2000AD artist Ian Gibson’s renewed claim that computer games are killing comics, comments reported in the BBC’s feature on the comics’ 30th anniversary, have been savaged up by some games press web sites such as Games Radar and Addict3D, the latter pointing out that 2000AD is owned by gaming company Rebellion, and their tie-in games help promote the comic to game fans.
“The comics market, sadly, is dying,” said Gibson, feeling Judge Dredd’s natural audience has switched to the stronger appeal of games. “The PlayStation has taken over and comics can’t compete.”
The death of comics has been argued over for years in the UK. I think it’s a false argument and energies are better spent devoted elsewhere. But for the record, I certainly don’t think computer games are to blame for a decline in comics sale. I’d argue the real causes lie more at the door of the comics publishers themselves, in their over reliance on licensed material, high price points and failing to retain their readership by narrowing the appeal of their product.
While news stand comics sales are not in the hundreds of thousands every week that they were in the past (up to the late 1980s) there are still plenty of comics out there and there are now more ‘adventure’-oriented comics in the market than there were just two years ago. In addition to 2000AD, both Doctor Who Adventures and Doctor Who Magazine offer strip stories featuring the BBC’s Time Lord. Panini have a swathe of superhero titles on offer, and Titan has joined in with its Batman title, with more DC reprint titles to come.
The humour market is also still healthy — as the sales figures, and the continued publication of, Simpsons Comics, The Beano and TOXIC surely testify. (I’m sure Titan wouldn’t be launching Shaun the Sheep if it didn’t think there was an audience for it).
The younger children’s market is similarly buoyant with plenty of titles from several companies, including the BBC and Redan.
Of course, in terms of origination, an over reliance on licensed and reprint material means there are few opportunities for artists to flex their muscles on an adventure strip, apart from 2000AD, Panini’s A.T.O.M. (I’m assuming A.T.O.M. isn’t reprint) and the small number of originated superhero strips the Tunbridge Wells-based company commissions. But there does appear to be a renewed interest in comic strip among publishers, even if Egmont have just launched a title, Lazer (www.lazermag.co.uk), which features no comics at all, in contrast to the brilliant TOXIC (www.toxmag.co.uk). (A feature-only magazine is much cheaper to originate than comics and it’s worked for Prestige – Action GTX has no strip and despite being a pretty poor title, it’s made it to its twenty-third issue).
Personally, I don’t think computer games, for all their obvious appeal, can be solely blamed for their decline of comics. I met up with Barney Farmer last night, writer of the brilliant Viz strip Drunken Bakers (www.drunkenbakers.com), a freelancer who also has considerable experience in writing strips for titles such as Maxim and the much-mourned Zit, and our shared prognosis was that as well as companies’ failing to promote comics in the same way as games have been marketed, comics publishers also lost the will to reinvent their products in the 1990s, in marked contrast to the determined efforts of at IPC to reinvigorate its line in the 1970s with ACTION! and, later, 2000AD. Simply copying the success of another title also showed a distinct lack of imagination, too.
I also hold the view that licensed titles may well be great in terms of sales while the license is “hot” — as Marvel UK discovered when it published The Real Ghostbusters and Transformers — but when a license goes off the boil, where does readership of a licensed title go? Once the title is dead, they will of course seek out similar titles, but nothing will replace the loss of their favourite comic.
That’s where an anthology title, like Lion and Valiant of old and, today, 2000AD should succeed, and retain a loyal audience. By aping trends in popular culture rather than depending on a licensed character, a skilled editor should be able keep a title fresh but not stray so far from the core elements that make an adventure title a success and broadly enjoyed by its readers, even if their favourite strip may be being rested or ended.
While there’s a market for comics based on games licenses, like the Halo title announced by Marvel which will include art from Simon Bisley and French artist Moebius, it’s my view that licensed comics should not be the only titles in a comic publisher’s armoury. They need their own characters they themselves can exploit in other media (as Dark Horse and Virgin are exploiting their titles as film and TV products).
They also need to promote those characters in a way that not necessarily matches the huge promotional budgets of games publishers, but certainly spend as much on their own brands as they would buying the rights to a hot license.
That some comics publishers do not recognise this remains a mystery to me…