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:
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.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.
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:
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.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.
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:
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.'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.'
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:
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.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.
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...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.
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:
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.The outlets are there for the Batman of Brighton or the Stoke-on-Trent Spider-Man – but the stories aren'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:
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.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.
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:
But it then goes downhill, and the following is what I am shortly going to address: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.
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.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.
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...
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...?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.
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:
Graphic novels in bookshops?Comics have broken away from solely using the traditional weekly-in-newsagents format and branched out as 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:
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:
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:
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.@OriginalBookGrl wrote:@swirlythingy So? Complain to the company, don't take it out on one specific store.
@swirlythingy Graphic novels are a big part of Japanese culture, not British, therefore of they stocked tonnes of them, they wouldn't sell.
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.