The Trouble With Comics: Can UK Comics Step Out From The Shadows?

Without America's scale, France's cultural capital or Japan's mass readership, the UK comics industry finds itself in a curious position. Katriona Chapman looks at the state of the art in light of Hannah Berry's UK Comics Creators Research Report

Photo by Miika Laaksonen on Unsplash

There has long been a suspicion among those making comics in the UK that things should be better. The UK is full of avid readers of books, but many of these don’t read comics. Publishers and creators struggle to reach this huge potential audience. Recently members of the comics community have come together in a large-scale effort to address the question ‘if you wanted to change the comics industry, where would you even begin?’

Most adults in the UK remember comics like The Beano and The Dandy from when they were young. Children’s comics in the UK have enjoyed huge success since the 30s, and superhero adaptations have long dominated the cinema box office and streaming services alike. But these high-profile areas of the comics industry, along with the fact children are often encouraged to swiftly move beyond comics to more ‘serious’ reading, mean that many adults remain unaware that other types of comics exist.

There’s a vast breadth of comics literature on every conceivable topic being published in the UK, and for every age group. Certain genres have had some success – graphic medicine (the use of personal stories in comic form to address issues of illness and health) has brought the medium to new audiences interested in healthcare. Some of the more literary genres such as autobiography and graphic journalism (think work by Joe Sacco or Daryl Cunningham) get some sparse coverage in the broadsheets. Yet many comics creators are familiar with the difficulty of explaining what they do to people they meet in day-to-day life: “Comic books – but for adults?” “Graphic novels – is that erotic fiction?”

“In France a bestselling comic might sell 150,000 copies whereas in the UK the figure might be closer to 5,000.”

"The ecosystem here in the UK is unique: we don’t have the production and retail infrastructures of the US; we don’t have the social and cultural acceptance of France; we don’t have the nation-wide readership of Japan.”

– The UK Comics Creators Research Report

In 2020 the UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry undertook a substantial survey of comics creators, who were asked questions about their experiences of working in the sector. The survey was followed up with a series of five online discussions, each attended by around a hundred comic creators, publishers, and event organisers. These expanded the original survey results into a huge collective debate on topics such as business models, audiences, education, and diversity. The goal was to identify the steps needed to foster a stronger UK comics industry. What was striking about the forums was the strength of feeling that emerged.

By the end of the project it was clear that there was a huge collective will to improve things, and not only in the UK. A movement seems to be gathering pace internationally, with similar surveys and discussions cropping up recently in the USA, Italy and France (where a survey into issues in the comics industry was conducted by the Ministry of Culture in 2019.)

The UK survey identified four major problem areas with the comic industry as it currently stands: money, access (including the need to better support marginalised voices,) audience, and professionalism. Ultimately many of the financial issues tie in very closely with the ‘audience’ problem – the readership of comics desperately needs expanding if comics are to become a more viable business for publishers and creators alike. The popularity of manga in Japan is often held up as an example of something to aim for – where comics are read widely by all ages, not seen as a weird niche item read only by people who aren’t up to reading ‘proper books’. Many involved in the online debates wondered whether comics might be able to forge a higher-profile space for itself on the broader cultural landscape. Traditionally there’s been a hierarchy of art-forms with theatre, novels, and film being widely reviewed and discussed on TV and in newspapers, and comics rarely getting a look-in. It was noted that in Germany in 2008 a group of publishers took action to actively grow comics readership, co-operating to print 80,000 flyers to raise the profile of comics and demonstrate their importance as a medium.

The potential for better cooperation between industries worldwide is also a promising new development, and Berry is in communication with many of those conducting similar research in other countries. It’s been suggested that UK comics needs a dedicated centralised organisation to advocate for better terms and funding for creators and also help promote comics to readers. Two new fledgling organisations have been founded in the last year that may help fill this role: the Association of Comic Creators which aims to act as a global community hub for comics professionals, and the Comics Creators Network which is a sub-group of the Society of Authors (the UK trade union for professional writers.) There’s hope this type of collective organisation will help the comics industry become more robust so that it can better support its creatives, and broaden opportunities in the industry to include those who currently can’t afford to work in comics due to it rarely providing a living wage.

Another avenue discussed was analysing where the unique properties of comics can be particularly effective. As a medium that combines words with visuals, comics have huge potential in aiding comprehension of complicated topics, or facilitating communication between diverse groups of people. Their applications in education and the academic world have been studied in work by Dundee and Sheffield Hallam Universities, and their potential use in the field of social and humanitarian work is being explored by organisations such as Positive Negatives.

There’s clearly great value in the medium of comics. Hopefully the work that has begun with these discussions will lead to more and more people discovering and enjoying this under-appreciated art-form.

Find out more about Hannah Berry’s work as comics laureate and read reports on the survey and talks here. You can also join Berry’s mailing list to be updated on future developments.

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