Earlier this year, David Fickling Books and Random House launched The DFC, a new weekly comic in the UK, the first of its kind in terms of the levels of originated, new characters for many years.
Packed to the gunnels with a selection of some of the best of British talent including artists such as Kate Brown, David Shelton, James Turner, Garen Ewing, the Etherington Brothers and Neill Cameron (to name but a few), aided in its advance publicity by the inclusion of self-confessed comics fan and top author Philip Pullman, the currently subscription-only comic is beginning to find its feet and publisher David Fickling has high hopes for both the comic, which include bringing it into newsagents and specialist comic shops, further development of the comic’s web site and much more.
After soliciting questions from downthetubes readers about the comic and David’s plans for it prior to launch, a number of circumstances conspired to prevent the interview below taking place, not least of them being David Fickling’s hectic schedule and the demands a weekly title imposes on even the most dedicated of editorial teams. But now he’s been able to sit down with downthetubes John Freeman and chat about the comic, his love of comics and plans for so much more than just one new comic…
downthetubes: You’re several weeks in with “live publishing” of The DFC. How is everything going with the project?
David Fickling: It’s going very well indeed. We’re getting the most wonderful response from children. I think it takes time for a weekly story to be intelligible, actually, so I’m more than delighted with what’s happened.
downthetubes: We appreciate that you can’t go into detail on sales, but how are they going? Are you on target?
David: It’s doing well, and we’re getting more subscriptions every day. It’s just a question of making it known. It’s a small miracle it exists at all, and the miracle is really performed by the artists and storytellers, the Makers, who’ve given their time.
We’re a little clearing house for all their work: that’s the advantage of an outworking system. It’s all very, very exciting.
downthetubes: How far in advance do you work?
David: I suppose you want to be about three months ahead. We started off a little bit close, but we’re pulling away. We’re probably getting up towards that, about eleven or twelve weeks ahead now. When we started we were just seven weeks ahead, which was tight.
We’re really like a small television station, or a film studio, with aspirations and ambitions to be a big one. You commission material and you sort of have an envelope, a commissioning envelope stretching out in front of you and you want enough material to balance with what you’re doing and deliver.
Obviously, we’re investing in people’s work and that’s the big give, the expenditure, that we have to deal with, and you have to balance that with not doing things too quickly to maintain quality.
Where we are now is down to a lot of hard work from the comics team – Ben Sharpe, my deputy, who’s really doing the work of an executive editor, Will Fickling, designer Peter and Anthony and other people. It’s a very special team.
David: Yes, they have to be. We’ve started something new, or rather a restoration of a natural right for children.
downthetubes: Assume our readers – savvy though they are about comics – know nothing about The DFC (trust us, despite all the publicity you folk have done there will still be people out there to whom the launch of a brand new comic will be a surprise!). How would you sell it to them?
David: I just think it’s a delight to receive an ongoing story and have the ability to tell longer narrative, longer stories, longer, exciting stories with more depth, more adventure, by receiving the comic week on week. It’s the perfect form for that.
downthetubes: When was the idea of the weekly comic conceived and how long did it take to get the project off the ground?
David: It’s taken about three years to launch, but I’ve wanted to make a comic all my life!
I was lucky to read a lot of comics in childhood. I work as a children’s editor and I think a great deal of any ability that I might have or sensibility I might have came from reading comics in my own childhood, and realising that that weekly form was deeply exciting. It literally thrilled me and I remember that very clearly, and I don’t think that’s something that belongs to the past, it’s just as vital now. It manifests itself in shows such as 24, The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica. It’s the same sheer enjoyment, coupled with a grasp of the world that comes with the comics form.
downthetubes: What comics did you read as a child?
David: I read practically everything, but I particularly enjoyed a comic that was later taken over by the Eagle, Boy’s World and I loved Valiant. Then there was Beano, Dandy, Topper, Beezer, Hotspur, Victor, Swift, a comic called Harold Hare, War Picture Library… the list goes on!
And all the American comics – Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League of America – any comics I could get my hands on, really, any that offered those delights of the storytelling form, the sheer wonder of the flexibility of it all, which I think you’re particularly open to in childhood.
David. Absolutely! I felt the form could be made as thrilling and as exciting now as it was for me then.
Professionally, as a publisher, I’d always wanted to publish things like Tin Tin, as well. But publishing of that kind of material in books form is actually hugely risky and expensive for both the artist and the publisher because such an outlay has to be made in terms of work before you get a full-length book. So I investigated things further and realized that things like Tin Tin had started off as or in weekly publications too.
My feeling was that the reason we didn’t have weekly comics any more was nothing to do with people not wanting them or children not liking them, it was much more to do with a failed business model and, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t see that there was anything we could do about that until the Internet came along.
Often these things are a matter of decisions in order to get things made. It’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of making things happen.
David: The Internet makes the difference because initially, when starting off something like this in bookshops or newsagents, there is an enormous pressure by the publisher to promote the work – obtaining discount, buying shelf space, spending an awful lot on marketing – which means that the project has to carry a great weight of expectation and success so early on when it’s least able to do that.
So the amount that’s spent on marketing is much more than what’s spent on content and I don’t think that’s the right way round. I wanted the money to go the commissioning of new material.
By using the Internet, you can market and reach everybody, more or less, and to enable your potential audience to receive the product directly and spread word of mouth about it in a very natural and experience-based way. It’s a good way to reach people.
This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in selling it The DFC in shops: far from it. I’d love to sell it in shops and it will, eventually, it’s just the order in the way things have to be done to make this work. It’s a more practical way of starting the comic off, in way that’s sustainable.
The DFC is also a primer for something bigger in many ways, which for me is the restoration of the form. It’s not about being clever and being Internet only as a gimmick. It’s a river down which we can flow.
downthetubes: And of course if it works then other publishers are going to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we doing this?’
David: Yes they will, and that’s all for the good. Again you see, my enthusiasm for it is in the story form. I’ve worked as a publisher for years and it’s just a delight to work with stories… That’s what I really enjoy.
[The financial success] is not the most important thing. Of course, I want to be as rich as the next man – I’m not very wealthy – but financial reward will come if people like it, if they like the stories, just as people liked JK Rowling, so lots of people bought her stories. The most important thing to me is the transmission of the stories, the narrative and making available the work of some fantastic comic artists in the country.
We’re not the only people publishing comics and we’ve got a lot to learn from people who are doing it already,. We’re just trying a different way – but it’s not an exclusive thing.
I would welcome lots of people producing comics again and I think they will.
downthetubes: When you pitched the idea for The DFC to Random House I assume there must have been some market research about the state of the British comics market and if so, what were your findings?
David: The finding was that we produced a dummy issue and the research company went out and reported that it was the most well received thing they’d ever tested, which was great to hear.
downthetubes: Well, as cartoonist Lew Stringer often points out, comics have always evolved for new markets and times, haven’t they?
David: Of course they have. I’m not saying we have all the answers [to making comics publishing a success]. It’s juts hugely exciting to be involved in that and joining in with everybody making comics already.
downthetubes: How many creators do you have contributing to The DFC?
I am incredibly grateful to the people who have stepped forward and are working with us. They are the real Makers.
downthetubes: Makers like Kate Brown, Garen Ewing, Neil Cameron, the Etherington Brothers…
David: … and David Shelton, absolutely brilliant, all of them.
downthetubes: Of the strips that have been running which have proven the most popular?
David: We’re getting a very good reaction to all of them, actually. We’ve done a lot of research in schools as well and we’ve found that when you go to schools with a pile of the comics, different children like different things — which is just what you’d expect.
It’s a good question, but it’s the same question as asking the BBC or Sky what are your most successful shows, it’s never going to be any one thing. The whole suite of different stories is being well received, and in that sense again, we’re like a little film studio making a lot of films. I hope that we’ll become a film studio with the reputation of Paramount or Ealing, but I’m extremely excited by the whole range and the sort of deep originality of everything.
There’s nothing in The DFC that is a commercial tie in, because that was the other thing that I wanted to avoid at this stage.
downthetubes: Well that’s good isn’t it? Because then you’re building your own brand rather than depending it on licensed material…
David: Exactly, which was part of why we also came up with contracts that shared with everybody. That was hard, because it hasn’t often been done in comics in this country before.
downthetubes: No, some comics publishers are notorious for claiming all rights almost as soon as a creator puts pen to paper…
David: We deliberately didn’t want that to happen. I wanted every single Maker who joined in with The DFC to always have a proper share in their rights to the very end of time, or as long as copyright can be made to last.
downthetubes: And I assume, with you coming from books publishing that seems only natural?
David: yes. It’s proper, decent, right and fair. But it was quite difficult to set up, because of natural worries and suspicion on the part of the illustrators and the money, which is why things have often gone wrong in the past.
I think when The DFC flowers as it will do this policy will be borne out by encouraging a lot of other people to come forward to contribute, I think it could be a career changer.
We’re already getting interest from film makers and Hollywood, because it’s all original material and this time, if a film is made it’s all the creators who will do well, not just the publisher.
downthetubes: Why did you decide to make The DFC subscription only, besides the obvious economic practicalities (such as printing several issues at once and not having to buy expensive retail schemes to promote the title)?
David: It was just down to the economic practicalities and the need for it not to have to go out and be this huge smash and grab and a banging of people on the head with pressure which puts great commercial pressure on the content and stops really lovely things happening. So it is to protect it in its early growth.
The growth so far is very very good but I don’t mind it being steady and of course, I’d much rather that than for it to go up like a rocket and then come down again with a bang.
downthetubes: I’m sure you’ve had one eye on the sales for comics that were released last month by ABC and the drop in news stand sales…
David: It doesn’t surprise me. The high street is a very pressured place. Also I knew from book publishing how pressured it was, and we’ve had big successes in book publishing. But I prefer I suppose, what you might call organic growth. Look at Phillip Pullman, or Jacqueline Wilson who have grown over years and it’s reader response that’s driven sales [not marketing spend].
David: I particularly want to market it via schools, I want parents to know about it, I want it to be much more known. It’s still relatively unknown, we’ve still only reached a tiny fraction of the people who are going to make it work.
We’ve had a lot of shops come forward who want to sell The DFC and I think we can make that happen – the independent and particularly the comic shops. We should be coming in an giving them packages that help them sell the title and support them. I’m trying to work out the best ways of doing that.
downthetubes: So you’re looking at going through Diamond (the comics direct sales distributor) for example?
David: Yes, we’re exploring everything. The thing for me is to make something and then see where you can sell it. This is a much better way of doing something than forcing it into places where people then forget about it. I didn’t want the title to be taken up by anybody and then dropped, like supermarkets.
For instance, we’re just about to go on to Amazon, which is an example of how we’re developing sales outlets, and once we’ve rolled that out we’ll look at similar ways of distributing.
And different ways of sampling, too – that’s one of the disadvantages of subscription, people haven’t got it in their hands, and we’ve got to take that on the chin and work out ways to make the title available so people can sample copies… but of course we couldn’t do that until we’d made the thing.
David: Yes we’re getting a really lovely response to that and we’re widening that out as well, magazines like Junior Education want to put us on the front cover.
Again, I didn’t want to flood the world with free copies and so spend all our money. This is kind of like we know we’re producing something really good, we’re confident in what it is and we will tell as many people as we can about it and work out ways to get them to sell it for us.
It’s about creating partners, nobody should be excluded – but we don’t want people to get it on the cheap, either!
David: They came in very early and have been hugely helpful in pushing the title, but of course it’s not the only sector we want to reach and neither do we think The DFC is just for Guardian readers.
Working with The Guardian has been hugely successful in making known the comic is available, I’d be just as happy to see DFC comics in The Sun, for example.
I’m also very interested in local newspaper distribution. We’re getting an interesting reaction to that both here and in other countries. There’s an international dimension to something you produce on the Internet, which is really important. It’s available worldwide.
downthetubes: Have you had sales overseas?
David: Yes, we have. As you can imagine, I haven’t really had time to think about, for example, the American market. We’re really at the stage where we’re having to carefully consider what we do next.
downthetubes: … and has there been interest in foreign language editions of The DFC?
David: Yes, and that was part of setting up the contracts with the creators, to be able to sell rights to the whole DFC to a foreign publisher. Obviously, people have shown interest in bits and pieces – there’s been massive interest in Phillip Pullman’s strip and I love his work, but the DFC isn’t, it can’t be dependent on just that. It mustn’t be.
downthetubes: You’ve mentioned The DFC is a ‘primer’. Are you going to be collecting some of the material that’s going into the comic?
David: Absolutely. That was always part of it, but it wasn’t included in the business plan so it becomes an added extra for the contributors. The plan is to make graphic novels of as much as we can, firstly of course of those things the children say they like most. I definitely want to collect Good Dog, Bad Dog, John Blake, Mobot High… I want to do a DFC annual… Again, we’ve only got limited woman and manpower and we have to plan carefully what we do next.
downthetubes: A DFC annual? That wouldn’t be for this year…
David: No, that would really stretch us beyond our ability and I think one of the things we want to adhere to, whether we’re right or wrong, is that anything connected to The DFC should be of high quality, and that is again where I want to spend the money. To me as a publisher, concentrating on the content is where I want to be, not on hype.
Creating a comic like The DFC is not controllable, in many ways. It also takes time to build it. But that’s actually a wonderful, positive strength to it, because we are learning all the time and I want to do other weekly things like this, which is why, for me, this has been the most wonderfully exciting story making process, a real experience.
downthetubes: The only British comics that really made a big impact were the ones which were radically different from anything else at their respective times: Comic Cuts, Dandy/Beano, Eagle, 2000AD and VIZ. Those titles are all known by the general public and have become synonymous with the style of comics that each title represents. What makes The DFC unique?
David: I think that’s more of a question for the reader. It’s down to the content, what we choose to put in it and the reaction of the children who are reading it, who are beginning to be very, very excited to receive their DFC. They and the creators are the makers of its character.
Obviously Ben and I are choosing but what is coming forward is often choosing itself.
downthetubes: What sort of feedback do you want to get from your readers?
David: Actually, we want more reader response to what we’re publishing and that’s where the web site will come in.
We’ve still got lots to learn and we’re happy to listen to what people have to say about the comic. We just need to keep doing!
Our thanks to David for taking the time to talk to us, and The DFC team for helping with visuals and other information.
Questions from Bambos Georgiou, Jeremy Briggs, Paul Eldridge, John Freeman, Martin Gray, Andrew J. Standish, Lew Stringer.
2017 Update: Although The DFC is no longer published, The Phoenix comic sprang from its ashes in 2012 and celebrated its fifth birthday in 2017. You can subscribe to The Phoenix here: www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk; and it’s on sale in Waitrose supermarkets, selected WH Smith and some comic shops