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Digital Dandy

By Charles EP Murphy

Running from 1937 to 2012, DC Thomson’s The Dandy is still one of the longest-running comics on the Earth. For every week – except for fortnights during wartime and a brief run as a monthly in the 2000s – it put out an anthology of kid-centered comedy strips, with household name characters like Desperate Dan, Beryl the Peril, Korky the Cat, Bananaman, Cuddles & Dimples, the Numskulls, and the Jocks & the Geordies.

However, in 2004, sales were declining and had fallen to 50,000. To stop it going further, DC Thompson attempted a massive revamp to increase its kid appeal. For various reasons, this failed and there were two more revamps before it finally was cancelled with sales of 8000 a week. Only the hardcover annuals still come out.

The 2010 revamp saw a host of new cartoonists given free reign on both old and new strips, and many were very, very good – you will pry My Dad’s A Doofus and Nuke Noodle the time travelling wrestler from my cold, dead hands. But, sadly, comics do die.

Except this was just the end of the comic in print. There was going to be a shiny new digital version, out every week for the net-focused kids of today. DC Thomson’s CEO Ellis Watson promised:"Dan has certainly not eaten his last cow pie. All of The Dandy's characters are just 110 days away from a new lease of life."

Yet Digital Dandy only lasted six months. Could it have lasted longer?

Dan’s DESPERATE To Keep Selling, Eh Readers?

Dandy #1, artists Steve White (Brassneck and Keyhole Kate), Andy Janes (Bananaman), David Parkins (Dan), Nick Brennan (Blinky), Jamie Smart (Numskulls), Wayne Thompson (Retro-Active)

Digital Dandy came out on the 4th December 2012, the day of the last print issue. Craig Ferguson was the editor, with former editor and archivist Morris Heggie doing work on the new website.

None of the newer strips from the 2010-12 era made it into the new comic. Classic strips Desperate Dan, Bananaman, Keyhole Kate, and Brassneck all made the transition, while a revamped Numskulls transferred in from Beano. Dan went back to his traditional look and tone, dropping the controversial-with-adults-not-reading-the-comic-anymore Jamie Smart version from the early 2010s.

However, there were changes being made. Keyhole Kate was no longer an obnoxiously nosy schoolgirl, but a reporter for the school newspaper and budding young detective. Kate’s artist Stephen White told us: “The editor and/or the writer must have had the idea to update her. I think the intent may have been to have a strong female, that would be a good role model/aspirational character. The strip was popular with boys also though.” And artist Wilbur Dawbarn told us that “Desperate Dan took a march back to his roots, but on the whole they were wanting NEW material. The two strips I sold to them were called 'Fish' and 'Andy Of The Ants', both entirely new ideas. Neither of them were used before the whole thing tanked (as far as I'm aware).”

Rounding it out was the adventure serial Retro-Active, bringing back various old superheroes just as Renga! had tried years ago. A general approach can be seen here: presenting a ‘classic’ front at first (even though much of it was a newer take) to anchor the new format, with modern strips to follow soon after. This certainly worked for some people. Tech website Pocket Lint, while bigging up the new format, happily reported “Desperate Dan finally reverts to his old, reassuring look. This is classic stuff in a modern setting, and we approve.”

One thing DC Thompson did absolutely right with the relaunch was the marketing. Not only was the digital comic out the same day the print one ended, both were around for the 75th anniversary. Sir Paul McCartney appeared to sing Hey Jude with the cast in the latter, giving it some extra PR bumf.

Down The Tubes noted at the time how DC Thomson had sneakily ensured maximum coverage. First, they’d ‘leaked’ rumours of the cancellation the night after the 2012 Olympics had finished, ensuring they’d be getting coverage the very next day when there was no sports news. And that night just happened to be after Dandy panel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the newspaper given the initial scoop just happened to be BookFest sponsors The Guardian. A mere two days later, DC Thomson confirmed both the cancellation and the digital launch, capturing a second wave of press interest. And August 2012 was the month The Beano was running a massive competition where the ‘consolation prizes’ were a three month free subscription to the online version of the comic.

“Come December when the publicity push about the print Dandy celebrating its anniversary and the e-Dandy launch is in full swing,” noted John Freeman at Down the Tubes, “all those e-Beano subscriptions will run out but the title will be able to feed off that Dandy publicity to try to get those subscribers to pay to continue their e-Beano subscription.”

And come December, the publicity push was massive. The press releases were gushing stuff: “Europe’s first technologically advanced comic for children”, a “unique, interactive, sound and motion, digital comic”. It wasn’t just going to be a mere comic, it was going to have limited animation and sound effects, including voices; there’d be games on the website and those games might be part of the strips too.

Nothing like this had existed before. Each strip would also be viewed panel by panel, and you would choose when to go forward. Whatever screen size you had, you’d be able to properly read it. DC Thomson announced other plans: back issues online, the entire back catalogue, with the last year of the print run as a trial basis.

In the first week of Digital Dandy, there was even an exhibition at the University of Dundee that would mix a display of old art with behind-the-scenes talk about the making of the new comic.

As for the strips themselves, Dawbarn had a “fair bit of freedom” (something also said by Jamie Smart when lamenting the comic’s end), and both Dawbarn and White talk about a new flexibility in drawing the comic for the panel-per-frame approach. White notes, “All the artwork was drawn on seperate layers, as in animation. This meant you could be quite playful in ways that you can't be with a normal format comic.”

If you knew about the comic – and sales on the last issue did go up quite a bit – you knew it was going digital. It had the press and it had the perfect timing and it had a list of good creators being given free reign.

So, what went wrong?

Oh No, Chums! Jonah Broke The Internet!

In a review of the free Dandy #0 for The Beat, Laura Sneddon gave it a great write-up. “Everything has been based around portability, with a dedicated app set to launch as soon as possible. Each comic has been created with screen size in mind, and the animation – when used – mimics the reading of a comics page. Pacing is set by the reader, with each panel finishing on the text, much as a reader would find when reading a conventional comic. Some of the comics include little minigames that advance the plot, but equally are skippable if you don’t fancy them (or are re-reading). The website contains more content including puzzles and shorter comic strips, along with videos and projects to print out and make.”

“I think the growing audience of children reading comics in the UK will be really into this once it is up and running in full. It’s wonderful to see one of the oldest comics in the world leading the charge into a new frontier rather than fading away.”

Unfortunately, most other people were reporting a different experience – that the comic wasn’t loading on their computers.

Some readers had assumed it was simply because their computers or browsers were out of date, which would be unfortunate on its own as it would keep out any older fans. Dismayed comments on comic blogs revealed it wasn’t working on their newer machinery either, and the coding seemed rushed. As well as struggling to work on all desktops, the website was not initially designed by mobile at all. While DC Thomson planned to move beyond desktop, tech site Creative Bloq noted that this was strange when you consider the target audience might be mobile focused. “With (admittedly adult-oriented) titles like FT [Financial Times] blazing the HTML5 trial and succeeding, it's curious the new Dandy launches without any obvious mobile optimisation.”

This was sadly not just problem with the launch. Tech issues would dog the comic for months. Even in February, by issue 7, the blog Whacky Comics was reporting that the Bananaman strip crashed after just three panels. “Then, when it finally started to work, it only ran for a few panels, before the arrow to move to the next panel failed to appear! … I'm beginning to see why people dropped it when it went online, as they had this problem constantly.”

DC Thomson responded with a nuclear option: in April, they scrapped and relaunched everything from issue 1. In doing so, all the comics that had already come out, that people had paid for, were removed from the website. The flaws of this approach are obvious. This is a shame, because losing all your comics would overshadow how the relaunched website had you create an avatar of yourself that would appear in the Desperate Dan strip – the sort of trick that only this type of comic could do, the justification for this whole approach.

On 3rd June 2013, Dawbarn accidentally broke the news on twitter that The Dandy was being cancelled after Vol.2 #13. (“I hadn't meant to do that at all,” he admits, “it was just a bit of naivety about the reach of social media, I think. It was quite exciting in a way to be at the heart of it all.”) DC Thomson confirmed it was over the next day.

“The technology and format have let us down. For this reason, we’re suspending the existing App. Discussions and planning are already underway to re-examine The Dandy’s digital offerings.”

The comic never came back. Retro-Active was left on a cliffhanger that has never been resolved.

Maybe this just means DC Thomson’s time is over? Maybe children don’t want these sorts of comics in a world of smartphones, maybe they can’t adapt to the modern world, maybe they simply can’t work online? Maybe, as older comic fans will always lament, the new stuff isn’t a patch on the old and that’s why they fail?

Well, there’s a counterexample here: The Beano.

Ha Ha! Looks Like Dennis Has Done Market Research!

The Beano was in much better shape than The Dandy, selling several times as many comics – this may be due to its consistent core line-up, or as editorial director Mike Stirling once told the Financial Times, because Dandy characters were often adults and the Beano stars are children, allowing for “vicarious mischief”. Even so, sales were gradually declining there as well. If that had continued, it may be dead now.

Yet in recent years, Beano sales have gone up. It’s a healthy publication, one that in 2018 boasted a gender-parity readership and has won industry awards. And the editor from 2012 to 2016 was Craig Graham – the very man who helped relaunched Dandy in 2004, as Dandy X-Treme, and its final form in 2010, and he brought various new creators over with him. His successor, John Anderson, was another former Dandy man. A number of the creators are still there. So the lament of the ex-fan, that the new stuff can’t compare to the old stuff, does not work: it’s proven to sell.

And since 2016, DC Thompson has focused a lot on internet presence via its Beano Studio. How well has that done? One estimate was 2m users in 2019.

So, what did Beano do that Dandy didn’t?

One part of this is extensive market research. A Financial Times article on 24th July 2017 delved into how much work they put in. Beano Studios’ insight teams do regular Facetimes with children to see what’s hot and what’s not in the playground, which feeds into both the comic and the website; and that website exists as a kids lifestyle portal, a big social media place for seven year olds, carefully designed to attract them and get them to BUY THE COMIC after. Staff have been recruited from a variety of backgrounds, from Youtube to BBC News, and pump out targeted games, listicles, quizzes, and ministrips.

Much of this is not explicitly Beano branded but all of it is meant to lead your child into wanting to buy the comic, and this intensive effort has worked. A 2019 report said it had seen year-on-year growth of almost 10% since the new website started.

The other part of this – the Beano website works with most computer and mobile browsers. It is extremely easy to use. And while there is an online version of The Beano to buy, it’s a traditional comic rather than anything with motion. The existing system that worked in 2012 is still used. The game part and the comic part are separate instead of a unified thing.

Ooer! Nuke’s Attempting A Counterfactual! – Editor

Not as big a counterfactual as ‘what if Vlad Tepes was stopped by wrestling?’, art by Alexander Matthews

In a post-mortem for Comic Book Resources, Brigid Alverson mentioned how well the Dandy and Beano’s iPad apps had worked before the digital relaunch (and Whacky Comics had praised the Beano app compared to Digital Dandy). In its place, Digital Dandy had been “a letdown in terms of technology and format”.

“The biggest problem, particularly with the app, is that The Dandy seems to be a comic that thinks it's a game. The comics all say "Play!" instead of "Read!" And when you first sign in to the app, you have to choose a hairstyle, clothes, etc., to make an avatar; it was really hard to figure out how to avoid doing that part if you just wanted to read the damn comic… it wasn't gamelike enough to be a game, nor was there enough comics content to make it feel like a solid comic.”

And this was her only experience because she never, after that point, bought an issue.

Dawburn told us that he believes these tech issues “absolutely killed any chance it may have ever had. The original launch was a disaster, nothing worked, it was full of glitches” and the damage was too great for a relaunch to be effective. “Who was going to give it a second chance, especially when subscribing to the relaunch would probably mean being offered a lot of the same material that had been in the original launch?”

He also was unimpressed with the animation he saw, “so clunky and basic, especially compared to the animated cartoons on the TV these days, that I didn't feel it really added anything, in fact if anything I felt it did the opposite.”

But does The Dandy need any of that or can it just be a regular comic? It already has a workable app for that, and we know, because some comic strips on the Beano website are doing it right now, that having single panels on a frame that you swipe through will work. The downside to this is that you get less press coverage if you’re ‘just’ being an online comic versus promising a whole new format, but the upsides are clear: less technical problems, something easier that can be up and working with a few months of lead time, and fewer crashes to put people off.

Another sign this would work would be services like Comixology and Marvel Unlimited, which simply allow you to read comics online – services that are profitable. (Marvel Unlimited also shows that the plan to have the Dandy back catalogue available online would have likely been profitable as well)

That, of course, depends on the comic itself being something children want to read. Both the example of The Beano and feedback from the target audience when they had access to The Dandy in 2010-12 show they would. (I would argue it would have made more sense as well to have a few of the 2010-12 strips carry over, so the digital version is not a complete relaunch for the kids.)

The big issue, however, will then be getting enough kids to start reading it as the existing readers age out. All the marketing push in 2012 will help in 2012 but they won’t help in 2014.

Traditionally, parents introduced their children to DC Thomson’s funnies but this had stopped happening, causing the sales slump in the first place –as Jamie Smart acidly put it at the time, “adults who decry the loss of their favourite childhood comic, despite never buying comics for their own kids.”The Beano’s market research focus started almost four years after The Dandy switched to digital. Could it last long enough to take advantage of that? That, we can’t know.

If it did, however, the experience of The Beano suggests Digital Dandy would achieve healthy sales. There would be all-new strips, laser focused on what the target audience is into. There’d be extra work for British comic artists and writers, and more kids hooked on comics at the right age.

The best thing about this possible timeline is we’d be spared more takes from aging fans of how Comics Are Doomed, Kids Don’t Read Comics, Kids Only Like Screens etc. As shown by The Beano, and Raina Telgeimeier graphic novels in America, and a host of manga, and many others, kids will read comics aimed at them if they get access. The Dandy’s fall was due to a lack of access rather than quality of strips.

Hopefully for Dennis’s sake, Beano Studios continues to solve that access problem.


Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.


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