In the last weeks of summer, one comic in particular has been getting a tremendous amount of mainstream press coverage here in the UK, from broadsheet national newspapers to the venerable BBC. They're not talking about Batman or Spider-Man, but The Dandy - one of the three longest running comics in the world, and a staple of British childhood for those of us over a certain age. Sadly the coverage was for the worst of reasons: The Dandy is to cease publication, the news slightly softened with a move to a digital only form.
The reason? Low circulation figures, with a drop from its once lofty weekly sales of over 2 million to only an average of 7,489. As a flagship title, The Dandy's cancellation has led to an avalanche of sensationalist speculation: that children no longer read comics, that children no longer read(!), and that computers and video games are surely to blame (aren't they always?), along with the imminent implosion of all comics and books the world over.
This idea of comics as a failing art form (and children as failing readers) is annoying to me not only as a comics fan, but because in one of my secret identities I happen to be a children's bookseller. An expert even, with a shiny badge and everything. And as I've said before many times, comics have been dying since they were born, a boom and bust industry that rides on optimism yet is chased by inexhaustible pessimism. So here are some facts and figures to show that as sad as it is that one of the oldest comic titles around has had to admit defeat, children's magazines and comics in particular are still in demand, and in fact that demand is on the rise...
In July, the UK bookselling industry released the half year figures, courtesy of Nielsen. While it was no surprise to anyone that the genre showing the greatest growth was "Biography: Royalty" (tourists, we thank you for buying the myriad of books about the Queen and her corgis), what has surprised many is the second biggest grower: "Children's Comic Strip Fiction", pulling in a handsome £1.3 million, a growth of 86% (£0.6m) from the same period last year.
Comic strip fiction includes titles like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Dork Diaries, and Big Nate amongst others, books that are part prose and part comic strip illustrations, as well as the usual suspects such as Tintin, The Rainbow Orchid, Asterix, Marvel Adventures etc, and graphic novel adaptations including Percy Jackson, Alex Rider, and Cherub. This will be none too surprising to watchers of The New York Times Bestseller lists and those within the book industry (the initial print run, for example, of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever was the largest ever from publisher Puffin, and the largest UK run from head publisher Penguin at that time), but it may be a revelation to those who only shop in comic shops or in book shops where the comics are hard to find.
Earlier this year I implemented a Comics for All Ages display in the children's department of the small book shop I worked in, partly as an experiment to see if it could work, and partly in what I suspected might be a misplaced total belief that it would work. The "Graphics Novel" section, that is the section that includes all GNs and trade paper backs and hard covers etc, had expanded under my hand from a two shelf slot in Sci-Fi & Fantasy to my very own two bay collection of hundreds of the bestselling and critically acclaimed books, which is booming. Frequently I had younger customers struggling to find a comic that suited them and that their parents found tasteful, and much of DC/Marvel/Image was failing in this regard badly. Even those without parental censorship were pushed to find something that wasn't "boring superheroes" as one kid rather succinctly put it.
I ordered in a bunch of stock, mostly from the US where there are far more titles for children available (and some sadly undeliverable in the UK), for the youngest child to the hardest to please teenager: Tintin, Asterix, Blake & Mortimer, The Rainbow Orchid, Owly, Bone, Hildafolk, Commando, Magic Trixie, Zita the Spacegirl, Marvel Adventures, Anya's Ghost, Johnny Boo, Skottie Young's Pet Avengers and Oz series, Thor the Mighty Avenger, Batman: Mad Love, Super Animal Adventure Squad, Vern and Lettuce, Good Dog Bad Dog, Artemis Fowl, Silverfin, The Recruit, Percy Jackson, Alex Rider... all with a sprinkling of Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries and Big Nate to attract young eyes to this bounty of new material.
A mark of success - it never stayed fully stocked!
Now bearing in mind that the above was for a half bay in a small store (ie this is core stock to be expanded upon in larger stores), and that replenishing stock from the US was time consuming and meant I never had a full complement of titles, what was the result? If we strip out the Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries and Big Nate, this little selection of comics was so successful with our young customers that it suddenly accounted for over 5% of total children's sales. Add the others back in and we get 10%. Books like Tintin and Asterix we had stocked previously but sales had stagnated; now Tintin in particular was through the roof, and everything was selling. And everything still is selling. This little half bay had a turnover to match the bays at the front of the store holding the latest hardback releases. The display maintained pride of place for 5 months, and even though it has now been replaced by the inevitable seasonal annuals and shuffled round the corner, it is still outperforming its new substitutes.
As other shops are starting to grasp the explosive sales potential of "Graphic Novels", it's my hope that the potential of children's comics will also be seized. Children aren't just reading comics, they are HUNGRY for them. In the UK at least, comic shops aren't terribly appealing for children, and the newsagents and supermarkets only carry the most popular magazines. Which is fine sometimes, but children like getting lots of stories in one go and bizarrely, books are now not that much more expensive than the pricey magazines. But book shops are always welcoming to children, and while some parents still, inexplicably, refuse to allow their children to read comics rather than to "just pick a REAL book", I've got many more coming back for further suggestions, as well as a growing number of teachers looking for tailored lists of content for their classes (both high school and primary). Sadly, I'm running out of new titles because while there are many more out there, not all are available to order through the shop (eg, Tiny Titans, Beanworld, and Babymouse to name but a few). And even more sadly, the many requests for good Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman/X-Men titles that are suitable for the youngest children have to go unanswered. The large comic publishers really need to wake up to their potential book buying audience, which is growing rather than declining. Imagine if you could get a book of JL8 style stories!
Dandy #1 in 1937 - the comic folding is a blow to many.
As a kid myself, the Dandy was a regular purchase, along with its sister publication, The Beano, back in the day when they were 24p each and my Grandma would buy them along with her weekly magazines. The Beano, always the slightly cooler of the two, still has healthy sales in excess of 30,000 copies a week, a particularly good showing for an anthology title. The majority of kids comic sales are determined by whatever the latest craze is: currently Moshi Monsters is the trend, and subsequently the magazine has a monthly circulation of 227,958 - that's more than Vanity Fair or New Scientist. Other high performing kids titles in the UK include Sparkle World (78,816), Disney Princess (66,010), Girl Talk Art, Barbie (53,246), Girl Talk (52,417), Ben 10 (58,529), The Simpsons (51,728), Club Penguin (49,100), Bin Weevils (47,011) and Doctor Who (31,903). Very character driven, with large sales for girls magazines and mixed-gender in particular.
The Bring Back Bunty group (who campaign for a return to a greater variety of children's comics) conducted a study last December, with the results published in May/July this year. Of 169 completed questionnaires 80 were by girls and 89 by boys, ranging in age from 7-11. 64% reported that they read comics and magazines with the number peaking at age 9. The Beano was the top read title, and the primary purchaser was "Mum". Newsagent/shop was where they found out about comics they liked; advertisements had the least influence. 67% wished to see more comics available, while only 24% read online comics. The most popular genres were action/adventure, comedy, mystery (girls), history (boys), and sports (boys). The least popular genres were sci-fi (read more by boys), non-fiction, superhero (read equally by boys and girls), and romance (read more by girls). A large majority preferred one-off complete stories or longer complete stories rather than short stories or serialised stories. The most used websites (and nearly every respondent went online) were Club Penguin, CBBC, and Moshi Monsters. All of which have their own comic magazines.
Desperate Dan's statue in his home city of Dundee (with Minnie the Minx!)
There remain a lot of gaps in the market. Tapping into the television and internet heroes guarantees sales in the short term which is excellent for publishers willing to flit between characters and get on board at the right time. Comics like The Beano are still thriving, in part thanks to the successful animated series of lead character Dennis the Menace in "Dennis and Gnasher" which is regularly shown on children's television channel, CBBC. There is also a new and genuinely fabulous comics magazaine called The Phoenix, which is full of incredible artwork and great stories, with a growing legion of devoted fans (of all ages!). It's the kind of high quality magazine I'd be confident of selling in a book shop. But between the pre-teen years and late-teen years, there is definitely a gap - many of the popular titles are for younger children, and many of the graphic novels and comics available for older readers are either not suitable or not interesting to 13-16 year olds. And once they stop reading, it's very hard to get them to come back. Particularly to the worlds of DC and Marvel which are, unfortunately, very inaccessible to the casual reader. Book shop displays that promote good graphic novels, independent comics, Vertigo and Image titles, and a guide to where to start with Batman or the X-Men can make a big difference.
I predict that the big push will come from the book publishers, who have woken up to the vast potential of the comics market. In the first half of this year, the ninth largest growing genre was "Graphic Novels: Superheroes", earning £2.2 million, a growth of 33% (£0.5m). This is particularly encouraging as "Graphic Novels" as a genre (including all GNs and trade paper backs and hard covers etc) has been one of the sole constant growers for the last 5 years - in stark contrast with the rest of fiction which has been in steep decline ("Adult Fiction" as a whole fell 17% in this half year period). And in my own experience, the biggest sellers are surprising. While Batman and Walking Dead clearly hold the top two spots, the rest is made up of what I personally have ordered in and recommended - Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Chew etc - and solid backlist titles and series that I've recommended like Sandman and V for Vendetta. Some simply needed put in the children's department to hugely boost sales, eg Commando.
The success of children's comics is a five step process: demand from children, which we have; enthusiastic and talented creators, which we have in abundance; publishers who know what their audience wants, which seems half way there; retailers who order the correct stock; and retail staff who know how to merchandise the titles to their best potential.
But most importantly, I assure you: KIDS READ COMICS!
[And yes, I'm available for advising retailers on graphic novel/comics purchasing and merchandising ;) It's one area in which I'm terribly happy to crow because the sales have been phenomenal under my guidance, and the customer feedback makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside!]