The British Comics Industry – Still in Decline or On the Up?

Comics on sale in WH Smiths Lancaster in July 2017. Teen titles such as 2000AD and Commando are racked in a separate section of the store.
Comics on sale in WH Smith Lancaster in July 2017. Teen titles such as 2000AD and Commando are racked in a separate section of the store.
The state of British comics – and exactly what people mean by the “British comics industry” came into focus  in a couple of threads on social media over the weekend, with many older comic fans noting with dismay the dominance of the expensive polybagged comic on British news stands – often a product that on further examination meets with derision in terms of poor content used solely to supplement the latest “free gift”.

So, exactly what state is the “British comics industry” in? And what happened in that industry that led to the rise of polybag, expensive comic magazines we see in newsagents and supermarkets?

Complaints about the quality of many modern comic magazines – particularly from parents trying to placate their children before they launch on their latest supermarket foray by giving them something to read – is something I have sympathy for, but such discussion inevitably prompts the frequently trumpeted cry that “the British comics industry is dead” that to be honest I have very little time for.

Still doing well on the news stand - The Beano - even if it is still badly-promoted on the official web site. © DC Thomson
Still doing well on the news stand – The Beano – even if it is still badly-promoted on the official web site. © DC Thomson
Quite often, the claim that the comics industry is “dead” here in the UK proves a sweeping generalisation (and those who make this comment often move the goalposts as to what they mean by the claim when challenged on it). There are still a number of publishers putting out comics and comic magazines in the UK and doing very nicely from it, evidenced by the range of titles available in any medium to large WHSmith. To name but a few – DC Thomson (Commando, The Beano, EPIC), Egmont (Star Wars, TOXIC), Panini (Doctor Who Magazine, Marvel reprints) Redan (Peppa Pig – one of the best-selling titles on the UK news stand – and more, aimed at younger readers) Rebellion Publishing (2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine) and Titan Comics (DC reprints and more, but who also publish a lot of originated titles for the US market, created right here in the UK).

It’s absolutely correct to note that many comics on sale in today’s high street newsagents aren’t anything like the comics anyone who grew up pre-2000 remembers, offering cover to cover comics strip, as the Beano and 2000AD still do. The reasons for this change are many and complex, going back decades. As the competition for children’s pocket money got fiercer than ever in the late 1980s/ 1990s, comics battled against other, better promoted media – games and music, to name but two – for sales.

Here’s how things have changed, over several decades…

• Publishers moved to publishing licensed rather than “originated” comics, spurred by the success of titles such as Marvel UK’s The Real Ghostbusters and Transformers which had a stronger “brand awareness” among potential buyers than long-established comics with no presence beyond the news stand in other media, such as TV – a trend that has resulted in the kind of titles you see on sale in most newsagents and supermarkets today.

• Unknown to most buyers, many of today’s licensed titles utilise strip originated elsewhere, so there’s no work on these titles for British creators.

Reprint strip is nothing new of course, it’s been a staple part of the comics publishing business model for decades – just look at how Marvel UK started out in the 1970s, for example. Even Eagle, published in the 1950s and remembered with fondness by many for “Dan Dare”, included reprints of Tintin in its very early issues. Unfortunately, we’re now at the stage where reprint material has become the easy route for a lot of publishers, and not just because it’s cheaper than originating. In part, it’s simply because when you are working with a licensor (some of them not the easiest of companies to work with) it is easier to reprint what has been approved elsewhere, or draw on the licensor’s “pool” of material created for localised publication, rather than go through the rigmarole of creating new strip, which can be costly.

(Trust me – there isn’t an artist, writer comics editor or publisher out there who can’t tell you some horror story about working on a licensed title. But down the years there have been some great licensed titles, so don’t think I’m knocking the business model when it works for the benefit of all involved).

Disney also stopped the origination of Marvel-based character strips outside the US a long time ago, now, which is why Panini’s titles are reprint only these days – but very good value if you want to follow superheroes compared with buying the US imports.

• Modern comic magazines use more feature material simply because it is far cheaper to create, largely inhouse, than commissioning comic strip. Personally, I think they’re missing a trick, because by creating comic strip you can sell that into other markets (and some do, very successfully, just as Fleetway Editions used to back in the 1960s and 1970s).

But in business, the maxim “it’s all about the money” has never been truer at a time of ever increasing production costs. Paper costs, for example, have always been rising, but since the 1970s those costs have escalated. You can see why publishers have made the decisions they have to survive.

This Sainsbury's promotion for comics is just the latest of many, but since all the comics have been racked at adult eye level, it's easy to see who it's been aimed at and who might buy them. Comics have become a parent buy.
This Sainsbury’s promotion for comics is just the latest of many, but since all the comics have been racked at adult eye level, it’s easy to see who it’s been aimed at and who might buy them. Comics have become a parent buy.
• When supermarkets went the route of pushing for comics to have a free gift, this inevitably meant publishers had to increase the cost of the comic, way beyond the low prices that were afforded them in an era when high print runs reduced the unit cost. Supermarkets of course are happy that the titles are more expensive – it means they get more money from the sale of each item, so they don’t have to stock as many copies to recoup the cost of putting it on their shelves. But it’s also meant comics have become a “parent buy”, not something a child actively goes out and buys for themselves, on their own, making their own choice, as many kids used to for most of the 20th century. That’s a sad turn of events and, I think, another barrier to making comics accessible.

Polybagging comics also means there’s no opportunity for kids to sample the comic they’re thinking of buying, to the detriment of the title (and, I’d argue, the brand, if it’s not very good)

• Another factor behind the decline in cheap comics in this country was, I think, the loss of publishers owning their own presses. I think many larger publishers no longer in the business, such as IPC (now TimeUK) in part printed comics back in the 1950s through to the 1990s  simply to keep their presses going – that comics also made money was simply a bonus to the bean counters.

As evidence, I’d note that when DC Thomson sold off its presses in the early 2000s it meant the continued publication of many of their “pocket library” titles was uneconomic and they were cancelled, their sales already in terminal decline.

These snapshots of the "teen" comics section of WHSmith Lancaster in 2017 indicate just how many comics are vying for space, and the different ways they are promoted with "pop out" bins and shelving stickers. Which seem to have worked for Commando, which has apparently sold out!
These snapshots of the “teen” comics section of WHSmith Lancaster in 2017 indicate just how many comics are vying for space, and the different ways they are promoted with “pop out” bins and shelving stickers. Which seem to have worked for Commando, which has apparently sold out!
• Finally, the distribution of comics and magazines in the UK has changed beyond all recognition over the years, and in favour of the distributors, not the publishers who keep them in business. I’ve written about this before many times, but comic buyers aren’t generally aware of the cost of launching a comic title. For example, when I was editing the ill-fated STRIP Magazine (a title that had many problems thanks to its publisher I won’t go into here), the cost of simply getting the title onto the news stand (and only to a limited number of stores) ran into the thousands, on top of editorial costs and print.

These distributor costs are on top of any consumer promotion – TV advertising, for example.

Faced with such costs, it’s easy to see why publishers have continued to focus on licensed titles rather than launch new own brand comics like 2000AD and Beano. By publishing a licensed title based on a top-selling toy or TV programme, hopefully your marketing to your readers is in part done for you, because your potential customer is more than happy to buy something associated with a trusted brand. Launching an own brand title into such a market is hard, because you have to build the brand in competition not just with other comics out there but other better known and established brands that your potential readers – children – are more aware of.

The Phoenix Issue 288All that said, there are still a lot of good things happening in our British comics industry. While overall news stand sales are down the market for comic magazines remains strong and publishers are adapting to reaching readers directly. The Phoenix comic may not be everyone’s cup of tea but publishers could learn a thing or two from publisher David Fickling’s cautious approach to building the brand, building readership from its subscription base and sales through Waitrose to the point where it is now on sale in a limited number of high street newsagents, increasing the title’s visibility and reach.

2000AD Prog 20412000AD has consolidated its readership and publisher Rebellion has been very canny about building brand to the point where it is now in a position to launch its own TV show based on the Judge Dredd strip.

Despite its print sales being lower than in past decades, the Beano still sells around 34,000 copies a week and subscriptions are on the increase – a business model that most magazine publishers have used successfully outside our industry for years. DV Thomson has also launched Beano Studios to develop its digital offering based on their characters in other media.

Titan Comics is thriving publishing into the US, with their titles also on sale here in UK comic ships, offering a range that is both ambitious and bringing employment to numerous British creators.

Beyond the news stand, we also have a huge number of smaller independent publishers reaching the hard core comic fan directly, with some success.

So the next time someone says “the comics industry is dead”, pin them down on exactly what they mean when they say that. If they are talking about comics published in the 1960s and 1970s and the huge news stand circulations they had, then yes, that has gone forever.

But British comics themselves are far from dead – in fact, I’d that in terms of the sheer range of titles out there (if you can find them / be bothered to look) it’s never been more exciting.

British comics industry Q&A

• For those of you who would like a snapshot of comic magazine sales in the UK I have been charting then for several years based on declared ABC figures here. It was last updated in February

Further Reading

inPublishing: How to sell more copies by James Evelegh

Some years ago, publishers seemed to lose interest in point-of-sale activity. Digital was the new obsession and there was a growing sense that retail could look after itself. Get the copies in the van, job done, was the thinking. Trade marketing declined, as did sales. But, as MMS’s Bill and Tom Stocker tell James Evelegh, by upping their game at point-of-sale, publishers will sell more copies, fact!

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.

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