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Monday, 01 September 2014

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Tommy's got comic timing

Whether it’s Dan Dare’s high-flying adventures, the mischievous antics of Dennis the Menace, or Tintin’s global escapades, comics have provided countless happy hours to generations of schoolchildren.

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Tommy Hoodless, who runs the Imagination Station comic-book shop in Carlisle

Comics are inexpensive, educational and entertaining, yet despite all this have suffered a severe decline in circulation in the UK in recent years.

But could this traditional form of entertainment make a comeback? For the first time in 25 years, a new weekly comic is on the market. The DFC, for boys and girls, has been launched by children’s book editor and publisher David Fickling.

“The attraction of a great story is ageless,” he says. “There’s a sense that comics are for children, but there always were and always will be, even among adults, a thirst for the visual form – that mixture of words and pictures.

“It’s the oldest form of communication – the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians started that way – and it’s deep within us to have pictures attached to words.”

But it doesn’t matter whether those pictures come from The Eagle, Beano, Jackie, or any other comic, says David: what always counts is that you learn to establish your own opinion.

“Saying ‘I don’t like this strip, but I do like this one’ is essential in sorting out who you are as a child. It lets you discover yourself.”

Someone who knows only too well the attraction comics hold is Tommy Hoodless, who runs Imagination Station in Carlisle.

His shop is a treasure trove for any discerning comic fan, stocked with thousands upon thousands of titles.

Tommy has had a lifelong fascination for comics and as a boy in Carlisle read Valiant and Lion, bought for him by his great aunt at the market hall.

His shop opened on Botchergate in 1990, and moved to its current premises on Bank Street six years ago. Tommy does not stock traditional comics like Beano or The Dandy, leaving that side of the market to local newsagents.

Instead, he imports titles from abroad, mainly the USA. Batman, Superman and the X-Men sit alongside Buffy, Serenity, Sin City and Heroes comics, to name but a few.

His customers range from 10-year-olds to students, to people in their fifties, and he is in no doubt why comics appeal across the board.

“Comics are good fun and are all about escapism. They are straightforward and easy to read,” he says. “They are educational too. Children will always be coming across a word they don’t know, and go and find out what it means.”

David agrees, and believes comics gets kids reading without them being too aware of it.

He says: “The great thing people don’t know about comics is that you get a structure of being able to tell a story. I suppose that’s how I learnt to read – and I’m a 55-year-old literary editor.”

David also grew up on Valiant, plus Herge’s The Adventures of Tintin, Beano, and The Numbskulls, and wanted the DFC to be just as fun, witty, adventurous and varied as the comics he learned to love. It is only available by subscription, and every Friday children will get it delivered in a yellow and red-striped envelope designed by David.

“This is a return of a natural right for children,” he says. “Japanese children would be astonished that we don’t have a comic for British children at the moment. So the DFC is a restoration – not a revival.”

And he says getting DFC off the ground turned out to be easy, because of people’s enthusiasm for comics.

He smiles: “We had this little team of dedicated people, and one day I put up a sign outside our office saying, ’We’re making a comic!’

“I’ve been amazed at how many people have flocked to that sign: people just came through our door asking if they could get involved – world-class storytellers and artists alike. The standard has been unbelievably high.”

The DFC certainly doesn’t sound like a run-of-the-mill comic. Names on board include Adam Brockbank, who worked on the Harry Potter films; Nick Sharratt, best known for illustrating Jacqueline Wilson’s books; and Philip Pullman, author of best-selling trilogy His Dark Materials.

So will it be a success? Tommy believes every comic, including the DFC, can enjoy longevity. “A comic has to stand out in a massive crowd, but if it is good it will stand the test of time,” he says. “Existing comics are very well researched. They also have the advantage of being timeless. People can always draw a dragon being slayed, for example, whereas in films and TV you need a huge budget to do this especially with CGI, and even then the effect might not be as good.”

The DFC ranges from one-offs to serialised strips, and include The Adventures of John Blake by Philip Pullman, who had been considering making a comic for a long time.

“I leapt at the chance of being involved with the DFC,” says the author. “I grew up on Superman and Batman and The Eagle, and I just love that way of telling a story – it’s vivid and exciting and swift – so I thought I should give it a go with a story I had in mind.

“I always liked Maus, the comic by Art Spiegelman. It’s the story of the Holocaust, where the Jews are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. Who would have ever thought that you could tell the story of the Holocaust in a comic?”

And who would have ever thought that a new comic would be launched in 2008, in the age of the Wii, the Playstation and the Xbox?

“I can’t quite believe it’s happening,” enthuses David. “It’s really, really, really thrilling.”

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