My first copy of The DFC appeared the other day – I know we’ve already talked about it on here (see Kenny’s thoughts on it), but I just had to write about it myself. I was raised on British weekly comics, and the news that Random House were launching a new weekly comic with a lead story by Philip Pullman made me very excited. Learning that it would be subscription-only dampened my excitement slightly. Obviously this model lessens the risk for the publisher, and it allows the comic to be published without ads, but it also reduces the potential audience – there’s no chance of a kid who’s never even heard of comics to wander into a newsagent looking for sweets and pick up a copy of The DFC because it happened to catch her eye. Still, the quality of the talent was top-notch (Jamie Smart! Kate Brown! Neill Cameron! Simone Lia!), and when I was on the Ryan Tubridy Show, I got to hear publisher David Fickling talking about the project with such huge enthusiasm that I had to give it a try.
My first impression was that the red-and-yellow envelope it comes in was a terrific idea. It makes the comic feel like an Event, not just another piece of post. Once I opened it, I was a little baffled by the cover, which is quite busy – if it were being sold on a newsagent’s stand, it would have trouble standing out from the crowd, so it’s just as well it isn’t. The first couple of pages are mixed – the puzzle on the inside front page is deeply lame, but I liked the suggestion that “DFC” could stand for “Dracula’s Favourite Cardigan”. David Fickling has admitted that “The DFC” was originally just a working title (standing for “David Fickling’s Comic”), but when it was used on a mock-up and passed around, it turned out that the kids really liked the initials. It looks like they’re going to make “what does DFC stand for?” into a running gag, which is pretty cool.
The first story is the most anticipated: “John Blake”, written by Philip Pullman with art by John Aggs. And it’s… well, unfortunately it’s a bit too decompressed for the format. This instalment is six pages long and we only get to see John Blake in one panel; it’s all setup, and nothing really happens. The concept is strong: a ghost ship captained by a solitary boy. But in the six pages we have here, Pullman and Aggs don’t actually do anything with it. It isn’t helped by slightly choppy storytelling – Aggs’ panel transitions are awkward and unintuitive, though each individual panel is very handsome, and the two-page spread that opens the story is particularly fine.
Aggs does better with the writing for “The Boss”, which is illustrated by his mother Patrice Aggs. “The Boss” gave me a bit of a nostalgic feeling: it’s about kids investigating mysteries, which used to come up all the time in the comics of my youth. Here we have the opposite situation to “John Blake”: where “John Blake” has a unique premise that’s given an uninteresting treatment, “The Boss” has a well-worn premise, but the treatment makes it interesting. And “The Boss” works better (in this issue at least), which just proves that it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if you can’t make them work in the space you’re given.
“Monkey Nuts” by the Etherington Brothers suffers from a similar problem, but to a lesser extent: the heroes of the story don’t even appear in the first chapter… but it doesn’t matter as much, because it’s funny, as is “Super Animal Adventure Squad” by James Turner (which reminded me of Danger Mouse, and that’s a good thing), and “Good Dog, Bad Dog” by Dave Shelton. It’s especially nice to see Shelton’s work being decently printed; he’s had some stories in the Saturday Guardian before, but they’ve all been printed very badly, to the point of near-illegibility. He deserves better, and now he’s getting it. Sarah McIntyre’s “Vern and Lettuce” looks like it’s meant to be funny – it’s certainly shaped like a joke. I didn’t laugh, but it’s so beautifully drawn that I didn’t mind. I get the feeling I might find future instalments funnier; it’s the kind of gentle humour that has the potential to build impact the more familiar you are with the characters and the setup.
The two remaining serious stories are the highlights of this issue for me: “Mo-Bot High” by Neill Cameron, and “The Spider Moon” by Kate Brown, two artists who first caught my attention when their stories were included in the first Mammoth Book of Best New Manga. “Mo-Bot High” feels like a hybrid of a story from Nikki and a story from Eagle: on her first day at a new school, Asha finds that her schoolmates are ignoring her… because they’re more interested in the two giant robots fighting behind the bike sheds. “The Spider Moon” is easily the best thing in The DFC so far: it’s so good that I think I’d be tempted to keep up my subscription for it, even if the rest of the comic were blank pages. There’s a simple, straightforward hook: the stars are falling, and the end is nigh, and the heroine, Bekka, has dreamt of a way to save her people. Kate Brown has done a wonderful job of selling me on this world which is not quite ours, and on Bekka herself: I liked her immediately, and I want to know what happens next. But the real triumph here is the art. Brown’s previous work struck me as promising, but not quite ready for prime time; she’s come on in leaps and bounds since then. “The Spider Moon” is gorgeous to look at, and shows strong storytelling and a gift for facial expressions.
It’s hard to say what will become of The DFC. Launching a new comic on the British market is a risk, even with a sales model that cuts out the middleman and liberates the publisher from advertising. The last new comic to be launched in this market was Wildcat, which went down like a lead balloon (actually Mythbusters made a real lead balloon fly recently! – Joe) – but then again, Wildcat was rubbish, and while The DFC’s quality is variable and it hasn’t yet found its feet, there’s a hell of a lot of promise there. None of the stories are actually bad; some of them just aren’t quite as good as they could be. If I put The DFC side-by-side with the current incarnations of The Beano and The Dandy, there is just no comparing: The DFC is in another league. I don’t know whether The DFC will succeed or fail; I do believe that it deserves to succeed.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.