British comics are dead. Discuss.

Talk here about just about anything associated with British comics or story papers and the industry that does not fit in any other forum.
There are separate fora open to registered members for discussing specific comics, artists, websites etc.

Moderators: AndyB, colcool007

User avatar
swirlythingy
Posts: 563
Joined: 17 Mar 2011, 00:16
Location: Wimbledon, UK

British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by swirlythingy »

I visited my local Waterstones today (well, yesterday), and the very first thing which greeted me was an entire window stacked full of nothing but Fifty Shades of Grey. Just inside, there were yet more piles of the wretched thing, accompanied by a large banner reading, "Buy the book twenty million people are talking about." Surely, I couldn't help thinking, if a book is that successful then it has obliterated all need to advertise it? After all, it's not exactly thanks to the loose wallet of its publisher that it made it to this position in the first place - indeed, it became a runaway word-of-mouth ebook success without any help whatsoever, and by the time the contract was signed to print it, the book was very much doing a favour for its publisher, rather than the other way around.

Now, when you think about what that gigantic marketing budget could have been spent on - promoting books which actually need it, for instance, rather than throwing some of your biggest money-spinner's own money right back at it just because you can - it begins to look like very twisted priorities. It's like the ridiculously huge budgets which JK Rowling used to command in the latter days of her career. It was a known fact that, up and down the country, bookshops were ordering Harry Potter books in their thousands and organising special events at midnight on release days simply to cater for the massive pre-existing demand. Who on earth made the decision that the books plainly weren't yet popular enough?

On a not entirely unrelated note, I was present in this shop because I was on the hunt for graphic novels. You've probably worked out by now that this peculiar expedition was a direct result of Paul Abbott's infamous article in the Spectator, declaring the British comic book industry dead, and its various responses. At first glance, the arguments for and against might seem to be a rather crude display of oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it-isn't contrarianism - but I'm of the opinion that a lot of this is simply because they are talking at cross-purposes, and not bothering to counter each other's points.

Let's start by clearing one thing up right away. In this post, I am talking about the comic industry - that is, the selling of comics to people who buy them, or otherwise enabling the creators of said comics to earn a living by writing and drawing. I am not talking about the British talent pool at large, which, as anyone who's glimpsed the pages of Nelson will know, is in rude health - possibly ruder than it's ever been before. But being able to make comics isn't the same thing at all as being able to survive on them.

I'll start with James Hunt's New Statesman 'rebuttal', since it's the more easily demolished.

One of the very first claims made in the Spectator article is:
Certainly, there is no shortage of appetite here in Blighty. Our sales figures are positively stellar. We shovelled away the last Batman film - to the tune of £57 million quid on cinema tickets, in a few weekends - and now we are clamouring for the next one.
The NS article doesn't do itself any favours by leading with a large picture of Tamara Drewe. The Dark Knight took £11.1 million in the UK on its opening weekend, and much more in the US. The film of Tamara Drewe, released two years later, took £0.6 million, plus a derisory amount in the US.

Both films were unarguably based on comics created in their respective countries, and yet one was equally indisputably much more successful than the other. Hunt doesn't let this stop him from lifting this one inconvenient fact out of its context and using it to construct a strawman of the article:
It's fair to say that Abbott's article for the Spectator, Wanted: A Comic Book Industry, has its heart in the right place. It's clearly written by someone with a genuine love of superhero comics. But tainting that enthusiasm is a dismissive attitude towards British comics typical of someone who hasn't looked past their comic shop pull-list since Wolverine first popped his claws...

Among the various mistaken assumptions Abbott makes are that superheroes are the natural goal of a healthy comics industry, that superhero movies are the ultimate vindication of that success, and that Britain, if it wants to compete with America, needs to put its own superheroes in movies.
And so on and so forth. I admit the extended Captain Britain tangent in Abbott's fifth paragraph added almost nothing to the article, but his central point is not that Britain is lacking in superheroes, as Hunt unfairly portrays it, but that it is lacking in heroes in general - or at least in anything standing up to even the most generous of comparisons with America's ubiquitous characters.

One of the only British comic characters to even come close to holding a candle in terms of public recognition to the likes of Superman is Dennis the Menace, who is inherently lumbered with the (all too common in Britain) assumption that reading comics is something you eventually grow out of. American comic culture has steamrollered our own. As loads of people in the UK comics community will tell you at the drop of a hat, the UK is full to bursting with quality, original, well-written characters - but this doesn't alter the unfortunate truth that most of them are known only to the people who are fond of listing them. Ask the man on the Clapham omnibus to name a comic character, and he'll say, "Spiderman."

At this point it's customary for someone to mention Judge Dredd. Funnily enough, he has a new movie coming up as well. How do you think it'll compare, commercially, to The Dark Knight Rises? I predict, with a reasonable degree of certainty, total Tamara Drewe-esque annihilation.

Later on in the article, Abbott quotes Shane Chebsey from ScarComics.com, who makes a very relevant point about the superhero imbalance that Hunt completely ignores:
'A huge obstacle is distribution. There is one major distributor of comics in the western hemisphere: Diamond. They have a virtual monopoly and only get behind books published by the major US publishers, which means comic shops are full of derivative superhero comics that outnumber other genres 10 to 1.'
Nobody's saying that Britain needs to produce derivative superhero comics, least of all Abbott. He is simply making the very valid point that, if you don't make superhero comics, you can't sell your comic, not through any fault of yours, but precisely because the market is broken in such a way that you simply won't be able to get it into shops.

It's no coincidence that some of the most successful British creators - Grant Morrison, Alan Moore et al. - only found fame and fortune when they took work in American comics and wrote superhero comics.

In the middle of this relentless adversity, some brave souls - bless their little cotton socks - actually are trying to make comics about things other than superheroes. Hunt wastes no time in pointing out their existence:
But Abbott doesn't let being under-informed hold him back, characterising the totality of British comics history as "nasty, brutish, and short". A surprise, no doubt, to the talent behind the Beano and the Dandy, two of the longest-running comics in the world.
Ah, yes, the Dandy. There's a new set of ABC sales figures due out soon, isn't there? Tell me, has it managed to sell more than 8,000 copies per issue yet? I wonder if there are any magazines apart from Times Higher Education Scotland beneath it in the rankings yet? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones - and people trying to prove that British comics are not a commercial failure would be well advised to gloss over the Dandy.
Blaming publishers for the lack of British heroes is counter-intuitive when the likes of Nobrow, Blank Slate, and Self-Made Hero are championing original, often untested talent and finding stories with broad, accessible appeal. Similarly, 2000AD, Strip, and Mark Millar's CLiNT magazine maintain a steady periodical presence for genre material.
It's a memorable event every time I see a copy of 2000AD. I've noticed that, in general, the obscurity of material found on a WHSmith magazine rack increases in direct proportion to the size of said rack. I last saw a copy in the very furthest, deepest, darkest corner of a magazine rack which occupied practically an entire wall of an enormous branch, filed right next to Clint. Somehow I don't think those'll sell too well...

As for Nobrow, Blank Slate and Self-Made Hero, don't make me laugh. I was in no way exaggerating when, months ago, I bemoaned the complete invisibility of graphic novels outside the "Soho ghetto".

Continuing with the same childish, simplistic interpretation of Abbott's article, Hunt attempts to point out the diversity of the UK's comic material:
The outlets are there for the Batman of Brighton or the Stoke-on-Trent Spider-Man – but the stories aren't.
On the contrary, the stories are very much there (even if not superhero-centric), as are the outlets (2000AD, Nobrow, etc.), but the distribution isn't.

This is one of the few points where Abbott slips up badly, with a bizarre and nonsensical sideswipe at "[publishers'] echo-chamber outlets in the Guardian and the BBC", but the basic sentiment is sound. There is a massive amount of activity in the UK comic book industry today, no shortage of enthusiasm and talent - but it's all completely invisible. For all we know, there might well be a massive market in the UK as well, just as there is in Japan and Europe, where comics are treated as an equal artform rather than something to be looked down upon, but it's never been given a chance to prove itself.

This, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the Fifty Shades/Harry Potter phenomenon. Blank Slate are all very well in their way, but can you picture a window in Waterstones piled high with copies of Nelson, surrounded by banners reading "Buy the book twenty million people are talking about"? That's because, however much they might deserve to be, Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix et al. will never be as successful as EL James, and a not insignificant part of the reason for that is that they will never catch even a whiff of the advertising megabucks which Fifty Shades' publisher has, for their own inscrutable reasons, chosen to hurl straight at a property which was already guaranteed to shift - had already shifted - in the millions.

This is the very point which Abbott made in his final paragraph:
So Publishers, get your act together! Put your house in order! We can’t subsist on American imports forever. The talent is ready. The audience is waiting. It’s time to get the cheque books out.
Nobrow, Blank Slate and Self-Made Hero can do it right all they like, but a vanishingly small proportion of the population have ever heard of them, and an even smaller one will buy their books. This is because they have absolutely zero exposure in the UK's cultural mainstream. And if a Hugo Tate film is ever proposed, it'll be laughed out of the studio.

I'm not sure I want to think about the prospect of a Fifty Shades film, but it's surely only a matter of time.

The British comic sector is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

There'll always be a small contingent of diehards who'll happily jump through all the hoops necessary to obtain the latest issue of something (incidentally, I'm still in possession of my trophy receipt from this famously circuitous jaunt to Worcester Park), who'll know exactly where to go to buy their comics, and who'll know the comics exist to buy in the first place. 99% of the population do not have even one of these luxuries.

Before I go on to describe my own experiences, let's get Lew Stringer's post out of the way.

He at least doesn't make the basic (and repeated) mistake of assuming that Abbott was complaining about the lack of British superheroes, and the article is rather more level-headed as a result:
To a certain extent the critics do have a point. The mainstream UK comics industry is far less healthy than it was 40 or 50 years ago and I doubt we'll ever see a return to those glory days. But it's certainly not dead.
But it then goes downhill, and the following is what I am shortly going to address:
Comics have broken away from solely using the traditional weekly-in-newsagents format and branched out as graphic novels in bookshops, subscription-only comics, or online models.
Sadly, all three alternatives given are a failure, and in each case the cause is remarkably similar: lack of cash, and corresponding lack of awareness. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other (and there's no better practical demonstration of this than Fifty Shades itself, which started out as a Twilight fanfic), but there's certainly a strong correlation.

The DFC was a subscription-only comic, bursting with fresh new talent, but for some reason everyone seems rather reluctant to mention it in defence of the UK comic industry. Oh, yes; that's because it ran at a massive loss and was abandoned by its publisher. The truncated saga of Comic Football also merits mention here.

Do you suppose there could possibly have been a reason behind the DFC's successor's decision to shackle itself to an exclusive distribution deal with Waitrose, just for the sake of breaking away from the subscription-only model? If the Phoenix was willing to make that compromise (which, as we now know, was a disastrously wrong-headed idea), it must have been desperate to get any retail presence, at any price. Assume for the sake of argument that their commercial staff know what they're doing, and it's not exactly a great vote of confidence.

Online models... sure, they're great when they work (and even better when they work so well that the authors can afford to just take the mickey when they don't need the money anyway), but they work for about 0.1% of all webcomics. Granted, that's a better success rate than the 0% of subscription-only print comics turning a profit, but still dismal when you consider the massively untapped market out there, squeezed out of the mainstream by little more than cultural conventions into the last few remaining refuges in places like a dingy crossroads in the middle of the red light district of London's red light district.

Graphic novels in bookshops, you say? Hang on, I'm coming to that...
Just because WH Smith no longer has shelves creaking under the weight of dozens of comic titles doesn't mean they're not out there.
Yes, they're still out there... but you have to know that, and you have to know how to go and get them. Joe Q. Public doesn't. Say, did I ever tell you about my trip to Chesham...?

This leaves one last potential source of comics, reasonably mainstream, accessible to the public and with the realistic potential to shift in reasonably large quantities:
Comics have broken away from solely using the traditional weekly-in-newsagents format and branched out as graphic novels in bookshops...
Graphic novels in bookshops?

Until today (well, yesterday), I'd never seen a graphic novel in a bookshop.

Now, I have. Know how? I went explicitly looking for them.

I eventually found them on the top floor, occupying a couple of minor shelves and half a table near the sci-fi facing away from the staircase. Because, you know, 'comics' equals 'sci-fi'. Or, more accurately, 'comics' equals 'superheroes'.

This is exactly the toxic attitude from retailers which has got us into this mess, and allowed the American comic industry to stomp the British one into the ground.

Would you like to see what I found?

Here is a small blank bookcase next to one labelled "Dark Fantasy", accompanied by an illustration which leaves you in no doubt as to which kind of fantasy is being referred to. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't like to be seen hanging too closely around that shelf. The contents are American and Japanese imports:
marvel.jpg
Here is half of a small table sort-of-near to the location of the above photo, this time restrictively signposted "Sci-Fi & Fantasy". Notice the prominence of Alan Moore and Mark Millar. Notice, too, the collected edition of V for Vendetta - a strip started in a British comic (Warrior), but finished under an American imprint after Warrior failed. A better analogy for just how much American comics have gained in the UK marketplace at the expense of its native produce simply cannot be had:
scifi.jpg
And, last but not least, I simply must show you the only other graphic novels I found in the place. This time they're not American. They're not even Canadian, and heaven forbid they should be Japanese. They're... Belgian and French:
frenchies.jpg
That's not quite the whole story - on my way out I saw a copy of Simone Lia's Please, God, Find me a Husband! lurking on the small shelf beside the queueing area. But that was it.

Now, of course, the thing about Waterstones is that every branch is different, and no doubt some are friendlier than this. Some even have sections labelled as such. I've never seen one, but then that's just down to where I live - and that should never, ever be my problem. The Phoenix is bloody lucky that I trek up to Gosh every Saturday to buy it, because you can bet that, on average, not a single one of the many people I pass on my journey there, on train and on foot, will extend the same courtesy. I got Nelson from the same place. I shouldn't have had to do that. While I, and a significant proportion of the rest of the population, have to, the British comic industry will remain dead as a doornail.

Shortly after I tweeted my Waterstones pictures, I received this passing reply:
This was later followed up with:
Can you not see? Can you not see that this is exactly the attitude we're fighting against? The sneers of "they're hardly going to have graphic novels as bestsellers", and the instruction to find a "specialist shop"? The casual dismissal of comics as an artform, the sincerely held view that they belong on the margins, in the ghettos, at the wrong end of a train journey, all so that people who know they're there, and know they want them, and know what hoops to jump through, can get them, while normal people who grew out of Dennis the Menace and that sort of thing at the age of 12 and aren't that big on that superhero stuff all comics are full of can contentedly glide through their lives wilfully ignorant of an entire, cash-starved sector dying right under their noses for want of precisely the sort of attention they simply can't get from their position ensconced firmly outside the mainstream.

And so the vicious circle rolls on, and gradually consumes more and more of the British public and - by extension - the British publishing and bookselling sectors, until we arrive at the state of affairs which we have today, which is that British comics are effectively dead. You can whine about how they're not really dead and about how we still have a comic book industry for those who care to look for it all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that nobody ever will look for it. It'll carry on scratching a living among the last few scraps of the public who deign to acknowledge its existence, it'll continually fail to attract more to the table, and eventually, no matter how good it is, it'll fail in purist as well as practical terms.

And people like OriginalBookGrl will smile, cast one leering look back at the mountain of shattered dreams and crushed talent, turn their attention back to promoting 'things which sell', and throw another fifty million quid of marketing money after Fifty Shades of Grey.
Help! Help! We're being held prisoner in a signature factory!

Lew Stringer
Posts: 7041
Joined: 01 Mar 2006, 00:59
Contact:

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Lew Stringer »

swirlythingy wrote: Ah, yes, the Dandy. There's a new set of ABC sales figures due out soon, isn't there? Tell me, has it managed to sell more than 8,000 copies per issue yet? I wonder if there are any magazines apart from Times Higher Education Scotland beneath it in the rankings yet? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones - and people trying to prove that British comics are not a commercial failure would be well advised to gloss over the Dandy.
You're seriously pointing to the longest running comic in the world as a "commercial failure"?
swirlythingy wrote: This, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the Fifty Shades/Harry Potter phenomenon. Blank Slate are all very well in their way, but can you picture a window in Waterstones piled high with copies of Nelson, surrounded by banners reading "Buy the book twenty million people are talking about"? That's because, however much they might deserve to be, Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix et al. will never be as successful as EL James, and a not insignificant part of the reason for that is that they will never catch even a whiff of the advertising megabucks which Fifty Shades' publisher has, for their own inscrutable reasons, chosen to hurl straight at a property which was already guaranteed to shift - had already shifted - in the millions.
Yep, some books sell more copies than comics. (And many movies are more popular than books.) That's nothing new. However you're talking about an exceptional advertising campaign that doesn't apply to 99% of books. Let's keep it in perspective. I appreciate that you were born after the days when comics were regularly advertised on TV, or may not have heard about the big push that Eagle comic had when it was launched in 1950, but comics did have their moment in the spotlight. Not quite as in yer face as Shades of Grey, but they got noticed.
swirlythingy wrote: This is the very point which Abbott made in his final paragraph:
So Publishers, get your act together! Put your house in order! We can’t subsist on American imports forever. The talent is ready. The audience is waiting. It’s time to get the cheque books out.
Because comic publishers have a bottomless pit of money, right? :roll:
swirlythingy wrote: Graphic novels in bookshops?

Until today (well, yesterday), I'd never seen a graphic novel in a bookshop.
Seriously? They've been in bookshops for several years. (Waterstones, Smiths, the late lamented Borders). You can't really blame the shops or the industry if you haven't noticed them.
swirlythingy wrote: ...British comics are effectively dead. You can whine about how they're not really dead and about how we still have a comic book industry for those who care to look for it all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that nobody ever will look for it.
Oh I don't think it's the positive people doing the whining.

By the way, I couldn't be bothered to pick through your critique of my blog post but I'll just point out that in response to some online comments (on various blogs, by various people) that the mainstream UK industry was literally "dead" I was simply stating that UK comics are still around, and that some had branched out into bookshops, digital, etc.

I don't know why you responded to my blog here instead of posting a comment on my blog but since you have I thought I'd respond here.

I was just using facts to contradict a school of thought that ignores the comics that do still exist. I wasn't claiming everything in the garden is rosy or that the digital model will save the industry. I don't know if anything will turn things around, but at least myself and others are trying, every day of our working lives, to keep comics afloat. I hope it's more productive than spending our time opining about every perceived flaw in a comic or saying how the industry is doomed without offering anything beyond "Someone should do something".
Last edited by Lew Stringer on 11 Jul 2012, 11:21, edited 2 times in total.
The blog of British comics: http://lewstringer.blogspot.com
My website: http://www.lewstringer.com
Blog about my own work: http://lewstringercomics.blogspot.com/

Phoenix
Guru
Posts: 5348
Joined: 27 Mar 2008, 21:15

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Phoenix »

swirlythingy wrote: Both films were unarguably based on comics created in their respective countries
As far as I am aware, there never was a Tamara Drewe comic. The story, written and illustrated by Posy Simmonds, appeared as a weekly strip in The Guardian five or six years ago.

User avatar
Digifiend
Posts: 7281
Joined: 15 Aug 2007, 11:43
Location: Hull, UK

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Digifiend »

You need a specialist shop? What the heck was OriginalBookGrl thinking? Waterstones is pretty much the closest thing to that. There's no such thing as a shop dedicated only to graphic novels, at least not in this country (maybe in Japan).

My local Waterstones isn't that smart about where to keep things stocked either. When I bought The Very Best of Black Bob from there, it was in the graphic novels section, despite half the content being prose, and sticking out on a shelf where it didn't really fit (the other nostalgia books have tended to end up in the Humour section, although that doesn't really fit titles like Jackie and Look-in, they seem to be totally lacking a suitable section for them). I've also found the re-released Target novelisations of Doctor Who stocked in the sci-fi section - but the Eleventh Doctor books are instead in the children's department (a mistake also made by WHSmith - it's not a kids show, those books belong in an all ages section - they even had a DW reference book in the kids section, but that one's definitely aimed at the long term fans).

User avatar
George Shiers
Posts: 236
Joined: 24 Nov 2011, 07:46
Contact:

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by George Shiers »

Digifiend wrote:There's no such thing as a shop dedicated only to graphic novels, at least not in this country (maybe in Japan).
Wow! Really? There's loads here in NZ! In fact - I saw two today! :)

But I really don't think that the British Comics Industry is dead, or dying for that matter. There's loads of comics out there, and I think these people are new to the industry:

http://kultcreations.blogspot.com

And I'm sure D.C. Thomson have no intentions to end The Beano or The Dandy just yet. A few years ago they were even going to relaunch The Beezer, but The Beano Max came out instead.

And what about The Phoenix? That's got a secured two years thanks to an investor (who must be a keen comics fan!). And Strip Magazine is new too - for those who are fans of adventure strips.

I know people do say that the industry is dead, and that all these "modern" comics are rubbish - but I bet that they'd be truly devestated if Thomson did end The Beano or Dandy.

Just sayin'
Visit my blog all about British comics old and new! http://www.whackycomics.blogspot.com

User avatar
philcom55
Posts: 5170
Joined: 14 Jun 2006, 11:56

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by philcom55 »

Funnily enough I wrote an Art History thesis way back in the 1970s about the 'Death of the British Comics Industry' following the wholesale cancellation of titles like Eagle, TV21, Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Lion, Valiant, etc. Ironically this was largely inspired by the launch of 2000AD which, at the time, seemed like the final insult to the adventure comics I'd grown up with: especially the 'updated' Dan Dare with his inane slang ('drokk it!), the thinly disguised cold-war xenophobia of 'Invasion', and Judge Dredd's blatant fascism!

But of course, 'I was so much older then - I'm younger than that now!' :)

- Phil Rushton

User avatar
swirlythingy
Posts: 563
Joined: 17 Mar 2011, 00:16
Location: Wimbledon, UK

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by swirlythingy »

Maybe I should have written my fourth paragraph in big bold letters:
swirlythingy wrote:Let's start by clearing one thing up right away. In this post, I am talking about the comic industry - that is, the selling of comics to people who buy them, or otherwise enabling the creators of said comics to earn a living by writing and drawing. I am not talking about the British talent pool at large, which, as anyone who's glimpsed the pages of Nelson will know, is in rude health - possibly ruder than it's ever been before. But being able to make comics isn't the same thing at all as being able to survive on them.
The Phoenix is brilliant. I'm sure Strip Magazine is lovely. This week's issue of the Dandy was especially chortlesome, and I'm sure DC Thomson are quite willing to continue subsidising it for the forseeable future.

All these wonderful comics, by a large and diverse talent pool, exist. But people aren't buying them.
Help! Help! We're being held prisoner in a signature factory!

User avatar
ISPYSHHHGUY
Posts: 4275
Joined: 14 Oct 2007, 13:05
Location: BLITZVILLE, USA

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by ISPYSHHHGUY »

I don't think British Comics are dead, but they're not a force to be reckoned with, as they once were.....comics have become more like a 'cottage industry', catering for a specialist niche, a bit like vinyl records which still sell to some enthusiasts, but not to the masses.

Comics will never die out as long as society exists, but the 'Glory Days' sure seem to be long over---this is not doom-laden talk, this is just saying it how it is.

Lew Stringer
Posts: 7041
Joined: 01 Mar 2006, 00:59
Contact:

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Lew Stringer »

swirlythingy wrote:Maybe I should have written my fourth paragraph in big bold letters:
Maybe you should cut back on the attitude. I was quite aware that you were not targeting the creators, and my response only dealt with points you raised, although your calling our optimism a "whine" doesn't exactly come across as friendly.
ISPYSHHHGUY wrote: Comics will never die out as long as society exists, but the 'Glory Days' sure seem to be long over---this is not doom-laden talk, this is just saying it how it is.
No one's disputing that Rab. We're just trying to do the best we can under the circumstances, and I do appreciate that everyone on this forum has a passion and wish for UK comics to survive. :up:
The blog of British comics: http://lewstringer.blogspot.com
My website: http://www.lewstringer.com
Blog about my own work: http://lewstringercomics.blogspot.com/

User avatar
Digifiend
Posts: 7281
Joined: 15 Aug 2007, 11:43
Location: Hull, UK

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Digifiend »

George Shiers wrote: And I'm sure D.C. Thomson have no intentions to end The Beano or The Dandy just yet. A few years ago they were even going to relaunch The Beezer, but The Beano Max came out instead.
Wasn't it the Wizard, not the Beezer?

Phoenix
Guru
Posts: 5348
Joined: 27 Mar 2008, 21:15

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Phoenix »

Digifiend wrote:Wasn't it the Wizard, not the Beezer?
The Wizard and The Beano Max were two quite different life forms. I realise you are asking a question, Digi, but can you dig up any information that might shed more light on the matter?

User avatar
Captain Storm
Posts: 898
Joined: 01 Mar 2006, 21:15
Location: 1981
Contact:

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Captain Storm »

Hi all,

Just my 2 cents here and not geared towards any post or individual in particular. We all have a passion for comics and how things used to be and hopefully how they may be in the future. But times change and so do comics. Back in the day when each title sold in its millions , there was very little else competition to meet. The only other media outlets for younsters was the T.V. or the cinema. No video consoles and no internet. No mobile phones. Nothing. Just comics. So that is what everybody bought! So now we find today that there are video consoles , internet and mobile phones. So that is what everybody is buying! And up against all that , comics in one form or another are still being published. This is a minor miracle in itself and something we should be applauding. Of course the format has changed and may not be to everyones taste. But they are still here. Some may say the strips are not on a par with days of yore. But let's be honest. A lot of strips in a lot of comics back then were mediocre while some were pure gold. Also paradoxically , if it weren't for the invention of the Internet , none of us would be having this conversation right now! So I say hats off to the smalll band of creators and publishing firms who are still ploughing the field. I know some ( me included ) bemoan the fact that the shelves aren't bursting at the seams with countless titles to choose from , but that was then and this is now. Also if you go to many newsagents , just count the number of different titles for sale. I admit a lot are tv/movie tie-ins and nursery titles , but they by and large still count as comics even if they only host one strip. So a little exercise there for people. Actually count the number of titles for sale. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Now who says the comics industry is dead?!

The Cap.

User avatar
-MikeD-
Posts: 372
Joined: 06 Jan 2011, 18:15
Location: Hull - UK
Contact:

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by -MikeD- »

With the exception of 2000ad, my kids have moved on to the American reprint comics, all of them superheroes. A good British action comic would have kept them interested but there's nowt on the racks. Phoenix never hooked them - too safe. Actually, no kid I know wants to read a comic which appears to be edited by the ghosts of Fredric Wertham and Marcus Morris. Maybe I just know some bad to the bone kids…. :D

It pains me to admit it, as I'm not a fan of the genre, but I wish we could create a few home grown superheroes. It's what the UK market needs right now.
My new art blog...beta version... http://mikedcuk.blogspot.co.uk

User avatar
Tin Can Tommy
Posts: 511
Joined: 20 Aug 2011, 10:05

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by Tin Can Tommy »

-MikeD- wrote:It pains me to admit it, as I'm not a fan of the genre, but I wish we could create a few home grown superheroes. It's what the UK market needs right now.

Why do we need a superhero? Comics can be used to tell any story just as much as a book can. What we need is a comic or Graphic Novel (they're the same thing really) to show that, and somehow manage to be a success at the same time, so as to change the image that comics are all cheap throway genre (usually super heroes) fiction for children.

And anyway when was the last new popular superhero created anyway? The newest I can think of is Spawn and he's over 20 years old now. It's not just bad for British comics it seems but american ones as well. (But I dont really know how healthy the American comic market is to be honest that was just a guess. I dont read any current comics other than the Beano, Viz and occassionally the Dandy or the Phoenix so no american comics or anything particularly intelligent and sophisticated)

steelclaw
DC Skelton
Posts: 1868
Joined: 01 Mar 2006, 19:24

Re: British comics are dead. Discuss.

Post by steelclaw »

swirlythingy wrote:I visited my local Waterstones today (well, yesterday), and the very first thing which greeted me was an entire window stacked full of nothing but Fifty Shades of Grey. Just inside, there were yet more piles of the wretched thing, accompanied by a large banner reading, "Buy the book twenty million people are talking about." Surely, I couldn't help thinking, if a book is that successful then it has obliterated all need to advertise it? After all, it's not exactly thanks to the loose wallet of its publisher that it made it to this position in the first place - indeed, it became a runaway word-of-mouth ebook success without any help whatsoever, and by the time the contract was signed to print it, the book was very much doing a favour for its publisher, rather than the other way around.

Now, when you think about what that gigantic marketing budget could have been spent on - promoting books which actually need it, for instance, rather than throwing some of your biggest money-spinner's own money right back at it just because you can - it begins to look like very twisted priorities. It's like the ridiculously huge budgets which JK Rowling used to command in the latter days of her career. It was a known fact that, up and down the country, bookshops were ordering Harry Potter books in their thousands and organising special events at midnight on release days simply to cater for the massive pre-existing demand. Who on earth made the decision that the books plainly weren't yet popular enough?

On a not entirely unrelated note, I was present in this shop because I was on the hunt for graphic novels. You've probably worked out by now that this peculiar expedition was a direct result of Paul Abbott's infamous article in the Spectator, declaring the British comic book industry dead, and its various responses. At first glance, the arguments for and against might seem to be a rather crude display of oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it-isn't contrarianism - but I'm of the opinion that a lot of this is simply because they are talking at cross-purposes, and not bothering to counter each other's points.

Let's start by clearing one thing up right away. In this post, I am talking about the comic industry - that is, the selling of comics to people who buy them, or otherwise enabling the creators of said comics to earn a living by writing and drawing. I am not talking about the British talent pool at large, which, as anyone who's glimpsed the pages of Nelson will know, is in rude health - possibly ruder than it's ever been before. But being able to make comics isn't the same thing at all as being able to survive on them.

I'll start with James Hunt's New Statesman 'rebuttal', since it's the more easily demolished.

One of the very first claims made in the Spectator article is:
Certainly, there is no shortage of appetite here in Blighty. Our sales figures are positively stellar. We shovelled away the last Batman film - to the tune of £57 million quid on cinema tickets, in a few weekends - and now we are clamouring for the next one.
The NS article doesn't do itself any favours by leading with a large picture of Tamara Drewe. The Dark Knight took £11.1 million in the UK on its opening weekend, and much more in the US. The film of Tamara Drewe, released two years later, took £0.6 million, plus a derisory amount in the US.

Both films were unarguably based on comics created in their respective countries, and yet one was equally indisputably much more successful than the other. Hunt doesn't let this stop him from lifting this one inconvenient fact out of its context and using it to construct a strawman of the article:
It's fair to say that Abbott's article for the Spectator, Wanted: A Comic Book Industry, has its heart in the right place. It's clearly written by someone with a genuine love of superhero comics. But tainting that enthusiasm is a dismissive attitude towards British comics typical of someone who hasn't looked past their comic shop pull-list since Wolverine first popped his claws...

Among the various mistaken assumptions Abbott makes are that superheroes are the natural goal of a healthy comics industry, that superhero movies are the ultimate vindication of that success, and that Britain, if it wants to compete with America, needs to put its own superheroes in movies.
And so on and so forth. I admit the extended Captain Britain tangent in Abbott's fifth paragraph added almost nothing to the article, but his central point is not that Britain is lacking in superheroes, as Hunt unfairly portrays it, but that it is lacking in heroes in general - or at least in anything standing up to even the most generous of comparisons with America's ubiquitous characters.

One of the only British comic characters to even come close to holding a candle in terms of public recognition to the likes of Superman is Dennis the Menace, who is inherently lumbered with the (all too common in Britain) assumption that reading comics is something you eventually grow out of. American comic culture has steamrollered our own. As loads of people in the UK comics community will tell you at the drop of a hat, the UK is full to bursting with quality, original, well-written characters - but this doesn't alter the unfortunate truth that most of them are known only to the people who are fond of listing them. Ask the man on the Clapham omnibus to name a comic character, and he'll say, "Spiderman."

At this point it's customary for someone to mention Judge Dredd. Funnily enough, he has a new movie coming up as well. How do you think it'll compare, commercially, to The Dark Knight Rises? I predict, with a reasonable degree of certainty, total Tamara Drewe-esque annihilation.

Later on in the article, Abbott quotes Shane Chebsey from ScarComics.com, who makes a very relevant point about the superhero imbalance that Hunt completely ignores:
'A huge obstacle is distribution. There is one major distributor of comics in the western hemisphere: Diamond. They have a virtual monopoly and only get behind books published by the major US publishers, which means comic shops are full of derivative superhero comics that outnumber other genres 10 to 1.'
Nobody's saying that Britain needs to produce derivative superhero comics, least of all Abbott. He is simply making the very valid point that, if you don't make superhero comics, you can't sell your comic, not through any fault of yours, but precisely because the market is broken in such a way that you simply won't be able to get it into shops.

It's no coincidence that some of the most successful British creators - Grant Morrison, Alan Moore et al. - only found fame and fortune when they took work in American comics and wrote superhero comics.

In the middle of this relentless adversity, some brave souls - bless their little cotton socks - actually are trying to make comics about things other than superheroes. Hunt wastes no time in pointing out their existence:
But Abbott doesn't let being under-informed hold him back, characterising the totality of British comics history as "nasty, brutish, and short". A surprise, no doubt, to the talent behind the Beano and the Dandy, two of the longest-running comics in the world.
Ah, yes, the Dandy. There's a new set of ABC sales figures due out soon, isn't there? Tell me, has it managed to sell more than 8,000 copies per issue yet? I wonder if there are any magazines apart from Times Higher Education Scotland beneath it in the rankings yet? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones - and people trying to prove that British comics are not a commercial failure would be well advised to gloss over the Dandy.
Blaming publishers for the lack of British heroes is counter-intuitive when the likes of Nobrow, Blank Slate, and Self-Made Hero are championing original, often untested talent and finding stories with broad, accessible appeal. Similarly, 2000AD, Strip, and Mark Millar's CLiNT magazine maintain a steady periodical presence for genre material.
It's a memorable event every time I see a copy of 2000AD. I've noticed that, in general, the obscurity of material found on a WHSmith magazine rack increases in direct proportion to the size of said rack. I last saw a copy in the very furthest, deepest, darkest corner of a magazine rack which occupied practically an entire wall of an enormous branch, filed right next to Clint. Somehow I don't think those'll sell too well...

As for Nobrow, Blank Slate and Self-Made Hero, don't make me laugh. I was in no way exaggerating when, months ago, I bemoaned the complete invisibility of graphic novels outside the "Soho ghetto".

Continuing with the same childish, simplistic interpretation of Abbott's article, Hunt attempts to point out the diversity of the UK's comic material:
The outlets are there for the Batman of Brighton or the Stoke-on-Trent Spider-Man – but the stories aren't.
On the contrary, the stories are very much there (even if not superhero-centric), as are the outlets (2000AD, Nobrow, etc.), but the distribution isn't.

This is one of the few points where Abbott slips up badly, with a bizarre and nonsensical sideswipe at "[publishers'] echo-chamber outlets in the Guardian and the BBC", but the basic sentiment is sound. There is a massive amount of activity in the UK comic book industry today, no shortage of enthusiasm and talent - but it's all completely invisible. For all we know, there might well be a massive market in the UK as well, just as there is in Japan and Europe, where comics are treated as an equal artform rather than something to be looked down upon, but it's never been given a chance to prove itself.

This, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the Fifty Shades/Harry Potter phenomenon. Blank Slate are all very well in their way, but can you picture a window in Waterstones piled high with copies of Nelson, surrounded by banners reading "Buy the book twenty million people are talking about"? That's because, however much they might deserve to be, Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix et al. will never be as successful as EL James, and a not insignificant part of the reason for that is that they will never catch even a whiff of the advertising megabucks which Fifty Shades' publisher has, for their own inscrutable reasons, chosen to hurl straight at a property which was already guaranteed to shift - had already shifted - in the millions.

This is the very point which Abbott made in his final paragraph:
So Publishers, get your act together! Put your house in order! We can’t subsist on American imports forever. The talent is ready. The audience is waiting. It’s time to get the cheque books out.
Nobrow, Blank Slate and Self-Made Hero can do it right all they like, but a vanishingly small proportion of the population have ever heard of them, and an even smaller one will buy their books. This is because they have absolutely zero exposure in the UK's cultural mainstream. And if a Hugo Tate film is ever proposed, it'll be laughed out of the studio.

I'm not sure I want to think about the prospect of a Fifty Shades film, but it's surely only a matter of time.

The British comic sector is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

There'll always be a small contingent of diehards who'll happily jump through all the hoops necessary to obtain the latest issue of something (incidentally, I'm still in possession of my trophy receipt from this famously circuitous jaunt to Worcester Park), who'll know exactly where to go to buy their comics, and who'll know the comics exist to buy in the first place. 99% of the population do not have even one of these luxuries.

Before I go on to describe my own experiences, let's get Lew Stringer's post out of the way.

He at least doesn't make the basic (and repeated) mistake of assuming that Abbott was complaining about the lack of British superheroes, and the article is rather more level-headed as a result:
To a certain extent the critics do have a point. The mainstream UK comics industry is far less healthy than it was 40 or 50 years ago and I doubt we'll ever see a return to those glory days. But it's certainly not dead.
But it then goes downhill, and the following is what I am shortly going to address:
Comics have broken away from solely using the traditional weekly-in-newsagents format and branched out as graphic novels in bookshops, subscription-only comics, or online models.
Sadly, all three alternatives given are a failure, and in each case the cause is remarkably similar: lack of cash, and corresponding lack of awareness. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other (and there's no better practical demonstration of this than Fifty Shades itself, which started out as a Twilight fanfic), but there's certainly a strong correlation.

The DFC was a subscription-only comic, bursting with fresh new talent, but for some reason everyone seems rather reluctant to mention it in defence of the UK comic industry. Oh, yes; that's because it ran at a massive loss and was abandoned by its publisher. The truncated saga of Comic Football also merits mention here.

Do you suppose there could possibly have been a reason behind the DFC's successor's decision to shackle itself to an exclusive distribution deal with Waitrose, just for the sake of breaking away from the subscription-only model? If the Phoenix was willing to make that compromise (which, as we now know, was a disastrously wrong-headed idea), it must have been desperate to get any retail presence, at any price. Assume for the sake of argument that their commercial staff know what they're doing, and it's not exactly a great vote of confidence.

Online models... sure, they're great when they work (and even better when they work so well that the authors can afford to just take the mickey when they don't need the money anyway), but they work for about 0.1% of all webcomics. Granted, that's a better success rate than the 0% of subscription-only print comics turning a profit, but still dismal when you consider the massively untapped market out there, squeezed out of the mainstream by little more than cultural conventions into the last few remaining refuges in places like a dingy crossroads in the middle of the red light district of London's red light district.

Graphic novels in bookshops, you say? Hang on, I'm coming to that...
Just because WH Smith no longer has shelves creaking under the weight of dozens of comic titles doesn't mean they're not out there.
Yes, they're still out there... but you have to know that, and you have to know how to go and get them. Joe Q. Public doesn't. Say, did I ever tell you about my trip to Chesham...?

This leaves one last potential source of comics, reasonably mainstream, accessible to the public and with the realistic potential to shift in reasonably large quantities:
Comics have broken away from solely using the traditional weekly-in-newsagents format and branched out as graphic novels in bookshops...
Graphic novels in bookshops?

Until today (well, yesterday), I'd never seen a graphic novel in a bookshop.

Now, I have. Know how? I went explicitly looking for them.

I eventually found them on the top floor, occupying a couple of minor shelves and half a table near the sci-fi facing away from the staircase. Because, you know, 'comics' equals 'sci-fi'. Or, more accurately, 'comics' equals 'superheroes'.

This is exactly the toxic attitude from retailers which has got us into this mess, and allowed the American comic industry to stomp the British one into the ground.

Would you like to see what I found?

Here is a small blank bookcase next to one labelled "Dark Fantasy", accompanied by an illustration which leaves you in no doubt as to which kind of fantasy is being referred to. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't like to be seen hanging too closely around that shelf. The contents are American and Japanese imports:
marvel.jpg
Here is half of a small table sort-of-near to the location of the above photo, this time restrictively signposted "Sci-Fi & Fantasy". Notice the prominence of Alan Moore and Mark Millar. Notice, too, the collected edition of V for Vendetta - a strip started in a British comic (Warrior), but finished under an American imprint after Warrior failed. A better analogy for just how much American comics have gained in the UK marketplace at the expense of its native produce simply cannot be had:
scifi.jpg
And, last but not least, I simply must show you the only other graphic novels I found in the place. This time they're not American. They're not even Canadian, and heaven forbid they should be Japanese. They're... Belgian and French:
frenchies.jpg
That's not quite the whole story - on my way out I saw a copy of Simone Lia's Please, God, Find me a Husband! lurking on the small shelf beside the queueing area. But that was it.

Now, of course, the thing about Waterstones is that every branch is different, and no doubt some are friendlier than this. Some even have sections labelled as such. I've never seen one, but then that's just down to where I live - and that should never, ever be my problem. The Phoenix is bloody lucky that I trek up to Gosh every Saturday to buy it, because you can bet that, on average, not a single one of the many people I pass on my journey there, on train and on foot, will extend the same courtesy. I got Nelson from the same place. I shouldn't have had to do that. While I, and a significant proportion of the rest of the population, have to, the British comic industry will remain dead as a doornail.

Shortly after I tweeted my Waterstones pictures, I received this passing reply:
This was later followed up with:
Can you not see? Can you not see that this is exactly the attitude we're fighting against? The sneers of "they're hardly going to have graphic novels as bestsellers", and the instruction to find a "specialist shop"? The casual dismissal of comics as an artform, the sincerely held view that they belong on the margins, in the ghettos, at the wrong end of a train journey, all so that people who know they're there, and know they want them, and know what hoops to jump through, can get them, while normal people who grew out of Dennis the Menace and that sort of thing at the age of 12 and aren't that big on that superhero stuff all comics are full of can contentedly glide through their lives wilfully ignorant of an entire, cash-starved sector dying right under their noses for want of precisely the sort of attention they simply can't get from their position ensconced firmly outside the mainstream.

And so the vicious circle rolls on, and gradually consumes more and more of the British public and - by extension - the British publishing and bookselling sectors, until we arrive at the state of affairs which we have today, which is that British comics are effectively dead. You can whine about how they're not really dead and about how we still have a comic book industry for those who care to look for it all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that nobody ever will look for it. It'll carry on scratching a living among the last few scraps of the public who deign to acknowledge its existence, it'll continually fail to attract more to the table, and eventually, no matter how good it is, it'll fail in purist as well as practical terms.

And people like OriginalBookGrl will smile, cast one leering look back at the mountain of shattered dreams and crushed talent, turn their attention back to promoting 'things which sell', and throw another fifty million quid of marketing money after Fifty Shades of Grey.
What was the question again?

Post Reply