Rebels and Empires: The Future of the British Comic – Panel Coverage of the London Book Fair 2017

11.30 on Day 3 of the London Book Fair 2017 and we’re at the Rebels and Empires: The Future of British Comics panel. I arrive as host Bleeding Cool’s Richard Johnston notes that in the panelists left to right we have a “history of British comics right here”.

On the far left is the Beano’s – or just Beano now as we’re corrected – Mike Stirling, the comic that got going in 1938. Then comes Ben Smith of Rebellion, 2000 AD coming within his remit. Kieron Gillen is next, here representing the independent British creator. Finally comes Tom Fickling of comparative newcomer the Pheonix Comic which, as I understand, was designed and targeted to fill a gap between the Beano and 2000 AD.

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Mike Stirling gives us a quick history of The Beano as was, the comic proving from its debut that reading could be fun for kids. He notes that during the war, publishing fortnightly during that time, it joined in on the home propaganda front to keep kids spirits up, becoming established as a beloved institution during the 50s, then taking the unprecedented step of making kids the main protagonists.

Ben Smith takes up the thread in terms of The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, how it emerged from experiences of publishing girl’s comics via Action. Its controversial predecessor had one issue banned, was withdrawn from sale, toned down then merged into another comic. Taking SF as its genre, “2000 AD would avoid the social opprobrium in Westminster”. Its current incarnation, as Ben relates, has taken the experience and energy of the nascent magazine and brought in a second golden age.

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It’s not an idle boast and Kieron Gillen for one is nodding to all of this. Certainly they have creators who’ve risen to write and draw for the lucrative US superhero giants, but they also continue to write for the comic that helped them get there. There’s some pride in that their creators get an income that can pay the mortgage and support a family. No one gets into comics for the money people.

On to Kieron Gillen who shares that he certainly read comics avidly in his youth, but that – always a subject for discussion – stopped when they disappeared from the newsstands. He returned latterly to comics with likes of legends Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis waiting for him to read their back catalogue. He’s written some significant work for Marvel now but has returned to the company he started with, champion of “creator-owned” books Image, currently with The Wicked + The Divine (latest vol here).

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Tom Fickling is up next, noting that certainly the Pheonix was a humour comic but is trying also to resurrect the adventure comic. Amongst their best strips he mentions Adam Murphy’s Blue Peter Book Award nominated Corpse Talk which was noted also in yesterday’s Graphic Novel panel.

The conversation collectively turns to the newsstand, a term that includes supermarkets as I understand it: basically the broadest brush access to consumers across the country and internationally. Even Mike Stirling expresses how competitive it is to get a comic onto the newsstands. There were times when retailers had to fight to obtain copies of the Beano. Now, with far more consideration of sales to space, there’s a dominance of ‘large franchised behemoths’ and it costs to get your comic – even Beano – on there. New comics simply don’t stand a chance.

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Without diverting from the subject Ben Smith notes that with the decline of Fleetway came a generation of kids not reading comics – or British comics / characters above the target age of the Beano. Ben also gets in the obligatory CAJ4K spiel here and in under a second (CAJ4K: ‘Comics aren’t just for kids’ – acronymed / coined by us on first LBF 17 Graphic Novels / Comics panel along with CAMNAG (Comics are a Medium Not A Genre ;)). But we’re also on the subject of comic collections as opposed to original graphic novels (see yesterday’s panel again for a note on the difference if that’s necessary ;)).

Beano contributes to this in a rather unique fashion: its annuals have been the top selling annual for the last ten years but, irrespective of target age, are completely original while also being a collection of stories and separate ones at that. Still the power of the collection as opposed to the weekly issue rules here, and there’s a ready route to market through bookshops and supermarkets.

The Phoenix, as Tom tells us, is available through significantly fewer outlets; it’s one of those comics after all that has come through after the decline of Fleetway and ‘behemoth’ dominance of the newsstand.

 

He manages to share an interesting exception and correcting any thoughts that their channel through Waitrose is any kind of aspirational middle-class targeting strategy before we even have chance to think them: Someone from Waitrose just really liked what they did and wanted to include it in their range. Fair play to Waitrose!

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Tom also relates how the Phoenix’s predecessor The DFC fell foul of its owners making a perfectly normal business decision to close it after the credit crunch of 08: it wasn’t an important or traditional part of their product range. But The Phoenix is now funded by people who care about the magazine and its content.

Rich Johnston moves things on to the panel’s nominal topic, the future of British comics. We’re back with Tom Fickling who hopes to do a Phoenix annual though are already releasing comic collections. His hope is to be creating the cultural comic icons of tomorrow. The Newsstands don’t feature in their concerns. They market to parents and look to word-of-mouth publicity from kids. For now, chiefly, it’s more of the same from them – and no bad thing at all.

Ben Smith summarises the key factors in 2000 AD’s future as bringing in a new generation of readers, continuing to bring comic collections to market through bookshops, and making good use of parent company Rebellion’s nature and expertise as a tech company, especially through their app in terms of making content accessible: they’re also small enough that if there’s any kind of problem with it all he has to do is walk over to the next office for tech support! They’re also going to be allowing ‘exciting companies’ to develop games of their characters – game tech company themselves or no, there’s only so much Rebellion have time to do themselves! They’re also naturally looking for lucrative potential TV and film deals but they’re not at all desperate for cash flow and it sounds like – and I for one am grinning – there’s one or more studio execs walking away nonplussed as to why their ‘generous offer’ was turned down.

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Beano is working towards its landmark 80th anniversary next year so plenty of work to do and much to reasonably hope for. Kieron meanwhile doubtless has his hands full with WicDiv which has been optioned by Universal TV; like David Hine yesterday and 2000 AD’s Pat Mills who I interviewed here last year, it’s the comfortable or otherwise development of creator as businessman who – as stands – needs to be active on social media and marketing their work as well as developing new material, quite aside from discussions of small and big screen development!

He raises some other interesting points as an owning creator though, that he of course writes an arc across six individual issues, but he has to give proper thought to a balance of narrative pace for each of his audiences: the less numerous monthly issue readers and the collection bingers. The latter are more numerous and so lucrative but of course those sales are driven by the monthly buyers.

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With it being noted that the combined price of Beano, The Phoenix and 2000 AD is less than a London pint (well maybe – if Kieron throws in an occasional ish of WicDiv there might be a pint I can sacrifice) the panel’s over. In fact its end is punctuated with the beginning of the 80s theme tune to Postman Pat. Because we’re in the Children’s Hub theatre. And yesterday’s graphic novel panel was in the Cross Media Theatre which was part-sponsored/supported by the Children’s Media Conference.

Remember the words of Ben Smith, however quickly he said them.

Or remember #CAJ4K.

You saw it here first.

 

Many thanks to Messrs Johnston, Stirling, Smith, Gillen and Fickling for an insightful and thoroughly enjoyable panel!

 

Tim Bayley

@TimBayley1

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Check out more great LBF articles from 2016:

A Coffee with Abaddon & Solaris at the London Book Fair…

Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators? Panel at LBF 2016

A Coffee with… Deborah Install at the London Book Fair!

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 1

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 2

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 3

A Coffee with Hodder Editor Anne Perry at The London Book Fair!