The Dandy, Britain's longest-running comic, will succumb to the march of technology this week when it ceases to exist in print and is reborn on the web. On Tuesday, 75 years after their first appearance, Desperate Dan and co will end an era with their last comic book appearance before settling into their new virtual home, falling to the competition for young minds and pocket money from video games and smartphones.
The first edition in 1937 sold for 2d and came with a free whistle. Popularity grew during the Second World War, despite paper rationing, when comics provided much-needed relief. By the 1950s, The Dandy was shifting nearly three million copies. But in recent years it had slumped to only 8,000.
Comics began in the UK around 1890 when illustrations above slabs of text, known as "penny dreadfuls", gradually evolved into illustrated sequential strips. But it was not until the 1930s that the industry hit on the format that was to sell millions every week.
Morris Heggie, who edited The Dandy from 1986 to 2006, said: "If you saw The Dandy as a flick-book through the years, you would see the changes in society. We wrote what children were feeling."
Anita O'Brien, curator of the Cartoon Museum in London, where a Dandy-themed exhibition runs until 24 December, said the halcyon days of comics in the 1950s came as post-war optimism returned. Favourite characters such as Desperate Dan, Bananaman, Korky the Cat and Beryl the Peril tended to highlight childish naughtiness and brushes with authority. Comics such as Eagle with the patriotic Dan Dare offered a counter to the anti-heroes of The Dandy and Beano, with inspiring role models and reworked biblical storylines.
Comics with titles such as Romeo and Romance were aimed at girls in the 1960s and 70s, with beautiful illustrations and set on quality paper. Later, Bunty and Diana dealt with bullies and how to cope with vengeful authority figures. After the success of traditional British titles, superheroes and villains came over from the US, though they weren't as popular as expected.
The rise of computer games in the 1980s exacerbated the decline, with only manga books from Japan enjoying any real success. Many titles closed or adapted as best they could. More recently, many offered online subscriptions and apps for mobiles. Those that make it online can return to financial viability, says Michael Molcher, promoter of the comic 2000AD. Perhaps best known for its character Judge Dredd, and with fans including Jonathan Ross and Simon Pegg, 2000AD has a circulation of nearly 20,000. The magazine entered the digital world in 2005 and, with the introduction of a mobile app, "reversed many years of digital decline", he added. Up to 29 staff are working on the comic's end-of-year special – which runs for three weeks and includes nine writers, 10 artists and two colourists.
Another recent success, Phoenix, launched last January. Available in Waitrose, it taps into middle-class parents' fears that children are spending too much time looking at a computer screen. Phoenix already pulls in 10,000 readers – good news for the cow-pie-eating Dan as he shifts media, as Mr Heggie reluctantly concedes. "I am sad The Dandy is leaving us as a paper. It wasn't getting into the hands of kids in supermarkets. In my day, every village shop had a copy," he says. But he adds: "A plus point is that it can now reach a wider audience."
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