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Sunday, November 30, 2008

New Garth collected on my-ebook

The full debut story of the recently relaunched reimagining of the Daily Mirror's Garth can now be found complete on a site called my-ebook. There's also a second volume from artist Huw-J called The Art of Garth which gives an insight into the process of how the character developed from script to finished pages.

OK, so it's not the Garth you might remember from the newspaper, but give it a try.

(* Cover by Andie Tong © Hyena Studios; Garth © MGN Ltd.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird Flickers Out

The news that F. W. Woolworth & Co. has gone into administration with the potential loss of 815 high street stores and 30,000 jobs reminded me that Woolworths has had a variety of comic connections over the years. The first store, with nothing priced over sixpence, was opened in the UK in 1909, thirty years after Frank Winfield Woolworth launched the chain with his first "five cent" shop in New York in 1879. In the 1920s and 1930s, you could buy bundles of American magazines and (at the tail end of the Thirties) American comics for 3d., remainder copies used as ballast on cargo ships coming from the USA. Distributors discovered there was a market for these "Yank mags" and began importing titles for distribution. Not in vast numbers, but if you hunted around some of the newsagents and market stalls of the era you might have stumbled across imported copies of Superman and Detective Comics. I remember the late Syd Bounds telling me that he had discovered his first science fiction magazines in Woolworths.

Woolworths also became synonymous with the Ladybird brand of clothing which ran one of the most sustained advertising campaigns in comics ever. Readers of Swift and TV Comic will remember "The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird" comic strip that ran in colour on the back covers of those two titles.


The strip first appeared in the first issue of Swift in March 1954 and continued to appear, with only a brief break, until December 1962, shortly before the paper merged with Eagle. The premise was very much like the Walls ice cream advertising already appearing in Eagle, where Tommy Walls had his own secret sign. The secret sign of the Scarlet Ladybird was actually the Ladybird label in the clothing of the stars of the strip which confirmed that they were all members of the Ladybird Adventure Club (the title of the strip changed in 1957 to 'The Secret Sign of the Ladybird Adventure Club').

I'm not sure when the strip began in TV Comic, although it was some time in the late 1950s (1956-59); it came to an end in the spring of 1967 around issue 805 or thereabouts. Between the two papers, it ran for an astonishing 13 years.

The creator of the strip was Eric Walter Pasold (1906-1978), who took over as head of the Pasolds family textile firm in 1930. Born in Bohemia, he built up a substantial business in Britain in the 1930s and, at its peak, was supplying Ladybird branded garments to 4,000 stories in the UK and 65 overseas markets. The company was taken over by J & P Coats, Paton & Baldwin Ltd. in 1965, which later became Coats Viyella; Woolworths became the exclusive distributors of Ladybird branded clothing in 1984 and, in 2000, bought the brand outright.

The Ladybird clothing brand is likely to survive the collapse of Woolworths as it is now a global brand, with over 160 stores and concessions worldwide everywhere from Ireland to Saudi Arabia. But for many years it has been associated with Woolies and it's sad to see the Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird flicker out.

(* From the top: Woolies photo © Museum of London; "The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird" artwork from Swift Annual 3 © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.; panel from TV Comic 384 © Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

UK Comics' Sales Soar, says report

According to a report by market research company Mintel, children's comics and magazines have seen a rise in sales of 72% in the past five years, up from £79 million in 2003 to £136 million today. The report claims that the launch of titles such as Doctor Who Adventures, In the Night Garden and The Simpsons have helped boost the industry.

Mark Brecchin, Senior Leisure Analyst at Mintel, says, "It seems that the humble comic is standing the test of time and even today they provide an ideal treat for children. The market for this traditional favourite has gone from strength to strength due to a host of new launches, price rises and the fact that publishers now bring out more issues per title each month."

And therein lies the problem of analysing the success or failure of the current comics' industry: even Mintel admit that they are not comparing like for like. Price rises will account for a surge in the overall market value and publishing 13 issues rather than 12 issues a year will add another 8% to revenues for a monthly title; in the period in discussion, Doctor Who Adventures switched from fortnightly to weekly, doubling the number of issues per year but shedding 40% of its readership per issue. Overall market value does not take rising costs in production, printing and distribution into account and any magazine publisher, from the lowliest one-man operation to the biggest corporation, will tell you that they are facing tough times.

Brecchin continues, "Many of us will remember comic book heroes Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Desperate Dan. And while you might think that when faced with competition from modern technology, comic books would have been left behind, this childhood classic [The Beano] is still going strong today—albeit with a modern twist.

"New titles coming to the market, such as Dr Who Adventures and In the Night Garden, have proved popular but old favourites such as the Beano and Dandy also have strong circulation figures today. These traditional characters clearly still strike a chord with a new generation of youngsters.

"Sales of comics have flourished despite the wide variety of media and other forms of digital entertainment now aimed at pre-teens. Children today enjoy reading and sharing comics, and there is no real indication of replacement by other media."

If only that were true. The Beano and Dandy have both been shedding circulation for years. Although I can only offer estimates, the circulation of The Beano ten years ago was around 230,000 and around 100,000 for The Dandy. Today's figures (see here for the last report I did on circulation figures for January to June 2008) are around 60,000 and 20,000 respectively. The latter figure is particular worrying and Dandy is probably only sustained because Beano-Dandy is considered a unit as far as advertising is concerned. 20,000 is not a strong circulation.

The Herald ran a feature based on the Mintel report ("Standing test of time: children's comics see huge sales surge" by Catherine Fegan, 26 November), quoting BBC Worldwide managing director Toni Round as saying that TV tie-ins had allowed publishers to tap into the pre-teen market, resulting in a surge in sales:

"Primetime shows like Dr Who are watched by children across the country. Tie-ins have swelled interest and pushed up sales and branding has been the key element in the recipe for success. The magazine published in conjunction with In the Night Garden is an example of a refreshed brand that has responded to what kids are interested in at the time. It's a cyclical branding process."

In the Night Garden is not so much a "refreshed" brand as an entirely new brand. The first issue appeared in 2007 with sales of around 110,000. The last available figure was down a fraction to around 104,000 as the title settled. The "cyclical" nature of BBC Worldwide's launches isn't a circle but a pattern of established titles losing sales and new titles being launched. A better analogy would be a playground slide. As one magazine goes down the slide, another magazine climbs to the top to begin its own journey down the slippery slope. I've commented on this in the past and haven't changed my view on the subject:
[T]he pre-school market has a very narrow age range and young children will grow out of watching a show fairly quickly, starting a decline in sales which is never bolstered completely by the arrival of new readers. New shows take over the most popular viewing slots, relegating a show to a less popular time slot, losing viewers in the process, especially once there are no new episodes to watch.

All of this means that a popular magazine will have a high sale for a couple of years followed by a sharp fall from grace. A good example of this is Teletubbies which, in 2002, was selling over 100,000 copies per issue but has since declined to its current figure of just over 30,000. A similar pattern can be seen in the sales of Tweenies, Balamory and the now-defunct Fimbles, all CBeebies regulars. Even the CBeebies anthology magazines, Toybox and CBeebies Weekly, which feature many of the same characters, are showing signs of decline.
Toni Round is certainly right to say that TV plays a very important role in the launch of comics from BBC Worldwide: of fourteen magazines published in 2008, ten are pre-teen titles based on TV shows (the other four are probably best described as lifestyle magazines for young girls, led by Girl Talk and Go Girl). BBC Worldwide cancelled six titles in 2007-08.

The figures for 2008 did get a nice boost from the launch of High School Musical, based on the Disney TV movie series (which will almost certainly sustain its circulation in the latter half of 2008 thanks to the theatrical release of High School Movie 3) but I'm still unsure where the optimism comes from that makes (unnamed) "experts" predict that sales of comics are set to increase a further 21% to reach £165 million by 2013 (this figure is quoted in the Herald report linked above).

A launch like High School Musical may boost overall sales figures up by 100,000+ copies but, at the same time, sales on other titles are falling away: Teletubbies, Toybox, Balamory, Noddy Magazine, In the Night Garden and Fun to LearnFavourites between them sold 50,000 less per issue in the same period that High School Musical launched. Add the falls in sales of other titles and that cancels out the success of any major launch leaving a roughly static market.

If we return to the playground slide analogy, for every one or two magazine climbing up the steps, six or seven are heading steadily downwards.

Of course, it isn't all bad news. The DFC is now six months old and is experimenting with ways to increase its subscription base by releasing an issue to Tesco's this week; Panini launched a new title, Marvel Heroes, in October, which includes two all-new, UK-drawn strips; and Lew Stringer has reported on the launch of a new football-based comic, Rammie, this week.

The talent line-up for the latter is very impressive: Steve Bright, Nick Brennan, Nick Miller, Lee Healey, Duncan Scott and Lew himself. And the sales model is very different to anything else that has been tried commercially: Rammie is specifically aimed at fans of Derby County FC, who will buy copies to sell at various outlets as well as giving around 3,000 to members of their junior club; the title will also be wholesaled through the news trade.

The comic can be tailored to fit the needs of other clubs with a new front cover, title and nine pages of new material unique to each club magazine. You can find some samples of some of the strips at the Comic Football website.

Being an optimist (despite appearances from the above), I think comics will still be around in 2013. With any luck so will Bear Alley and we'll revisit this column and see whether "expert" opinion was correct. Hopefully we'll all have a good giggle at how badly they underestimated the growth of the market.

(* Information and quotes used in the above were derived from The Herald, Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman and UTalkmarketing.com. The pic at the top is from the online Daily Telegraph and was credited to Paul Grover.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Christopher Priest Cover Gallery

Chris Priest is one of Britain's finest SF writers, winner of many awards and author of The Prestige, about the intense rivalry of two magicians and how their obsession with outdoing the other destroys their lives. It was made into an excellent movie in 2006 starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, which garnered a couple of Oscar nominations.

For background, I'd suggest you take a look at his Wikipedia entry or, if you have a copy, check the entry for Chris written by Peter Nicholls and John Clute in which Inverted World is described as "one of the two or three most impressive pure-sf novels produced in the UK since World War Two". He's one of only a handful of British writers (Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock being the others) whose in-genre work can sit comfortably on a bookshop's mainstream shelves and critics can write about it without squirming as they desperately try not be seen praising a science fiction novel; after all, Chris Priest's novels are superbly written, complexly plotted and anyone who writes about characters and the relationships between them... I mean, they can't be writing science fiction, can they?

Chris Priest has recently set up his own publishing company, GrimGrin Studio, to publish new editions of some out-of-print books and a number of non-fiction titles.

I've incorporated a number of pseudonymous novels into the following gallery. I think it's complete, although I should note that the author has denied using some of these names at various times (and confirmed some at other times).

Indoctrinaire (1970)
NEL 0-450-00918-1, Nov 1971. Cover by Bruce Pennington
Pan 0-330-25608-4, Jan 1979.

Hitch-Hiker (as Petra Christian [with Peter Cave])
NEL 0-450-00686-7, Jul 1971; Jul 1971; Nov 1972.
NEL 0-450-01476-2, May 1973.
NEL 0-450-02709-0, May 1975.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972)
NEL 0-450-01575-0, Sep 1973. Cover by Bruce Pennington?
Pan 0-330-25544-4, Nov 1978. Cover by Mike Ploog.
Gollancz 978-0575-09820-6, 2011, ix+196pp.

The New Drifters (as Petra Christian [with Peter Cave])
NEL 0-450-01081-3, May 1972; Jul 1972; Feb 1973
NEL 0-450-02281-1, Dec 1974.

The Holiday Campers (as Petra Christian)
NEL 0-450-01442-8, May 1973; Jun 1973.

Girls of the Night (as Petra Christian)
NEL 0-450-01572-6, Sep 1973.

The Sexploiters (as Petra Christian [with Peter Cave])
NEL 0-450-01645-5, Nov 1973; Mar 1974.
NEL 0-450-02398-2, Apr 1975.

Bed and Bawd (as Petra Christian [with Peter Cave])
NEL 0-450-01806-7, May 1974.

Inverted World (1974)
NEL 0-450-02303-6, Jun 1975.
Pan 0-330-25660-2, Apr 1979.
Gollancz (Classic SF 13) 0575-03993-0, 1987, 250pp.
Gollancz (SF Masterworks) 9780-0575-08210-6, Jan 2010, ix+303pp.


Real-Time World (Faber & Faber, 1975)
NEL 0-450-02141-6, Oct 1974. Cover by Bruce Pennington?
NEL 0-450-02432-6, Feb 1976. (same as above?)
[revised edition] GrimGrin Studios, 0-955-97353-8, Nov 2008.

Hello Sailor! (as Petra Christian)
NEL 0-450-02627-2, Oct 1975.

The Space Machine (1976)
Futura/Orbit 0-8600-7939-2, Mar 1977. Cover by Chris Foss
Pan 0-330-26345-5, May 1981.


A Dream of Wessex (1977)
Pan 0-330-25543-6, Nov 1978. Cover by Geoff Taylor?
Abacus 0-349-12811-1, Jul 1987, 199pp, £4.50. Cover by Nick Bantock

An Infinite Summer (1979)
Pan 0-330-26048-0, Jun 1980.
The Making of a Lesbian Horse (chapbook) (1979)
Birmingham Science Fiction Group, 1979.

The Affirmation (1981)
Vintage/Arena 0-099-30680-8, Feb 1983.
Gollancz 0-575-04283-4, Dec 1988. (not pictured)
Gollancz 0-575-07577-5, Feb 2006.
Gollancz (SF Masterworks) 978-0575-08846-3, 2011, vii+247pp.

Harrier! (by Donald MacKenzie)
Granada 0-586-05825-7, Mar 1983.

Thunderbolt! (by Donald MacKenzie)
Panther 0-586-05937-7, Jun 1984.

The Glamour (1984)
Abacus 0-349-12810-3, 1988.
Gollancz 0-575-07579-1, Jun 2005.

Mona Lisa (by John Luther Novak)
Sphere 0-7221-7034-3, Aug 1986.

Short Circuit (by Colin Wedgelock)
Sphere 0-7221-7035-1, Nov 1986.

The Quiet Woman (1990)
Abacus 0-349-10195-7, Apr 1991.

The Prestige (1995)
Touchstone 0-684-81755-1, Sep 1996.
Gollancz 0-575-07580-5, Feb 2005.
Gollancz 0-575-07906-1, Nov 2006.
Gollancz (SF Masterworks) 978-0575- 09941-8, 2011, ix+369pp.

The Extremes (1998)
Scribner 0-684-81941-4, 1999. Cover by Holly Warburton
Gollancz 0-575-07578-3, Sep 2005.

Existenz (by John Luther Novak)
Pocket Books 0-671-03308-5, Apr 1999.

The Dream Archipelago
Earthlight 0-671-03388-3, May 1999.
Gollancz 0-575-08436-7, Mar 2009.

The Separation
Scribner 0743-22033-1, Aug 2002.
Gollancz 0575-07003-X, Feb 2004.
Gollancz 0575-08115-5, Aug 2007.

Ersatz Wines
GrimGrin Studios 978-095597354-3, 2008.

The Islanders (Gollancz, 2011)
Gollancz 978-0575-08864-1, 2012.

The Adjacent (Gollancz, 2013)
Gollancz 978-0575-10538-6, Apr 2014, £8.99.


Non-Fiction

Your Book of Film-Making
Faber, 1974.

Seize the Moment: The Autobiography of Britain's FIrst Astronaut, with Helen Sharman
Gollancz, 1993.

Running Tall, with Sally Gunnell
Gollancz, Nov 1994.
The Song of the Book (chapbook) (2000)
Birmingham Science Fiction Group, Nov 2000.

The Magic: The Story of the Film
GrimGrin Studio, Sep 2008.

"IT" Came from Outer Space: Occasional Pieces 1973-2008 (GrimGrin Studio, 2010)


Anthologies

Anticipations
Faber, 1978.

(* Most of the above books are available via Amazon. With thanks to John Herrington and Phil Stevensen-Payne for some additional covers.)