Are Games really Killing Comics?

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…

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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4 replies

  1. Interesting piece John, and I found myself agreeing with everything you’ve said there. I don’t think for one minute that games are crushing comics. If that was the case then comics would have suffered in Japan, but as we know Manga and games are both hugely popular!

    I think the major problem in the UK is the attitude towards comics from the publishers, who have often showed a lack of imagination towards the medium. When a comic has failed they’ve assumed “That’s it then. Comics don’t sell. Let’s do magazines instead” rather than considering that perhaps that particular product wasn’t strong enough.

    The major publishers used to rely on a formula too much, I feel. And each new title seemed weaker than the last. Whilst Cor!! and Valiant were strong titles in their day could the same be said for Nipper, School Fun, Jet or Speed?

    I feel the publishers didn’t move with the times quickly enough, and then blamed other media when their old fashioned product didn’t sell. Perhaps if they were more aware of their own history they’d notice that the biggest successes in comics were the titles that moved the genre forward (Dandy, Eagle, 2000 AD, Viz). Innovation not imitation is the key.

    Lew

  2. Interesting arguments, and, taken in isolation, I’d tend to agree with them. I might also be tempted to add the suggestion that the poly-bagging of so many comics (to keep in the “free” toys) must be a discouragement to impulse buys based on browsing.

    But in a number of blogs devoted to US comics, there are explanations being floated about why their sales are falling (chiefly emphasising the closed and inaccessible nature of the big two super hero universes). I gather that sales of manga magazines are also falling in Japan. Indeed, I just got round to reading Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks’s Essential Guide to World Comics, which records falling sales in pretty much every country surveyed.

    So if sales are falling everywhere, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for market-specific explanations, but for general ones.

    One possible explanation is indeed competition from other leisure activities. It’s not just video games that are taking up more time among children and adults, but multiple digital TV channels, chatting endlessly on mobile phones, texting, web surfing (including reading on-line comics) and (ahem) blogging. I don’t have the inside knowledge and experience that you and Lew have, but this argument seems to me inherently plausible, however inefficient or otherwise publishers may be.

    Another possible explanation is rising incomes, which make graphic novels and comic albums more affordable. Certainly, icv2 has reported that in the US, sales of book-sized comics now bring in more revenues than sales of comic periodicals.

    If so, this would be nothing new. Apart from a few genre-specific titles which still struggle on, chiefly by subscription, the prose fiction market switched from periodicals to books long ago. Perhaps the same is now happening to comics?

  3. Oh, and just to add — this is a terrific site, John. Many thanks for putting it together.

  4. Regarding the lack of comics in the UK market — and elsewhere these days — another issue for publishers is simply cost.

    The bottom line is that it’s far cheaper to put out a magazine like Action GTX or Lazer, with no comic strip, because good, interesting features might be just as hard to write well for their writers but the publisher is then only paying for the writing and for the use of any syndicated imagery (Costs on that vary of course, and most publishers will only be using PR imagery to save even more money). So in pure economic terms it’s cheaper to put out a feature-based magazine for kids — and if they sell without comics then the publisher counts that as a success.

    Unfortunately, as I’m sure the editors of TOXIC have argued, simply running features — which could easily be transposed to another title — doesn’t build reader loyalty. Quite honestly, I don’t see that there’s what’s known in business as a Unique Selling Point to titles like Action GTX or Lazer, whereas TOXIC does have a USP – apart from being well put together – and that’s its comics strips. For me, despite the higher costs of putting a comics page together there’s a pay off in terms of creating brand loyalty that many publishers fail to recognise.

    I totally agree that innovation is also important: if publishers had published different stuyles of humour magazine to Viz when its sales exploded in the 1980s, instead of simply trying to copy it without understanding what made it tick, perhaps some of them would still be around. But again, in pure economics – and this goes for film, TV and computer games, too – it’s a safer bet to clone rather than innovate, and bail when sales start to fall. Innovation is expensive and there are very few publishers — except, perhaps, BBC Magazines — who have the resource to be the first to market with something truly new.

    If that makes depressing reading, we should take some satisfaction from the obvious — that there is still demand for comics, albeit via an electronic medium. Josh Roberts, the guy who set up ComicSpace published some stats recently. Comic strip galleries were added about five weeks ago and already there are over 42,000 pages in 4,400 galleries. So there’s no shortage of talent out there, it’s how creators can profit from their creations that’s the problem.

    We should also revel in the enthusiasm companies like BBC Magazine (with Doctor Who Adventures) and Titan (with Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep) have found for originating comic strip lately, alongside stalwarts such as Panini, DC Thomson and yes, Rebellion, even though the latter has not really extended its 2000AD-based range beyond its core titles, which leaves them vulnerable, in my opinion, to stagnation.

    Yes, Titan are using a lot of reprint — it makes commercial sense, and as comic readers we have to accept that, it doesn’t bother me as someone who discovered Marvel Comics via its British reprints in the 1970s — but even though their latest launch, Lazy Town, has kicked off with no comic strip, that’s going to change over the next few issues. That’s very encouraging and I hope Titan’s clear faith in the comics medium will encourage other publishers to begin more comics publishing, too.

    Perhaps, also, some publishers are even considering publishing titles beyond the obviously healthy humour and junior market. But of course that requires innovation, which goes against the grain for the reasons stated above…

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