Recently, I was interviewed for the paper about the importance of comics in child literacy. It's a subject that has received a lot of coverage of late, from Neill Cameron's wonderful series of articles on the subject to the creation of the UK's first Comics Laureate.
One question that never got into the article was 'what happened to the mainstream UK comic scene?' The answer is that it's still there, but it's changed, maybe forever.
I know what the interviewer meant. Back when I was a kid, newsagents were filled with titles such as Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Beezer, Whoopie and, my personal favourite, Nutty. Then in the '90s they started to disappear, replaced by magazines that had seriously reduced comic content. Most of the titles on the shelf were linked to toy or TV brands and were largely made up of puzzles or fact-files.
And then free gifts started appearing on the covers. Once, a free gift was a special event. Now, hardly an issue goes by without a free gift or a bag. That's how kids - and parents - choose which comic they're going to buy.
And so, here we are with only The Beano surviving from the hay-day of British humour comics. And we gnash our teeth and shake fists at WH Smith's kids' section. What happened to all those comics? Why did the nasty publishers stop printing them?
Well, probably because the readers stopped reading them. When I talk about this in public, parents often say how dreadful it is that such comics have all but disappeared, but the cold fact is that if people had carried on buying them, they would probably still be here. Publishers didn't publish comics out of the goodness of their hearts, they published them because they were businesses. And producing comics ain't cheap!
Perhaps parents and teachers and librarians at the time dismissed our traditional humour papers as disposable pap with no real merit. Thankfully, we live in a time where we've started to recognise the benefits comics can bring, especially for reluctant readers.
And that's not to knock the kids' magazines of today. There's a lot of really good stuff out there. Magazines full of inventive and stimulating content that stretches the imagination in different ways. And I would never dismiss the power of a recognisable toy or TV or game brand in getting kids to pick up books or magazines and read. I'd be a hypocrite if I did, as it's how I largely earn my living.
But I miss humour comics. Really, really miss them. And it's more than just nostalgia. Though school visits and the like, I see first hand the effect they can have on kids, how children engage with them, reading for readings sake, unaware that it's helping their literacy as they giggle and laugh.
Can I see a return to those heady pre-90s days? Maybe not, but if we want British comics to have a future, we need to support British comics. Buying the likes of the Beano and The Pheonix or making sure that librarians and schools know their worth. If they succeed, then publishers will want to mirror that success and you never know, a second golden age of British Comics may be upon us.
What do you think? Wishful thinking or a possible future? Let me know in the comments section below...