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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dan Dare and Virgin Comics: the final verdict

The sales figures for British comics I recently recorded may seem gloomy and following an ever downward trend, but spare a thought for British characters abroad. The estimated circulation for the final issue of Virgin's Dan Dare is in and it hasn't set the world aflame.

Not that Virgin's other titles have caught the public's imagination either. As I write this, rumours are flying about the closure of Virgin's New York headquarters. The most recent report I've seen says that the New York office has been closed and the company, according to CEO Sharad Devarajan, is "restructuring" and relocating to Los Angeles. "The decision to scale down the New York operations and concentrate on core activities is due to the current macro-economic downturn."

Virgin Comics was launched in 2006, backed by Richard Branson and based on the notion of getting Bollywood and Hollywood film industry folk to create characters from which comics and movies could be derived, leading to titles created by John Woo, Nicholas Cage, Jenna Jameson and Guy Ritchie (the actual writing was down to lesser mortals). The company was co-founded with Indian author Deepak Chopra and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur who had, in 2004, set up a deal with comics' publisher Gotham Entertainment to create a company intending to produce animated movies and comics for the Asian market. Gotham Studios Asia was based in Bangalore, India. When Gotham Studios Asia failed to get the backing they needed, Richard Branson became involved and the company became Virgin Comics and Animation.

Virgin Comics set up office in New York and, in 2006, launched their 'Shakti' line of comics based on Indian mythology. Their most high profile title, John Woo's Seven Brothers was launched in October 2006, the stories written by Garth Ennis based on Woo's updating of a Chinese folk tale.

Subsequent launches included work by musician Dave Stewart (Walk-In) and a joint venture with the Sci-Fi Channel (Mike Carey's The Stranded). Various other titles have been announced, including a strip created by Hugh Jackman (Nowhere Man), a new superhero team by Stan Lee and a web-animation project, The MBX, based on the Mahābhārata by Grant Morrison.

For British comics' fans, the big news release came in May 2007 when rumours began circulating that Virgin Comics had signed a deal with the Dan Dare Corporation to create new adventures for Dan Dare. The rumours were confirmed in August.

The first series of Dan Dare has run its course to mixed reviews. Steve Winders summed up the comic here on Bear Alley with the words "despite some negative observations this is an interesting new interpretation with much to commend it."

I've been following the sales of British characters since the announcement that WildStorm was to launch the Albion series in the USA. After a reasonable if unspectacular start, the Albion series suffered from months of delay which, I suspect, put paid to any success the series might have had. And since shop owners tend to look at the trends for a previous series when it comes to ordering stocks of a new series, the 'Albion Universe' titles were unlikely ever to recover from this shaky start.

Please note that these figures, based on figures published by ICv2, relate to advanced orders placed with Diamond Distributors only.

Albion
06/2005__#1__18,791
07/2005__#2__15,403 (-18%)
08/2005
09/2005
10/2005__#3__14,835 (-3.7%)
11/2005
12/2005
01/2006
02/2006
03/2006
04/2006__#4__10,766 (-27.4%)
05/2006__#5__10,476 (-2.7%)
06/2006
07/2006
08/2006
09/2006__#6__9,465 (-9.7%)

16 months to release six issues! Following the initial settling down figure—a first issue is always likely to outsell the second and third issues by quite a margin—the gaps in the schedule hit the title hard, with the fourth issue shedding over a quarter of its advance orders.

The figures are generally considered to be fairly accurate and an interesting test for the first issue is to compare the ICv2 figure (18,800) with the sales figure reported by authors John Reppion and Leah Moore (20,427), 8% higher. If we add 8% to the figure for the final issue, it still only sold 10,222 copies, or around half the sales of the first issue. The Reppion/Moore blog later (11 December 2005) announced that the total print run for the first issue of 21,476 had sold out and that initial orders were 16,452—lower than the initial ICv2 figure.

Let's move on to other British characters...

Thunderbolt Jaxon
02/2006__#1__11,475
03/2006__#2__8,726 (-24%)
04/2006__#3__6,239 (-28.5%)
05/2006__#4__5,408 (-13.3%)
06/2006__#5__4,852 (-10.3%)

Battler Britton
07/2006__#1__14,843
08/2006__#2__12,631 (-14.9%)
09/2006__#3__9,985 (-21.0%)
10/2007__#4__9,234 (-7.5%)
11/2007__#5__8,888 (-3.7%)

Dan Dare
11/2007__#1__9,434
12/2007__#2__7,838 (-17%)
01/2008__#3__7,657 (-2.3%)
02/2008__#4__7,885 (+3%)
03/2008__#5__7,518 (-4.7%)
04/2008
05/2008__#6__6,438 (-14.4%)
06/2008
07/2008__#7__6,229 (-3.2%)

As you can see from the above figures (and, again, I emphasise that these are estimates from one distribution company), promoting British characters to an American audience hasn't been entirely successful. In only one way was Dan Dare more successful than the other three titles: it shed less of its initial audience, losing only 34% of its initial orders between first and last issues (for comparison, Albion shed 49.6%, Thunderbolt Jaxon 57.7% and Battler Britton 40.2%). But it started with initial orders under 10,000 copies in a month when seven titles sold over 100,000 copies.

I'm sure you could post comparable figures for a lot of American comics and the trends seen in the above four titles are probably common for many comic books. But as a group they represent what was hoped to have been a revival of interest in British comics' characters and, sadly, the experiment has been a failure. I've no doubt that the awful starting figure for Thunderbolt Jaxon reflected retailer dissatisfaction at the long delays in the release of Albion. The slight bump upwards of Battler Britton was possibly a result of confidence placed by retailers in the author and theme—Garth Ennis + war story, already a proven combination in titles like Adventures in the Rifle Brigade and War Story.

The poor showing of Dan Dare... well, that could be a reflection of the generally poor sales of other Virgin titles. The title was given pretty good coverage in the UK when it was launched (on radio and in the national newspapers) but that was a couple of months after the initial orders were placed and resulted only in a lot of disappointment as old-time fans intrigued by the press coverage arrived at comics shops only to find that copies of the title had sold out.

The cut-backs at Virgin are unlikely to affect the release of the Dan Dare collection, due in October. Virgin Comics still exists as a company. Whether we will see a second series of Dan Dare is another matter. My guess is that it will depend on how well the aforementioned collection does. From previous news we know that Gary Erskine will stay on as artist but Garth Ennis is leaving and no new scriptwriter has been announced.

Sales figures always make me sound like a doom-merchant. Maybe I am... I've just dug out an e-mail that I sent to IPC's Andrew Sumner way back in March 2005—around the time shops would have been ordering their copies of Albion issue one—in which I said "I don't think we can pin all our hopes on Albion. My guess is that it will debut somewhere around the 15-20,000 sales mark and fall back to around 8-13,000 by the end of the run." Fairly broad figures, but I wasn't far off.

All this rambling leaves one pretty hefty question unanswered: Is there a future for British comics' characters in the American comic book market? Looking at the figures the answer ought to be a pretty emphatic "No!" but figures don't take into account the enthusiasms of publishers (in the case of Dan Dare, it was Richard Branson's love of the character), the quest to find 'new' characters to exploit, even if they're old and haven't been seen for thirty years, the indefatigable faith publishers have in themselves that convinces them they can relaunch a character that has already failed a few times (such as Dynamite Entertainment's June announcement that they are licensing Judge Dredd for publication in the USA), the spin-off potential from films and TV shows (IDW's Doctor Who seems to be doing OK; Dan Dare would probably benefit from his rumoured big screen outing) and a few etceteras.

British comics characters have never made much of a splash in the US market but I'm sure they'll continue to have a small part to play in the future.

But what about Dan Dare? Well... I'm not so sure. I personally think Dan Dare is a great character. But—and it's a big but—he was launched at a time when Britain was struggling to get through the post-war depression. Launched in 1950, Dan's was a bright, colourful, optimistic future and, over the course of his first few years in the pages of Eagle, Britain began to claw its way back onto an even keel. Food rationing that had begun in 1940 were still in force when Eagle was launched in April 1950. In May 1950, rationing of petrol and chocolate biscuits came to an end; in September the soap ration ended; there was a steady lessening of the tight wartime controls over the next few years and 1954 saw the last of those controls lifted.

1945-51 has been called Britain's 'Age of Austerity'. From 1951-64 was 'The Age of Affluence'. Consumerism and optimism were high, coinciding with what most fans consider Dan's best years (1950-58). Dan's bright future may not have seemed so far away to the children watching London and other bombed out cities being rebuilt and following the advances being made in rocketry and transport. More and more homes had television sets and I'm sure to some it must have seemed like they were close to living in Dan's future of video phones and space rockets.

Dan was of his time: the hero of some well-scripted and well-drawn adventures at a time when things were looking up. Those conditions no longer exist. We've had the space race and put a man on the Moon and then done very little about it and the future depicted in the Dan Dare strip looks further away now than it did fifty years ago.

Dan has been revived half a dozen times since the 1970s but never with any spectacular success. Of these, Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes' Dare remains the best because it, too, was of its time. Dare was the deeply cynical reflection of Margaret Thatcher's Britain which had no place for an old-style hero like the 1950s Dan.

Dan, it would seem, works in one of two ways. For fans of the original comic, you need the old Dan and you need to ignore the last fifty years of history. Spaceship Away! has published a handful of excellent Dan Dare stories set within Frank Hampson's vision of the future and they have succeeded as stories. A new Dan Dare must, however, ignore the past and look to today to create a new future. In this respect, I think the latest series didn't do too badly and it was severely damaged by early publicity which harked on about how Dan was "Captain America .... Superman ... Batman ... all rolled into one", which he clearly isn't, and how he "burst to the forefront of pop culture" in 1950, which makes him sound irrelevant. Calling him a 'brand' didn't help because the majority of the audience, if they knew Dan Dare at all, only knew him from the animated show of 2002, which was nothing like the Ennis-penned comic book.

Marketing Dan as a revival of the old character does not work. Or, rather, it works to the tune of under 10,000 copies. If the second series is to survive, Virgin need to cut the ties with old Dare and build on the new Dare they have to hand.

(* Dan Dare © Dan Dare Corporation. Dan Dare © Virgin Comics)

8 comments:

Alastair Crompton said...

Steve. You are supremely even-handed when you talk about Virgin's Dare. I fear I found
the story crass, and the artwork lacking in both inventiveness and continuity.
Would you consider it too impertinent if I asked you to refer old-time FH and DD enthusiasts to my own site:
http://www.frankhampson.co.uk/
I'm sure that with your connections I would enjoy a higher hit rate.
Very grateful Alastair Crompton

paddybrown said...

My opinion is that the direct market is the wrong place for characters like Dan Dare and Judge Dredd. The direct market serves the fans of Marvel/DC style American superhero comics, and to a lesser extent fans of American underground-style comics. There is very little crossover between those fans and Dan Dare fans.

As you say, the new Dan Dare series got plenty of coverage in the UK press, but how many people reading that thought "sounds interesting" but had no idea where to buy it, or if they did had no interest in joining the comic shop sub-culture?

The direct market is a very distinct niche. If you want to sell comics that don't fit that niche, you're better off finding some other means of distribution, whether that's bookshops, the web, subscription, or whatever.

Paul said...

"Crass?" I don't even begin to understand that. I found Ellis' story to be marvelously nostalgic and forward-looking at the same time.

Steve said...

Alastair,

I suspect there will always be a divide between fans on Dan Dare. I don't think anyone would deny that the stars were aligned during that 1950-58 run of Frank Hampson's creation: you had a brilliant artist who was also a good story teller interested in science and how it would develop.

The impact it had on fans at that time was tremendous. My own feeling is that it wasn't just the stories but the era in which they were created that gave them that impact.

I'm not saying this is the case with your comment -- we all have different likes and dislikes -- but this is a good opportunity for me to say that I feel some commentators allow their love of the original to overwhelm their ability to treat other interpretations of Dan Dare on their own merits. Me? I love the original DD, don't think much of the 2000AD Dare, liked some of the New Eagle, loved the Morrison/Hughes Revolver series and like (with some reservations) what Garth did with the latest version.

In a way, we should be grateful that new versions come along so regularly because it generates media interest in the character and prompts publishers to reissue the Eagle stories, increasing the fanbase for Hampson's work. After all, it can't just be first generation fans buying the new Titan albums... surely those older fans already have the original comics, or at the very least the Hawk reprints.

Steve said...

Hi Paddy,

Precisely the point I was trying to make: if you are relying on the Direct Market, advertise your comic to the Direct Market audience and try not to put off that audience by talking about how old the character is and how wonderful he used to be. It is irrelevant if you are planning to reinvent the character. By all means discuss the old Dan Dare when talking to the UK media where the audience might have an inkling of who the heck Dan is, but it's a little pointless getting all enthusiastic about Fifties Dan when you're trying to push a Noughties Dan to a Noughties audience.

Alastair Crompton said...

Steve. Of course Eagle was fortunate in its timing. Of course
no-one could contemplate a similar story today. The planet is in trouble. The human race on a precipice. Utopia as Hampson saw it will never happen in comics again.
I don't even think the nine years
of Hampson at Eagle were great.
He wrote two-and-a-half stories, and during that time his muse burned like limelight. It was incandescent and he was indeed the best in the world.
No-one, in any strip, has matched the flair, inventiveness, talent for drawing human figures, and wit in writing dialogue, he showed from 1950/53.

I would love someone to come along and create a new sci-fi hero with the same intelligence,
realism and scientific accuracy.
So far they haven't (IMHO).

I would feel honoured if you added my website to your links. It will help lend more force to some of what I've written here. Regards. Alastair.

Alastair Crompton said...

Paul.
Imagine you had to create an alien. Would you give him eye sockets if his eyes are in his stomach? Or a tongue too big to retract into his mouth? Or claws to tear food then put his brain in his belly? Why give him two arms, two legs, a head and humanoid body, when Sydney Jordan has shown real aliens needn't be
humanoid at all. Why form your marines up in squares and have them fight a battle similar to Wellington at Waterloo, in a space fiction story? Perhaps now you begin to see some of what I mean?

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