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Back from the dead

The UK has a rich comics tradition often obscured by the cultural dominance of Marvel and DC

As revivals go, the resurrection of Monster Fun Comic sits somewhere between unlikely and miraculous. The much-forgotten British comic, last seen in 1976, returns to a comics industry in crisis. American superheroes might be everywhere on screens big and small, but comics themselves are no longer mainstream fare, tending instead to be siloed in specialist shops and overwhelmingly bought by grown men.

Salvation might be at hand, not in the form of yet another tweaked superhero, but in a return to comics that are strange, funny and uniquely British. Comics that — and this is crucial — remember who comics were made for in the first place.

Monster Fun editor Keith Richardson says US giants Marvel and DC have been too slow to wake up to the fact that children still love reading comics.

“The American comics industry, which caters for middle-aged men, seems to be on the decline,” Richardson says. “But if you look at what’s happening in the industry in the UK, you’ll see the Beano and the Phoenix have readerships that are going up.”

Phoenix editor Tom Fickling says he sees his comic’s success as being part of a rehabilitation of kids comics via graphic novels series such as Dog Man and Amulet. Where once parents might have discouraged kids from reading comics, now they tend to see them as a valuable source of entertainment that, for once, isn’t screen-based.

“The Phoenix is kind of permitted fun,” Fickling says. “I think there’s probably lots of parents who are like, get off the PlayStation, but I don’t mind if you’re going to sit in the corner and read your Phoenixes for three hours.”

Graphic novels might have new prestige, but there is still something special about a weekly comic. Fickling says his team are conscious that every new issue of the Phoenix, which depends not on newsstands but on subscriptions for its survival, needs to feel like an event.

“Waiting for post is fun when you’re a kid and the subscription comes in a special envelope, so there’s a whole experience beyond the reading. It’s something kids know they can look forward to.” 

While he’s grateful the Phoenix will soon be celebrating its first decade, Fickling is wary of getting too enthusiastic about a comics revival just yet. He points out that, in the past 10 years, no other British comic has succeeded in becoming an ongoing concern.

Until Monster Fun, that is. Richardson says the success of a couple of special editions of Cor Buster (a Frankensteinian stitching of two long-dead kids comics) gave Rebellion — publishers of 2000AD — the confidence to invest in a new, ongoing comic aimed at younger readers. It helped that Richardson had also been responsible for 2000AD’s Regened initiative, which saw the edgy sci-fi comic release a series of all-ages issues, to the horror of its adult fans. To their even greater horror, those all-ages editions quickly began outselling the regular issues.

Kids titles seem to have adjusted relatively easily to the modern world. The cast of the Beano is pleasingly, if casually, diverse with a near-equal split across the sexes that seems to be reflected in the photos young fans submit to the letters page.

Richardson says, in choosing which characters to revive, he’s tried to go for the more timeless favourites, with an awareness that the new generation of readers expect more complexity.

“The characters aren’t just one joke, they’re fleshed out and multi-dimensional now. Kids today wouldn’t be satisfied with the strip just having a similar setup again and again. They’re a bit more sophisticated.”

That sophistication is often given as the reason comics have gone out of fashion. Why would a 21st century child pick up a comic, when they have so many other entertainments to distract them?

‘The humour is distinctly British’

Fickling says that one of the Phoenix’s strengths is its anthology format, which allows them to tell stories of varying types and lengths and appeal to a broad audience. It’s a peculiarly British format that, once thought extinct, has seen a renewed interest in recent years. Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics division has found great success in mining the past to produce collections of forgotten heroes and villains, alongside revived versions of classic titles such as Roy of the Rovers, Misty, Tammy, Jinty and Smash! 

There can be little doubt that the Treasury trades heavily on nostalgia, but it’s also a reminder that the UK has a rich comics tradition often obscured by the cultural dominance of Marvel and DC. Monster Fun has a very British sensibility, rife with an anarchy and grotesquerie you won’t see in American comics.

“I think the Sweeney Toddler strip is certainly the most un-American humour I can think of,” says Monster’s assistant editor Oliver Pickles. “The humour is distinctly British. But I don’t think that will put off Americans.”

“There are a lot of fart jokes,” Richardson admits. “The characters are quite grotesque and strange and far from the norm. We like that in British culture.”

Richardson singles out his serial The Leopard From Lime Street (a revival of a strip that ran in Buster from 1976 to 1985) as having a uniquely British feel. While American comic strips have superheroes flying around skyscrapers and fighting intergalactic threats, the Leopard is more accessible in its small-scale approach, fighting bank-robbers in backyards, high streets and semi-detached rooftops. And maybe that’s the best reason to get excited about the return of British comics — not only do they inspire a love of reading, they help kids see a familiar world in strange new ways.

“Comics fit in the gap between picture books and novels,” Pickles says. “Words and images are working together to pass information. And it does spark kids brains. Kids shouldn’t just be reading all the classics, they should have fun visual things to spark the imagination.”

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