Ka-boom! Children’s comics are exploding on to the magazine racks. A new report from Mintel has found that since 2003, comic sales have surged by 72 per cent, allowing a growing number of graphic designers to apply the word ‘fun’ to their jobs without telling porkies.
‘In any one day you could be testing whether you can get from one end of a maze to another, sticking monsters’ heads on people’s bodies or commissioning illustrations,’ smiles Doctor Who Adventures senior art editor Paul Lang. Founded in 2006 by BBC Worldwide, Doctor Who Adventures is riding a wave of fandom for the new series of Doctor Who to become the most popular children’s magazine in the UK. At the beginning of the year, it upped its frequency from fortnightly to weekly, took on more artists and doubled its design team to two.
Comics including The Beano, Dandy Xtreme and newcomer The DFC each employ teams of about two office-based designers, gathering content from large pools of home-based freelance illustrators and artists.
Taken with comics’ natural emphasis on graphics, this set-up can afford graphic designers a higher level of control than they enjoy at many mainstream magazines. ‘The role of the graphic designer is more important than ever,’ says Dandy Xtreme editor Craig Graham, speaking from the Dundee headquarters of The Dandy and The Beano’s parent company DC Thomson. Last year, The Dandy went through a radical revamp and rebrand in an attempt to boost its flagging sales.
‘The traditional look wasn’t cutting it any more,’ says Graham, ‘so we moved it over to a much more design-led concept, featuring fewer pure artwork pages, and jazzing up the traditional comic form.’
Graham describes the challenges of creating a magazine for children, including dealing with concerns about the readability of text, the complexity of the words and how much text can be put into a block.
‘The Dandy readers are not scatterbrained, but they do like to jump around a page and a comic a lot, so making things look interesting for them is a fun challenge,’ he says. Acclaimed new comic The DFC, which launched in June as a weekly subscription-only title published by Random House, hit the newsagents’ shelves for the first time last week. Paul Gravett, author of the book Great British Comics, believes that it demonstrates the very best that modern children’s comics have to offer.
‘The DFC is extremely well produced – it has a very high standard of illustration and packaging. It is always very sensitive to the cover illustration, not swamping it with taglines like many more commercial comics do.’
The DFC is run by editor David Fickling and several members of his family, ‘all of whom are here on merit’, insists Fickling’s nephew and head designer, Peter Fickling, whose credentials include working on children’s tie-in comics at BBC Worldwide throughout the mid-1990s.
He contrasts the use of design at BBC Worldwide’s tie-in-based titles with its application on The DFC. He says, ‘I had a really great time there, but you had huge pressure to fill the page with attention-grabbing headlines. Here, design is used as a skeleton to hang the juicy bits of graphic content on.’
‘We have a vaguely templated design that we alter from week to week according to our needs, which change all the time.’ Fickling also reports that the magazine has just undergone a ‘significant tweak’ that has left it looking ‘cleaner and more sophisticated’.
His design for The DFC logo includes the phrase ‘.co.uk’, perhaps giving the incorrect impression that the magazine has a digital version.
In fact, the website – also created by Fickling – is used as a support resource to garner subscriptions to the magazine and host forums, ‘taking over the traditional responsibilities of the letters page,’ he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its traditional image, DC Thomson is keen to embrace a vision of a digital future for comics currently being pioneered in Japan, where manga fans are paying for comic strips to be delivered to their mobile phones.
‘We have looked into it, we have the technology to do it, and it is definitely something we would like to do,’ says Graham.
But while we wait for Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace to reach our mobiles, Mintel predicts that the paper versions of comics are set to continue their comeback well into the next decade.
A thriving kiddie market:
• The children’s magazine market is estimated to be worth £136m a year in 2008, up by 44% in real terms on 2003
• Annual sales are expected to rise from £129m in 2007 to a projected £165m in 2013
• Increased publishing frequency, cover-price rises and new launches have stimulated sales
• More than a quarter of the titles available in the UK were launched since 2006, replacing others that have been dropped
Source: Mintel, Children’s Comics and Magazines