Mags In Bags: comic creator Alexander Matthews call for “VAT on Tat”

Following up on John Freeman’s post expressing joy at seeing a child ignore all the “mag in a bag” comic/ young persons magazines in favour of the cheaper, non-bagged Beano, comic creator Alexander Matthews very kindly gave us permission to re-post his solution to “plastic plethora”.

He first posted this article in 2013, but his arguments are persuasive, and pertinent given this week’s introduction of a 5p charge for plastic bags (already in force in Scotland and Wales) in an effort to persuade us to be less wasteful…

When I go to a big newsagent or to my local supermarket I exhibit symptoms of a strange disease common to cartoonists, where we search for the magazines that feature our work even though we have no intention of buying them.

As usual, I was greeted with a catastrophe.

Can you spot the Beano in this display?

News stand chaos in the comics section, August 2013. Photo: Alexander Mathers

Photo: Alexander Matthews


It is there, I assure you. Look for the screaming man…

News stand chaos in the comics section, August 2013. Photo: Alexander Matthews

News stand chaos in the comics section, August 2013. Photo: Alexander Matthews

See it now? This is the 75th anniversary issue of the Beano by the way, and this was actually a good day, but what’s to blame for this mess?

It’s fairly obvious: bags stuffed with plastic toys and thin, flimsy magazines which lack the required tensile strength to prevent flopping about and tumbling onto lower shelves. (And the busy hands and devil-may-care attitude of kiddies).

Now, if you are not a regular peruser of kids comics like me, you’d probably think that comics for kids are in rude health – but the reality is as different as this shelf is to a helicopter gunship. There are strictly only two comics in this display: The Beano, (incidentally the cheapest publication here at £2.50, 50p higher than it’s regular price) and  Simpsons Comics (£2.99 and bar a small number of feature pages, all reprint of the US Bongo Comics title).

Many of the others feature a page or even three of comics, but most are wall-to-wall features, puzzles, screen shots of TV animations and the like. All good stuff I’m sure, which people work hard on to produce, but how much enjoyment do children actually get from these things?

Some of these mags are literally five minutes of entertainment and at £3.99 in some cases that represents enormously bad value. There’s a reason these magazines do not print many comics and that is that comics are more expensive to produce. These magazines are purely about profit making, but the profit making is based on attacking buyers by having the jazziest cover and the snazziest free gift. Is it any wonder that these magazines are bagged so that kids and parents cannot examine the contents?

Now, I am not being an idealist here.  Companies should be attempting to make the biggest profit possible, but to do so they should be competing on content, not free gifts – and that’s why I think there needs to be a change. And wouldn’t you know, I think that I may have the answer.

The VAT rules state:

6.7 Promotional items in magazines

If you link a cover-mounted item such as a sachet of perfume or a CD to a magazine, you can treat it as zero-rated if the following conditions are met:

  • you do not make a separate charge for it, and
  • issues with cover mounted items are sold at the same price as those that do not, and
  • the cost to you of the cover mounted item or items included in any individual issue does not exceed:
  • 20% of the total cost to you of the combined supply (excluding VAT), and
  • £1 (excluding VAT).

So the plastic toys attached to the magazine which are generally made in the far east, must cost less than £1 to avoid VAT (I suspect that they cost significantly less than that), and they also keep the cover price artificially high: issues without toys must be priced the same as those with. If VAT were charged, this would add a certain amount to the costs of the cover mounted toys.

Whether magazines would raise cover prices or look to absorb the costs or simply stop cover mounting is a question I can’t answer. It would vary according to the business plans of individual magazines I’d imagine. A 20% charge on the plastic toys is not going to raise costs significantly however; we are talking a maximum of 20 pence, so perhaps we should think a little more deeply about what these magazines really are.

If you’ve ever seen children looking through the shelves, you will notice that they make immediate visual appraisal at the point of sale. They generally don’t stop to consider the content, and bagging means that often children can’t flick through the mag anyway. Here’s an anecdotal case that demonstrates just that:

My girlfriend’s seven-year-old niece came to visit us recently and I decided to test out some of my thoughts about these publications. A note of caution: She is quite a reader, so perhaps that skews this experiment somewhat.

First of all I gave her the Beano, which she’d never read before and she sat down and read the whole thing, picking out some of her favourite bits.

She asked for more comics, so I gave her the 32-page Nuke Noodle comic, free with Dennis and Gnasher magazine.

Nuke Noodle Cover

She absorbed most of that, so I gave her Gary Northfield’s collection of Derek the Sheep and she liked that even better. All in all, she was occupied for quite a while.

Later we went to the newsagent where I let her pick out a magazine. After examining the covers, feeling the bags and checking the free gifts, she settled on a copy of Girl Talk for £3.99, with Moshi Monsters stickers and Love Heart Jewellery (which I spent the afternoon mending and re-mending as the plastic chains repeatedly broke!)

The actual magazine itself is 34 pages of glossy celebrity-based features and fashion stuff. She’s had a look, and perhaps she’ll return to it, but I doubt it. Either the magazine is too old for her, or she’s just not that interested.

It’s my contention that these are no longer magazines with toys attached, but toys with a magazine attached. What other product do we buy not for the product itself but for something else? For the thing it comes with, not the thing itself? Perhaps a copy of a newspaper to get a cheaper bottle of water at WHSmiths, but that’s the only thing I can think of (and that’s a scam to increase circulation figures).

On top of that, if we saw the same sorts of toys in a pound shop, we’d probably turn our noses up at them, viewing (correctly) that they were cheap and nasty, yet we spend £4 on them if they are bagged up nicely with a few glossy A4 pages?

Madness. Damn you, pester power!

I believe the whole thing should have VAT charged on it: 20% on the whole £4. It’s a toy, or a bundle of toys and should be taxed as such. No toys, no VAT-journals and periodicals are zero rated.

Some calculations put together by a finance whizz:


Alexander Matthews Campaign against Tat - Figures

The figures against “Mags in Bags” all adds up. Figures courtesy Alexandr Matthews

Although these figures are based on a little guesswork, it can be clearly seen that to maintain profits, the cover price would have to be raised.

So what would happen if VAT was charged on this toy/magazine hybrid?

Retail culture at point of sale is so ingrained that it’s impossible to say what a massive change like this would mean. The aim is for companies to junk the bag and the toys and force them to treat their products like magazines and comics once more.

What I want is for content to be king.

I am considering starting a campaign to ask the Government to change these rules and I really can’t see a downside for them. They have been actively looking for new things to stick VAT on, and to improve the situation for families (granted this is a tiny thing, but if your two kids are demanding a 3 or 4 quid mag each during the weekly shop, you’d hope they’d be getting some quality merchandise for that price, wouldn’t you?).

Ignoring the fact that this is an obvious pipe-dream, I’d say it’s also a gamble, because publishers could simply crank up the cover price and preserve the status quo, but I think that these magazines are already at the limit of affordability.

What I’d like from readers of this blog post is their comments, suggestions, thoughts and corrections. I really believe this could work and ultimately we could end up seeing more proper comics for kids on the shelves. More comics is better for you because you probably love them like me, it’s better for the British comic industry as young comic readers graduate to older comics and it’s certainly better for me, because I write and draw them for a living.

To twitter! #vatontat

Freelance cartoonist Alexander Matthews has had worked published in Private Eye, The Spectator, Readers Digest, Prospect, The Week, The Dandy, The Beano, Viz, Adventure Time, The Penguins of Madagascar and more. He currently writes” Useleus” and writes and draws “Pow!” for the Phoenix Comic. Check out his web site at | Email Alex at:

Categories: British Comics, Creating Comics, Features

Tags: , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. An interesting post. We’ve got to be careful not to paint the publishers at villains in this though.

    Why do they publish bagged content with covermounts? Because the public buy them.

    I often hear people bemoaning the decline of traditional comics like Whizzer and Chips and Buster, but the long and short of it is that people stopped buying them in great numbers in the early 90s, favouring covermounts. Is it any wonder the publishers took notice and pushed the industry that way. It wasn’t because they were evil, comic-hating megalomaniacs, they just wanted to publish what made a profit, because they are businesses and that’s what business is all about.

    If people read comics like the Phoenix and the Beano, publishers will publish more comics like the Phoenix and the Beano. That’s how it works. The question is how we get kids to pick them up in the first place so the demand grows?

  2. Mike Flint commented via Facebook: As a kid I missed the plastic tat phase, the odd space spinner or free sticker album yes but not week in week out plastic tat.

    As a parent I moan at the kids comics section. I hate it, they aren’t comics, they’re magazines but made with pure filler and posters with a plastic toy and a sweet and a £3.99 price tag.

    The kids want TOXIC and Mega and five minutes later, they’re bored again. I push them to the Beano (the only one i’ll buy them) and sometimes they will get it.

    It saddens me to have grown up with a million comics like Whoopee, Buster, Victor, Roy of the Rovers, Jackpot, Nutty etc moving onto Scream and 2000AD and realistically my kids have the choice of the Beano.

    I know that there is Phoenix, but it isn’t available everywhere or more to the point anywhere near us, and at this time it’s too expensive to buy week in week out.

    In the end I get Scooby Doo Team Up and the latest batman for kids comics, the latest Baltzar & Franco comics (the kids loved Itty Bitty Hellboy without knowing the characters), then Marvel have some great Skottie Young stuff too.

    These are around the £2.10 mark, get read, put away and then pulled out for another day.

    What annoys me about the wonderful heritage of british comics is that this wonderful legacy just isn’t out there for kids to see.

    • I think your comments about magazines like Toxic being just “pure filler” are really unfair. I work at Egmont with the Toxic team – they put their all into that magazine, and everything they do is focussed on what their readers want to see.

      • Hi Paul, I agree Mike’s comment is harsh; I hopefully I made it clear in my own post on this subject that I’m aware of the work the team at TOXIC put into that title (and have previously mentioned its growing sales. It’s one of the few titles to include comic strip originated in the UK and the strips and mix of content are great. (I’ve also pointed out that, as far as the general public are concerned, there are numerous magazines out there with comic strip in them, including the Lego-inspired titles, but as far as I’m aware it’s not originated in the UK, but that doesn’t actually matter to the consumer who won’t know that and wouldn’t be bothered, for the most part, any way, as long as it’s engaging).

        My own view is that the “Mags in Bags” approach diminishes the content of the title, no matter how good it is, because the potential buyer is reliant on the brand (which, if unlicensed, they may be unaware of) and the free gift. It’s a difficult situation because I’m aware the whole concept was more a demand from distributors from the early 12990s onwards and they have much more power than they used to when there were a lot more weekly comics with wall to wall strip content.

  3. Simon Frith, Senior Editor at Panini Comics, commented on Facebook: Where is the retailer’s cut? On a £3.99 magazine the newsagent is going to take at least £1.75. And then there is the efficiency of the mag to take into account. It’s actually really tough to make money in children’s magazines and it’s unforgiving if you get it wrong. Three bad issues in a row and you’re out of the big retailers to make way for something else. And it’s not just the consumer you’re selling to – retail buyers need convincing.

  4. Simon is right about the figures-they are back of the fag packet and flawed, but the point is that something needs to be done-who else has ideas?

    The companies who produce the mags have contributed significantly to the destruction of the market themselves-in a sort of desperate flail, and it won’t pick up unless something changes and I feel that they need to be FORCED to change, because no company wants to flinch first and junk the tat. These companies are not willing to take a risk and change the paradigm, so another magazine appears on the racks in a bag with a free gift, then that disappears and guess what turns up in it’s place?

    Every time as a parent you fork out 4 quid for a magazine that last 20 mins max, you are giving parents a reason to not buy that mag again. Give parents hours of content for their kids and they’ll buy the damn things.