Friday, January 10, 2014

The Future of an Industry

Recently, UK comics seem to be changing – there's a fresh breeze in the air, a shift in perceptions, an expanding market, regular comics reviews in the broadsheets and a growing and more diverse stable of creators. Perhaps most significantly, Jonathan Cape and SelfMadeHero, along with other companies, have developed a great catalogue of original works by British creators. This growing range of original comics is mostly aimed at thoughtful adults, and is a massive triumph.

These successes are both backed up and boosted by a growing number of UK conventions, and just one trip to Thought Bubble shows a vibrant indie scene full of creators just waiting to be discovered. Almost every table boasts comics of excellent quality, and it's nigh on impossible to pick up every book that deserves attention.

I think everyone in UK comics can feel this happening, and it's exciting - there's a real sense of growing opportunity about the industry. But the reason I'm writing this article in the new year is not to self-congratulate, but to bring up a very sober question...
...what is our potential for growth?

It's easy to look back at the history of comics in the UK and see a pattern. The steady decline of sales in children's comics, the closure of comic shops, the sudden boom and bust of manga. Comics seem unable to put down strong roots here, and looking at that fact causes me great worry.
Seen from the interior of the industry, our collection of original comics are fresh shoots in a warm greenhouse. Seen from the greater context of publishing in Britain, fragile saplings in winter might be a more appropriate image.

The thing that worries me is that underneath this new growth, British comics still seems to rely on a specialist audience – one that is familiar with geek culture in general, and comfortable with comics because of long familiarity or even fandom. Chat to someone else who reads comics, and the chances are you'll find yourself with at least one fandom in common. To put it bluntly, we are a mostly-male sub-culture of adult fans, augmented only slightly by the growing mainstream relevance of geek culture, and a budding acceptance that comics are an art-form.

Look outside the warmth of the convention hall, and you still find an apathetic general public with a deep lack of understanding about comics. I'm regularly brought up short by the phrase “oh, they still make those?” when I talk with anyone but industry friends, and I frequently have to explain what my job is due to the lack of understanding that greets “comic book artist”. The reason for this is where we get the the heart of the matter.

The audience that our industry needs in order to expand has not grown up reading comics.

Despite this, it seems that almost every UK publisher is producing the same sort of content. Mature, arty comics for discerning adult readers. Whilst I'm personally very happy about this, I feel that as an industry, we're supplying our own demand, making the comics we want to read. In the larger sense of a new business trying to take root in a hostile market, this is tantamount to planting seeds on barren land.

If we, as an industry, can't maintain growth, the swelling ranks of indie creators will have nowhere to go, and everything we've gained over the last decade could be lost. What we need, more than anything else, is fertile soil to plant in.

If an entire generation of children were to grow up reading a diverse range of comics, from every genre and for every gender, before too long there'd be literally millions of young adults, demanding the most challenging original content they can find. They'd understand, produce and consume comics in ways we can't yet imagine, and their concept of mainstream would be utterly different from ours. They wouldn't even have to profess comic fandom. It would be a given.

All it would take is a children's comic with that diversity of content reaching massive levels of popularity. You can see where I'm going I hope…

The Phoenix is trying to do exactly that.

At the risk of sounding like an advert, it's stuffed full of well made comics that represent a massive range of genres and styles. It doesn't discriminate, it promotes textual and visual literacy, it pays well, credits its authors, and lets them keep their rights. It's EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL NEED TO BUILD A LASTING AND SUSTAINABLE MARKET FOR UK COMICS.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked there 3 days a week as an in-house designer and illustrator for the last year, but this isn't me toeing the company line, it's the reason I wanted to work for them in the first place.

I put a higher priority on my job at The Phoenix than I do on my own original comic, because I know that my work is going to have an uncertain future unless The Phoenix, or something very much like it, reaches huge levels of popularity first. My desire to start working at The Phoenix was driven by my desire to see UK comics grow and evolve.

I've been planning to write this blog entry ever since The Phoenix’s predecessor, The DFC, launched. Now, at the beginning of 2014, it seems like the right time. It's the start of a new year, there's a feeling of big things happening in the industry, publishers are supporting original content like never before, and The Phoenix is just starting to build up the momentum it needs to create a supply of comics readers the likes of which the UK has never seen.

I'm going to be doing my level best to make sure that momentum continues, so that in 2030, we can enjoy a UK comics industry larger and more diverse than any other.

But I'm only one voice, and it can feel very lonely supporting children's comics. We're an industry of adults, so it doesn't come naturally. If you normally feel like children's comics aren't relevant to you, just remember... these aren't the comics we deserve, they're the comics we need.

If you support children’s comics, by making them, by talking about them, by writing about them and promoting them, you’ll be supporting the future of the UK comics industry!

comments

  1. An excellent post. Sad to see no mention of the Beano though - it's still going, and it's better than ever before these days. They've taken on a lot of independent artists and writers recently (including Alexander Matthews, Wilbur Dawbarn, Nigel Auchterlounie and Jamie Smart) which have breathed new life into its venerable pages. It's also the last non-plastic children's comic out there on high street news stands, so, y'know, pretty important for comics' little remaining cultural visibility!

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    1. Thanks! ^_^
      In terms of the Beano, I debated whether to include it in the article. It's the last remnant of a lost era of fantastic comics for children. It's well written, well drawn and, as you point out, uses a lot of fresh talent! I have very fond memories of it from my own childhood, and I hope it carries on going indefinitely.

      It does what it does well, but despite its efforts to move with the times, it still uses many of the same characters and tropes that were established half a century ago, and it doesn't stray very far from its own genre boundaries. I feel that it's only one out of many types of possible comic, and whilst quality counts for a lot, diversity was what I wanted to stress.

      I'm pretty certain that It's only when our audience experiences the entire breadth of what comics can achieve that we will be able to grow a fully fledged industry.

      Again, at the risk of sounding like an advert, with The Phoenix, the writers aren't just independent, the material they're writing is also creator owned and creator guided, and because of that it's free of genre restraints. There's drama, humour, action, adventure, sci-fi, fantasty, and all sorts of storytelling hybrids. Some strips are stand-alone, some sustain their stories over dozens of issues, and I'm of the opinion that it's only that sort of diversity that will reliably inspire the same kind of diversity from its readers.

      It gives children the instant laughs that they love best, but also the stories and ideas they need to prepare them for more complex fiction. It never talks down, and is sometimes more complex than strictly suitable for its audience. That's the sort of thing I think we need more of. It needn't be The Phoenix specifically that captures that desperately needed audience (indeed, it could be many comics that do it), but right now it's the only weekly children's comic I know of that provides all of the right ingredients.

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