Monday, 7 March 2011

A UK Comic-book Revival

Cover from the first DFC issue

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a select gathering marking the office-opening party of what could be the start of an exciting ground-shift in British children's literature. The gathering represented a rarified set of artists and writers with an unusual skill set (for the UK at least).

Technically it could be regarded as a resurrection of what was formerly the DFC comic, but the new publication will be a more robust indie, not beholden to the vagaries, whims, and interference of a large publishing house. The DFC was first published in May 2008, available only through subscription. It was pulled less than a year later after Random House withdrew funding in a round of belt tightening measures. For those that were lucky enough to have read the DFC, my daughter included, the decision seemed almost incomprehensible; not to have given the publication the full two and a half years to work it’s way into the marketplace seemed a huge waste on every level. The 8-12 age range that the comic was aimed at is pretty much uncontended in the UK, and there was little or no competition with a format of producing well written, beautifully illustrated, often serial based story-lines from luminaries such as Philip Pullman. What I find so appealing about this new revived publication is that the ethic behind it is, refreshingly, not about money, or markets, but about telling good stories.

So why does the UK have this missing market sector? Other countries, France, Spain, the US and Japan have a strong tradition of comic literature, where every possible niche is filled: from pre-school bedside stories to romance for pensioners. Certainly, the UK once had a tradition of story led comic-books that have come and gone over the years: with the likes of EagleWizard, Valiant, and Tiger to name a few. 2000AD is now one of the last surviving weekly episodic comic books, though its story-lines, and sci-fi orientation are aimed at slightly older boys. So why has this gap happened, why have two generations of girls and boys grown up in this country with nothing more sustaining than a bunch of brand-led promotional publications, like the Simpsons Comic and gag-led material like the Beano and Dandy? The answer is probably more complex than anyone really knows, certainly the  market for graphic novels, aimed at a more mature audience, is healthy enough. I’d like to put the answer down to a form of British snobbery, but I’m no expert. In other countries, comic books are seen as a legitimate literary form, even for eight-year-olds. In the UK, such books are dismissed by many adults as ‘cartoon comics’ lumped in with the likes of Beano (sorry guys, but it just isn’t literary).
What is even more interesting is that, since the demise of the story-comic, there has been a concurrent decline of literacy standards amongst British children. I’m no academic, but simple logic says that if a kid is struggling with reading, give them a story with pictures and words; something that, rather than putting them off stories and leaving them behind as they get older, makes them want to read more, to engage with the characters, to figure out what is being said in those speech bubbles, to want to know what happens as the story develops in the next issue. Even if a kid only reads one comic book a week, that is an hour or two of reading each week, not an hour of TV or playstation, and it’s reading they genuinely want to continue doing.

There will be more information filtering out over the coming months about this new project. The comic book itself will not hit the shelves until early next year, but this time it will hit shelves; people will be able to buy it in shops, they will also be able to buy it purely in a digital form. The stories will all be new, built on the already great experience of the original DFC team. And the name, appropriately, will be The Phoenix.

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