Is Comics Publishing In The UK Still Viable?

This is a big one. I’ve been asked just what work went into the UK Comic Book Industry Reports I used to produce from the 1990s up to 2007.  Well, here’s your chance to see one plus a previously posted up-date of sorts.

If you are an existing or prospective publisher take note.


TERRY HOOPER

6th June 2011

Originally published:

Introduction 14th May,2006

Amended 5th September,2007

Terry Hooper

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Introduction

It has been repeatedly said that the idea of successful comic book publishing  in the UK is just that –a dream.

The person claiming this has no idea what he/she is talking about.  Between 1990-2003 I produced an Annual Report On The British Comics Industry (ARBCI).  When I began the report was around 70% accurate: by 2000 the reports were up to 90-95% accurate.  Sadly, the ARBCI predicted the quick demise of Neptune/Trident Comics, Mindbenders, Dark Horse UK and others between 1989-1992.

The problem was that these companies had all decided that the buzz-phrase “comics aren’t just for kids” meant that only adults ought to be catered for and catered for with specific genres that might only interest between 7-10% of those buying comics.  Also, the material was published for news stand, yet anyone interested in the strips they contained could quite easily pick up the full U.S. version of the comic –in one go and for much cheaper than waiting a couple of months and spending much, much more.

Even Fleetway/Egmont with its new and trendy titles such as REVOLVER and CRISIS, though very good  (I contributed work) were again aimed at a very small percentage of the comic buying market in the UK.  This would not –not– have been a problem had they also been focussing as much time, attention and originality on comics for other age groups.

Sadly, the major problem is that, during the 1960s, comic fans began working in companies and rather than focus on maintaining regular quality and following standard industry guidelines, the “new brooms” began to produce comics they liked.  Interestingly, this is the same situation that occurred in the U.S. at the same time.  By the early 1980s the U.S. market was on the verge of total collapse.

What did the U.S. publishers do?  They offered British creators being paid low fees [for scripts I was paid £35.00 per strip page while the artist received £275 per page] much higher rates.  British creators therefore jumped onto the DC or Marvel ships –and both companies saw their industry go through a rebirth.

In the UK the situation was grimmer.  Editors and management decided that TV had quite literally killed comics as a viable form of entertainment –yet comics were still selling high numbers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Again, the problem was the inflexibility of management and this bordered on the verge of “headless chicken” territory.

Say a comic, a weekly, sold 155,000 copies at 3d  a time (12d made 1 shilling in old money -21 shillings =£1).  That was £465,000 a week.  However, if the sales dropped by 1%  to 154,999 copies, bringing in ‘only’ £464,997 – that title was cancelled or merged with another.  Therefore, the profit from 154,999 sales per week were lost.

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When I asked senior management at IPC/Fleetway why there was this rule the replies were the same: “Because returns fell to 1%”.  So I followed with “But why –you were losing over £465,000 by doing that?” and digging further the response was always the same: “It was policy.”  Neither Fleetway/IPC were using expensive printers or paper and according to a former managing director “every copy sold made us a profit.”

In 1954, the EAGLE was selling 750,000 copies per week, but by 1969 this was down to 25,000 copies per week.  Arguably, this is one of the worst drops in sales I have heard of though the reason may well be in the fact that Frank Hampson and the Reverend Morris were no longer in control and those in charge seemed to have no idea how to keep the comic relevant to the changing times.  EAGLE had become a not too very good comic.

Interestingly, in 1963 the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was created and we can focus in on one particular title to see how sales varied between 1964-1971:the LION.

1964 313,097

1965 266,135

1966 260,409

1967 265,549    [merged with CHAMPION]

1968 259,268

1969 234,954

1970 236,714    [merged with EAGLE]

1971 205,766

This was a drop in sales of 107,331 in a nine year period.  However, these were still pretty reasonable figures bringing in a profit –printing used was not expensive.  The truth is that, from 1967/68 on those in charge of companies lost interest or faith in their own product.

Over the last ten years I have talked to businessmen and women in various fields who just cannot believe this was the policy –and when they are shown the documentation to prove it there is either stunned silence or tutting followed by the words “morons” or “idiots”.  There is absolutely no logic for such cancellations –the comics’ printing cost nowhere near what they were being sold for.  Profit was literally cut off from the company.

With these cancellations the dogma set in: ”comics are dying out –not worth investing money in”.  This from the people who had cancelled the titles making the profit!  Off course, then one company purchased another and the new management continued the dogma –because the old hands were still on board safe-guarding their jobs and not being willing to even attempt to do a serious re-launch.

We saw IPC-Fleetway split up and eventually Roy Of The Rovers,2000 AD, Dan Dare and much more were sold off for a quick profit.

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I can recall on an edition of BBC 2s [TV] The Money Programme, a senior member of D.C. Thomson’s staff stating that “in ten years the comic will be a thing of the past” –that was around 1983.  Thomson still publishes yearly comic annuals as well as its Pocket War Library, Beano and Dandy.

Egmont, sadly, produces what we call “advertising comics”, basically promoting toy and other related merchandise, but with outlets in over 20 countries world-wide has the greatest potential and, in Scandinavia does produce new material and reprint old Fleetway material.

Panini, operating as Marvel UK, is making its mark on the UK market, mainly with UK reprints for the news stand. It did publish strip-work by UK creators featuring Marvel characters but the new owners of Marvel, Disney, have now forbidden any such UK material being published.

Thomson, Panini and Egmont are quite capable of revitalising the UK market.  This is not as impossible as some might think.

Whereas the big, mainstream companies started cancelling titles the British Small Press and Independent comic publishers have flourished –many selling out of their titles quickly.  The print runs may only be in the hundreds or 2-3,000 but they have cornered the niche left by the larger companies.

Shane Chebney, who owns and runs the Small Zone mail order service trading in Small Press and Independent comics, mainly from the UK, told me (9th November, 2005) that in the last year his sales have risen by 20%  -while mainstream comic sales in shops are said to have dropped.  An indication of a recession in the US market looming for 2006 and a perfect opportunity for the UK to build its industry up.

Although the U.S. has its own Independent publishers, as does Europe, the UK appears to be unique in not only the number of publishers but the selection of material they publish.  In Europe, where the same doom and gloom had settled, there has been a strong publishing revival: there were companies that weathered the storm and continued with established comic characters as well as new ones –Standaard Uitgeverij, Dupuis and Casterman shine out.

There is also an international market that can be catered for, whether via comic album series or monthly comics.

Firstly, there needs to be a comic that takes kids from Beano and Dandy onto the next stage of 11+ years comics. The one reason Panini is doing so well is that kids can latch on to U.S. comics from W. H. Smith or local newsagents because they have not yet discovered the comic book speciality store!

A mix of humour and action would be the ideal 11+ comic.  There are still many active long time comic artists who were ‘retired’ early and whose ability to stick to deadlines is proven. All three companies referred to have old characters that could be revived and lead into the new generation of characters.

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Obviously the idea of sales of 150,000+ are not likely these days and even the oft quoted “must have” sales of 65,000 per issue (a figure referring to the number of copies printed and not achievable sales even in the late 1980s) is not likely.  The number of copies printed needs to be re-assessed along with format.  If a UK printer cannot handle the printing for a fair price then there are plenty of foreign printers who will.

There must be 100% support by company heads for the Managing Editor who would oversee the whole potential comics line.  Someone who is a “penny-cruncher” would be useless in such a position; the job calls for 100% commitment and no doubts.

The Small Press and Independent comics in the UK have shown the way but I feel we need to look at how the European comic industry/comic buying population varies with the UK’s, because this shows some very significant findings.

BELGIUM has a population of 10,152,000 [est. 1999] and within this population those aged 1-14 years of age total 17%,or 1,725,840.  Those between the ages of 15-59 years total some 61%,or 6,192,720,of the population.  These are, of course, the prime ages for comic buyers, though, as they get older, these buyers do not necessarily stop buying comics or comic albums.  The age group of 60+ years totals some 22% of the population, or 7,918,560 people.  And the population growth rate for 2000-2005 is 0.1%.

Unlike the UK, there are five official languages in Belgium; Flemish (Vlaams) at 55%; Walloon  (a French dialect) at 32%; German at 0.6% and bi-lingual totals 11%.  Despite this the country has a fantastic array of comics for both young and old.  Of course, French, German and Dutch publishers can export there without costly reprinting in a foreign language.

Standaard Uitgeverij is a Flemish language publisher, part of the larger Dutch PCM Group. It publishes some of the biggest series in the country including Suske & Wiske –the adventures of two 11 year olds.  Created by Willy Vandersteen in 1947,the duo have had some 272 comic albums published to date and in many languages, including English editions by Intes International. Another series of comic albums created by Vandersteen (taken over by Karel Biddeloo in 1968) is De Rode Ridder (Red Knight),currently at album no.188. The Kiekeboe series stands at no.91. A football series,F. C. Kampionen (The Champions F.C.) by Hec Leemans stands at no.20.  Other titles include the Napoleonic adventure series Bakelandt with 82 albums in the series.

And there are others aimed at pre-school to adults with cover prices ranging from E 3,60-4,50.

Castermans, of course,is the home of Tin-Tin and looking at the company’s 2002 Catalogue is like being a child in a toy shop –the variety!  The company has a large number of album series for 7-10 year olds and a similar variety for 12 years and upward and that includes adults for whom there is a very large selection.

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France has a population of 58,333,000 [est. 1996] with 1-15 year olds taking up to 19.6% or 11,433,268 of the population. The 15-65 year olds comprise 65.5% or some 38,208,115 while the over 65’s total 14.9%,or 8,691,614.

Castermans, as noted, publish in other European countries and beyond.

Dargaud is another publisher. Set up in 1959,the company caters for all ages and its material can be found translated and published all over Europe; the range of genres and quality puts U.S. companies to shame.

SEMIC is part of Semic Sweden and has, since 2000, revitalised its publishing out-put by using new and old material and even broke into the U.S. market –no small achievement since English is not its prime language.

Netherlands has a population of 15,575,000 (est. 1996) with the 1-15 years age group comprising 18.4%,or 2,865,800.  The 16-65 years group totals 68.4%,or some 10,653,300 while the those over 65 years equal 13.2% or some 2,055,900.

Again, the Netherlands has a very healthy comics industry catering for all ages and publishing both new and imported material.  Companies include Arboris, Big Balloon BV and so on.

Germany has a population of 82,177,000 (est. 1999) with 1-14 year olds comprising 16% or some 13,148,320.  The 15-59 year olds comprise 61% or 50,127,970 and the 60+ years old group 23% or 18,900,710.

Having lived in Germany as a child and on- and -off thereafter, I have a fair knowledge of the companies there.  In fact, prior to its selling off the Youth division, I did some work for the oldest publisher there, Bastei Verlag.  Other companies included Kauka Verlag (Ralf Kauka having been called at times “Germany’s Walt Disney” –he created characters such as Lupo and Fix & Foxi), Disney, Ehapa, Carlsen,  Hethke and Editions Quasimodo.

These companies were publishing in the hey-days of the 1960s and 1970s, however, in the 1980s both myself and others were looking at Carlsen and taking guesses at how long it could last as a publisher. It looked as though it was doomed to vanish from the scene.  Despite this, Carlsen stormed back with a vengeance and its publishing out-put looks fantastic.

A shining example of what can be achieved are the efforts of IP & Paul who, with little publicity launched a full colour, glossy comic based on a role-playing game. Helden/Heroes had an initial print run of 10,000 copies and the publishers were told that they were over-estimating and that they would have thousands of copies left on their hands –this from those in the industry who “knew better”.  The title sold out so well that the publishers were caught unaware; yet the initial sells were only via the hobby market.  The title sold out and was later translated for the American [not British] market where it was quite successful and several other foreign language versions appeared under license in Europe.

In 2003/2004 the follow-up, Dorn: Der Morgenstern (Thorn:The Morning Star) appeared and did well.  The people at IP & P were not,it must be emphasised, comic professionals but proved that the right comic aimed at the right readership can be a success beyond what you plan.

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It is very interesting that Dutch, German, French and Belgian companies get “many orders from the UK” –and some specialist shops will order regularly from European publishers simply because the UK market has “nothing to compare with these comics”.

Canada has also revitalised its comics publishing industry after a very poor period –though publishers such as Aardvark Vanaheim and Vortex weathered this.  Indonesia, Australia and many other smaller countries are also revitalising their industries.

Between 1999-2005 I was consulted by publishers and groups in countries such as Singapore, China, Russia and India on how to develop and maintain a healthy comics industry as well as putting together comic packages for them.

So why is it that the UK, where the comics industry was created and from which some of the best writers and artists sprang, has such a restricted industry?  Why has someone decided and passed along as industry dogma that the UK “cannot” have a fresh and revitalised industry? In all seriousness I have to say that anyone within a publishing house that says this needs to have a change of career.

The population of the UK is 58,744,000 [est. 1999]. Age group 1-14 years comprise 19% or some 11,161,360, while the core comic buying age group of 15-59 comprises 60% or some 35,246,400. The 60+ age group comprises 21% or 12,336,240.

The UKs population is almost five times that of Belgium and bigger than France or the Netherlands and yet we publish not even 1% of what these countries do.

Other European countries with very strong comic industries supplying a good variety of material are:~

Spain, with a population of 39,134,000 [est. 1996] with 1-14 year olds comprising 16.5% or 6,457,110 of the population;15-65 year olds 68.6% or 26,845,924 and 65+ age group some 14.9% or 5,830,966.

Greece with a population of 10,490,000 [est. 1996];1-15 year olds comprising 16.7% or some 1,751,830 people.  The 16-65 year old group comprises 67.4% or 7,070,260 and the 65+ group totalling 14.9% or 5,830,966+.

Italy has a population of 57,343,000 [est. 1999] and the 1-14s group comprises 14% or 8,028,020 and the 15-59 year olds group some 62% or 35,552,660.

It is worth looking at this overall.

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Population Age Group Comparisons

Country           Age group 1-14         Age Group 15-65                        Age Group 65+

UK                   11,161,360                  35,246,400                                   12,336,240

France              11,433,268                  38,208,115                                   8,691,617

Belgium           1,725,840                    6,192,720                                     7,918,560

Italy                 8,028,020                    35,552,660                                   13,762,320

Netherlands     2,865,800                    10,653,300                                   2,055,900

Spain               6,457,110                    26,845,924                                   5,830,966

Greece             1,751,830                    7,070,260                                     1,667,910

Germany         13,148,320                  50,127,970                                    18,900,710

Figures compiled by T.Hooper 2004

According to these figures the UK should be rivalling France and Spain in comic publishing but it doesn’t even rival Greece’s.

In 2003 I surveyed 1000 comic buyers at comic marts in Southern England and the survey revealed some interesting results.

Ages ranged from 13-20 years 8% [80 persons];21-29 year olds 12% [120 persons] and the 30-65 year olds totalled 80% [a staggering 800 persons]. Only those who were regular or semi-regular comic buyers were included –no casual buyers.

A display book with old British comic strips was shown and the following questions asked/answers given:~

[1]Were this material available now would you buy it?

[All age groups]

YES….80% [800]     NO….5% [50]   MIGHT….15% [150]

[2] As [1],but in full colour?

[All age groups]

YES….95% [950]    NO….2% [20]    MIGHT…3% [30]

[3] Same characters, new stories?

[All age groups]

YES…95% [950]    NO…2%[20]      “Not Sure”…3%[30]

Only 3% of those spoken to had no knowledge of these old characters and they were in the youngest age group.

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To back up this survey,I posted polls to popular comic sites as well as on my own web sites. There were 500 responses all –all– in the 30-45+ age group.  All were familiar with most of the old characters and all responded that they would purchase a new comic with these and 10% added that this was “yes beyond a doubt”.

All of those surveyed stated they would buy a new comic featuring new material and commented on the lack of comics in the UK.

So, juveniles might buy, especially those into colour super hero comics, if it were aimed at them.  However, excepting the Panini reprints noted earlier, no such title has been offered in the last 15 years.

However, the main market, are the older 30-45 year olds who were brought up on British weekly comics. This older group being the main comic buyers is born out by information from the U.S., Australia and Europe.  These are also the people buying books and comics for their own children – a perfect opportunity to draw in the next generation of comic buyers.

I have had the opportunity of talking to parents, teachers and even a professor of English who all refer to the poor literacy rate in the UK. I was rather surprised when they all pointed out that “years ago kids had comics to give them a basic literacy level” –no one knew of my interest or work in comics!  Having interviewed comic creators and buyers as well as other people over the years I have had them all referring to having “learnt to read from comics”.

Comics are not just entertainment but they can be educational –as proven by the Japanese who use comic strips to inform and educate on everything from tax to hygene.

The problem is that the current dogma is that you must sell this mythical 65,000 copies per week.  As pointed out, this was not a reality even in the 1980s.

There is also the fact that comics have been put together and presented to a peer group of children for their views.  In the 1980s I tried this for Marvel UK. Changes were made and the comic re-presented to the same group. They rejected it and more changes were made to their specifications….at the next presentation the changes called for took the comic back to its first version!

If the person putting the comic together has to resort to this type of market research then the project is defeated before it gets going.  Get your best package and then promote!

There is also the very useless “launch party”.  Editors and managers have told me since the 1970s that “you cannot publish a comic without a launch party”; basically, this is to get a bunch of journalists together to publicise your comic while eating and drinking –a lot, according to some ex-editors.

A launch party has never guaranteed a comic will sell. In fact, it is arguable as to whether they had any positive effect –kids who would buy comics rarely, if ever, purchased newspapers for reviews!

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In 2005 there are so many outlets to get free publicity for your comic that the launch party is an out-dated waste of money. Many childrens tv channels and programmes, etc., can be utilised for advanced and ongoing publicity –publicity outlay being really minimal.

British comic strip characters are still being published today in India and Europe and the potential from licensing and merchandise agreements is well worth the initial outlay. In Summer, 2005, Wildstorm Studios, a subsidiary of DC comics, published a comic titled ALBION, intended to be a 6 issue mini series introducing “up-dated characterisations of classic British adventure characters.  This series is said to be the most over-hyped, disappointing series to date by people within the industry and comic fans.  The writers being too young to know anything about the original characters “produced a bland story that only sold because of the art by Briton Shane Oakley and Canadian inker, George Freeman.” According to one reviewer. Perhaps a mite unfair on the writers since there had been a build-up in comics media that this was a new Alan Moore series. The option of going for proven former scripters of the characters was not even considered.

At the same time, Titan Books purchased rights to reprint books of adventures of characters such as THE SPIDER and STEEL CLAW.  Release dates of May, June, July, August, September have come and gone but nothing has appeared (the books did eventually appear and were excellent quality reprints).  The policy of IPC/DC has been to squeeze every penny out of reprint rights but put in no real creative back-up.

It is widely believed that the two announced Titan books have been delayed over monetary payments required.  From start to finish IPC/DC/Wildstorm Studios have shown an inability to understand how to handle or use these characters –the UK comic shop market only has been offered the series thus by-passing 50-70% of possible readers/buyers at news stands, etc..

I do have ideas regarding this but the purpose of this paper is to show that the market is there. It is true to say that either a new company will come in and seize the major market share leaving established companies far behind or even struggling to keep what it already has in sales –as a consultant I’m aware of two such possible companies.

The alternative is for an existing company to make the decision and go for it.  There is everything to win and little to lose.

On Friday,16th October,2004,D.C.Thomson launched the new look DANDY (issue no. 3282), looking more like a Cartoon Network comic, the launch created a flurry of interest and used UK as well as European talent.  Thomson obviously realised that no one was catering for Afro-carribean readers and introduced “Dreadlock Holmes”.  In October 2005, the BEANO re-introduced classic adventure characters BILLY  & KATY THE CAT by Nigel Dobbyn.  A true adventure strip finally re-introduced to a British weekly.

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In fact, the BEANO and DANDY 2006 annuals are a real joy and improvement with BILLY & KATY CAT, The COMET and General Jumbo -though not a patch on the Jumbo of old. It seems Thomson may be getting the point at last.  However, consumer research, etc., for the new look DANDY, according to Comics International, had cost over –over£600,000! I’m told this is not a misprint.  It is an almost unbelievable figure and how it was justified I’d not like to even guess at. In fact, if Thomson did spend that amount it is sheer financial/business insanity.

Sadly, though there have been Dandy and Beano relaunches since 2004, editorial mishandling led to Nigel Dobbyn quitting Thomson. A major loss.

The problem with British comics has always been that ethnic characters were either racist stereotypes or of no real importance.  This lack of characters for ethnic groups I have pointed out to companies over and over between 1982-2009.  Lack of interest meant that a huge potential readership was ignored in favour of all out Anglo-Saxon strips.

According to figures from the Government National Statistics Office, the UK population breaks down as:~

 

White                                                                                           54,153,898    [92.1% of pop.] Mixed                                                                                            677,117                       [1.2%]

Indian                                                                                          1,053,411                     [1.8%]

Pakistani                                                                                      747,285                        [1.3%]

Bangladeshi                                                                                283,063                         [0.5%]

Other asian                                                                                  247,664                        [0.4%]

All Asian/Asian British                                                             2,331,423                      [4.0%]

Black Carribean                                                                         565,876                         [1.0%]

Black African                                                                             485,277                        [0.8%]

Black Other                                                                                 97,585                          [0.2%]

All Black or Black British                                                        1,148,738                      [2.0%]

Chinese                                                                                        247,403                         [0.4%]

 

 

Other ethnic Groups                                                                 230,615                       [0.4%]

ALL minority ethnic population                                 4,635,296                     [7.9%]

 

 

 

That is 7.9% or 4.6 million belonging to ethnic groups, generally ignored by most UK media and entertainment.   Looking at the Indian population, those up to 15 years of age total 33.8%, the 16-24 years of age group total 18.2%.

Ignoring race, if we look at the figures released on 24th June,2004,relating to age breakdown the 0-15 year olds comprise 20% of the population and the 16-64 year olds 18.2%,the main comic buying age group, comprises some 64%.  65 years old + comprises 16%.

This means that the UK has a potential 84% of the population at comic buying age and not being catered for.  This situation exists nowhere else in Europe.

Of course, the UK has since seen a further influx of Polish, Somali and other groups since 2004.

Not only does the UK have the population to sustain  a good sized comics industry but it has the ethnic diversity to keep it fresh and draw in future readers.

In summary: anyone who says the UK cannot support a comics industry should not be involved in said industry –it is “defeatism through ignorance.”

A UK comics industry is achievable but will take between 3-5 years for a company to establish itself and expand.

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ADDENDA: 4th September, 2007

Since this document was originally presented a number of things have happened.

Firstly, I’ve been employed as a consultant by comic publishers based in China, India and other countries, proving, perhaps, that they are prepared to use experienced people to adjust to changes in their market-place, etc..

Secondly, through movies and TV, comic book merchandise sales has rocketed and there are no mainstream companies in the UK producing original material from which they financially gain.

D.C. Thomson & Sons Ltd. ,are possibly the only UK company taking advantage of this boom, however, it is in such a small way that profit is negligible.

Panini/Marvel UK help promote, via their reprints, sales of Marvel Action Figures, etc., but do not get the reward from original creations.

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Egmont are often referred to in comic circles as “producing toy advertising with a comic accidentally attached” (though, in fairness, in must be pointed out that Egmont is not the only company doing this in the UK).  Egmont in Finland, for instance, produce a wider variety of material than Egmont in the UK.

Thirdly, the UK Independent Comic and Small Press scene has also grown proving that there are a great many comic buyers out there who cannot buy what they want from mainstream publishers.

This is interesting because Thomson have now merged The Dandy into “Dandy Xtreme” due to poor sales.  Thomson, without a doubt, has a very rich, untapped wealth of characters that it has never developed or exploited.

Also, the Small Zone service operated by Shane Chebney has grown to an extent that he now operates from a comic retailer shop.  Small Zone has also had to add many more U.S. Independent titles to his stock because of demand.

Ordering of titles from outside the UK using the internet has also increased in the last two years.

It is worth noting, again, that all of this financial gain is going outside the UK because the material cannot be found in titles published by  UK companies.

What has also happened since 2006 is that a new publisher of top quality colour comic albums has been established in the UK.  Cinebook- The 9th Art is a company run by Frenchman Olivier Cadic and publishes European material not seen in the UK before, with the exception of a title such as Lucky Luke.   Cinebook has outlets in bookstores, can be found in Public Libraries and constantly promote via the international Comic Expo held each May in Bristol, BICS in Birmingham each year, the Frankfurt Book Fair and so on.

I have reviewed Cinebook publications and interviewed Olivier Cadic for CBO –one of the internets most popular comics news and interviews sites; http://www.comicbitsonline.com –future plans seem set to make the company a long term profit-maker.

In other European countries the industry seems to be developing well; in Germany the new ZACK comic has reached it’s 72nd issue.  Other success stories abound.

But in the UK there seems little new coming from publishers.

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There is a great need to actually re-think school age comics; far less emphasis on photo-advertising stories and more in the traditional action, fun and adventure –even educationalists are advising that parents get their children to read more comics to help improve literacy while having a fun read ;so it’s nice to see they have caught on to the fact that lack of comic reading pre-school and during school years has contributed to decreased literacy!

But there is also the need to latch on to a largely unexploited age group:10-16,and later,16+ because, apart from 2000 AD with its low readership, no one is catering for these groups with original UK material.  Odd since British creators have more than once stopped US publishers going out of business.

Cinebook will, after 2008, be looking at new 16+ Age group material.

Simply put, what we need in the UK are new titles for three specific groups:

Pre-school  -one needs to only look back at titles from the 1950s-1960s for examples which were fun for children but taught them to read, spell and use their imaginations –and encourage reading comics when they get older!

School age (8-15) –from personal experience I can state that many 8 year olds read the Panini reprints of Marvel comics, though they are meant for older readers which shows there is a market there.

16+ years.  Super Heroes, ghost stories, action and adventure are the popular genres and in an industry worth many, many millions it is odd that no one from the UK publishing industry has “dipped their toes” in yet.

Richard Branson and Virgin Media have gotten into the comics with Virgin Comics, though it seems to be looking at the rich gaming movie market.  Sadly, Virgin Comics release schedule shows which it considers the more valuable markets.  Comics are released first in the US, secondly in the UK/Europe and, lastly, Asia/India.  I’d predict, based on Bransons previous business involvements, that once the comics media has been taken for what it’s worth he will pull out of the business.  No doubt leaving others to try to survive with out Virgin Media money.

A company could, quite easily, establish a publishing power base in the UK, gradually spreading out into Europe and North America –where the work of British comic creators is still  much respected.  So why not just revitalise the British comic scene and reap the long term rewards?

14

To actually publish a new title and lose money would be difficult in the extreme if you know what you are doing.

I think that there has never been a better time for UK publishers to stamp their feet and shout loudly “We’re going to publish comics!”

I, as always, am here.

Terry Hooper

Notes & More  2011

HOOPERS CONTROVERSIAL ESSAY

The UK is a lot different than the US where comics and graphic novels are almost a part of daily life –look at the number of comic characters made into movies from Marvel, DC and Image as well as other companies.  One of the currently most popular TV sitcoms is The Big Bang Theory which is steeped in comics iconography.  And Stan Lee has guest starred.

In the UK there is a little fuss that Jonathan Ross is going to cameo in a Beano strip –most kids would not know who he is apart from someone off TV so it’s a ploy to get a few older comic buyers to pick up the comic.

The situation was much different from the 1930s-mid 1960s when a host of British TV/radio/film actors and comedians starred regularly in their own comic strips –Terry Thomas, Frankie Howard, Arthur Askey and others I feel too old to mention!  Also, artists working on these strips got excited at the personal appearances of the stars they drew but were strictly forbidden from meeting them as their names and images were being used without any permission!

The major problem is that in both the US and UK there came a point in the mid 1970s when comic fans got into editorial positions rather than the professional editors who ran things so smoothly.  There were some great highlights from this such as 2000 AD, though by the mid 1980s it’s sales were very low.  It turned into “I have a mate who can draw that” so a lot of the pro artists/creators got eased out.  This, combined with the very poor page rates paid, actually helped save the US comic industry.

In the mid 1980s both Marvel and DC were facing massive title cancellations –if they survived.  What DC in particular did was grab top notch artists and writers from the UK such as Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore and started paying salaries that were small fortunes compared to what UK publishers offered.  DC in particular still goes out to try to find new talent from other parts of the world to keep its freshness.*

*DC has, sadly, begun to slide into sensationalist relaunches and is now ignoring the new talent search.

While the US exploited the talent from the UK the UK publishers sat around talking quite publicly about comics dying “soon” (one D.C. Thomson executive went on BBC TVs “Money Programme” in 1984 and stated “There may –may- be about ten years of life left in the comic medium”; I only wish I’d noted down his name!).

It was also in the 1980s that US companies made half-hearted attempts to establish UK off-shoots (Dark Horse, Marvel UK, etc.) but they mostly vanished very quickly as the material on offer was of interest to, perhaps, 1% of comic readers.  Fleetway produced more adult orientated comics such as Revolver and Crisis –I wrote for both but the problem was Crisis was very left wing orientated politically and most people reading comics don’t want political messages/reality pushed down their throats.  Neither comic really lasted and are mainly forgotten today.

The humour comic OINK! Is a prime example of what was going wrong.  Firstly, material was being sold to European publishers without the consent of the creators who were only getting paid, poorly, once.  Then, on a visit to the Fleetway offices I was talking to senior managers and was told “Oink! has three editors at the moment but they don’t seem to be getting on” –Oink!, one of the most original new humour comics vanished.

Things sort of pottered along with, I have to say, the only breath of fresh air coming from the Independent/Small Press.

We had to wait until Cinebook –The 9th Art, headed by Olivier Cadic, began to publish Franco-Belgian albums in the English language for change.  Everyone I spoke to, including many comic ‘experts’, told me:”if they last a year I’ll be amazed –UK comic readers don’t want stuff from Europe!”  As I had been pushing for more European albums in English since the 1980s with little success I was happy to support Olivier’s efforts.  Now look at how big the company is and its range of titles and tell me which of those comic ‘experts’ will now come forward and say “it won’t last much longer” –it is now the UKs biggest publisher of comic book material.

I hear from certain died-in-the-wool UK comic fans who tell me that they find it hard to read a European album and then get back into a mindset to read a British comic or then an American one.  I’m sorry but that’s stupidity.  Whether Euro/US or British a comic is made up of panels with images, speech balloons and caption boxes –if all in English how is that so difficult?!

People professing to be UK comic ‘fans’ all adopt the same approach –the UK industry is great so why does it need changing?  That ignores every commercial as well as creative and publishing problem in the UK comic medium.

Cinebook is the largest UK comic publisher that is bringing comics for all ages and all genres the like of which we have not seen in the UK.  And it brings money into the UK economy –but it gets largely ignored by the established ‘fan’ media.  “But he’s (Olivier Cadic) French so it can’t be a British company!!” is one argument.

Well, yes, Olivier is French but he is a UK based businessman with a UK based company.  You point that out and suddenly you get responses like:”Really? I thought it was a French company –I’ll look out for these books!”  I may be dense but if Cinebook were based in France and still published top quality albums in English does that mean we ought not to buy them??!!

The other argument is that Cinebook are publishing Franco-Belgic (and French Canadian) albums.  Now, if every single album was based in France it might get boring but the genres range from crime, espionage, westerns, war/military and fantasy

and have included award winning series such as Queen Margot and the lusciously rendered Wind In The Willows and the great converter to Cinebook titles, The Chimpanzee Complex.  Events take place on almost every continent, not to mention planet known/unknown.  So what difference does the origin of the albums make?

There is one stumbling point in this for Cinebook in that distributors and comic stores that prefer to only stock Marvel and DC comics as well as the odd Independent see the company as a threat.  I was brought up partly in Germany and then the UK so I grew up on Euro comics as well as British ones and it is worth noting strips in British comics did not only come from British creators but Spanish, Italian and others based in Europe –making the European origin ‘problem’ of Cinebook titles a joke that slaps those British ‘fan’ critics in the face.

Of course, I ought to point out that during the 1980s Falklands War some British creators were dumped in favour of artists based not just in Brazil but Argentina –think of the press outrage if that took place today!

Where Cinebook has achieved access to comic stores with spinner rack selections of books –defeating the old “we don’t have shelf-space” argument- it’s books sell.  If the books were promoted more by certain distributors and stores it is very likely that regular Marvel and DC buyers might start buying the albums.  I was a Marvelite born and bred but the company, like DC, took so many fans for a ride too often that sales have dropped –you can buy a Cinebook album, well written and drawn and quality production for £2.00 more than a Marvel or DC regular title.  In many respects the US market is churning out poorer quality series and stories and “re-imaging” because it is running out of original ideas.  It is why Alan Moore sticks out as a comic writer because his scripts are well written and combine that with a quality artist and it knocks standard US comics for six.

Shops, and certain distributors, see Cinebook as a threat to its Marvel and DC books –which is odd in that if you get increased sales of Cinebook titles you are still making money.  Sadly, too many people have vested interests in keeping the “Big Two” going and when you talk to Cinebook fans you hear over and over how they could not believe the art and stories in those books and how buying Marvel and DC is now a secondary task.

That said, Cinebook are having no problem selling. And no problem getting schools interested and the up-coming generation of comic buyers who won’t settle for just Marvel or DC.. or Beano!

Clive Bryant got the same sort of reaction when he set up Classical Comics.  I kept hearing “It’s a joke –what comic fan is going to buy these?”  Well, Classical Comics has won awards for its books and provides educational back-ups for schools.  I took several of the Plain and Quick Text versions of CC books to comic shops and the reactions to the art and production quality were all positive but without catching breath each person I spoke to said “Our customers go for the Marvel and DC titles.  Can’t see them buying these”

This is insulting to comic fans.  There is no reason why a comic fan should not like a title such as The Tempest which I’ve shown comic fans as well as those involved in role playing games and they love it.  The store owners are basically stating that their customers are so dumb that the only thing they’ll understand is “This Hulk is Red.  This Hulk is Green. Ka-Blam!”  Comic readers also tend to read science fiction, fantasy and much more.

I showed the Classical Comics titles as well as some from Cinebook along with Cinebooks catalogue to a shop owner. He wowed and showed his staff. “Cool”, he said.  However, even with the Cinebook spinner rack deal his response was “I don’t know anyone coming in here who might buy these”?!

We have the problem in that some store owners and distributors see these companies as a threat to their Marvel and DC titles and so will not stock them or distribute them –in case they sell.  You have other store owners who are impressed but will not stock because they think their customers might not buy –even if they are the sole-stockists in the area and that will attract non-regular comic buyers, creating more revenue.

Book stores tend to stock graphic novels and might take a limited selection because they know comics sell.  It’s the comic store in reverse: a book store attracting comic fans because they stock some books the comic shops don’t.

Sadly, most book store staff I’ve spoken to have no idea about comics or graphic novels –these stores started selling comics during the 1980s boom and seem to still be doing so because at least it makes money. No major promo if a new graphic novel comes out but a Harry Potter book….

The situation is not one that can be changed unless there was a united Comic and Graphic Novel Association that promoted new books/titles as in Europe.  Or even, dare I suggest it?  Comic and Graphic novel clubs?

It is interesting that France and smaller European countries have smaller reading populations than the UK yet produce incredible numbers of comics/albums –and in some countries creators receive honours such as knighthoods.  Can you imagine “Sir Alan Moore”??

Lack of British content.  Well, there are a lot of British creators out there in the Small Press and Independent Comics as well as mainstream US comics.  Sadly, a lot of attention seems to be negative in certain cases.  One particular comic writer seems to be unable to write a comic without a woman being violently beaten and raped.  And, of course, British creators are noted for breaking barriers by including never-before-published in comics obscenities.

Getting away from that, I have to say that these writers still mainly work in the super hero/action genre.  A lot of ideas are not very original (there are, after all, only about 6-7 standard plots you can develop within comics).  The real originality is coming from what used to be the grass roots of comics –the Small Press.  Most comic artists/writers learnt their craft here though, today, anyone who has a computer thinks they are a comic artist/writer.  If you look at the internet, you’ll see maybe 70-75% of material is not that good.  But if people are producing their own books for fun and enjoy it why not?

I’ve noticed that a lot of new creators are experimenting with art styles, colours and techniques, some of them, thankfully, not involving the use of a computer! Also interesting is the number who produce their books so that when you see them they scream out “Euro-album” and the creators admit that European albums have influenced their styles –some citing Cinebook albums.  One of these is Dealer Comics publishing editor Jason Wilson.

Many think having a web site is all you need. “Buy my 12 page semi-bio book for £7 –its great!”.  Sadly, very few sell in numbers.  I’ve seen classy looking web sites that look like a top-notch designer has been working on them.  You then click on a tab to see that art of the comic the site is promoting and then the illusion falls apart.  Crude art and sometimes very bad computer drawn images.

A lot of Small Press/Independent Comics publishers will tell you that comic stores won’t stock their books and that they cannot get their books reviewed.  I’ll refrain from swearing.  Each year I attend the International Comic & Small Press Expo in Bristol and hear the same thing.  This year I introduced publishers to Excelsior! Comics who were willing to devote space to their books.  I said I’d review their books.  “Wow! Yeah! Excellent!” they all said.  Only about six or seven bothered giving Excelsior! Comics books –nothing heard from them since, despite their having brought out new issues.

I got some review copies from publishers desperate to get reviews but apart from being pleased with the reviews nothing heard from them since May, 2010.  The idea that you give out review copies seems to be beyond their comprehension also: I was told how desperate they were to get a book reviewed –“you can have it for £5 instead of £7”.  They did seem disappointed when I refused the offer.

These are all creators who tend to go to every comic event to sell books and like to think they are part of the comic industry.  Back in the 1980s everyone exchanged review copies and the titles sold via fanzine reviews and comic mart stalls –no internet involved at all.  Printing and having a web site is not all you need.

Why aren’t more of the original creators snapped up by publishers?   Again, publishers tend not to go to events such as the International Comic and Small Press Expo, held every May in Bristol.  If they did they might spot talent –if they had someone who could spot talent.  Also, publishers tend to think in terms of “major sales” rather than good sales with the possibility of making extra money, along with the creator, by licensing outside the UK –to Europe (where British creators are appreciated).

There are creators such as David Gordon –called the British Milo Manara- who produces artwork and comics that tend to be more adult orientated, though his style is unique in the UK it tends to be far more recognised in Europe.

Paul Ashley Brown was the artist on the cult 1980s zine, Vigilante Vulture. He has produced some great covers for Black Tower such as Merriwether: Gods Demon-Thumper and Journey Of The Id: The Dr Morg Trilogy.  He also produces Browner Knowle, Yum-Yum Books and attends many of the Small Press events.  He is dabbling in more comic strip work (in association with Peter Lally) though he has taken a rather negative view of comics because of past events.

Both artists ought to be noted for their work and certainly a publisher looking for creators ought to check out Mr Brown.  For David Gordon I can see Europe being his main outlet.

Jimmy Gherkin, Peter Lally et al organise a number of Small Press fairs in London and these are not just intended to sell/promote these books but also include music events and such.  So there is a whole creative community and the publishers benefit because they enjoy the work, even if it doesn’t earn them a lot of money.  Were such events organised around the UK then comics would break out of the restraints placed on them.  Events in Bristol have tended to be for arty cliques –friends who know friends who produce “zines” because it’s a current fad.  The main Bristol Small Press publishers have never been invited to these events because they do not “fit in”.

During a conversation with one event organiser everything was quite pleasant until she asked “do you make zines?”  I responded “Sometimes. I mainly write and draw comics”.  Her jaw dropped and you might think I’d exposed myself!  “Oh, got to rush!” she said.

Here is a good example of the restraint of comics.  Each year we have the International Comic and Small Press Expo in Bristol.  About 200 metres from the event base the annual South Bristol Art Trail begins –where you can go to designated houses of artists and crafters to see their work.  Twice I suggested the Art Trail ought to link in with the Comic Expo to form a major art event in Bristol that might attract more tourists, etc., and local government funding.  “Comics,” however, seems to have been a dirty word amongst the more arty types.

I discussed this with Olivier Cadic one year and asked what would happen if two such art events occurred on the same weekend in France or Europe?  The response was that it would be made a combined major art event.

I ought to point out that, for a long time, in Germany, comics were seen as just for kids or people who weren’t too bright.  Even so adults were buying and reading comics and today there is a greater appreciation for creators such as Hans Rudi Wascher and Raulf Kauka.

The UK has remained very insular though after years of ignoring comics, and at a time when there are few British comics available in UK shops, members of the last government noted that comics were a great way to get kids to read and that parents ought to buy them –it’s how many of us learnt to read before school and at a time of low literacy comics are needed [bringing us back to Cinebook and Classical Comics].

And what do you think publishers could do in order to attract new readers to the medium?

From the 1980s on I tried to introduce characters that were more relevant to the UK –very few black characters existed and D.C. Thomson did make a big show when it introduced, for a while, ”Dreadlock Holmes” (I say nothing).  I asked companies where all the Afro-Carribean, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and other “ethnic” characters were –after all, they form a major part of the UKs population?  The companies could just not give a good, clear response –in the 1980s and 1990s (and seemingly in 2007) they were unprepared to answer the question!

So, why should all those black, Asian or Chinese kids buy the comics filled with white characters?  Marvel and DC reprints do, obviously, include characters from (and I hate using the term) ethnic backgrounds.

Management needs to change its attitude and decide that it will compete in the UK market seriously with not just humour strips but a mixture of the genres and even one off specials.

There is absolutely no reason either commercially or logically why British comics cannot succeed.  But that takes management with foresight and guts prepared to work and promote –neither Olivier Cadic nor Clive Bryant use a big public relations team so an established company should have no problem.

But it does take that effort and if Classical Comics and Cinebook, with no publishing history in the UK, can do it, then the fact is it can be done.

It might take 1-2 years but failure is not an option.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m here.  I’ll take the job.

Sadly, I don’t think the publisher with guts is out there.

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