Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Brief History About The Future Of Comics

What exactly will be left after the remaining issues of The Dandy are sold and the title goes digital? Is it the beginning or end of an era?  Now I'm not going to "beat about the bush" and say unnecessary rumours, but the sales of comics are falling and have been for over two decades. 

Head all the way back to the 1880's and the world's first "comic" (even if it wasn't a full comic as such) was selling over 150,000 copies each week. I'm talking, of course, about Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, often recognised as the world's first comic character and back in his peak was famous throughout the globe!

Come forwards to the 1940's and the 1950's, and British comics were at their prime in sales, with the biggest titles such as The Beano and The Dandy selling over a million copies each week (The Dandy selling even more). Launched in 1950, Eagle was quickly selling over a million copies every week and Radio Fun, Film Fun and other celebrity based comics were still going strong!

In 1960, IPC joined in the fun and launched the first of its new giant comics empire - Buster. Soon other titles followed, more than often selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week!

And comics were still setting sales records in the 1980's, with the 1983 Beano annual becoming the highest selling Beano book of all time!

Looking at it that way then, it would be easy to point and laugh at the current British Comics Industry, but we need to look at the wider picture.

Not that type of wide picture!
The UK comics industry has always been filled with failures. Titles such as Jet, Chums, Jag, Shiver and Shake, Monster Fun, The Big OneSchool Fun and Buzz never lasted more than a few years, but that doesn't mean they weren't quality. For example - Ken Reid's Faceache began in Jet, which lasted for just 22 issues before folding into the much more popular Buster comic.  Maybe if the comics hadn't merged, Faceache would just be another long-lost and forgotten character.

So just because something is quality, doesn't mean it's going to last, and the new look Dandy is a prime example of this. 

After the relaunch from the Dandy Extreme in 2010, The Dandy lost its readers because the Xtreme version was more of a magazine than a comic, and the new version more of a comic than a magazine. The Dandy never gained back its comic readers it had had before the Xtreme revamp, and that accounts for the sudden loss of sales, right?

The very last Dandy Xtreme.

But why are the sales of comics declining in the long run? Why, even before the Dandy went Xtreme were sales no longer in the hundreds of thousands they had been just decades before?

Well, here is a list of 10 possible reasons:

1. Video Games

With more and more kids now playing Black Ops and Modern Warfare on Playstation and Xbox, comics can no longer be seen as intresting without the action, sound effects and fast moving images (Maybe a comic such as Battle would survive well in today's world?). And with portable game consoles also avaliable, why read when you are in the car?

2. The Internet

The Internet has become a huge distraction for millions of people, and if the could-be comic readers are watching movies, listening to music and reading about things for free online, why pay for something you'll only read once?

3. Avaliability

Walk into any WHSmith, newsagents or supermarket today and you might have a bit of trouble finding the latest Beano. Not only are they often displayed in the wrong place but also out of reach and sight for kids. Whereas they could easily be displayed in the window, why not place them on the counter or next to the sweets, where kids are guarenteed to go!

4. Free Gifts

A free gift attached to the front cover or inside the between two pages is guarenteed to get more readers, and often kids will buy the comic just for the attached toy! Take a look at a comics section in a shop and you'll notice that there are dozens of comics with bagged toys cluttering the shelves and blocking the view of other comics, such as The Beano and Dandy! I remember one day walking into Sainsburys with my pound at the ready to buy a Beano, but because it came with a few "free gifts" it was £2.50, and I was utterly dissapointed!

5. Laziness

This one, as stupid as it might sound, is true. I was talking with someone and the reason they no longer buy The Beano, which they used to buy every week, is because they can't be bothered to walk down to the shop and get a copy. With the introduction of The Beano and Dandy apps this might lift up the readership a bit, as they can buy it without leaving the house!

The evolution of Dennis the Menace.

6. Nostalgists

"It ain't what it used to be" - a phrase I've read one too many times in magazines and on the internet. Nostalgists will walk into a newsagent intending to buy a Beano for their child, and then be amazed at how much its changed, and even hate it for evolving to fit in with the current generation! They then take their children home to show them some of their old Beanos! I read about something similar to this, and a man was dissapointed that his son prefered the modern Beano to the "proper stuff". Comics have to evolve to suit the current generation, and all current comics have done a mighty fine job!

7. To Be Continued...

Excitment and cliff-hangers will keep readers coming back to the comic week after week. The recent Winker Watson series in The Dandy kept me wanting to know what happened the following week, and more stories like that would mean a more loyal readership. The Phoenix is an excellent example of continued stories, with at least one cliff-hanger every week! (At the moment we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion of Zara's Crown!)

8. Promotion

If comics were promoted more on T.V, in magazines and newspapers etc. it could encourage more readers to buy the comics (I know there was a lot of promotion for comics in the 1960's and '70's). Instead, when newspapers rarely do cover comics they often (not always) say what is bad about the comic, instead of supporting and cheering on the industry!

Learning from comics!

9. Proper Reading

Comics have helped me personally to learn to read a lot over the years, but more often than not parents don't see tham as proper reading, and so will shove ABC books or short story books in front of their kids. Nursery comics help massively when children are very young, and then if they move on to older stuff they can continue learning! Comics are a great, and much, much more fun way to learn to read!

10. Paper Quality

I consider the quality of the paper an important factory in the sales of comics. When the Dandy was relaunched, the paper quality was very high, but was reduced more recently. If you pick up a copy of the latest Phoenix comic, and put it side by side by the latest Beano comic, the Beano feels floppier and cheaper, whereas the Phoenix feels more quality. If I could only buy one, I'd choose The Phoenix. Then compare the Beano to the Dandy, and the Dandy is even worse!

The Beano, Dandy and Phoenix.

I'll admit that the current British Comics Industry isn't as alive as it was 30 years ago. But the small-press comics are now bigger than ever! Comics such as The Clock Strikes, The Jungle Princess and Man From Space are just a few titles straight off the top of my head, but head into your local Forbidden Planet and you'll discover dozens more titles floating around!

But where will British comics be heading in the future? Will we see another boom such as in the 1970's, or will they slowly fade away forever? 

My guess is neither, but I think comics will continue to evolve, as they always have, and more and more will go digital, or never be printed on paper in the first place. (A great example of a digital comic is Aces Weekly.) But to be honest, a digital comic is no way near as great as a printed one, and I like to be actually holding a comic instead of reading one off the screen. And whats more, I know I'm not alone with that!

Comics have always evolved as one big group, learning from each others mistakes and choices. Comics all began to move away from newsprint in the late 1980's and shortly after, one by one changed to full colour. If the digital Dandy is a success, it won't suprise me if others follow it. 

Digital publishing is a much cheaper option than printing a publication and distributing it, and then buying shelf space in as many stores as possible, but it does have limits as to who it can reach. If a publication is launched digitally it will need good advertising, otherwise nobody will find out about it and it will fail quickly. Plus, with digital publishing you can't pick it up off the shelves and flick through, deciding if you like it. There are positives to digital publishing of course. You could include videos, games or interactive articles/stories in publications that would generate intrest and more pages could be added instead of spending money of distribution. However, despite the fact that digital publishing may benefit on costs in the short term, I'm guessing it will negatively effect the comic in the long run - mostly due to advertising and getting it noticed. 

But for now, even if The Dandy is going digital in a few weeks time (keep your eye on the counter), let's be happy that we have a strong healthy comics industry, and hopefully will for many years to come!


TwoHeadedBoy said...

Fair points all round, and I'll readily admit I'm guilty of a few of them.

Not really looking forward to the Digital Dandy, mind - a paper comic is something you can read, keep hold of forever and come back to a few years later to enjoy again.

A "digital comic" is prone to crashes and even deletion (plus the obvious eyestrain). Good luck to them all the same.

Bobby Brown said...

Strong, healthy comics industry? Are you on drugs?

George Shiers said...

@TwoHeadedBoy - I couldn't agree more, digital comics just aren't the same. If I get something digital I often will delay in reading it, but if I get something on paper I usually read it straight away!

@Bobby Brown - But we DO have a strong, healthy comics industry! Think about comics such as The Beano selling 30,000 a week, The Phoenix literally selling out as soon as it hits the shelves (the couple of dozen comics each Waitrose stocks are gone within an hour of the store opening) and newer publications such as Aces Weekly and Strip Magazine. The UK comics industry has really grown from even just 5 years ago!

Then look at the small-press comics - theres dozens of them! If you've ever been or seen photos from a Thought Bubble convention (which has just gone) then you'll see what I mean.

And besides, The Dandy isn't ending - its just going digital for reasons I explained in the post.

Kid said...

The optimism of youth - how I envy it. George, there isn't the amount of comics around that there used to be in the '60s, '70s or '80s - and the ones which are available don't sell anywhere near as many as they did in 'my day'. Consequently, considering how healthy the industry used to be, nowadays it's practically dying on its feet. As someone once pointed out, it's not so much an 'industry' anymore as a car boot sale - and that's not good news for anybody.

As for The Phoenix, it may sell out, but how many copies do the shops actually stock to begin with? And what about all those people who say they've never even seen it, despite searching for it whenever it's due out? Then there are those who've tried to subscribe to it and have been messed around. Doesn't sound ideal to me.

As for The Dandy not dying - well, it's almost dead as an actual comic you can read in your hands. It's now becoming something else - and although it may contain comic strips, it's transforming into a different animal. If all comics went digital, an entirely different 'industry' would then exist.

Unfortunately, it seems that comics merely exist nowadays to provide characters for exploitation in other mediums - TV, movies, merchandise, etc.

Incidentally, your spelling's getting better.

George Shiers said...

I'm not saying that the industry is anywhere near as brilliant as it was 30 or 40 years ago (it isn't), but I'm saying we have a resonably healthy, and slowly improving, one - which we should be grateful for!

Go back five years to 2007 and there were only two comics on the market - The Beano and The Dandy (and Toxic, if you count that as a comic). Now come forwards to toady, and we've got The Beano, Dandy, Phoenix, Aces Weekly and Strip Magazine! That's a huge improvement isn't it? And in such a short space of time too!

I've always thought of the Comics Industry as a shop. Back when it all began, in the 1880's, it was a little boy selling comics on a corner of a busy street. Then in the 1900's it grew to a small market stand, and then in the '20's it grew into a store. From the 1930's to about the 1970's it was a good sized shop. But then in the 80's it began to shrink to a smaller store, and then by 2000 it was a little boy on a corner once again. Today it's grown a bit - now becoming a market stand once again, but I'm doubting we'll see any more of repeat of history. (Does any of that make sense - it did in my head!)

As for The Phoenix, from what I've been told (that's what I have to rely on since my nearest Waitrose is 11,000 miles away) they do stock about a dozen copies a week in stores. Don't know about the subscriptions though - I've never had a problem.

I must admit I'm not a huge fan of digital publications. As TwoHeadedBoy said, it's nice to have something you can hold and keep. I know this probably sounds weird, but I also like the way old newsprint comics smell!

Sadly though, yes. Kids today have a lot of other things to do than read comics, and as a result sales are slowly dropping. When I asked a friend why he never read comics he replied "because they're boring". Bit of a shame really.

And thanks - I'm amazed at myself by how fast I'm improving! :D

Kid said...

The way I look at it, it's similar to a terminally ill man having good and bad days since he found out he was dying. That's to say, he's never going to be as healthy as he was, but some days will be better than others. This month, he may be a whole lot 'better' than he was last month or the month before. Doesn't mean he's not still dying 'though.

When you talk of comics as an industry, you have to use when sales were at their best as a yardstick. The general state of the 'industry' at the moment may look better than a few years ago, but it's nowhere near as healthy as when comics were in their prime.

Remember, ALL the U.K. comics around today combined, probably don't sell anywhere near as many as three or four comics did twenty years ago.

Ergo: Far from healthy. They're just having a slightly better day 'today' than they had 'yesterday'.