Word got out over the weekend that Issue 13 of the digital version of the venerable U.K. children's comic The Dandy would be the last. It seems to have started with a tweet from contributor Wilbur Dawbarn, who was relaying what his editors had told him. That prompted the editors to take to Facebook to deny (sort of) that the comic is dead:
A DC Thomson spokesperson said, "The Digital Dandy team has worked hard to produce an interactive and engaging App. While the digital comic has delivered its promised mixture of daft, dramatic and different stories, 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. It is still too early to announce what form this next stage will take but we would like to reassure readers that The Dandy remains a very important part of the company’s plans for the future."
You can include me as one of the people who was not enamored of the latest digital Dandy, and I'm a longtime fan — I grew up reading it, and I still treasure an almost-complete run of the annuals from the 1970s. I was thrilled with Dandy's original iPad app, which was serviceable and basically identical to the Beano app: You could buy a digital version of the print comic from the storefront, with no bells and whistles, and it worked fine.
The new digital Dandy, on the other hand, was indeed a letdown in terms of technology and format. The app and the online comic use the usual tricks of the digital-comics trade, such as limited animation and pop-up word balloons, but the interface is awkward. On the iPad app, for instance, you can't move from panel to panel by swiping; you have to tap an arrow. The app also makes you go back to the table of contents to select a new comic, which is not the way to draw your readers deeper into the experience. The comic doesn't seem to fit the screen well, and it loads painfully slowly. (The website makes farting noises when you move the arrow around, but what's a bug to me is probably a feature to the target audience.)
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.
Am I thinking too much like a grownup here? I know kids like to noodle around with their iPads — mine is full of imaginary pets who nag me to feed them, thanks to my nieces — but The Dandy just seemed to be poorly made. Creating the avatar took too long, and while it was gamelike, it wasn't gamelike enough to be a game, nor was there enough comics content to make it feel like a solid comic (although I'll admit that after an initial round of frustration with the web version, which wouldn't accept my username/password combo, I never spent any actual money on the digital Dandy — my impressions here are based on their free sampler, in which one would hope they were putting their best foot forward).
When The Dandy announced the demise of the print edition, all the people who never read it were terribly sorry to see it go. Then they all went and looked at it for the first time in 30 years and saw that it wasn't just like the Dandy of their childhoods. I rather liked the new version of The Dandy; it had a nice lineup of creators, most of whom will hopefully find work with The Beano or the new upstart The Phoenix (which has quite a nice app, by the way). But it seems like the editors missed an opportunity to capitalize on that goodwill and nostalgia with the digital product. They had some great ideas, but creating an awkward, juddering app as the new home for their comic was the digital equivalent of publishing it on cheap newsprint. That's how The Dandy was printed when I was a kid, hiding out in the woods behind my grandmother's house with a stack of comics and a Crunchy bar, but people expect a lot more from a iPad app.
I'll leave the last word to Dandy contributor Jamie Smart, who has been doing some good writing on the state of children's comics in the United Kingdom today (much of which would apply to the United States as well). He points out, as I noted above, that people talk about children's comics but no one seems to be buying them, and he has some thoughts about that:
The loss of comics is a social thing, it’s a medium being forgotten as people grow out of it. It’s a business thing, as comics are priced off the shelves by the more lucrative magazines. And it’s an ideas thing.
We need better ideas for how to sell comics.
His prescription: More female creators, more comics to publish the vast sea of indy artists that the U.K. is blessed with, and more effort on the part of artists to attract and engage an audience. That's a truly modern approach, one that goes beyond digital media and limited animation, and useful advice if the Dandy is to survive in any form, digital or otherwise.