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

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.