Can comics stand up in kids’ busy market?

In the Fifties, children’s comics sold in the millions. These days they are likely to struggle to reach a circulation of 100,000. What happened to the supremacy of comics? asks Branwell Johnson

Like an old warhorse being saddled up one more time, venerable comic the Dandy, launched in 1937, has been given a makeover and a marketing budget and is again being sent out into the rough-and-tumble world of children’s entertainment.

Once the spinner racks and shelves of newsagents were crammed with colourful, anarchic humour titles of the Dandy’s ilk, such as Buster, Cor!, Knockout, Shiver & Shake, Beezer and Whizzer & Chips, as well as their more adventure-oriented siblings such as Tiger, Action, Warlord, Valiant and Lion.

But now only the Dandy and the Beano, published by Dundee-based DC Thomson, fly the flag for the traditional weekly kids’ comic. The relaunch of the Dandy last Friday brought the introduction of new, more contemporary characters such as Dreadlock Holmes the Boy Detective, a makeover for old timers such as Desperate Dan, better paper quality (now 70 grammes), a pagination increase and a price hike to &£1.20.

The changes will be accompanied by a &£600,000 marketing campaign developed by ARM Direct. This includes satellite TV advertising and promotions under the strapline “The Dandy – can you handle it?”

The comic is selling an estimated 45,000 copies per week, although D C Thomson executive manager Benjamin Gray says readership is at 200,000. The aim is to stabilise sales at about 60,000 copies. Stablemate the Beano sells 130,000 copies a week. This compares to a circulation of 2 million for the Beano in 1958.

Dez Skinn, editor of trade title Comics International and a former employee on IPC comics such as Buster in the Seventies, says that IPC’s circulation “kill figure” was 250,000. Anything falling below that was axed.

What happened to the supremacy of comics? Firstly, these days there are a lot more distractions for the attention of children and their pocket money, particularly seven- to 11-year-old boys. These include mobile ringtones, computer games and collectable card games and toys such as Pokémon and its successors. According to a Youth TGI 2004 survey, 41 per cent of children under 12 have mobile phones and 91 per cent own some form of games machine.

Skinn also explains that a shift in trade terms between suppliers and newsagents in the Seventies from firm sale to “sale or return” also contributed to the decline as it meant that “suddenly publishers had to take all the risks”. In such a market, publishers became less inclined to launch new comics or support faltering ones. He also points to the decrease in home delivery through the letter box as a factor in the turn away from comics.

However, while the weekly comic may be bracing itself for one last run at the market, there is no shortage of publishers that see an opportunity to reach younger boys and girls with fortnightly or monthly magazines featuring a mixture of competitions, features, pop gossip, puzzles and jokes with maybe a comic strip or two thrown in. The next big planned launch will be Walt Disney’s Witch comic, which will be published by BBC Magazines in the spring. The monthly is published in 28 languages worldwide and has sold 20 million copies so far.

As with Witch, many of these publications are produced under licence and include titles such as Panini’s Action Man, which is published every three weeks, and Egmont Magazines’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Barbie. However, observers see a risk in this strategy as publishing licences for film and TV properties, if not toys, are usually signed up before the move is unveiled to the public. Skinn says: “For every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you could end up with an absolute turkey and the money you make from the first licence can be lost on the second.”

Panini marketing director Mark Warsop counters the criticism of licences, saying that his company’s properties are remarkably resilient, being based more on “evergreen” toy properties such as Action Man, which is now in its sixth year with a circulation of 55,000, according to its publisher.

Other publications are self-created and include titles such as Egmont’s Toxic (circulation 42,280 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations) and the just-launched 4boys from Tree Top Media. The latter has a deal with Dorling Kindersley to use some of the educational book publisher’s material. However, the magazine also includes comic strips The Michael Owen Story and Beyblade, together with a liberal helping of jokes about bodily functions, and (clothed) pictures of Jordan and one-armed teen surfer champion Bethany Hamilton.

4boys, priced &£2.50, is schoolbag-sized, measuring 15 by 21cm, but has a regular magazine-sized backing board. Chief executive Gillian Laskier explains that this is necessary for visibility on the shelf and to help mount free gifts. She adds that the company is looking for a circulation of 30,000.

One potential lifeline is that the children’s publications are beginning to show a greater awareness of their potential as advertising media. Gray explains that DC Thomson titles only began carrying ads in the Eighties and that the new-look Dandy will be carrying ten pages of ads.

Laskier says that the children’s magazine advertising market “is much less developed” than the adult sector, but the ads have “fantastic influence and reach”. She argues children’s mags are shared, so they offer more value than TV advertising. The publications also offer the opportunity to include advertising features, competitions, sponsorships and inserts.

Advertisers using these titles include DVD and computer game publishers, as well as children’s TV channels such as Nickelodeon. Dean Weller, a youth media specialist and managing partner at MindShare who handles Mattel and Atari, says that food brands are beginning to test out comics as they become increasingly wary of a potential clampdown on TV advertising to kids. “There is a growing pressure on children’s advertising on TV at the moment and food is in the front line,” he says.

Industry observers believe that there is still a market for boys’ comics if they offer the right combination of ingredients. Skinn believes that the way forward is to give comic strips the kind of look youngsters are used to from CGI movies and computer games. He points to long-running weekly football comic Striker, produced for much older readers and once a featured strip in The Sun, as an example of this computer-generated art.

Gray admits that the Dandy has lost its way in the past by straying from its core values of being “a little anti-establishment, a bit of a rebel” and by focusing more on what parents might be thinking. Now, he says, it is time to “write for the kids”.

However, the long-term future of comics will depend on whether the hands of today’s children can be prised off their computer game joysticks and mobiles.

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