MUST-READ: Jamie Smart on Developing All-Ages Comics

Here’s a post written by cartoonist Jamie Smart, whose work is seen regularly in comics including The Beano, The Phoenix and the now-departed Dandy. Following the wake of the latter’s cancellation, Smart’s written a piece about the need for there to be accessible all-ages comics available for every generation. It’s considered, on-point, and definitely worth reading.

jamiesmart MUST READ: Jamie Smart on Developing All Ages Comics

After detailing his own experience in the comics industry in Britain, Smart makes the point that there aren’t fewer all-ages comics because there are fewer creators – there are fewer all-ages comics because there are fewer places for creators to create visible work:

The loss of children’s comics isn’t because we don’t have the talent. We do, we have too much talent, not only the established artists but the indies and the ferociously talented younger crowd emerging. The loss of comics is a social thing, it’s a medium being forgotten as people grow out of it. It’s a business thing, as comics are priced off the shelves by the more lucrative magazines. And it’s an ideas thing.

We need better ideas for how to sell comics.

He notes the Phoenix Magazine as an example of one group of people who are pushing for more all-ages comics, and the hard work they’re putting in. He also lists three points which he thinks will drastically help the situation: hiring more female artists (all-ages comics have a tendency to be aimed at boys rather than girls, and having more female creators will help redress that balance); more outlets for the vast range of creative talents in the UK to showcase themselves; and more connectivity between publishers and creators.

He speaks frankly about the aftermath of the widespread news reports when the physical copy of The Dandy ended last year, which was a massive deal@

When The Dandy announced it was to stop printing last year, in a strange way it was actually really good for British comics. Not because we lost The Dandy, of course, but because people started TALKING about the comics they loved as kids again, and artist started asking what they could do. It also raised a crucial contradiction which children’s comics always slam up against: adults who decry the loss of their favourite childhood comic, despite never buying comics for their own kids.

It’s led to some interesting discussion on Twitter and elsewhere, and hopefully maybe some of that will work its way over to this comments section as well. Smart knows what he’s talking about, and – speaking as somebody who is getting more and more immersed in the British comics community every week myself – there is NO END to talent over here. This is an important conversation to have not just in the UK, but in America and other markets as well – if we’re not constantly inspiring children to take up and love comics, then what are we even doing this for?

Smart links to his own long-term ambition in the post as well, which I’ll link to now. It’s called Moose Kid Comics, and is currently planning out contributors and a submissions policy. Go take a look!

Comments

  1. John Shableski says:

    The FIRST place to start is with the fact there are NO all ages sections in any book store, library or school library. Seriously, you have to go to the library or book store to see that it’s true. You have three buyer departments: Kids, Teen, Adult. When you create your book, think of the audience most likely to comprehend and enjoy it. Sure, there are book that we ALL enjoy reading and are considered timeless classics but they all have an audience segment for which they were shelved.
    When you use the term ALL AGES you are speaking the language of a very small, niche segment of the market. Because of this you severely limit your ability to sell anything more than a few hundred copies. Use the language of the book/library trade and you broaden your market ten-fold…or more.
    PLEASE strike the term ALL AGES from the English language. It causes more harm than good.

  2. Synsidar says:

    When you use the term ALL AGES you are speaking the language of a very small, niche segment of the market.

    Isn’t Morris’s use of all ages directly connected to the sale of comics in serial form and through specialty shops? Smart, in his piece, actually talks about children and trying to reach girls as well as boys. Morris just seems to assume that adults, in varying numbers, will buy comics that are directed primarily at children.

    SRS

  3. All Ages Comics are comics which anybody can read, as opposed to the adults-only comics which seem to be occupying more and more of the marketplace at the mo

  4. Synsidar says:

    All Ages Comics are comics which anybody can read. . .

    And all ages might be useful in a purely descriptive sense, but the marketing meaning of all ages is deadly. If a comics work is labeled all ages, it’s equivalent to giving a movie a G rating–pablum that hardly anyone will want to watch. If a publication is aimed at a particular age group, then that shapes the marketing program for it, but the work itself, as in the case of a warped fairy tale, can have some meaning for other age groups.

    SRS

  5. John Shableski says:

    Synsidar, you have it nailed and I’ll take it a step further: In traditional retail, libraries and educational systems there is no such category as All Ages. Try to find it in your local book store or library and you will discover that it doesnt exist. I know, creators and comics pubs try to rationalize it in the same manner that Steve says above but that’s sincerely a wasted effort. Define who your book is best suited for as a reader and stay as far far away as you can from that phrase-that-shall-not-be-spoken.

  6. You can either spend all your time debating the all-ages title – whilst never reading a single one because you think it’s tarty – or spend a tiny amount of time reading and enjoying the awesome all-ages comics available.

    Option A: waste your time moaning online
    Option B: read awesome comics

    Your choice!

  7. Zainab Akhtar says:

    I have to agree with the others posting here, Steve, particularly regarding the ‘all-ages’ tag and this apparent need in comics to push it. In prose, there’s no such thing as all ages; very simply put, there’s kids books, YA fiction, and then adult novels, and I don’t see that model being a problem for comics.

    The problem isn’t even, I would argue, a dearth of good children’s comics (although we could certainly do with more), but it’s just that children aren’t reading them. And that’s a different ballgame. I think, (and a generalisation,obviously) unless you read comics as a child yourself, or read them now as a parent, you’re a whole lot less likely to give them to your child to read, for a variety of reasons related to perception, accessibility etc.

    Obviously there are books that are suitable to be read and enjoyed by all. But I would imagine sitting down with the intention of creating something ‘all-ages’ is daunting and beset by challenges (and probably not the right approach). It’s an unnecessary tag, in my opinion.

  8. I don’t think that’s true whatsoever. Comics are everywhere! They’re in newspapers, in school text books, in magazines. The majority of children are aware of what a comic is – this idea that less children are reading comics is made-up nonsense!

    Why is everybody so afraid of using the term ‘all-ages’ to describe comics? Comics don’t hold to the same logic as novels, because they’re a DIFFERENT medium. Just as you don’t go into a comic store and find all the romance comics on one shelf, all the crime comics on another shelf; so you don’t have to separate comics into those suitable for kids, young adults, and adults. Comics can do what they want.

    I can read The Dandy and love it just as much as I can love, say, Preacher. But whilst I like Preacher, it’s not a comic I’d give to a child! That’s what The Dandy is for. It’s suitable for me, it’s suitable for kids, it’s suitable for all-ages.

    Consumers don’t run screaming from the term “all ages comics”. Creators don’t burst into tears at the thought of having to create something which is ALSO suitable for kids.

    If I read The Dandy and my five year old nephews read The Dandy, and my grandparents read The Dandy – then that’s a comic suitable for ALL-AGES. It’s not a kids comic. It’s not a young adult comic. It’s not a mature comic. It’s a comic which runs across the entire spectrum.

    I won’t be having this pessimistic nonsense in my comments section, Zainab!!

  9. As a children’s bookseller – an expert one even – I completely agree with Zainab and the others above. All-ages is meaningless in the book market which is where the majority of interest lies (remember, “graphic novels” as a bookselling genre is one of the strongest in the entire publishing sector right now with “children’s comic strips” doing well too – though that mainly applies to Wimpy Kid and co who are sorted by age group.)

    Parents know that the “comic” magazines in the newsagents are suitable for children, because they’re separate from the teen magazines. In (most) book shops comics are all in the one section with the hyper violent next to Adventure Time and a lack of consumer awareness that leads to things like some (genuine) customers thinking the “graphic” in graphic novels stands for graphic violence.

    The children’s books meanwhile are separated neatly by age which the kids happily ignore but the parents and grandparents – the ones with the money – stick to with good faith. I can’t sell Tintin for love nor money, but I label it as for 9-12s? Boom, it’s sold- and not just sold to that age group but to everyone (just as Harry Potter happily sits in 9-12 and is read by 7-adults). Owly sits unloved until it’s labelled pre-school or 5-8. They don’t have to be exact, parents know that reading ages vary hugely but it gives some guidelines. Pre-school is simple, 5-8 slightly challenging, 9-12 almost grown up but no sexy times, teen pretty much adult with some slight reservations.

    I know that this works because I have the sales figures to prove it. If comics want to sell well, to sell as well as books – and in the case of children’s comics there is NO reason they shouldn’t sell as well as the latest Moshi Monsters or Skylanders comic-book – then they need to fit into the existing book market rules. Otherwise things will continue as they are doing, with less children reading comics but still plenty of children enjoying the latest fiction.

    The audience for children’s comics is not in the comic shops – it’s in the book shops, in the booming children’s and “graphic novel” markets. All ages does not exist there – the Dandy and Beano annuals btw are 9-12, and bought by all ages. But a great percentage of the sales is down to parents knowing what the labelled age range is.

    I’m constantly amazed – honestly – at how few comics are really tackling the book market properly. It’s partly down to the publishers, and partly down to book shops having booksellers that don’t understand comics. It’s so blooming simple if you put your mind to it, it really boggles my mind!

  10. george says:

    “The audience for children’s comics is not in the comic shops – it’s in the book shops, in the booming children’s and “graphic novel” markets.”

    Yep. I don’t see children in my comic shop — unless they’re looking in the DVD or gaming sections. The people looking at the comics are mostly guys who appear to be over 30.

  11. Zainab Akhtar says:

    Steve, that’s a really idealistic response,especially in regards with children reading comics. We’re talking comic books here, right? As much as we love the medium and wish that were the case, if children were reading comics like you said, we wouldn’t have a problem.

    I think if you’ve ever worked in a context where you come across the parent/child relationship with choosing reading material- bookstores, libraries, schools, then, as Laura said, you would know that what adults (who are the ones who generally select, direct, buy books for children) are concerned with- age appropriateness and content. And like, she said, that audience lies in bookstores. These are people who may not be au fait with comics, and see them as simply books (which is fine, good even) but do need to know the age range of the comic/book so they can assess if it’s suitable for the child.

    It’s also very redundant to simply call a children’s book which can be enjoyed by all ‘all-ages’. I love a load of great kids books and enjoy reading them both with children and on my own- let’s say for example, The Tiger who Came to Tea. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a children’s book written and produced for that specific audience in mind.

    And yes, you can apply the prose logic to comics. Preacher is a comic for older teens and adults, as is the book The Lovely Bones. The Dandy is a children’s comic, the way The Tiger who Came to Tea is a children’s book. Do you see how this applies to only children’s material? Just because a kids book (mainly due to the encompassing nature of its content and accessibility) can be enjoyed by adults DOES NOT make it ‘all-ages’. It is a pointless tag.

  12. You know what are dying? Book stores. Waterstones has almost collapsed twice in the past few years. You know what’s sticking around? The internet. If a company utilise the internet properly, they can pull in millions of views to their content.

    That’s the point of this article. We’re NOT talking about books! We’re talking about comics, and they don’t hold to the rules of books. A novel has to be read from start to finish, as a whole piece. A comic can be split up, animated, be cut up into pieces and read non-sequentially. It’s a different medium to books.

    If I were making a comic, I wouldn’t think to myself “now, what I REALLY want to do is narrow my demographic to exclude people”. I’d think: “boy, if I write an all-ages title, that means anybody can read it!” Using the tag alongside terms like childrens comics – as Smart does in his post – shouldn’t have any affect whatsoever on if people will pick up the comics. Why does calling something ‘all ages’ suddenly ravage it with a plague, which scares people off? It doesn’t. Nobody with kids is afraid of the term.

    Books stores are doomed. They’ll be dead within a decade. There’s no point appealing to book stores when the internet is available to MILLIONS of people. The all-ages tag works for the internet, so I’m not going to be afraid to use it. It doesn’t make comics less legitimate as a medium – it makes them more inclusive!

  13. If you think comic sales in book stores are dying you’re really barking up the wrong tree. Waterstones is nowhere close to closing, independent book stores are on the rise… this is all fairly well known within the book trade.

    I don’t know where you’re getting your facts from, but the sales tell a very different story. And children’s book sale trends are the same on the internet as they are on the high street – age guidelines matter, to both parents and young people.

    If you want things to continue as they are, with comics for children mysteriously dying yet books that include comic components becoming bestsellers then… rock on I guess?

    But I’d really like to see where the facts and figures are coming from in that case, because it’s nothing like what I’ve seen within the book trade and within the comics trade.

  14. I can’t even remember the last time I walked into a book shop. I’m on the internet *right now*.

  15. Dude, I’m walking away from this now but you’re being really off base here. I work for a certain large book chain in the UK, I know what the score is, believe me.

    I do find it sad you don’t support any book shops though, genuinely.

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