Kids Read Comics: a popular revival

"Comics aren't for kids anymore!" is a tired cliché: what about the comics which really are for kids? Laura Sneddon writes about the strengths of all-ages comics for British Comics Week.

Children's comics have enjoyed a major resurgence in 2012, despite the doom and gloom headlines that the media has run with. As Charlie Brooker wrote earlier this year, reports of The Dandy's death were indeed greatly exaggerated, with the famously long-living comic making the jump to the digital realm in the face of falling physical sales. Not a death then, but a regeneration that takes the best of what has gone before, gives it a slightly different personality, and possibly a new pair of converse or quirky bow tie.

Meanwhile, The Beano Annual is again one of the top selling annuals of the year, and within the book trade, Nielsen figures for the first half of 2012 revealed that the second biggest grower in revenue was “Children's Comic Strip Fiction”, boasting a growth of 86 per cent year on year. While Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books – part prose, part comic illustrations – of course lead the way, sales are also picking up on old favourites Tintin and the Marvel Adventures series, as well as relative newcomers including Garen Ewing's *The Rainbow Orchid*.

In the newsstands too, there is much to celebrate. While The Dandy was obviously struggling to match its once lofty (and now surely impossible!) weekly sales of over 2 million, trend hugging children's magazines such as Moshi Monsters boast a monthly circulation of 227,958 and include comic features. The Simpsons Comic still scores brilliant sales every month, while The Beano sits at a fairly healthy, and consistent, 30,000+ per week.

Compared with sales of old, it would be easy to get a little misty eyed over the loss of those once staggering sales and wide eyed variety. But when competing with games, television, and all the free stuff that the pesky internet provides, it's heartening to see that kids really do still want to pick up comics – even as nostalgic adults grumble about the plastic toys attached to the front. But newsagent space does come at a premium, and as trends rather than originality dominated sales, things started to look a little stale.

Enter The Phoenix. Launched in January this year, the weekly children's comics anthology has been a welcome revelation. Packed to the brim with serialised adventure stories, humour strips and text stories, The Phoenix has become a firm favourite with fans of all ages. The range of talent on display is mouth watering: Jamie Smart, Kate Brown, Simone Lia, Gary Northfield, Dave Shelton, Paul Duffield, and Chris Riddell are just a few of the names on board, with a new strip in the works from Sarah McIntyre and Carnegie-winning novelist Philip Reeve.

Favourite strips include Star Cat, a cat spaceship with a brave crew who boldly blunder where no crew has blundered before; Bunny Vs Monkey, featuring a failed monkey astronaut who decides his crash landing site must be a new world; Planet of the Shapes starring grumpy geometry; Corpse Talk, exhuming famous bodies for informative interviews; and Gary's Garden, where all manner of madness is happening at the bottom of the lawn.

What makes The Phoenix unique is not only the fact that it isn't just all humour based strips like many peer publications, but that it is such an intelligently made and lovingly put together comic. It's a real nostalgic trip for comics fans of old, yet young and fresh enough to avoid the patronising pitfalls of talking down to its audience. The Phoenix is to reading what Horrible Histories is to history lessons: it entertains, educates and encourages you to find out more. Oh, and it's pretty good for kids too. Ahem.

Unfortunately, this comic is a little harder to get a hold of, stocked only in Waitrose and some independent book shops, but it is available on subscription, much like the various children's magazines that flooded the market when I was a child in the 90s (Farthing Wood Friends, how I loved you). With 49 issues and counting now published, it appears the comics anthology is back in business.

The Dandy Online launched last week, reintroducing favourite characters including Desperate Dan, Bananaman, The Numskulls, Brassneck, and introducing an all new team of classic British superheroes, Retro Active. From Jamie Smart's new take on the Numskulls to recontextualising Dan as a legendary figure (allowing for more outlandish fare) it's a bold move for the Dundee-based team, yet it is encouraging that one of the longest running comics in the world is willing to experiment with new formats in the face of a changing market.

The new look has been based around portability, with a dedicated app set to launch "as soon as possible". Children may not be reading as many comics as they did 50 years ago, but mobile phone content is a hot property. Using a credit based system to allow users to tailor content to their own interests, while running extras such as print-out projects and puzzles on the website help keep the focus on interactivity. While the comics do use some animation, it mostly mimics the movement of a comic page as the eye would normally track. Pacing is still set by the reader, particularly important for a comic read by younger children.

Humour is the priority, but superhero strip Retro Active is an interesting switch up, playing it straight and echoing the early days of The Dandy when adventure material ran alongside the slapstick. The Amazing Mr X was Britain's first bona fide superhero, though perhaps not quite so glamorous as his American cousins. As Grant Morrison joked earlier this year, “He could leap about eight feet in the air! He can lift a table!” Retro Active sees a more impressive Mr X return, alongside other half-remembered heroes, villains, and wonderfully, two female superheroes too.

There are still clearly some bugs to iron out, and without the app it is difficult to judge how this new format will perform, but it certainly seems to be keeping the old spirit of The Dandy alive and well.

Dandy publishers DC Thomson definitely have form on the digital front, with their Commando app proving popular with readers, helped perhaps by the aspect ratio of the war comic anthology fitting a tablet screen perfectly. There is no data available on circulation figures, and estimates put the weekly sales of the physical edition of Commando at less than 10,000. However, the digital subscription service is reportedly popular, and the collected pocket editions in book shops are flying off the shelves: four more titles were published this year, with another four due in February. The £5.99 price tag for 200+ pages is very enticing as a pocket-money purchase, and it doesn't seem to be just nostalgic fathers who are snapping these up.

This is perhaps a market that 2000 AD have become more aware of in the last year too, with new digest-size editions of classic Judge Dredd stories being published at digest-size prices (£6.99, compared to £15.99 for the larger "Case Files"). These older storylines, in contrast to the 2000 AD of today, are also generally suitable for ten-year-olds and up, offering an alternative for children who prefer a little more grit in their reading.

To complete the cross-platform appeal of these various contenders, what we really need now is to see some lovely collections from The Phoenix, and some nostalgic reprints of departed characters like Korky the Cat. Repackaging the old, getting the new into book shops, and embracing the opportunities that digital can bring: children's comics are once again at the forefront of comics innovation and originality.

A portion of the cover to the Phoenix #5, by Kate Brown. Image: The Phoenix

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

Picture: Dea Picture Library
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Survival of the smallest: the contested history of the English short story

Reports of the form’s death – and rebirth – have always been greatly exaggerated.

“The short story is enjoying a powerful renaissance”, ran a headline in the Spectator in September last year. “After decades of neglect,” it added, “the genre is very much back in fashion.” This isn’t true, but when it comes to short stories fake news is ubiquitous.

Other recent announcements of the short-story renaissance include one in 2014, when the Daily Telegraph called it “the perfect literary form for the 21st century” because brevity suits our dwindling attention span (more on the stupidity of that argument later); in 2013, when the short-story specialists Alice Munro and Lydia Davis won the Nobel and the Man Booker International Prizes, respectively; and in 2012, which Bloomsbury proclaimed “the year of the short story”, publishing five collections in as many months.

It is often said that publishers don’t like short stories because they don’t sell: it’s assumed this proves that readers don’t like them either. Yet, rather than accept the genre as a minority interest, there is always someone – a journalist, a prize jury, a publisher – announcing its comeback.

While bitter experience has shown poetry exactly where it stands in the marketplace, and the novel has shrugged off multiple reports of its death and maintained pre-eminence, the short story is continually characterised as the neglected form that will be great again. The funny thing is, when you explore its history you find the perception of a distant golden age, an undistinguished present and a return to glory has always been around: the short story has a problem with reality.

“The ’nineties,” as H G Wells wrote in the preface to his collection The Country of the Blind (1911), “was a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer.” Thanks to the range of journals available and the quality of their editorship, he believed, “No short story of the slightest distinction went for long unrecognised . . . Short stories broke out everywhere.”

By 1911 things were different. Kipling had gone off the boil (he hadn’t, in fact, but that’s another argument); so had Max Beerbohm and Henry James. Only Joseph Conrad, Wells thought, was producing work equal to his pre-1900 output, but this wasn’t enough to stop the “recession of enthusiasm” for the short story.

At the end of his 1941 study The Modern Short Story, H E Bates predicted that short fiction would be the “essential medium” of the war and its aftermath. In a 1962 article he admitted his mistake, and in the preface to a 1972 reissue of The Modern Short Story he wrote: “My prophecy as to the ­probability of a new golden age of the short story, such as we had on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and 1930s was . . . dismally unfulfilled . . . Even before the war in England the little magazines to which writers of my generation contributed . . . were already dead or dying.” And dolefully he concluded, “This then is the situation of the short story today; if it is not quite one of unmitigated gloom it is certainly not bright.”

Yet that same year Christopher Dolley, in The Second Penguin Book of English Short Stories, noted that, “far from continuing its supposed decline, the short story is enjoying a revival all the more encouraging when viewed against the gloom surrounding the future of the literary novel”. Was Bates merely wrong or reactionary? It appears not.

The avant-garde author B S Johnson, said his collaborator, Zulfikar Ghose, conceived the 1964 collection Statement Against Corpses in response to the “wretched state” into which the English short story had fallen. The pair saw it as “our destiny to revive the form”.

In 2004, in an essay about (what else?) the renaissance of the short story, William Boyd remembered that:

When I published my first collection of stories, On the Yankee Station, in 1981, many British publishers routinely brought out short-story collections. Not any more. Moreover, there was a small but stable marketplace where a story could be sold. A short-story writer could place his or her work in all manner of outlets. The stories in my first collection, for example, had been published in Punch, Company, London Magazine, the Literary Review and Mayfair, and had been broadcast on the BBC . . . Today, in the UK especially, it has never been harder to get a short story published. The outlets available to a young writer that I benefited from in the 1980s have virtually dried up.

And yet Boyd identifies a new enthusiasm for the short story, primarily because of the boom in postgrad creative writing courses, whose workshop model well suits their composition and analysis.

Leaving aside the contradiction between the desolation of Bates’s postwar period and the thriving 1980s scene Boyd remembers, the number of magazines that paid writers for stories peaked between the 1890s and the 1930s. If you were prodigious enough during this period, it was entirely possible to earn a living from short stories. Never­theless, the authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and F Scott Fitzgerald, who might earn the modern-day equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds for a single story, were always outliers. As Philip Hensher notes in the introduction to his Penguin Book of the British Short Story (2015), what magazines were paying for stories in the late 1880s had barely changed by the 1930s.

If discussions of the short story’s reception lead us into boggy ground, so do attempts to define precisely what the short story is. In his introduction to the impressive Cambridge History of the English Short Story, the first single-volume study of its type, the editor, Dominic Head, avoids doing so, and this is very much par for the course. In his 1991 essay “On Defining Short Stories”, Allan H Pasco wrote that those few critics who devote time to the short story “hedge on definitions, origins, major traits, on just about everything having to do with the short story as a genre”.

William H Gass, proposing one of my ­favourite definitions, proceeds by exclusion before moving into abstraction: “It is not a character sketch, a mouse-trap, an epiphany, a slice of suburban life. It is the flowering of a symbol centre. It is a poem grafted on to sturdier stock.”

In the Cambridge History, Ailsa Cox inadvertently coins a workable, albeit squarely economic, definition when she describes contemporary short fiction as “the least lucrative form of literary endeavour, apart from poetry”. Gerri Kimber, discussing the difference between story, novella and novel, says the difficulty lies with each form using the same techniques. Yet uncertainty needn’t be a bad thing: blurred boundaries can offer greater possibilities. Richard Ford considers it “a relief to observe how many disparate pieces of writing can be persuasively called short stories, how formally underdefined the short story still is in the minds and hands of writers”.

The uncertainty about what the short story is extends to when it began. Boccaccio lurks somewhere in the background, as do Chaucer and anecdote-laden jest books of the Elizabethan era. Some anthologists have gone back to the Old Testament and called the Books of Jonah and Ruth short stories, but these, with oral tales and passages from Homer, represent the form’s prehistory.

The short story as we understand it today is a 19th-century development. “We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” – a statement that has been attributed to both Turgenev and Dostoevsky – is where Frank O’Connor begins his highly influential 1963 study, The Lonely Voice. Walter Allen, however, in The Short Story in English (1981), identifies Walter Scott’s “Two Drovers”, published 15 years before “The Overcoat”, in 1827, as the first modern short story. Elizabeth Bowen, in her 1936 introduction to The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, doesn’t go any further back than Maupassant and Chekhov, because, in her opinion, no one else has had such a powerful effect on the form’s development.

Maupassant, taught by Flaubert, brought an extreme objectivity and immediacy to the short story. Chekhov’s great innovation was to promote atmosphere above plot. His stories are less about what happens than how it is told; as Somerset Maugham jokingly said, “If you try to tell one of his stories there is nothing to tell.” Chekhov employs implication and melancholy to mysterious yet profound ends, and although James Joyce claimed not to have read him before he wrote Dubliners (published in 1914, but mostly written ten years earlier), the similarities in technique are striking. And to English and Irish readers, still, it is the stories in Dubliners – with their moments of epiphany, in which characters suddenly see themselves with all illusions stripped away – that define what is most commonly thought of as a short story.

There are undoubtedly skills that set you in good stead as a story writer, not least compression: it is logical that the short form should appeal most to those with the ability to say a lot in a short space of time (or to say a lot without saying much at all, as Raymond Carver achieved when he was edited by Gordon Lish). Beyond that, there are so many directions a writer can take. Most mainstream stories can be traced back to Chekhov or Maupassant, but not the postmodern provocations of Donald Barthelme, or the fable-like conundrums of Kafka, or the subverted fairy tales of Angela Carter, the thought experiments of Lydia Davis, nor even Alice Munro’s domestic Gothic. Perhaps it’s best to keep the definition simple, as John Barth does: short-story writers incline to see how much they can leave out, novelists to see how much they can leave in.

Edgar Allan Poe was even more practical than Barth in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. There he described a short story as a piece of work intended to be read in one sitting of up to an hour. Simplistic, perhaps – but it works, and explains why the short story is anything but the perfect form for a short attention span (a myth that often accompanies the renaissance narrative). In 2010, for instance, Neil Gaiman said short stories were “a wonderful length for our generation . . . perfect . . . for your iPad, your Kindle or your phone”.

What does this even mean? Given the need for a piece to be read at a single sitting – say, half an hour for the average New Yorker story – and the compression that demands constant and close attention to the text, it is bizarre to talk up the short story’s suitability for time-poor readers. War and Peace is enormously long but its chapters are short, taking five or ten minutes to read. It also includes a list of characters and, as Flaubert pointed out, Tolstoy often repeats himself. There’s a book for a crappy attention span.

It is understandable but unfortunate that the Cambridge History limits itself to fiction from the British isles and former colonies. Various contributors mention Chekhov and Maupassant, but the book’s focus doesn’t allow their centrality to the development of the short story to be established properly. Katherine Mansfield is discussed in the context of modernism and post-colonialism, but her huge debt to Chekhov, and the part she played in extending his influence to a subsequent generation of writers, is not. Other writers suffer from compartmentalisation: it feels old-fashioned to address the work of Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith primarily in the context of multiculturalism. The author of the chapter on this, Abigail Ward, issues a sort of apology for the term, but it would have been better to explore their work in wider contexts.

In its defence, the book covers enormous ground – colonial stories, rural stories, queer stories, comic stories – and makes room for obscure writers beside the heavyweights. There are flaws to compartmentalisation, yet how else to avoid incoherence when the history of the short story, wherever it begins, rapidly fragments into concurrent histories cutting separate channels? At least, with this approach, an expert writes each chapter. Highlights include Heather Ingman on the Irish short story and Roger Luckhurst on weird fiction, that amorphous zone between horror, fantasy and surrealism. Luckhurst and Ingman are excellent guides: able, as several of their fellow contributors are not, to give a strong flavour of individual writers’ styles while situating them within a theoretical framework.

Given the wealth of material available, it is a shame that so much discussion of the short story is infected with ill-informed debate about its popularity. It would be much more valuable to discuss the writing, which encompasses some of the greatest fiction in English: “The Signal-Man” by Dickens; “The Dead” by Joyce; Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”; Kipling’s “Mrs Bathurst”; J G Ballard’s “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island”; “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter. These, regardless of genre, are essential reading.

Quality, however, has little to do with popularity. The short story is and will remain a minority interest. This isn’t a defeatist position: if more weight were given to the work, and less to its popularity, some valuable stability could be established. Today, in qualitative terms, the short story is healthier in Ireland than in the UK, and yet there are good young writers out there, working with the form because it suits the stories they have to tell, not because it promises fame and financial reward. The renaissance is not under way and Nell Zink’s advice will be sound for a long time to come:

Don’t write short stories and poems unless you have a trust fund. No matter how perfect they are, no matter what prestigious magazine publishes them, each one will be 200 pages too short to pay the rent. 

Chris Power’s story collection, “Mothers”, will be published in 2018 by Faber & Faber

The Cambridge History of the English Short Story
Edited by Dominic Head
Cambridge University Press, 657pp, £99.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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