In August 2012 media attention in the UK focused briefly on the issue of children’s comics. The reason for this was the demise of the print edition of The Dandy, on its 75th Anniversary. The Dandy, along with The Beano, was one of the last survivors of the weekly children’s comics that once filled the shelves of UK newsagents. Hannah Sackett finds there’s an eager audience for a new generation of comics.
Back in the late 1970s, even small local newsagents boasted a large number of comics including The Topper and The Beazer, as well as girls’ titles Bunty and Mandy. There were child-friendly superhero comics too. Now only The Beano and newcomer The Phoenix, compete with the television and film tie-in magazines on the newsagents’ racks. The argument is that The Dandy and its fellow titles had too much competition from television, computer games and online worlds.
And yet, children still love comics.
Last Autumn I signed my school library up to a subscription with The Phoenix (published by David Fickling), interested to see whether children would take to reading a weekly comic in the library. Six months later, and every Monday morning a boy in Year 3 puts his head around the library door and asks ‘Is The Phoenix here yet?’ The Phoenix is especially popular with Year 3, but is read by children across the Junior School. Some children read it from cover to cover, while others head straight to their favourite strips. Friends will often read the comic together, laughing at the jokes and sometimes drawing their favourite characters. Comic book artist Paul Duffield has argued that The Phoenix, with its range of genres and styles and promotion of textual and visual literacy may be one of the keys to unlocking a new generation of comic readers (and makers)
While weekly comics have declined, many children’s graphic novels and comic books are available. Indeed, it seems that the range in style and content of these publications is expanding and offering new forms of visual storytelling.
Some mainstream publishers, including Walker Books and Hodder Children’s Books, have pushed the trend for turning bestselling book series into graphic novels. The graphic versions of the Alex Rider books (by Anthony Horowitz) are among the most borrowed books in the school library. Other adaptations include Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and Charlie Higson’s Young Bond and, for older readers, Cherub, The Power of Five and the Bartimaeus sequence. Walker books have also extended their comics list with original titles, including Andi Watson’s Glister and Gum Girl stories, Gary Northfield’s The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! and Viviane Schwarz’s dream-tale The Sleepwalkers. I have been surprised to find that the vivid pink and purple covers of the Gum Girl comics have not deterred boys from reading them! In America, Walker’s sister company – Candlewick Press – have established Toon Books, an imprint that introduces comics (and beautiful art and design) to young children from the age of three, as well as producing Toon Graphics for the 8+ age range.
The comic books that arose from The Phoenix’s predecessor – The DFC – also have a strong readership in the school library; these include Good Dog, Bad Dog by Dave Shelton, Monkey Nuts by the Etherington Brothers and Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre.
Some of the newer critically acclaimed comic books on the shelves have been deliberately designed to appeal to an All Ages audience. These include Garen Ewing’s The Rainbow Orchid, with its ligne claire artwork appealing to fans of Herge’s Tintin, and Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk series which has a narrative depth and artistic flair that has drawn comparisons with Tove Jansson’s Moomins and the Japanese anime films of Hayao Miyazaki. Meanwhile, the Adventure Time comic books (in spite of being television tie-ins) are written and illustrated with real flair and inventiveness.
Publishers of alternative/indie comics in the US and the UK are also creating children’s comics lists. When questioned about this trend, Hildafolk creator Luke Pearson said: ‘There is definitely something happening with publishers previously connected to the indie comics world getting into the kid’s books business. This makes some weird sense as a huge amount of alternative comics output takes the aesthetic of comics and illustration of the past, stuff that was intended for kids in the first place and subverts it…. Children’s comics are the lifeblood of alternative comics. So I think there is a rise in people who are really invested in this stuff making comics that are legitimately for kids and that’s kind of exciting. I’m sure that will continue.’
Children’s titles can be found on the lists of Top Shelf Comics (e.g. James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo and Andy Runton’s Owly), Nobrow’s Flying Eye Imprint (e.g. Akissi by Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin) and FirstSecond – who have published translations of numerous continental titles such as Joann Sfar’s Little Vampire and Kaput and Zosky by Lewis Tondheim. There are some excellent Small Press/Independently published books out there too – notably Philippa Rice’s My Cardboard Life comics.
The educational possibilities of comics are also being explored. Comics have the potential to become a key component in encouraging reading for pleasure in schools (now officially approved by the National Curriculum), while a recent article in English 4-11 explored their potential for guided reading and English lessons. In 2013, ten thousand copies of The Asteroid Belter comic were distributed at science events and schools across NE England as part of the British Science Festival. The comic, designed to inspire children to explore scientific ideas and discoveries, was created via collaborations between scientists and comic artists. The Asteroid Belter is still available to read online, forming a valuable resource for schools everywhere.
The UK is fortunate in being home to a large number of talented comic artists. To this end, Jamie Smart (creator of Bunny vs Monkey and Fish-head Steve) has created an online comic to showcase the range of talent available in the UK. Smart’s hope is that publishers will see the potential for creating new children’s comics.
I hope that Smart succeeds in his goal. My experience in the school library shows that there is a ready audience for the next generation of comics.
Hannah Sackett works part-time as school librarian at Widcombe Junior School, Bath, where she runs an after-school comic club. She also works as a freelance educator.
Selected Comics and Links
The Phoenix www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk/
The Rainbow Orchid, Garen Ewing, Egmont, 978-1405263856, £14.99
Gum Girl 1: Catastrophe Calling, Andi Watson, Walker, 978-1406329391, £6.99
Hilda and the Troll, Luke Pearson, Flying Eye Books, 978-1909263147, £12.95
Toon Books www.toon-books.com/
Check out librarian and Forbidden Planet blogger Richard Bruton’s awesome comic display in his school library: www.forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2013/comics-for-children-a-visual-list/
Blog post on the Future of Comics: http://tumblr.com/post/72886453227/the-future-of-an-industry
Gosh Comics give advice on comics for libraries: www.goshlondon.com/libraries/
Asteroid Belter comic http://co.uk/p/science-includes-study-of-epic-themes.html
Moose Kid Comics www.moosekidcomics.com/
Many thanks to Luke Pearson and Paul Duffield for replying to my queries.