Ernesto Priego: Can you introduce us to your comics work and your involvement with The Dandy?
Jamie Smart: I’ve been drawing comics professionally for over ten years now, and a large proportion of that time has been spent working on The Dandy. I’ve worked for other magazines, had my own comics/books out, worked in TV and produced more webcomics than is healthy, but The Dandy was always my constant source of work.
The Dandy is Britain’s oldest children’s comic, clocking in at an impressive 75 years. It’s a national institution, and produced an enormous archives of classic characters into the world. Most famous is probably Desperate Dan, who was a big tough cowboy with almost superhuman strength (he shaved with a blowtorch, swung cows around by their tails, etc). I was lucky enough to be the writer/artist for Desperate Dan for the last five years, which was such an honour. Alongside that, I also drew a whole load of other characters in the comic every week (some theirs, many my own), and helped with the redesign of the comic when it relaunched a couple of years ago.
EP: It was back in August this year that publisher DC Thompson announced the last print edition of The Dandy would come out on Tuesday 4 December. It features your artwork on the cover. Please paint us the scene…
JS: And what another honour, to draw the final cover! I was really humbled that they asked me to do that, the brief was basically to come up with something which celebrated the 75 years and featured a large selection of the characters. From what I hear the final issue (which also features a reprint of the first ever issue) has been selling out like crazy, as people want to grab a piece of comics history I guess.
Everyone was quite shocked when the end of The Dandy was announced. At it’s peak, The Dandy was selling two million copies a week (figures which are just ludicrous these days), so it played a large part in a great many people’s childhoods. The country was genuinely sad to hear it was going, and yet, they hadn’t bought it recently (or for their kids). Fact is, The Dandy (and UK children’s comics as a whole, perhaps) had slid out of view over the last few decades, without anyone noticing. It’s terribly sad, but there are valiant efforts going on to revive comics, to get kids reading them, and to find new ways to interact with children using comics as a medium.
EP: How do you see The Dandy going digital in the context of current challenges and opportunities for journalism and print culture in general? Comic book culture has traditionally been heavily anchored in “the stuffness of stuff”: comics readers often collect (though some say collectors don´t always read); comic book shops are a feast of materiality. Where are comics going in this context?
JM: In publishing there’s been a very real sense of everyone watching what everyone else was doing. As digital creeped forward more and more over the past few years, it really seemed like no-one wanted to take a chance and seize it. Understandably so, it would be an expensive risk, and whatever you do could easily look dated a few months later. It’s human nature to wait and see if there’s some big breakthrough, and follow that.
Now things are starting to feel a little different though, people are prepared to try things, and explore the medium. And it is a medium which needs exploring, there’s a huge potential in digital which I don’t think we’ve even touched yet. The Dandy have taken a big leap embracing it all in this way, I’m sure other comics will be watching them intently to see what’s working and what isn’t. I think The Dandy realised the potential of going digital, and are having fun finding out what it can do.
However I think the fear that digital is killing print is perhaps unhelpful. While it clearly is a brand new frontier for material, and that’s really exciting, we do as a species still enjoy paper, enjoy the collecting (as you say), the tangible feel of print. Downloading onto an iPad doesn’t have the same feel as walking into a shop and buying, and it’s going to be down to consumers to vote which they prefer. Or at least, that’s the theory.
In reality, it’s perfectly feasible for both mediums to exist. And not only exist, but complement each other. What excites me about digital as a medium is not just its capabilities, but how it can support print, and the two can be symbiotic. Books with exclusive digital content, digital content being used as advertising to haul the audience in for the unique books, there’s a world of ways the two can embrace each other.
And I must say, one of the best things that digital has brought with it is the onus now being on the creator to explore these possibilities. Find Chaffy was a website I set up wherein we made some toy ‘Chaffies’, sent them out to people, then asked them to pass them on to friends, taking photos of their adventures. We would then blog people’s photos, to see where the Chaffies end up. It was a sort of social experiment, but I used it to pitch a picture search book to Scholastic. It (and a sequel) got released last year. A good example of creating the thing online then going to a publisher.
EP: As a reader I always had trouble finding The Dandy in newsagents and shops. But it’s not like it would be any easier to make a publication easily visible on line– with so many apps and information available, the economy of attention is incredibly competitive. In your opinion, what can publishers do better to get the titles to readers that will appreciate their value?
JS: Thing is with children’s comics, they’re all paying for prime position. Stores often charge for best display positions, so the comics literally have to fight each other to be seen. And the sad fact is, comics with toys sell better than those without. Even though everyone can see the toy is cheap and crappy, it’s a business model that works and so when comics buck the trend they often lose out. Which is a bit of a tragedy, especially when a comic has to be bagged with its toys, so the buyer can’t even see how good/bad the actual comics inside are.
Online, the issues are a little different. If you look at it from the perspective of a webcomic artist like myself, there are a million webcomics on the Internet now, to the point that most of us are just bobbing around in a massive ocean. We each have our audiences, but it’s very difficult to break beyond that and reach the masses, as such making actual money out of it is nearly impossible.
So what’s happening with publishers looking to go digital is they’re finding a similar situation to what webcomic artists have been trying to crack for years. I still believe that there is a lot to be said for having an excellent product to show – word of mouth is stronger than ever amongst the social networks and putting your heart and soul into something (as well as hitting the zeitgeist) can occasionally pull large numbers of readers in. But it would be naive to think that is just enough. There are a ton of excellent comics and books which don’t get the attention they deserve. As a reader, how do you find out about them?
As I mentioned before, the onus is now on the creators, and that’s how it should be. Online, creators now have a lot more power than they did in print, able to build their own audiences and dictate how their work be seen. Now it’s up to us to take the risks and win the readers often before a publisher gets even close to being involved.
What publishers can bring is the marketing and publicity expertise (and budgets) to take an already well-rounded creation, and open it up wider. Illustrators, artists and writers, we’re not usually great on self-marketing, we’ll shout about our work on Twitter but when it comes to advertising or getting our work seen on the right sites, we’d rather spend that time drawing/writing. It makes sense to delegate and allow someone else who knows what they’re doing to take the reigns.
So when a publisher does step in, they need to really be on the ball. Digital is changing constantly, and riding it (even briefly) requires real savvy, and thinking creatively about grabbing people’s attention. Or more importantly, engaging them. The Internet gives us all a chance to really connect with our audiences and make something more than just the sum of its parts.
Corporate Skull, my ongoing webcomic, is not for profit, it has no advertising and no real merchandise. It is just something I enjoy doing. However it does bring with it a steady audience who then follow me on Twitter and it builds like that.
EP: It seems to me there is often a disregard for the actual conditions of production of comic books and the conditions of existence of their creators. How important are decisions, for you, about which tools and methods to use, and how do you think these affect, postively or negatively, your ‘life as an artist’?
JS: Personally I use the same tools and techniques I’ve been using since I started – I’m quite old school since I’m still using brush and ink. I know a lot of illustrators have moved into working digitally, and said their production rate has sped up, but I think I’m pretty swift producing pages and am comfortable working like I do.
Though none of us would perhaps admit it, speed has to play a part in our craft. If you’re producing comic pages for £x per page, your speed at producing them is what makes the difference between it being a viable career and a breadline wage. The trick is to produce enough finished work without scrimping on the quality of what you’re doing. I looked to other artists who worked in brush and ink to see how they did it, and found a lot of very loose, expressive linework, which kept the emotion/tone, yet obviously made the strip quicker to draw. I adopted elements of that into my own work.
My ‘life as an artist’ is 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. And when I’m not working, I’m thinking about work. Planning out new stories. Getting excited about new ideas. And being excited is key – I work long hours but only because I love it so much, even after all this time.
The thrill of creating is the buzz for me, so I have quite a high output when I’m working fast. Most times I have between 7-10 different projects on the go in a week, sometimes in the same day, bits of each need doing here and there. And that’s how I like it, I feel constantly blessed to be able to do this as a career and wouldn’t waste a second of it!