COMIC fans everywhere are choking on their cow pies. Last week when it was announced that the Dandy, much-beloved home of Desperate Dan, Bananaman and friends was to stop its print edition in December after 75 years, you could almost hear the collective wail of dismay.
Although the comic will launch a new online edition that Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson promises will be “exciting”, for many comic book fans who grew up with the Dandy’s characters it is the end of an era.
“Millions will hear of your passing with regret,” wrote a misty-eyed John Wagner, one-time Dandy writer and later the creator of Judge Dredd, a very different kind of comic character, just after the news broke. “Some of us weaker souls may even shed a tear.”
So with such outpourings of affection, why did the printed edition of the Dandy have to die? Certainly there is a question over how relevant Desperate Dan – a 75-year-old who shaves with a blowtorch and lifts cows with one arm – is to today’s children in their shiny, celebrity led, X-Box illustrated lives. But Dr Christopher Murray of Dundee University, one of the UK’s leading authorities on comics, and teacher of the UK’s first degree in comics, instead blames the parents.
“It is easy to sit on the sidelines and bemoan the loss of the print comic, especially given its historical importance and its proud tradition, but the fact is that if everyone who felt badly about it going had been buying the comic for their children then sales would be considerably better and we wouldn’t be in this position,” he says.
Sales of the Dandy are now a paltry 8,000, a mere drop in the comic book ocean compared with its heyday in the 1950s, when it shifted a whopping two million copies a week. Its DC Thomson stablemate the Beano maintains a relatively healthy circulation of 38,000, meaning it is likely that Desperate Dan will seek refuge in its pages when the printed Dandy ceases to be.
But part of the Dandy’s problem has also been its elusiveness on newsagents’ shelves, a common problem for cheaper publications now rivalling glossy magazines that bring in bigger profits.
“We’ve spoken to people who go out and want to buy the Dandy but they can’t actually find it,” says Anita O’Brien, curator of the Comic Museum in London. “That has probably been the case for a few years – there are a lot of places, particularly the larger outlets, where you almost have to pay them to stock it.”
Kev Sutherland, a former writer and artist on the Beano who now writes for the Doctor Who Adventures and Match magazine, says this has led to other mediums being embraced instead of the traditional weekly comic.
“What is dying out is not the tradition or art form of the comic strip, but buying a piece of paper every week,” he says. “People won’t buy a weekly comic any more but they’ll read them on the iPad or on the screen or in a book – such as in the Beano or Dandy annuals that are on the shelves all year round. As long as there is quality writing and quality drawing, that’s the future for comics.”
But the Dandy has also struggled to compete against its more commercial counterparts, such as the Simpsons comics, with their gamut of merchandise and computer games, supported by endless repeats of the show that started it all. Holding your own in a marketplace that majors on TV cartoons was always going to be a losing battle. Even Dennis the Menace – from the same Dundee stable as the Dandy – has his own spin-off TV series.
Scottish comic book writer Alan Grant, who wrote Judge Dredd in 2000 AD as well as various Batman titles for DC Comics in the 1980s and 1990s, finds it frustrating. “I have four grandkids and I’ve always encouraged them to read comics; but most of the kids’ titles out there are mere derivatives of “safe kids” TV programmes, and contain more in the way of puzzles and features than they do in terms of actual story content, which is a great shame, as story is one of the main things we should be teaching our children,” he says.
But while comics for children that are not tied to TV series are dying, the comics market for teens and adults is booming. Indeed, since the introduction of 2000 AD in the late 1970s, comics have sought to appeal to a more mature audience than the Dandy’s pre-teen target market. In 1986, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which portrayed Batman as a psychopathic 55-year-old, was released, as was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ mini-series The Watchmen. The two were dark, gothic and very obviously not aimed at children, and between them, helped revolutionise comics as a medium that was no longer just for kids.
Nowadays, particularly in the US, comics such as Avengers Vs X-Men and Watchmen spin-offs dominate the top ten of best-selling comics, with sales figures of almost 200,000, and the two comic powerhouses, Marvel and DC Comics, are in rude health. Their target audience is teenagers and adults.
But Murray says that it needn’t be the end for children’s comics.
“The teenage and adult readership is much more recognised these days, but children’s comics will survive. It is too easy and reductive to say that children’s comics are ending. The market is changing and responding to new pressures and opportunities, as it always has,” he says.
“Radio, cinema and TV didn’t kill off literature. The internet and computer games won’t kill off comics. Comics will adapt and survive.”
Alan Grant isn’t so sure.
“The [children’s] comic might still be saved, but this would entail a total editorial mind shift in much the same way that 2000 AD captured a massive readership when it was released in the late 1970s,” he says.
“Most of its characters were outcasts from society – humorous, constantly at war with authority. For the Dandy to survive, I think this is the only way to do it. And I don’t know if it’s possible.”