Friday, 7 September 2012

How to save British Comics (revisited)

UPDATE SEPT 19 2012: This just in: Off Life Magazine is being launched, basically doing what I suggest at the foot of the article below. Good luck to everyone involved.

Prompted by discussions on Twitter, usually centred around Jamie Smart and the hashtags #SaveTheDandy and #awesomenewcomic, I've looked again at my thoughts on how and why comics should be saved in this country. Here, slightly edited and updated, are my ideas on the matter, originally published three years ago.

My Big Comic initiative from 1991. Not, let's face it, as successful as I hoped.

The nostalgic reprints of old comics in this week's Guardian has prompted a lot of reflection, with we old comics lovers remembering how great and influential the comics of our childhood were, and bemoaning their loss.

But what can the future of British comics possibly hold? I teach comic art to kids all over the country and find a few things to be universally true. Firstly that kids love comics. When they are shown a pile of comics they seize upon them and want to have more to look at. Aged 8 to 12 in particular they will pass them around saying "have you seen this?", marvelling at the artwork and getting engrossed in the stories.

Secondly they love producing comics. Once I've shown them how simple it is to tell a story in pictures, and the various tricks and techniques which mean you don't have to be the greatest artist yet to communicate clearly in our artform, I find stories regularly flow from kids who've had difficulty expressing themselves in words alone.

As an aside to this, the power of comic strip as a teaching tool for literature is undeniable, and quite a revelation to teachers I work with. I quote the example of my schooldays when, in primary school, I had the best reading age of my class because I'd read since the age of 5 Marvel comics. This meant I'd seen words like "thermonuclear device" and because the words came very clearly, in a voice bubble, from the mouth of say The Hulk or Spider-Man, I could easily work out their context and guess at what they meant. Kids picture books, where the words are over here and the pictures are over there and never the twain shall meet, simply do not teach kids to read as well as a comic strip with voice bubbles does.

To return to my point, the third thing I find in schools is that hardly any kids have read any comics. If anything they've read the Beano. Though that is predominately a middle class or Scottish thing. In England, and especially among more working class kids, if I ask them to name a comic or a comic strip they mostly likely name a cartoon off TV or a magazine. They are almost totally unfamiliar with the artform called the comic strip. And if they do read The Beano, what do they do when they've outgrown that? A lucky few go on to read Simpsons comics, and a small number of teenagers become readers of Japanese Manga. One in 100 reads US comics, most not even being aware that Spider-Man and Batman started life as comics. Where, they ask me, would you buy a Batman comic? And in most cases, unless they live in one of the few towns with a comic shop, I can't answer them.

So what could we do about comics? Is it worth reviving them, and if so how? Obviously I think it is. I think if we allow this artform to die, so that everyone in the UK will be as unable to read a comic strip as those idiots they got to review them on Radio 4's Front Row last week (2 out of 3 reviewers, of Bryan Talbot's Grandville & Ian Rankin's Constanine, professed some perverse pride in their ignorance of the comic strip artform and made me want to slap their posh bookish heads) then we are committing a cultural crime akin to never staging an opera ever again, just because they're too expensive to stage and hardly anyone goes to see them. Other artforms have their champions, from poetry and folk music to opera and dance, so why not comics?

I've given it my stabs over the year, and I think I probably won't be bothering again in a hurry. My two best efforts to revive comics publishing were both overambitious and under-supported.

The first was The Big Comic.

In 1991, seeing the profusion of free papers that were coming through letterboxes nationwide, I re-envisioned the old American notion of the syndicated comic section. Essentially I took Will Eisner's Spirit section idea, and presented it to the free papers. Only one bit, the Weston Super Mare Admag, who ran a four page section with strips interspersed by ads, for one week, before being told by their head office that they weren't allowed to show such initiative. The syndication model, which meant the papers paid for the art based on the circulation figures that they published on their front cover, would have meant the strips costing next to nothing to each paper, while reaching potential millions of readers, and forming an attraction that set their free paper apart from the rival in their local market. Oh it was genius. But no publisher agreed with me, most of these papers being run by a small number of parent companies who had their marketing strategies all thought through. And of course now, with the development of the internet and the financial slump, free papers are history, and the Big Comic's entire premise a nice idea that could never work now.

My second concept was to avoid the newsagents and to sell a comic on the streets.

My starting point for Street Comic was "imagine if the Big Issue was good and you actually wanted to buy it for its content, not just out of middle class guilt". I still feel this idea has legs, and maybe someone will make a fortune selling comics in the streets of Britain. I researched it, and it's do-able. But if anything put me off, it was the DFC.

You see I assembled a dummy for Street Comic, and for all the world, it seems to me pretty much identical to what The DFC came up with. I mean to say the two comics were totally different, the DFC never saw my dummy or anything (we had one creator in common, the brilliant Laura Howell), but editorially we had the same idea. And that idea was quite old fasioned. We'd invented an anthology comic, like had existed in our childhood, with a mix of comedy and action, a little bit bandes-dessinee, a little bit Eagle. And of course the DFC bombed, despite being of the highest quality. And someone somewhere is 100s of thousands of pounds out of pocket over that noble experiment, which is not something I can afford to be.

UPDATE Sept 2012: Since I wrote the above article the Dandy has announced its closure as a printed item, to continue as an online publication. I have published a few of my comics on Kindle and as self-published printed items. My best selling self-published comic is Captain Clevedon which sold out a 300-strong print run in the town of Clevedon, hardly a money-spinner yet, but encouraging. My Kindle comics sell £10-£15 worth a month, which is not to be sniffed at (best seller is Hot Rod Cow, but the newly published Socks comic is likely to challenge that). Again, neither of these ventures compares with my heyday in British comics where The Beano can pay 200 quid a page and make a healthy profit, and back in the 1990s my humour comics Gas & the Damage (some of which is now available on Kindle for the first time) could pay £250 a page and do nicely on the top shelf alongside Viz. Unimaginable in today's climate? I'm not sure.

I still hold with the "if you build it they will come" mentality. If the comics are good enough, people will buy them. If stories are book length, as in Manga, and sold in bookshops, unlike weekly disposable comics and throw-in-a-skip-in-January annuals, then I think they are as viable as Harry Potter and twice as vital.

Three years ago I concluded I was giving up on this battle. Now I'm not so sure. I think I have the vision and experience to help turn British comics around. Let's see if I find a moment to put my weight behind my ideas.  (Stay tuned for a next look at this idea in September 2015).

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