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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser