Tuesday 14 August 2012

Thoughts on the death of The Dandy

The Dandy comic is under threat, reports in today's press suggest, and this should come as a surprise to nobody. The Dandy has been under threat for as long as I can remember. And, speaking as someone who has been reading comics for over four decades and working professionally as a comics writer and artist for, amongst others, The Dandy's sister paper The Beano for over two decades, I have a fair bit of remembering to draw on.

The doomsayers are suggesting that the death of the weekly Dandy comic means the death of Desperate Dan, Korky The Cat and all the great work that's been done in the past and is still being done by the writers and artists in The Dandy. But it doesn't. What is going out of fashion, and has been for a while, is the habit of buying weekly, disposable (or some would say collectible) pieces of paper.

In our household, for example, we very recently broke the habit of getting The Guardian everyday, when we realised a) we could read most of it online and b) we would save £300 a year. We're not alone in having made that decision, and that's one of the reasons the weekly paper Dandy comic is no longer viable.

When I was a kid, everyone read a weekly comic, because they were the biggest source or fresh, exciting entertainment for kids. With only an hour-or-so of kids TV on BBC & ITV (yes, I'm that old), and no computer games or even VHS tapes (yes, that old), if you wanted to experience and revisit engaging visual entertainment, you read comics. At the peak of my childhood and teens I was getting ten comics a week, and still had change from a quid (okay, now it sounds like I'm from the ark. You could still do that at the end of the 1970s, okay?).

Now, of course, computer games and an infinity of free stuff on TV, DVD and online means that comic books find it hard to compete for the attention of kids. But the key word there is hard. It's not impossible, it's just harder than it was. If we look at the example of Japan, and of France, and of America, we see three markets where comic books and comic strip art have adapted to the changing environments and survive in different ways.

In Japan Manga is well produced, with high standards of writing and illustration, with long books which reward the reader's attention. There is constant innovation and creators compete to be the best and most original. This has resulted in the tradition of Manga reading being maintained and thriving in the face of competition from all other media. A recent title Black Butler, which won last year's Stan Lee Excelsior Award voted for by schoolkids in the UK, sells 600,000 copies of each new volume. That's how many copies the Beano used to sell 60 years ago, when there was one TV channel and rationing. Black Butler sells that many copies of a 150 page paperback that cost seven quid. Why? Because it's good and worth buying.

The French publishing model has long relied on the book publishing trade to see its titles survive. The weekly comic (or more commonly monthly) has long served as a way of putting the work out in instalments, in the knowledge that those magazines would be disposed of and the real money would be made from the hardback book which will remain in publication in perpetuity. Who knows or cares that Asterix The Gaul was originally serialised in 1958 in Pilote? Is there a big collectors market for back issues? I doubt it. But the hardback books have remained in publication ever since.

And the Americans have followed the same model, with books which they unromantically entitle "trade paperbacks", repackaging the superhero stories from monthly comics which sell a fraction of what they once did. The Americans also dreamed up the term "graphic novel" to describe the comic book that the rest of the world had been publishing for years.

So it is that such great characters as Desperate Dan and, er, ...well actually Desperate Dan is the only really great character that springs to mind from the Dandy back catalogue though I'm sure  there are dozens more. So it is that Dan and others could have a life on the bookshelves, and hopefully they will.

But they won't do unless DC Thomson change their publishing model. Currently The Beano and The Dandy concentrate on short, throwaway stories of one or two pages in length, which lose the reader's attention thirty seconds after they've been read. And their main foray into the book market comes in the form of the annuals, which sell millions (approx figure) but disappear from the shelves in the first week of January never to be seen again (in fact they get trashed, pulped and recycled, having been offered to shops on a sale-or-throw-in-a-bin basis). This was all well and good as a publishing extension of the weekly comic, but nowadays just looks wasteful and self-defeating.

DC Thomson are in a unique position whereby they could take the characters they own, characters familiar to generations of Brits, and produce a range of comic books, or if you will graphic novels, that could entertain and help educate the next generation of young British readers. For those of us who champion comic strip art as a valid artform that is in no way secondary to words alone (I often use the example, when parents suggest comics are bad and words-alone are good, that it is like saying to a 10 year old that they should no longer watch TV and they should only ever listen to the radio) this is something that I dearly want to see.

I have already played my part in this. When I worked for The Beano, to whose pages I hope to return, I wrote and drew long stories, usually serialised over a number of weeks, which I hope flattered the intelligence of the readers and gave the scope for proper storytelling which can't be done in one or two pages alone. I have tried repeatedly to get these stories collected into books but to no avail, so far (you can read some online here, including School's Out and the Bash Street Werewolves).

A series of Desperate Dan graphic novels could become the next Harry Potter, I honestly believe that. The authors and artists would need to be properly credited, respected, and remunerated, which is another part of their antiquated working model that DC Thomson need to have a look at, and it would to everyone's mutual benefit.

Hey, if they need any more advice, they know where I am. I'm busy teaching kids how to write and draw comics in schools, from where I can report they love comics and wish there were more of them out there.

I'm Kev F, the comic writer and artist whose work appears in The Beano, Marvel comics, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf Smegazine, Viz, 2000AD and many points inbetween. If you would like to bring my Comic Art Masterclass to your school or art centre, drop me a line, a comment, a Twitter, Bat-Phone, whatever works. Click below to see more, including video and contact details.

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John Freeman said...

Good piece. Comics have always evolved, things change. Former Morris Heggie has already hinted at an online future

Paul Thompson said...

Some good points very well made here.

Jenny said...

Great piece, I totally agree. I grew up on Whizzer & Chips and Oink! (remember that? I still have all of the issues as I loved that comic above all others) but then moved onto DC's monthly Batman title that was putting out Frank Miller's Year One at the time because I wanted a story that was going to last longer as you say. My husband read 2000AD for the same reason and of course the 80s and the early 90s were a golden age for Dredd.

As you say there is a definite market for comics with longer stories and also more serious ones too. Last year I spent half of our primary school's library budget on graphic novels, comics (old Beano annuals, Tin Tin, Asterix and some of the DFC hardback collections like Vern and Lettuce, Mobot High and Monkey Nuts to mention a few) and longer picture books. The kids want to read them and love reading them, they have been heavily borrowed and much loved.

TheArtyOne said...

A fantastic piece. I agree which everything you've written. I may come to you for advice soon now I'm starting to get my kids comic drawn.

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