In August of last year, celebrated Dundonian publisher D. C. Thomson made a heartbreaking announcement: December’s issue of The Dandy would be the last one ever to hit the stands. This news seemed to rend an enormous blow to Scotland; along with its still breathing partner-in-hijinks The Beano, The Dandy had been an icon of Scottish culture for three quarters of a century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it would not die quietly. Like any stubborn old Scot, the comic fought its fate as a matter of course, teleporting to the digital realm in a desperate but inspired attempt to stay relevant in a new time. Far from being an ill-considered grab at a passing bus, this saw The Dandy switch to a very different format than that of other digital comics. Shrewdly, D. C. Thomson had cottoned onto their target demographic’s fascination with simple, addictive games running on their parents’ smartphones and tablet devices. Interactivity, then, was key. Although it was definitely still a comic in the basic sense, the new Dandy shared much common ground with some of the Apple generation’s favourite timekillers. There was still a narrative told in pictures, but the interactive setup gave kids a bit of rapport with the stuff on the canvas. It was a creative solution to a very real and costly problem.
Creative as it was, though, it ultimately proved insufficient. By July, the digital Dandy had already been suspended indefinitely. Although the official line was that this suspension was only a temporary measure, this second death knell felt like it might be the last; unless something truly ingenious were to materialise, it was difficult to see how the new model could draw the kind of audience it needed to stay afloat. Once again, Desperate Dan stood despondent in Dundee city centre, his gallus, stone grin a meagre tribute to a fallen hero – and the common man mourned his passing. This was it: Dan was dead, and with his final breath the heartbeat of Scottish comics fell silent.
What I’m here to tell you is that it wasn’t any manner of societal sickness that killed The Dandy. Desperate Dan died of natural causes – and the comic book scene in Scotland is healthier than ever.
DC Thomson aside, we still have a handful of big names out in the world, doing their thing – Glasgow boys like Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Mark Millar are well known to most mainstream comic fans, especially in the wake of big screen successes such as Kick-Ass and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. However, it’s not just about those guys. They’ve made their name at massive American publishers like DC Comics, Marvel and Image; that’s fantastic exposure for Scottish talent, but it doesn’t say much about the current state of affairs on our side of the pond.
There is a thriving independent and small press community in this country at the moment which is getting bigger and more diverse every day. It’s not all about the superheroes, and honestly, it never really has been – it’s just that those aforementioned US publishers have so much of the industrial market share that the general public has developed huge misconceptions about the medium of comics as a whole. For decades, there has been a dedicated underground comics scene in Scotland (and Glasgow in particular) but it’s only really in the past few years that things have really opened up and led to a modicum of more widespread success. There are a couple of key reasons for this.
First, there has been a recent increase in the number (and size) of UK comic conventions, festivals and similar events. MCM London has been on the go for a long time now, but it’s a fairly impenetrable affair for the indie comic creator compared to more recent efforts like Leeds’ Thought Bubble Festival, Glasgow Comic Con and Dundee Comics Day. Each of these events has slightly different goals and focuses, such that each one retains a unique relevance regardless of proximity, and all of them are improving every year. Furthermore, Glasgow made national news recently when MCM ran its first event in the SECC, drawing such a massive crowd that the queue took most of the day to clear. There are also more academic arrangements like the International Bande Dessinée Society, which is concerned with European comic art and French output in particular. The IBDS conference in Glasgow this year also played host to Laydeez Do Comics, a forum which celebrates the ever-present but under-appreciated female contingent of comic creators. For the first time ever, the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year included a dedicated comic book sub-festival called Stripped, further solidifying society’s acceptance of comics as a valid and mature artistic medium in the modern world. 2013 has also seen the birth of The Lakes International Comic Art Festival, which will take place for the first time later this month.
In line with the proliferation of these events, there seems to have been an explosion in the number of people actually creating comics and putting them out. People all over the UK have begun to realise that they don’t necessarily need to fight for acceptance under the wing of any of the big publishing companies; thanks to the internet and the aforementioned boom in comic events, it’s becoming increasingly possible to create and publish comics independently, either online or in print.
There are now a number of groups amongst local comics communities dedicated to helping creators get their art out into the open, too. The University of Dundee has its own dedicated comic book course and associated anthology publication, whilst Glasgow is home to the Glasgow League of Writers (GLoW) and Team Girl Comic (TGC). GLoW is a writing group which meets regularly to discuss work-in-progress scripts and new ideas, some of which are published in an eponymous anthology-format comic. TGC, meanwhile, is a creator collective comprised exclusively of female-identifying members, with the focus being less on critiquing each other’s work and more on getting ideas out of their heads and onto the page. Finally, there are now a number of smaller graphic novel publishers on the go that are willing to put out quality work on a larger scale than you might manage single-handed, regardless of whether you’re already Comics Famous or not. Companies like Blank Slate, Self Made Hero and Jonathan Cape have swiftly established themselves as top-notch publishers of diverse, innovative comic creations, without bearing the slightly daunting corporate stigma of their older American cousins.
The Scottish comics scene is in the middle of something truly incredible right now. There has never been a better time to jump in, either as a reader or as a creator – so if you’ve been sitting on the outside looking in, I implore you to cross the threshold. You’ll be welcomed with open arms.