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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle