children.
Of course, I am not claiming this to be the reason british comics are going down the tubes but that is certainly how they lost my interest.

Lew Stringer said...

Chris Wood said:
"You need to let kids comics go. The kids don't read them, the kids don't buy them."

That's not entirely true though is it Chris? Sales are definitely far, far lower than they used to be but there are SOME kids still reading them, as sales and feedback proves. I'm not about to let kids comics go while I'm still being employed to do them! :)

Look at the glass half full. If 8,000 people are buying The Dandy there's a likelihood thousands more would, IF they found it/ could afford it/ knew about it.

I was in Blackpool today and checked out over half a dozen newsagents on my travels. The only one that had The Dandy in stock was WH Smith, and those were hidden behind BeanoMAX. In fact the other shops hardly had any comics at all except for a handful of pre-school mags and Doctor Who Adventures. (No 2000AD either.)

Presumably shops order less (or no) comics because they weren't selling, but they can't reach potential new readers if they're not in the shops. Catch-22.

Lew Stringer said...

John Freeman has opened a forum on the issue over on his blog. He makes some interesting points for other reasons (not content) for being a factor:

Davy Francis said...

Nice post Lew.Not sure where the future of comics is, but certainly here in Ireland there are a lot of excellent small press comics, which I suppose is better than nothing.It would be awful to think that this is the last generation of comic readers. I know Paul Holden and John McCrea had some success a few years ago with a comic for the Iphone called Icandy, customers bought it for 99 cents through Itunes.It looked like a nice package, with animation and sounds on it.I know it's not the same as reading an actual comic, but there again, the webcomic scene seems to be healthy, so maybe it's a case of adapting with the times, because as far as the writers and artists are concerned, their roles haven't changed, be they on print or screen.My best free toy comic memory? Waiting for TV Tornado to come out-it had a Batman parachute toy with it. I lost it the first day I got it.Same with the 2000ad whizzer.

Mr Straightman said...

I really wish people would stop harping on about how the characters "HAD to change" because they "looked old-fashioned".
Change, for its own sake, is never a good thing. Look at those horrible posters, stationery kits and t-shirts where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are kitted out in gangbanger / hip-hop outfits. Not only do they look stupid, they demonstrate that the people behind these abominations have absolutely zero faith or confidence in the characters that have entertained and amused children for DECADES without any need for revamps or enhancement. The same is true of the Dandy. Instead of making Korky the cat look like a plush toy, Desperate Dan look like a strategically shaven gorilla and Bananaman look like something you'd see dangling from a cab driver's rear view mirror, why didn't they simply create new characters that weren't likely to insult the memories of comics fans who grew up with the original incarnations?

locusmortiis said...

"Flat pictures on paper must seem very primitive in comparison."

Perhaps...but only for kids with no imagination, which is what comics and books require. The latest generation of rpg and mmorpg games serve everything up to kids on a platter and don't require them to excercise their imaginations and create the actions that occur between the panels of a comics story.

Its a pity that british people don't have the same attitude to comics as the french and japanese do, perhaps that will eventually change, how that happens though I can't hazard a guess at.

Richard said...

Lew, great article. Very good points.

And as for the occasional contention in the comments that kids just don't want to read comics, I absolutely disagree. You just have to see the borrowing pattens at the school library and watch the kids devour the graphic novels.
So much so that the Year 6 teacher has had to impose a rule that they should get a prose book at least once every ten loans!

Lew Stringer said...

@Mr.Straightman, Well I grew up with those characters and I'm delighted to see new takes on them instead of asking artists to clone the style of the originals. Those old strips still exist for the older fans to read. Trying something new for modern readers who have no memories of the classic version of Desperate Dan seems fine in my opinion.

@Richard, It was just a suggestion that today's kids might be apathetic towards comics. The reverse may indeed be true as you say.

Fanton said...

Mr. Straightman: I'd argue there's a world of difference between the design-by-committee stylings of those cringe-worthy 'street' reworkings of Bugs Bunny et al, designed to flog merchandise without really considering what the characters are about, and what The Dandy have done with Dan and co.

All The Dandy has done is get new artists on board to breathe new life into characters that have been knocking about for decades and had fallen into a bit of a rut, IMHO. Even as a kid reading their strips in the 80s, they always felt curiously old-fashioned, the energy and inventiveness which informed their earlier adventures seemingly replaced by a feeling of 'going through the motions'. But they're still great characters, and there was no reason retire them (imagine the outrage then!) when all they needed was a bit of a shot in the arm.

As far as I'm concerned, beneath those modern designs, the core concepts remain largely untouched, just refreshed and given a bit of energy once more. Dan is still a well-meaning lummox whose strength gets him into (and out of) scrapes; Korky is still a smart cat who often bests his rivals, Bananaman still fights crime ineptly.

It's not as if they've made Dan a gangsta rapper, or turned Korky into hoodie or anything. It still respects those original concepts to the full.

Andy Dodd said...

Always a well put point Lew, with the decline in so many areas, the general consensus that "comics are only for children", the respect or lack of respect to the medium itself...I find it comes down to money. Again we are all having to pitch for our own part in the overall market and compete with every Tom, Dick or Harry doing the same. Many trying to get work published with the hopes of making a success from it spans over ALL the industries, film, animation and comics. Everywhere you go there are budding writer's, Artists, Film makers and Games Designers, Actors, Animators, Special FX, Singers, Song Writer's trying to get ahead of the crowd...the competition is fierce and many don't make it, but many persevere and keep trying, which brings a wonderful and creative mix into the whole entertainment industry.

Bambos said...

Hello Lew,

Well it seems my blog has inspired you, although I fear you take a rather defeatist attitude in your piece “Days of Thrills and Laughter”. Obviously due to the subject matter of Blimey you take a historical view of UK comics, but I feel we’re supposed to learn from the past to improve the present and future.

While we have to admit that “sales on practically every publication, comics, magazines or newspapers, have fallen over the years” I still believe that comic sales have an enormous un-tapped potential, and if we are falling we should be falling from the level of a mass medium rather than a niche product. Children’s books were on the slide until Harry Potter came along and rejuvenated the industry. Any medium can have a boom as well as a bust scenario.

I’m glad you re-iterated my point about the UK market having a high turn over of titles, I think it’s vital that publishers understand this and incorporate it into their publishing strategies.

“Publishers knew to lower expectations, focusing on licensed comics for (hopefully) quick hits before moving on to the next fad.” Sorry but I can’t agree with you that a short run is all that can be expected. The Simpsons has had a lengthy run at Titan and Viz has been going for a good few years now, and neither felt the need to stop after a couple of years. Bad publishing decisions are what lead to short lived comics. It’s pointless to pretend that two years today is like twenty years in the past, as though there is some kind of temporal inflation at work. Publications, like tv shows or movies, that are well thought out, effectively promoted and professionally produced often succeed and have lengthy runs, regardless of the period they are produced in.


Bambos said...

Distractions – It’s a good job they don’t have tv, dvds, games, mobile phones and the internet in Japan and Europe where comic book sales are higher than ours. I’m afraid this creaky old argument doesn’t hold water. It’s pointless to blame the rest of the world for the mistakes made by the comic industry. There’s no denying that technological innovations will have an effect on comics but by the same token I don’t think anyone can say that the UK and US comic industries are operating at maximum efficiency and have tried numerous innovations.
Falling literacy – I can’t work out if you think this is a good thing or a bad thing. I think it plays into our hands completely, and with more immigrants coming to the west comics provide an easy and entertaining way to learn the language.

Price – Yes absolutely comics are too expensive, but try telling the new creators coming through that comics should be cheap entertainment for the masses. They’re busy producing hardcover books and looking for reviews in art and design magazines. Sure that’s one part of the market but without a vast number of readers fed into the system at an early age you just won’t have the critical mass needed to sustain the adult end of the market.

Format – It’s true that other countries publish comic strips in books, but these are collections from magazines. The UK seems to be missing the point and publishing books which have no loyal readership, and just hoping for the best. The idea is to collect in book form comic strips which have proved popular with readers. Even Cinebook, who are from a European publishing background and should know better, have not published a magazine first. Manga strips all appear in weeklies first before being collected into volumes.

Visibility – If potential readers can’t flick through the comic I hardly think one comic being next to the cash register is going to make a difference. Most other mags bag occasionally, comics bag constantly and all I can assume is that publishers feel the content is unimportant, as it is not part of the purchasing decision.

Promotion – This is something comics fail to do time and again. Why do publishers feel that comics should sell despite the fact that they fail to promote them to the best of their ability. Maybe a tv advertising campaign is beyond their means but do something!! Ads in bus shelters, free handouts in shopping malls, something, anything!! Publishers have decided to license characters from tv shows and let the tv shows promote the comic, but this has still led to an endless procession of failing comics.


Bambos said...

Changing habits – I’m sure book publishers were saying the same thing about children’s books before Harry Potter came along. You keep letting the industry off the hook when it really hasn’t tried anything new or different for a very long time, unless you feel DFC was new and different. Publishers often expend the minimum amount of time, effort and money on comics and then are inexplicably surprised at the results they get.

Continued stories – Well let’s face it comics should be trying everything to find out what works.

Retail attitudes – “I know some fans think that publishers should just put out more product and experiment and see what sticks” well isn’t that what everyone does to a greater or lesser extent. We’re in a creative industry there are no guarantees of success. If you publish fewer comics the only thing you can be sure of is you’ll have less hit comics. “It really is a struggle to get a new comic off the ground, and extremely expensive.” Lew what else are comic publishers supposed to do, it’s their job to publish comic books. There is something very wrong with the distribution system in the UK but somehow it doesn’t stop newspapers, women’s and lad’s mags from selling.

British attitude to comics – Isn’t this at an all time high? Features in newspapers, Watchmen included in the top 100 novels (sic) ever. Comics aren’t just for kids any more, Salman Rushdie is a big fan, Philip Pulman has a graphic novel coming out, and let’s not forget Jonathan Ross.

Fanbase – Well you’re talking about the US phenomenon here. Who cares about fans, we should be talking about readers, about customers.
The recession – Actually comics fall neatly into what is known as the “lipstick purchase”, which actually rises during a recession. A cheap product (under £10) which makes the purchaser feel good.

Toys with free comics – The British disease.

Dandy – I know you work for them Lew but they’ve seen this problem approaching for years. Fair play to them they’ve re-launched about four times now, but a company which prides itself on not changing is ill equipped to implement radical changes. Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid increased sales. Thomsons just need to find a way to try lots of new things, a method to evaluate what works and what doesn’t and some way to keep publishing until they come up with a winning formula. If they don’t then we all know this is just a dress rehearsal for the Beano.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks for your comments Bambos. There's a lot to cover there but just to reply to a few points:

Yes, there are the same distractions in other countries, but their cultural attitudes to comics are sometimes different to ours. Also, In understand that sales of Manga are also falling. Is that true?

Falling Literacy: Lol! Yes of course I think this is a bad thing. Sorry if my post didn't make that clear. I was just throwing up some reasons why circulations may be falling. It doesn't necessarily mean I agree with them.

I didn't feel I was "letting the industry off the hook". I tried to be balanced without having a rant either way.

Attitude towards comics: I'm afraid that from my experience comics are seen as more trashy and irrelevant than ever. The Guardian etc may praise various graphic novels but in regards to children's comics, which is the subject here, to the average person in the street respect for comics is zero.

Incidentally, DID Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid increase sales? They're two of my comic gods and I loved their work, but the highest selling Beano was before they joined the comic, and even their fantastic contributions to Wham and Smash (when they were IMHO on top form) couldn't prevent those titles from having short runs. As I said, it's not always quality of content that determines a comic's fortunes.

John Freeman said...

Just on the point of Beano sales, despite the undisputed quality of Leo Baxendale's work (and others), I was shown the hand written sales ledgers for the comic during a visit to DC Thomson. The Beano was selling more copies before his arrival. No criticism of any creator intended by this post.

Lew Stringer said...

It's hard to believe that any kid could not like the work of Leo Baxendale so I can only imagine it was other factors at play that caused the fall in sales.

Comics were changing in that mid-1950s period anyway. With A.P. canceling Comic Cuts, Chips, and Funny Wonder, it seems that tastes were shifting away from the old style comics so some modernization was needed. Perhaps competition from American comics played a part. Perhaps sales would have fallen with or without Leo's arrival as readers' tastes diversified across the growing number of rival comics. It's all speculation this far up the line of course.

John Freeman said...

And, of course, the 1950s sees the arrival of one of comics major competitors for kids attention - television... As you have pointed out many times, Lew, the decline of comic sales has been going on for a long time.

Anonymous said...

I don't see TV competing with comics in any way (it's hardly aware of them!). If anything, being an 80's kid, it was TV that drew me to comics and not the other way around :)
Besides, after seeing photos from some of the UK's retail chains magazine racks, comics are out there competing with so many great children's magazines, no wonder it must be tough standing out, but such is the World...
And really, why is it some purists dread gift toys so much? Nonsense!

bambos said...

Thanks for uploading my comments, Lew. I hope I don't come across as a ranter, I just like to make my points as clearly as I can. I assumed Leo was a positive influence because Odhams built a comic (Smash) around him. Yes, manga sales are falling, but as I said they're a mass medium to start with. In response to Diego I see toys on comics as a bad thing because the kids end up buying the toy not the comic.We need readers who will stick with comics as they grow older, also many of these mags don't have comics in them at all, just activities. Keep up the good work.

Lew Stringer said...

Your comments are very welcome Bambos and you made some very valid points.

Leo was (and still is) a huge influence on British comics. I'd say he'd made more impact than anyone since Tom Browne and Roy Wilson and no one has equaled his influence on UK humour comics since. Odhams built Wham! around him by the way, although he did contribute to Smash! too of course, albeit not as much.

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