Step into any newsagent these days and you won’t see many comics on sale; some shops don’t sell any. If you visit WH Smith or any of the other larger stores, you’ll find a comics section, but it’ll be filled with TV and toy tie-ins and reprints of American fare. The only regularly-published, whole-cloth British comics to have survived are The Beano, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, The Phoenix, Commando (that little square war comic – yes, it’s still around), and VIZ.
Until the 1980s, those same newsagent shelves were filled with 30 or 40 different comics every week; Whizzer & Chips, Buster, Monster Fun, Mandy, Whoopee, Battle, and Roy of the Rovers jostled with TV Comic, The Beano, Sparky, Topper, Bunty, Beezer, Hotspur, Warlord, and The Dandy. Then there were the US reprints: Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, Planet of the Apes, The Titans, Dracula Lives, The Avengers and many more. There were nursery titles and, if you were lucky, a squeaky swivel-rack at the back of the shop rammed with out-of-date American comics. And that’s just a snapshot of the mid-70s.
Back then, comics were a primary source of entertainment for children. There was no internet, no computer games, no videos or DVDs, and just three TV channels – only two of which showed programmes for children at teatime. If it was too cold or dark to go outside to play, then comics and books would come out of the cupboard to keep kids entertained. But the rise of those aforementioned forms of mollifying entertainment have taken young eyes away from comics and glued them to a pixellated screen instead. Comics as we knew them, weekly titles filled with art and stories by British creators, featuring characters found in no other form of media, are all but dead.
Comics as we never knew them, however, are another matter entirely. Arguably, we are living in a golden age brighter than the glow of nostalgia. The publishing model for British comics has shifted in a dramatic fashion. In the mid-1980s the graphic novel format was in its infancy, but Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, and Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen became – and remain – international best-sellers in comic shops and mainstream bookshops alike. This opened the eyes of publishers to a new sales model. Thirty years later, dozens of new graphic novels appear every month in mainstream bookshops. Comic-strip stories that might once have appeared in disposable, cheap weekly editions are now available as books instead. Most large towns now have comic shops, and the best of them carry material from around the world – the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan… and the UK. Most libraries now carry a wide range of graphic novels catering for all ages and interests. The mind-dazzling world of the internet, once seen as a harbinger of death for the comics industry, has instead brought a brand-new mode of publishing and distribution. Online comics far outnumber those on sale in the shops of 1974. Award-winning web-only titles such as Aces Weekly and Moose Kid, along with digital versions of printed comics, float around us invisibly, accessed by the tap of a finger or the click of a mouse. Comics don’t have to be printed onto paper, loaded onto lorries, and unpacked by Mrs. Miggins at the corner shop on a Saturday morning anymore. But it’s nice that at least a few of them still are.