British Comics: Charting The Reprint Rights Nightmare

Star Trek - The Classic UK Comics

The arrival of the first volume of Star Trek: The Classic UK Comics from US publisher IDW this morning (courtesy of editor Rich Handley, out 28th April), comprising the first 18 bizarre stories published in Joe 90: Top Secret and TV21 in the 1960s, loosely based on the long-running TV series (and I do mean, loosely) prompted some pondering on the perils of trying to put such collections of British comics together – and finding a market for them.

"Moonchild", a strip for Misty written by Pat Mills, drawn by John Armstrong
“Moonchild”, a strip for Misty written by Pat Mills, drawn by John Armstrong – and back in print later this year

Fans of British comics often bemoan the lack of any co-ordinated attempt at reprinting some of the best-remembered classic characters and their strips from titles long gone by, from Lion and Eagle (and New Eagle) to Valiant, Starblazer, Misty and Jinty. I often read posts on social media groups bemoaning a lack of collections of the “Dan Dare” and “Doomlord” strips from New Eagle for example, and we see plenty of enquiries about collections of DC Thomson’s Starblazer comic, a title we’ve documented fairly thoroughly here on downthetubes, including a full checklist of issues.

Eagle Adventure Special #1 - Cover
Hibernia Comics well-received Eagle Adventure Special #1 – reviewed here

While there’s been plenty of talk of collections from Action, very little of either “Hookjaw” or “Dredger” has seen the light of day in print in recent years (other than the few episodes that ran in STRIP Magazine, the “Hookjaw” stories published re-released digitally by rights owners Egmont). But at least there are some collections of some great girls comics, including  “Moonchild” by Pat Mills and John Armstrong from Misty on their way, thanks to 2000AD/Rebellion, due for release later this year.

Titan Books have published a number of collections of great strips, including “Charley’s War” from Battle, although their “Dan Dare” series came to an abrupt halt some time ago now; and Hibernia Comics have successfully published a number of collections of strips from New Eagle, most recently in their Eagle Adventure Special an “anthology”-styled collection, which we gave a big thumbs up to here.

There are of course, numerous problems that prevent the publishing of British comic collections from the comics of yesteryear, and all of them are, essentially, economic.

Firstly, and primarily, the one that any a publisher is going to look at before, say, reprinting “Steel Claw” from Valiant or “The Four Marys” form Bunty, one of the first thing you’ll ask is not “Are the stories any good?”, either in the script or art – but is there a market for such a collection that will put such a project in profit?

It’s an understandable concern, because the answer to that drives the questions the publisher will answer next – about the cost of putting any such collection together. There are no easy answers and in many ways the only way to find out is to try your luck first, which is a risk… and few publishers (like any business) like taking risks.

Is There A Market?

When a reprint collection idea is pitched, some prospective publishers will inevitably point out that the potential market for older strips is sadly dwindling in terms of those who might buy such collections because they remember them from their childhood. Eagle and Girl were first published almost 70 years ago (celebrating its 66th birthday this week, in fact). Those who most recall “Steel Claw” or “The Spider” will likely be in their sixties, even though both characters were also published in the 1970s – and not just in the UK. Those who remember Action and Misty first time around are likely to be in their mid forties or fifties, if not older. And while it would be incredibly foolish for any publisher to dismiss the potential buying power of the older generations, given their huge percentage as part of the British population alone, you’ve still got to reach them to be able to sell your great new album of  stories.

So, whether it’s “Roy of the Rovers“, “Dan Dare“, “Skid Solo“, “I Spy“, “Mowser“, “Captain Future” or “Fishboy” – just some of the strips mentioned in dispatches in recent days, and some that still command plenty of nostalgia “value” outside the comics community alone, you have to be sure there are enough people out there who will remember them before committing to collections.

Heros the Spartan regular coverOf course, there are still ways to turn such problems into a publishing opportunity. You can, for example, publish limited editions of your collection, tailored to the perceived market with print runs based on sales of past releases.  Book Palace Books (with, for example, their high-price point Heros the Spartan collection) and Hibernia Comics publishing strategy has taken this route, and they’ve had a lot of success. Titan Books prefers a more general audience approach, but perseverance has enabled them to create a ready audience for series such as Peter O’Donnell‘s Modesty Blaise – now nearing completion – and their Charley’s War range that has not only sold to those who remember the strip but beyond it, into the wider comics community that appreciates the art and story from Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun.

You can also hedge your bets a little, publishing not single strips but collections from the hopefully more recognisable brand – the comic’s title in which they appear. Again, Titan have taken this route with a number of Battle strips collections introduced by Garth Ennis (and having someone Garth on side as a name to help promote the range doens’t hurt, etiher). A further volume, Battle Classics, featuring “Fighting Mann” and “War Dog” is due for release in August.

I’m sure there are other comics with a strong brand that could perhaps benefit from a similar approach, be they Boys Adventure, Girls or Humour comic. (Off the top of my head on that front and without getting too long-winded, Lion, Valiant, SparkyMisty and Sonic the Comic). DC Thomson have enjoyed success with such an approach when it comes to The Beano and Dandy collections, especially their anniversary books, but it would be great to see them doing more with their archive of their other titles such as Beezer, Sparky, Warlord and Bunty.

(It’s good to see that in the case of Bunty, along with similar Beano licensed product such as the Beano: 100 Postcards book, released in 2014, DC Thomson are at least licensing imagery from the comic for commercial use, with Mouse to Minx offering some great nostalgia items – that shows there is a market for Bunty-related goods).

2000AD Dan Dare Collection Volume One
2000AD have now published collections of most of their back catalogue, including their “Dan Dare” strip

And of course to further increase sales opportunities, you can make sure you secure publishing rights that enable sale of your planned British comic collection in countries where those comics were reprinted, which, in the case of the older strips, can count in your favour. 2000AD, for example had an audience in South Africa (noted by author Lauren Beukes in the Future Shocks documentary, recently screned on Channel Four), but many older British comic heroes, such as Black Archer and Steel Claw were reprinted in, for example, Eastern Europe as well as Spanish-speaking countries in South America.

You can also, like IDW with their new Star Trek: The Classic UK Comics books (expect another this year, and one more in 2017), and Panini with their Doctor Who comic collections, strengthen your hand by securing rights to reprinting comics from a well-known TV show or well known licensed brand such as Transformers. Such brands have a much wider appeal than comic fans alone – and indeed, can be popular enough to prompt new interpretations as well as reprints, as in the case of Dynamite’s Bionic Woman.

The Hidden Costs

Of course, once you’ve established there is a market for your proposed collection, it then has to be costed, in terms of securing rights and production costs – and this is where many proposed collections come a cropper, because these costs are sometimes far too high in relation to projected profit. Rights holders might demand too much for a license (Time UK, previously IPC being a case in point, who as we’ve previously reported, own many pre-1970s comic characters published by Fleetway Editions) and some rights holders of TV or film-based properties may be reluctant to license the material because as “classic” material, it may not fit with their current “branding”. (Or they simply might not want to bother, which from the experience of some publishers is unfortunately the case with some great strips published, for example, in Look-In).

(That the strips in the new Star Trek: The Classic UK Comic fall so far outside any current or past version of the top SF show makes it all the more impressive that IDW succeeded in persuading rights holders CBS to permit their official collection at last).

The rights holders may also be hard to track down, too. Marvel UK, for example, may well have published Zoids comic, some episodes written by Grant Morrison – but who owns Zoids? No-one seems to know, and publishers keen to publish such a collection in the past, riding on the coat tails of the success of Transformers collections, have had to pass on proposals for that property.

Likewise, we’re unlikely to ever see – much though it’s a personal favourite – a collection of the “Countdown” strip from the 1970s comic of the same name. A British weekly published by Polystyle Publications, Countdown ran this wonderful strip, beautifully drawn by John M. Burns during its first year alongside both originated and reprint strips from based on Gerry Anderson shows such as UFO and Thunderbirds, and Doctor Who, but, of course Polystyle Publications has long gone, first absorbed by London and North Surrey Newspapers, who were in turn absorbed by the Mirror Group.

Countdown Episode One from the eponymous comic. Art by John M. Burns, writer unknown, copyright - unknown...
Countdown Episode One from the eponymous comic. Art by John M. Burns, writer unknown, copyright – unknown…

If you talk to Mirrorpix (and I have), who license Mirror-owned holdings, they’ll tell you they own Countdown (the comic). But the plot thickens, because the original artwork for the “Countdown” strip is actually sitting in the Daily Express archives, an accquistion, we believe by the Express when it bought an art agency some years back, although of course the Express archive also holds (or held) quite a lot of Gerry Anderson-related art from TV Century 21, some of which was reprinted in Countdown.

Let’s say you could ascertain which publisher – the Mirror or the Express – can rightfully claim to owning the “Countdown” strip (let’s not even suggest “the creators” because only in rare instances, such as “The Beatles Story” written by Angus Allan and drawn by Arthur Ranson for Look-In did that ever happen at any point in British comics history prior to the 1980s), there’s one more problem – the “Countdown” strip features vehicles originally seen in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. So if you wanted to reprint “Countdown” you might also have to get permission from the film studio that produced it – MGM – or the estate of Stanley Kubrick.

You’d have to seriously want to publish this strip for, potentially a very small audience, buying the rights in at, possibly, quite a cost. Do you begin to see just why these things only rarely happen?

The Beatles Story - Sample Panel
“The Beatles Story” by Angus Allan and Arthur Ranson, published in Look-In, is a rare pre-1980s instance of a strip owned by the creators.

And all this is before you secure the comics in which these strips appeared, which you may have to do yourself because the publishers who are sometimes demanding huge fees to license the strips they own don’t often own the original art. In the case of Time UK they sold much of their archive off years ago, for example.

So if you were looking to reprint the adventures of “The Steel Claw” you either have to track that art down, if it hadn’t already “disappeared” from the archive – or used as a door jam, or to mop up rain water, or used as a cutting mat. It’s spread far and wide now, as is art from many other strips. Even if most of the art is all held by one person – as I discovered was the case with the Eagle strip “Road of Courage” when I edited Titan’s collection – the cost of scanning that art (and insuring it while doing so) might also prove prohibitive. Plus, the condition of the art isn’t always, despite best efforts – as published, necessitating careful checking of the pages against the published work for missing balloons etc.

You thus have to use the comics where the strip appeared as your source material. Which were, of course, in the main printed on low grade paper and simply scanning a page is only the start of the restoration work required. Over at Panini, designer Peri Godbold spent a huge amount of time making the best of classic Doctor Who strip, for example, while Moose Harris has done wonders behind the scenes on Titan’s “Charley’s War” albums and other Battle collections. You’ll see good reproduction on “Roy of the Rovers” collections because the collector who supplied pages on many of them has spent years buying copies of Tiger and Roy of the Rovers, aiming to improve on the copy of a story he holds, where the printing is better.

An episode of Star Trek from Joe 90 Top Secret Issue 2. Art by Harry Lindfield.
An episode of Star Trek from Joe 90 Top Secret Issue 2. Art by Harry Lindfield. These spreads have, unfortunately, proven a problematic printing issue for the new IDW collection

After all that, you have the problem that in some cases the source material, published in a weekly comic as a double page spread, might not sit as well in a collection, where balloons and captions disappear into the collection’s “gutter”. While some publishers have endeavoured to solve this issue, such as the Heros collection and the the Reynolds and Hearn Gerry Anderson collections, the new IDW “Library of American Comics” Star Trek has, unfortunately not, so there are a lot of spreads in this hefty tome where many panels on the early strips drawn by the likes of Harry Lindfield are, sadly, unreadable.

Did I describe the reprinting of British comics as a nightmare?

More like a horror story, in some cases – so when you do see such collections, often published as the result of some publisher’s love of the source material rather than based on any full cost analysis, now you may have some inkling of just how hard it was to get them to print. While I’m always going to push for more British comic collections, I’m also painfully aware, as an editor of such books, of how hard it is to bring them to eager readers…

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a “freelance comics operative”, currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY.

John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor.

He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY.

Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

10 thoughts on “British Comics: Charting The Reprint Rights Nightmare

  • April 12, 2016 at 6:06 pm
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    In relation to the ‘Is there a market?’ stage, I commend Hibernia for how they actively invite suggestions and debate on what they should reprint. I recall a year or so on their Facebook page there being some incredibly passionate discussions on minor/forgotten ‘New Eagle’ strips – and I was blown away to discover that three of my own favourites (‘News Team’, ‘Dolebusters’ and ‘Comrade Bronski’) made the cut when the ‘Adventure Special’ came out recently. (I hasten to add that I was not the only advocate for any of them, just that these are perhaps not the kind of strips that immediately leap to mind when thinking about classics from the title.)

    The ability these days to actively engage with one’s target audience – or rather the core of an audience, from which would hope to build outwards into a bigger market – using social media to solicit ideas and opinions from the humble buying public cannot, I propose, be underestimated.

    • April 12, 2016 at 6:32 pm
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      Thanks for posting this comprehensive consideration of all the hurdles to overcome. I salute those that have seen their ideas come to fruition. I wish copyright law allowed self publication after, say, 25 years for any material not made commercially available to buy but that would probably further complicate what law there already is (By the way I condemn all the unlicenced knock offs such as those discs that pop up on eBay).

      If anyone from DCT is reading this, then a Mickey the Monkey volume just in time for Christmas would be warmly welcomed !

      • April 12, 2016 at 9:37 pm
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        With Dandy now defunct, maybe the Classic Beano and Dandy books could be rebranded (as The Beano Presents Classics from the Comics, reviving the name of the old monthly reprint comic?) and include material from all of the humour titles? That would be Beano, Dandy, Magic (vol 1 – the later version was a nursery title), Topper, Beezer, Sparky, Cracker, Buzz, Plug, Nutty, and Hoot. They could also use a similar format for the boys titles (under Victor’s brand) and the girls comics (using the Bunty name). Restricting themselves to just Beano and Dandy means some popular classics aren’t getting their day in the limelight, such as the Banana Bunch, Baby Crockett, Ginger, (Send For) Nick Kelly, the original version of Tricky Dicky, and as you mention, Mickey the Monkey.

  • April 12, 2016 at 6:35 pm
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    Shame about the Countdown strip…and the article also explains why I’ve never seen any of the original John Burn’s artwork offered for sale anywhere. Double grrr! Sad that it’s all just languishing away unseen somewhere.

  • April 12, 2016 at 10:36 pm
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    …But good that the entire series has been preserved intact!

    Fortunately I’ve got a lot of the original Joe 90 comics those Star Trek strips were drawn for (the best way to experience this material imo) so I’ll probably give the collection a miss. To be honest I’m inclined to think that such paper volumes will be obsolete in a few years anyway – like the complete sets of Encyclopedia Britannica you now see for a fiver in charity shops. The fact is that most people below a certain age already prefer to access their reading matter through a computer screen, and when print dinosaurs like me have finally died out such books are unlikely to have much lasting value. Instead, I envisage that virtually everything published by Fleetway, Odhams, IPC, DC Thomson, etc. will be readily available to download from the internet – and if the people who own the rights don’t want to have their property hopelessly devalued by the many pirate CDs of British and American comics that are already available they’ll make sure that the fees are easily affordable (possibly in the form of an annual payment to access their whole database).

    • April 12, 2016 at 10:40 pm
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      Be great to have a legal digital portal for this material. Some of Egmont’s strips are already available through the SEQUENTIAL app, of course. Again, though, the rights holders are the issue here – wanting too much for the license to currently justify the cost. Many digital licensing deals in other sectors work on revenue share alone, but in my experience larger publishers have also wanted an “up front” for limited access to only a small section of their material. When that upfront is in the region of £5000 for very few characters, to be published on a platform still trying to find its feet, you can see why e-publishers might balk at the “opportunity” presented.

  • April 13, 2016 at 7:41 am
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    Funnily enough I recently bought a Steel Claw collection in Spanish for my father-in-law (who was a big fan in 1960s Spain) but the problem was that the print was now too small for him to read! I suspect that the pages were the right size because they were bigger than A4, but time had moved on. Funny that you can’t get the same comics in the UK.
    On the 2000AD front, Rebellion have done a superb job in bringing these back into print but I was most pleased by the news that the Cursed Earth Uncensored will also repeat the comics’ colour centre spreads. When you see the versions in black and white after having seen the originals, you always feel that something is missing if you don’t get the colour pages too (although most modern readers probably have no idea what they’re missing).

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