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Last Updated: Friday, 14 September 2007, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
The comic lives on
Comics

Once a rite of passage for all children, comics and comic strips have given way to more hi-tech forms of child entertainment. But our comics culture lives on, says Frazer Diamond... you just have to know where to look.

Everyone tells us British comics are in their final death throes.

It's been a decade since the "Fleetway titles", such as Whizzer and Chips, Jackpot, Whoopee and Buster, disappeared from newsagents' shelves.

Others like The Beano and The Dandy coughed and spluttered into the new millennium, and the latter has recently been forced to change its name, to Dandy Xtreme, and demoted its longest-standing characters, such as Desperate Dan, to a pull-out supplement (called Dandy Comix).

Dandy Xtreme
The new face of the Dandy, which is 70 in December
The way things are going, these too will soon be no more.

The temptation, for anyone who grew up in an era when every child had a favourite comic, is to think children today are missing something important. What exactly have we lost?

Certainly, we've lost that collective excitement of the weekly delivery. Unlike today's youngsters, we never had our entertainment on demand. Instead, it was rationed out, every seven days. That gave it extra meaning and substance.

All over the country, kids would be reading the same comic titles on the same day.

Today's children can simply hop and skip channels of targeted content online, off-line and everywhere else in-between. Their entertainment has become infinitely more disposable.

That's not to say there isn't any quality out there. It's just harder to find, and we're not all focusing on the same thing at the same time.

Primer for newspapers

But our focus on comics had an additional, subtle, spin-off. It encouraged reading. Kids went from comics to newspapers and off into the wider literary world, confident with the written word.

Comics
More educational? Comic with a 21st Century spin
It's tempting to think today's youngsters are semi-literate by comparison. But are they really?

One might argue the current crop of "youth magazines" like Toxic and Kraze Club feature a wider variety of educational content. They also tie in to web portals and online platforms encouraging further exploration far beyond the printed page. And think of the skills required to interact with these new formats.

It's somewhat sadder to see that the actual skill of comic reading has faltered of late. Today's fun strips feature fewer panels per page than their predecessors and certainly less panel detail.

The draughtsmanship itself has changed dramatically too, with extreme close-ups and angled panels replacing those classic full-figure frames.

Previously, comic artists really had to know their stuff. Now you can disguise a lack of talent with clever design and layout, and some of today's output leaves one yearning for the talents of master artists like Dudley Watkins, Ken Reid, Reg Parlett and Davey Law.

Heroes of old

What is also undeniable is that we've lost the innocence of the past. Those comic kids had handy magic objects they could use to overturn the local bully.

Chinese restaurateurs spoke with a 'velly funnee' accent, a gambler like Jack Pott was engaging in a fun form of entertainment
Frazer Diamond
Val had her Vanishing Cream, Ray his X-Ray Specs, whilst Martha simply donned her Monster Make-up. Hapless burglars and ne'er-do-wells would soon be outwitted and despatched, and our young heroes happily rewarded with nothing more substantial than a trip to the sweet shop, or a slap-up meal.

The fun comics painted the world in distinct pristine black and white. Thieves even wore striped tops and Lone Ranger masks so we could easily distinguish them and their swag bags.

But alongside that innocence was a darker side of life that would be frowned upon today. Roger the Dodger was regularly beaten by his slipper-wielding Dad, whilst Faceache had a teacher with a bruising cane. And Parky the local park keeper was always well armed with a backside-blasting blunderbuss - ok, even then, that was over the top.

This was an era in which Chinese restaurateurs spoke with a "velly funnee" accent, a gambler like Jack Pott was simply engaging in a fun form of entertainment. In "Comic World", kids of all ages were subjected to tortuous paybacks and forced underage employment.

Dandy's first female illustrator
Moving with the times... Dandy's first female illustrator, in 1999
Meanwhile, British soldiers were invariably depicted as jolly Jerry-bashing Tommies, and war was just a swift and painless exercise in annihilation. Surely these things have been well worth losing?

As for the comics themselves, have they really gone the way of the Dodo? The industry has simply evolved. Look closer at your newsagents' shelving and you'll find a number of fun strips now contained in the aforementioned Toxic and the confectionery collection that is Lucky Bag Comic.

Where comic strips used to inspire TV tie-ins, the reverse is now true. The standout title, to my mind, is Titan's Wallace & Gromit comic.

And some of those familiar names have even survived: Judge Dredd and 2000AD, Commando, The Broons and Oor Wullie to name a few.

Look and Learn is one classic title on the cusp of a relaunch. And don't forget the plethora of graphic novels and trade paperbacks that have moved out of newsagents and into our book stores, enabling our comic artists to flourish in a whole new territory.

Best of all, unlike their monochrome predecessors, most of today's new strips are in colour.

Frazer Diamond, 39, maintains the website Toonhound.com. His first and favourite comic as a child was Monster Fun Comic.


Below is a selection of your comments.

The article doesn't touch on the real problem with the comics industry, which is the collapse of the post-war comics production model, which prevailed from the 1940s to the 1970s. Most comics were produced to very tight financial schedules; in the early 1970s a typical title might sell 200,000 copies each week, which would make anywhere upwards of 50,000 profit annually. This relied upon selling large volumes at cheap prices, and low-levels of remuneration for staff. Very often artists and writers weren't even credited for their work, and they possessed no rights over how material was reprinted or merchandised. This model of production was pretty much wiped out in the 1980s, with a growing insistence of creators to have some control over their work, aided by inroads of American comics into Britain. This problem was exacerbated by the pressure to increase production values. Colour printing, painted artwork, and glossy covers all cut into profits. The end result was the death of most anthology serials that had previously been published. Yet, British comics were also hurt by their inability to keep up with the times. The big comics publishers, such as DC Thomson and Fleetway, used to profit from latching onto whatever trends were popular at a given time. The comics market was incredibly dynamic, producing topical titles to match market conditions. When 2000AD was first published in 1977 it was intended to catch the buzz created by contemporary science fiction cinema. When its title was chosen the year 2000 seemed to be in the distant future and no-one expected the title to last more than five years. So, comics were certainly hurt by shifts within the publishing world, and by attitudes of publishers towards their product. Yet this doesn't mean that it would be impossible to run such a rich market in comics today. If you go into any major bookshop nowadays, you'll find sizeable sections set over to graphic novels and, in particular, to manga titles. This is certainly evidence that the graphic narrative is still an effective medium, and one that is both profitable and enjoyable to a broad readership. The weekly comic may be pretty much dead but it's legacy, in the form of the graphic novel, lives on.
Jacob, London

Last memory of childhood. The Dandy on a Tuesday, The Beano on a Thursday. Going on a fortnight's holiday to Scarborough, reading the 'Summer Specials' and then finding two weeks of comics on returning home.Wonderful.
Richard Jackson, Carlton-In-Lindrick, England

It is a shame that Comics are clearly on the decline, however some titles such as the Beano are still popular, and it's a wonderful feeling to see your own children reading the same titles that you enjoyed years ago.
Colin Morris, Cardiff

I grew up with Bunty, Mandy, Judy and many more, after I left school I continued to collect them on a weekly basis until I found it hard to obtain the magazines. One stall in the market had it and I continued to purchase them from there until it was eventually not made anymore, a sad day for me. The Mandy & Judy we have is not the same as of years ago, too many photo stories and gossips which I have no interest in.
Dorothy Hester, Llanharan, South Wales

I count myself lucky that I grew up in the golden age of comics - Beano, TV21 with Thunderbirds, Ranger with the Trigan Empire, illustrated serialised classics like Beowolf and Macbeth, articles on Knights, History, Science and nature! There were so many other brilliant British comics. There was even the smattering of DC and Marvel comics if you knew where to look, the fantastic four, superman and everything of such a high quality. What have my kids in turn got? Poorly illustrated, glossy rubbish that wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes back in the 60s and 70s. Why? My Eldest is doing Macbeth for GCSE, I'm digging out my old Look and Learn's from 40 years ago, to think I read about Macbeth Banquo and Dunsinane wood for pleasure!
Simon Mallett, UK Maidstone

My father raised a large family writing for D C Thomson comics. Some of his work was in the written word only and others in comic strip when it was set out like a film or play production with descriptions how the scenes were to be created by the artist. He wrote for nearly all the characters at one time or another. From the Four Marys to Desperate Dan and Shadow the Sheep Dog to the Limping Man. Then there were the sporting heroes such as Alf Tupper (the tough of the track) and the war heroes like The Wolf of Kabul and his trusty cricket bat 'Clicky-ba'. I thought they were wonderful and truly believe they did encourage some youngsters (who would not ordinarily pick up a book) to read. Many of the stories were pitched at a teenage audience but with a simple reading style. My father is long gone but I still rmemember the sound of his three finger typing on his old Remington and the trips to Scotland to see his bosses in Dundee.
janie cornes, norwich

The article refers only to cartoon comics, which have indeed simply evolved into different forms, such as graphic novels, and of course been superseded by television cartoons. A much greater loss was the text comic, like the Wizard. It was the Wizard that got me interested in reading, and it was a natural progression from that to Biggles, Jennings and William, and thence to adult literature. Of course, today's youngsters are served well by Harry Potter.
Peter Reeve, Callifornia, USA.

Looking back at when I used to avidly read the Beano, I can see that even as recently as the late 90s it taught less than stellar values. Most of the main characters were serial vandals, and cover star Dennis The Menace habitually terrorised his fragile next door neighbour Walter "the Softie" (which basically encouraged bullying those were weaker). Luckily these values did not attach themselves to me, but I could see how they might influence others.
Nick Ould, age 19., Peterborough, U.K.

I read comics hugely as a kid in the 1960s and loved them, but even then some things jarred. It's a mistake to expect comics to be anything other than simplistic and black and white in their portrayals of life. They also reflect the cultural assumptions of the time. The newer titles like 2000 ad etc were no more complex and were in any case targeting a far older audience than the Beano and Dandy. Today kids have access to graphic novels, which are far more demanding than comics and these can be a real help in getting them into reading. Comics will never really die, just keep on adapting to the needs of new readers.
Andrew, Edinburgh UK

While comics aimed at young children are on the decline, as the author points out, those aimed at more mature readers continue to go from strength to strength, especially since Manga made it into the western mainstream. One positive upshot of this is that comics may finally lose the stigma of being 'kids' stuff' and be taken more seriously as a credible medium in itself. Myself, I read the Beano religiously for a huge chunk of my life. Nowadays, I'm a bit of a webcomics nut, which is a flourishing field right now.
James Allan, Manchester, UK

Do you remember the fights over who should get 'The Eagle' first (arrived every Thursday morning: when my father was on early shift, I got it first). Clearly the Treens were forerunners of the Daleks. I learnt my first French word ('oui') from Luck of the Legion (and only learned its pronuciation many years later). In my bit of Canada we can still get the Dandy which I send to my 38 year-old lawyer daughter to remind her of the 'ole country' which she left at 11.
Colin Powell [not THE Colin Powell], Calgary, Canada

I still hold onto the hope that one day, a film version of the original Dan Dare will be made! My Dad bought me my first comic, issue one of the re-launcehed 'Eagle' in the early 80's - I think it was 1981. A year or so later, he found his original Eagle annuals in the loft - fantastic artwork from the late Frank Hampson giving Dan Dare real life as the Pilot of The Future. The 1980's version had some other great characters too - 'Doomlord' scared the pants off me!
Ross Lowe, Derby, England

Look and Learn - now that takes me back. Incorporating World of Wonder, which incorporated Treasure, if I remember correctly. I wouldn't really have classified it as a comic though - it had cartoon strips, certainly - who could forget the Trigan Empire for example (or a crimefighting computer made by a milkman after a head injury) - but it was mainly informative, or at worst infotainment, to use the horrible neologism - and I hope it succeeds - it certainly taught me the fun of knowledge.
Eddie, Edinburgh

Despite now having reached 30 I still get the Beano annual every year and fully expect that to continue. I've got each one back to 1980 and treasure them. I read the Beano (and at times the inferior Dandy) weekly for the majority of my childhood and still look back on it with fondness. I can't help but feel however that it started to go downhill when it started trying to be "edgier". There was an air of innocence about it when I was a kid, even though it seemed old fashioned to me even then. Even though nobody I knew said "cripes" or "ooer" when they got into a scrape, nor was I ever slippered when I did something wrong, it didn't seem to matter - the comic was a different world, and my imagination could do the rest.
Paul Johnson, San Jose, USA

My daughter is 11 now and has been 'reading' comics from before she could read! As well as the more modern magazines aimed at young girls she regularly reads the Beano and Dandy, especially when the cover price is much more pocket money friendly 85p rather than the 2.50 to 5 of the kids glossies! Only The Simpsons rivals them for popularity but that's more to do with her Dad doing the voices when he reads at bedtime.
David, Perth




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