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Friday, 16 September 2011

British comics on the UK news stand - where next?

Last week, I was contacted by two newspapers, the Sunday Times and the Independent on Sunday, to offer my views on the state of the British comic industry. Specifically, comics on sale in UK newsagents.

The requests were prompted by the disappointing ABC figures for The Dandy, which, as we previously reported, is now selling around 7,448 copies a week.

The Sunday Times published its feature on 11th September - apparently, only in its Scottish edition - and the IoS will run its story later this month.

If there's an online version of the ST feature, which was written by Marc Horne, it must be behind the newspaper's paywall, but Deadline News has pretty much lifted the entire piece for its site and published a similar article here ("Desperate Dandy: comic’s celebrity relaunch 'backfired'"), which includes some of my comments and those of Kid Robson, minus a response from Dandy artist and British comics expert Lew Stringer.

Commenting on the sales figures,  a spokesperson for DC Thomson, who publish The Dandy described them as "disappointing.

"There is no getting away from that," they acknowledged, but pointed to success elsewhere for their comics titles.

The Dandy is the one blot on an otherwise quite successful period for us," the spokesperson added. "We will be taking steps to address that, but we are not looking at radical surgery.”

Needless to say, the coverage and subsequent online posts by Dandy artist and re-designer Jamie Smart in defence of the comic (here and here) have provoked some fierce debate - but in addition, a very measured and useful analysis of many of the problems besetting the British comics industry by Lew Stringer, in the wider context of declining magazine and newspaper sales. You can read that in full on his blog, but he rightly points to an overall decline in print sales of magazines and newspapers.

(Despite print's decline, sales of news stand comics continues to be fairly robust and is not as bad as some other sectors).

For me, the problems lie not in content per se -  you would expect some people to like one comic and not another - but one of trying to reach an audience already swamped with a much higher brand awareness for other things that will attract their purchasing power. Our main problem, I feel, is that many people simply aren't aware of the range of comics out there on the news stand, because publishers cannot afford to promote them in the same way as can, for example, Microsoft when it comes to the XBox or Nike when it comes to shoes.

It's an issue Lew Stringer remarks on, pointing out that until recent times (the 1980s, perhaps?) comics were pretty much the only provider of escapism. "Today, kids have a multitude of distractions," he notes. "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?"

Personal initiatives to plug The Dandy (for example, by Dandy artist Andy Fanton with this fun graphic, left) all help get the message out, as, I hope, do web sites like downthetubes, Blimey! It's Another Blog About Comics, Comic Bits Online and Bear Alley. (The Forbidden Planet International blog and Bleeding Cool also deserve praise for their British comics coverage, but they also have a wider remit).

In a wider context, of course, comics are far from dead - you only have to key in "web comics" to see how alive and energetic the medium is, and the growing success of graphic novel sales in bookshops, aimed at all ages. But what's the future for the news stand comic?

So, what do readers of downthetubes think? Is the British comic industry facing serious decline as far as the news stand is concerned? Are such things as digital publishing, high quality albums a way forward?

• The floor is open over on the downthetubes forum for discussion...


Ian Wheeler said...

No, I don't think the British comic industry is facing serious decline. Comics are evolving, not dying. Sometimes that's hard for oldies like you and me to accept but it's the way its always been. The Dandy aside, I think the comics situation is healthier than it's been for a long while. The shelves are positively groaning with Panini and Titan stuff for older readers and the old warhorses Commando and 2000AD are still there. For younger readers, the likes of Toxic and Marvel Heroes are still doing well. I love the Dandy - I would like to see it continue. And I would hate to see decent people such as Lew Striger be out of work. But I think it's over-reacting to say that comics themselves are on the way out.

Matt said...

Thanks for an interesting article, John. You raise some good points. Hmmm... much food for thought.

Matt Badham

John Freeman said...

Totally agree, Ian. Quite aside from the news stand there's a huge amount of digital activity. The problem is that digital comics may be the future but there are few offering financial viability - yet - without support from the publishers trying to develop this aspect of the comics medium. Meanwhile, the decline of print, paid for comics that keep comic creators in employment are seeing their sales suffer, which has an impact on how much comics material they can afford to commission. Things will balance out eventually but it's going to be hard in the short term.

Felneymike said...

On the other hand, though, countries such as Japan and France and Belgium don't have any less videogames, TV, Internet etc and yet comics are taken more seriously there. Shonen Jump apparently has a circulation of 2.8 million! (Albiet according to Wikipedia). Part of the problem is the culture, us comic fans need to go out and spread the good word to new parents - that comics are a great aid to literacy, for instance.

Steve English said...

It may be that the comic industry is evolving but the creativity is now in the hands of the toy manufacturers and the TV producers who invent the characters we see in the comics. All that is required from the artists is to be glorified photocopiers. With such a narrow skill requirement the work seems to be going to design houses and the avenues for submitting material are shrinking.

Regardless of how funny or not the content of the Dandy is at least they have an open submissions policy. However, their rates of pay are less than I was being offered by a Christian charity ten years ago. So not only are the avenues for work shrinking, so is the pay.

From a customer's point of view the comic industry may not seem to be in decline but from the cartoonist's point of it certainly is. There may be a lot of digital activity, but as John points out that does not seem to be creating any real employment.

In the mean time long live the Beano and the Dandy, and here's to Strip and The Poenix.

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