I believe that comics, and by that I mean comic strips and comic books, should be a mass medium. I hold this belief because the comic strip is one of the simplest forms of communication and/or entertainment, which makes it accessible to the maximum audience. It is also one of the simplest media to create, alongside writing.
So there you are, it’s simple to produce, it’s simple to consume, just get it out there and you’ll have an audience of millions – hey presto mass medium! In some countries comic strips are just that; Japan, Italy, France etc. That’s all okay for the Japanese, Italians and French but what about those of us in the UK and the US?
With movies based on comic strips infesting cinemas you might think that comic strips, and their creators, were doing great, and in some cases you’d be correct. There are some creators who do very nicely out of comics, and good luck to them. But if we look at comic sales we see a steady decline, both in the UK and US, even as movies based on comic strips top the UK and US box office charts.
As a comic strip creator for over 20 years, having been a publisher, a writer, an artist, an inker, a letterer and a comics journalist, I feel I have a unique perspective on the medium and industry. I intend to use this blog to systematically look at both the medium and the industry and pinpoint “WHAT’S WRONG WITH COMICS”. I will do this looking at the medium and industry from a UK and US perspective. Even though I am UK based I will look at both countries because roughly 50% of the UK comic creators produce work for the US. I feel that the UK comic industry is inextricably linked to the US comic industry.
Comic strips should be a mass medium in both countries, and I believe they both fall far short of that. In due course I’ll try to explain why that is, and how comic creators and sellers (and even readers) would all be in a far better position if we could become a mass medium.
Just to lay down a few “ground rules” first, so you’ll understand what I’m trying to do here. I’m not saying what kind of comic strips I like, and I’ll try not to be personal, but I will probably put a few people’s noses out of joint. I will try to identify as many key points which I believe have led creators, publishers, distributors and shop owners down the particular path they have chosen.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to quote chapter and verse as my observations are culled from decades of reading various interviews and features. Much of what you read here may be considered “anecdotal”, as I cannot furnish source material, so let’s just call it a personal view.
I’ll try and stick to basics and always link back to my original premise that the comic strip should be a mass medium, and how that would benefit everyone involved in the industry.
First things first; what is a comic strip, and what is its unique feature? Sounds like a very simple question which should have a very simple answer. A comic strip is a sequence of pictures either with or without words (Will Eisner called it “sequential art”). However some comic artists have tried to accentuate the cinematic qualities of comic strips, while some comic writers have believed that comic strips should be more like novels (hence graphic novels).
Personally I think it helps if again we go back to the very basics. A novel is a whole bunch of words which you turn into pictures in your mind. A novel can have someone contemplating the nature of the universe while they’re stirring a cup of coffee. It can take all the time it needs to elaborate just how a character feels with great subtlety, and at great length. Novels are about ideas and inner thoughts, time can stop as a person’s character is explained in infinite detail, or the history of a locale is laid before us. Some comic creators would say you “could” do all that in a comic strip.
A film shows people and things moving (that’s why they’re still called the movies), and looking pretty much as they do in real life, just maybe a bit more glamorous than real life. It also let’s you hear what they sound like (that’s a bit less important, which is why they’re not called talkies), so it basically creates a stylized reality. Movies have a kinetic energy which allied with sound presents the viewer with a feast for the senses.
So we can say (very simply) that the book feeds the brain and the movie feeds the eyes and ears. Where does that leave the comic strip once we accept that it should not even try to replicate the other two media.
The strength of a comic strip is that you have a distinctive, stylized world view created by a creator, or creative team. I believe that the comic strip is at its strongest when it presents a distinctive character that is portrayed in a style that is uniquely associated with that character. It is this bond between the character and his world which makes the comic strip unique, and it is the use of the cartoon as a means of expression which leads to this relationship. Animation and single panel cartoons come close because they use the same means of expression. The decoding of a sequence of pictures by the comic strip reader differentiates the comic strip from animation and the single cartoon and creates the comic strip experience.
The writer of a novel puts the words on the page and you create the picture, scenario or concept in your own unique mind. The movie maker captures reality and tweaks it slightly to make it more palatable and it plays out on a screen before you. The comic strip reader is presented with a stylized world populated by stylized characters. Unlike the novel reader he does not have to create the pictures in his mind, and unlike the movie viewer he has to imagine movement and sound.
I think it is not an accident that most comic strips are named for a central character, Batman, Spider-Man, Popeye, Judge Dredd, Dennis the Menace, Tintin, Dylan Dog, Astro Boy etc etc. The return of the comic reader to a familiar character in a familiar world is fundamental to the comic strip’s appeal. Therefore we can make a case that the comic strip appeals to the heart, providing us with a character and world which we have grown comfortable with over time.
Many creators have spoken about comic strips being more like novels, but personally I have always thought this was an attempt to gain a spurious profundity. It’s as if the comic strip is trying to sneak into a group photo where it doesn’t belong. When we think of the relative strengths of the different media it is easier to see the different territory they both occupy.
The comic strip conveys meaning through the use of words and pictures working in tandem. It would be difficult to achieve the density of a novel without overloading the comic strip with words to the point of breaking. Comic strips convey their meaning differently and due to the visual medium they use (the cartoon) there is a loss as well as a gain.
I’ll recount a story here which I read in a fanzine. A young comic strip artist produced a life drawing of a girl which was meticulously accurate. He then showed it to some comic fans who couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl – this does not mean that the comic fans were stupid, but it highlights the need for clarity. When a comic strip artist draws a woman there must be no doubt that it is a woman, hence full lips, big eyelashes and big boobs (a cartoon). We can’t afford to leave the reader in any doubt.
Therefore if you have to keep stopping the “action” in a comic strip to explain in words the profound psychological emotions of your character you should just write a damn novel. The use of cartoons in comic strips leaves us with a slightly limited emotional range visually. Happy, no problem, sad, that’s easy, angry, a breeze, but when we come to more complex emotions they become harder to portray visually.
I’m just using this as an example of the different arenas in which different media operate, and how content is often dictated by form. Or to put it another way – “Horses for courses”. An example of what I’m talking about is Peanuts, which is presented in a very simple fashion. Schultz’s range of facial expression is very limited, and he cannot resort to captions to add depth of meaning. Instead he uses the basic strength of the comic strip (big smiles, wailing mouths, tears erupting from heads) to convey a depth of meaning which is built up by repetition.
The comic strip has enough tools at its disposal to say anything it wants and should not be looking enviously at other media. We’re just as good as any other medium so long as we play to our strengths. Unfortunately over the decades, while we’ve been playing the “comics aren’t just for kids” card we’ve all got a bit too pretentious. I know talk of simplicity and clarity and a limited emotional range will dredge up unhappy memories of the comic strip in a kiddie ghetto, but that’s not what I’m advocating.
But I’m also not stupid enough to think that we could, or even should, fool ourselves that we’re just like a novel but with pictures. Don’t get carried away with the term graphic novel, it’s just a marketing tool to help bookshops deal with comic strips.
Producing one-off stories in 96 page books will keep comic strips in the “niche market” they’ve shrunk into. If we look at Japan, Italy and France their industries are built on weekly and monthly strips, featuring a strong central character, which are collected into volumes. Maybe not so much in Italy, but that’s because the monthly edition already resembles a slim paperback. I maintain that it is these serialized characters that have helped the medium in these territories.
Now let’s see where the UK and US have gone wrong. The UK used to publish a great many weekly anthology comics, many of which were relatively short lived. Unlike their French or Belgian counterparts however these strips were not collected into albums, but remained as disposable entertainment.
Even then, with a buoyant market, and editorial and creative teams well versed in the comic strip medium, many comics floundered and were short-lived. However publishers simply moved the most popular strip from a failed comic and strengthened the line up of their more popular weekly. With every comic carrying more than six strips at least one of them would be a hit with readers. It was a rare comic indeed that was full of duds. The Dandy for instance was boosted by the addition of Bananaman who began his existence in Nutty, and 2000AD welcomed Strontium Dog to its ranks from the pages of the short-lived Starlord.
By the 90s however the comic market had shrunk considerably. From my perspective the kind of comic the kids actually wanted was not the kind of reading matter parents wanted their kids to read. The fact that literacy levels were in steep decline, and parents should have been happy for their kids to read anything was beside the point. They’d rather their kids didn’t read Treasure Island than read Oink! for instance.
Unfortunately the changing set-up at IPC, with the comic dept being sold off to Robert Maxwell and then to Fleetway, left their line-up rudderless. Marvel UK’s success with licensed comics also offered an easy option for publishers unwilling to put in the money, time and effort needed to nurture new comic magazines. Although Steve McManus gave it a damn good try at IPC with Crisis and Revolver, which attempted to take a step beyond 2000AD.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to see the 90s UK comic market as a battle between the weekly genre anthology, like 2000AD, and licensed comics, as championed by Marvel UK. Looking at our news stands today it is easy to see which model has won that particular battle. The licensed comic rules and over the last 20 years publishers have put less and less comic strip material into these “comics”. So now there is no reader loyalty, most kids are attracted to the free gift rather than the comic attached to the gift.
Licensed comics which do feature strip material mostly contain US reprint strips, as in the case of The Simpsons, Scooby Doo etc. The past 20 years has seen publishers putting less and less effort into the comics they publish and using more and more artwork from style guides to create activities.
Anthology comics have fared even worse, with 2000AD being sold to a computer game company, and sales continuing to fall. Beano and Dandy have also seen a decline in their numbers, and the Dandy is on its third or fourth re-launch. One has to admire DC Thomson’s tenacity, they’re trying as best they can to keep the UK’s oldest comic alive.
While publishers are perfectly willing, if not eager, to publish new licensed comics after previous failures, they are very reluctant to try originated comics. Despite the fact that a successful originated comic lasts far longer than a licensed comic. The UK’s six originated comics are Dandy, Beano, Commando, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine and Viz. (Both Commando and Judge Dredd Megazine contain some reprint material) All of these titles have lasted longer than the longest running licensed comic, although it is hard to tell as licensed comics sometimes keep their numbering when they switch to different publishers.
If publishers were willing to try originated comics at the same rate that they try new licensed comics the UK would have a very different comic line-up. The return on originated comics is far more beneficial as well, having led to Judge Dredd and Fat Slags movies and Dennis the Menace, Bananaman and Sid the Sexist tv series to name but a few. Licensed material produced by comic companies generally belongs to the license holder.
The launch of an originated comic is very rare, therefore no momentum is established and no lessons learnt. Every time an originated comic is launched the publisher starts from scratch, often setting up a company to publish that one specific comic. When that comic fails, and we have established that the UK market has a high failure rate, the company folds along with the comic, never getting a chance to learn from its mistakes.
With so many movies based on comic strip characters one would have thought that comic publishers would be falling all over themselves to create new characters which might appeal to movie makers, who would have to license the characters from them. Strangely comic publishers, both UK and US, have been very slow to even explore cost effective deals with creators to launch new characters. Both markets still seemingly unwilling to abandon the “work for hire” model, even though fewer and fewer can actually afford it due to ever decreasing sales.
This is not to say that licensed comics have no part to play in helping comic strips to secure their position as a mass medium. The Disney comic plays a key role in many European nations as the first comic book read by boys and girls. In Italy it’s called Topolino and is a thick paperback size book reprinting classic Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck etc strips. France and many other countries have their own versions, and these act as an introduction to comics for young readers.
The Disney characters are considered safe by parents, along with the Warner Brothers cartoon characters and to a lesser extent the Simpsons, which may be considered slightly more adult. These are some of the few characters which are acceptable, and popular, with both young readers and their parents. They should act as the foundation of any country’s entire comic book industry.
Getting back to originated comics any publisher hoping to have any success in the field has to set themselves up with the intention of publishing a number of titles (because the chances of getting it “right” first time are slim), they have to find some way to effectively promote their titles, and they have to know how to translate feedback into improving their product.
Without a viable comic strip periodical market, either weekly or monthly, it is almost impossible for comics to break out of the niche market it currently occupies in the UK and the US. Both countries currently have a “top heavy” market, with lots of product aimed at adults but very little for younger readers, hence niche instead of mass market. While the respective book trades may be enamored with the “graphic novel” it’s probably because they can charge double the price for them and therefore get into profit far quicker.
Talk of graphic novels being the biggest growing sector is encouraging, but when you grow from let’s say 0.05% of the market to 0.1% of the market, thereby achieving a doubling of your market share it puts things into perspective. There are no short cuts, there are no magic bullets. UK and US publishers have to look at other nations and learn from them. They have to stop making excuses as to why the European or Japanese model couldn’t possibly work over here, and embrace change.
When things aren’t going well and you have to make changes three things could happen; things could get worse, things could stay the same, or things could get better. With odds like that I think it’s worth changing, especially when the alternative is a continuing decline.