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Children’s Comics:

More Fun Next Week

How was your Saturday? Were you the victim of any hair-raising, fund-raising tricks yesterday? August 2nd was not only the 70th Birthday of The Beano, home of Britain’s Dennis the Menace and his Abyssinian tripe-hound Gnasher, but was also "Gnashional Menace Day, 2008". On a form inside the birthday special, readers were encouraged to sign up sponsors for this new national holiday to pay them for every prank they play of them and for the number of laughs they raise, with all proceeds going to the CLIC Sargent Charity caring for children with cancer. The birthday issue comes with a gift of a menacing kit and 8 extra pages including tips on wheezes and japes and how to use the finger-snapping chewing gum packet, floating flies and parp (as in fart) whistle. Would-be menaces are supposed to sign the Menace Code. This does insist under point 9 that "You mustn’t do anything to cause damage or upset people during the course of Menace Day." Which rather takes the fun out of being a menace, really! 

Another way to celebrate would be to visit the two exhibitions of originals which opened last week, in London at the Cartoon Museum and in Dundee, publishers D.C. Thomson’s home turf, giving the public to chance to see how much work goes into the story and art. Back in 2001, at the Cartoon Museum’s former gallery in The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, I curated a show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dennis the Menace. Thomson’s loaned loads of amazing originals, including Dennis’s priceless very first appearance from 1951, and we painted the walls in his unmistakeable red and black stripes. I’ve never forgotten how one afternoon, with the gallery packed with the public, two boys were looking around and then hurriedly ran off. Not long after an awful smell of bad eggs filled the premises - they’d set off a stink bomb and we had to evacuate the building! Everyone had a good sense of humour about it - after all, the pages on show were full of Dennis at his anarchic, menacing wildest, so no wonder some kids wanted to be Menaces themselves.

As the "first born", in December 1937, The Dandy reached 70 ahead of The Beano last December but not so much fuss was made about that. For one thing, the weekly had been revamped as The Dandy Extreme and reduced to fortnightly, a drop in frequency not seen since the paper and ink shortages of the Second World War. In fact, another children’s weekly hit 70 earlier this year, the French-language Belgian perennial Spirou, on April 16th. I thought it would be interesting to look at both septuagenarians and look again at the newest kids’ weekly on the block, The DFC, whose tenth issue came out August 1st.


Fred’s Bed time-travel tale,
guest-starring a young Nick Park
art by Dave Sutherland

A fan since childhood, Nick Park is The Beano‘s guest editor this issue and puts his Wallace & Gromit on the cover, Wallace in a chef’s hat and Gromit icing the cake, which Gnasher is bursting out of. I was slightly disappointed that they don’t get to meet Dennis and Gnasher inside but there are plenty of Aardman Animation references and cameos. Nick Park writes in the intro, "The Beano was my world when I was younger and has been a huge influence on my career since. It was bought for me by my gran when I visited her every weekend and I read it from cover to cover… then I read it again. My brother and I were always thinking up ideas for inventions and we got lots of ideas from stories in The Beano." Park also picks his favourite golden oldies for issue 148 of the monthly Classics from the Comics.


Fred’s Bed time-travel tale
art by Dave Sutherland

A young Park, a budding cartoonist in Preston, joins the time-travelling Fred and "Fred’s Bed" which whisks them both off through a mini-history of the comic, with some yellow historical captions to explain about The 3 Bears, Little Plum, General Jumbo, Biffo, Lord Snooty and Big Eggo, and giving cartoonist Nick some ideas along the way. Back home, Fred wonders "if that quiet little kid will ever do anything with his drawings. Nah! Very unlikely!" while behind him a TV shows Park winning an Oscar.


Creature Comforts critters in Biffo’s zoo
art by Dave Sutherland

Other references include the Creature Comforts critters showing up at Biffo the Bear’s zoo and the Wrong Trousers turning up in the Headmaster’s store of 70 years of confiscated toys discovered by The Bash Street Kids and the sheep that send Edd back to sleep in The Numskulls.


Among the old confiscated items the Bash Street Kids
find are a box of catapults (banned in 1975)
and Wallace’s Wrong Trousers,
art by Dave Sutherland

That said, the sheepish crossover I’d really hoped for, between Shaun the Sheep and Derek the Sheep, doesn’t happen. Gary Northfield’s brilliant, baa-rmy Beano irregular has his own collection out this month from Bloomsbury. Gary owns the rights to his character and this seems to be becoming more possible at Thomson’s (apparently if you accept a lower page rate in exchange), as Jamie Smart owns his Space Raoul too,  which ran in The Dandy and is coming out as a graphic novel from Slave Labor in October in the States.


Dennis the Menace in Farewell, My Shrubbery
art by Tom Paterson

Other things have changed too. Maybe it’s just me, but Dennis seemed surprisingly unmenacing in his story Farewell, My Shrubbery, helping The Colonel next door find out who decimated his blooms denying him the chance to win the local gardening competition. I’ve long admired Tom Paterson’s work, from Sweeny Toddler and others, and he brings his unique Baxendale-esque streak to Dennis with some fine descriptions of smells, or "waftaroms" as Mort Walker named them, such as the pig Rasher’s "putrid burp" and Softy Walter’s "whiff of lavender". At the Dundee Literary Festival comics session, DCT staff artist Jim Glen did some lively live sketching (and mentioned how many Scottish readers were surprised when the animated Dennis series began on TV that the characters were not Scottish but spoke in English accents). Watching Jim sketch, it struck me how Dennis, and other characters, have a peculiar graphic quirk to their faces, not just a familiar "uni-brow" where their two eyebrows become one, but a "uni-eye" where two eyeballs stare and bulge so much that the line between them disappears and they become one double-pupilled cyclops.


Hunt Emerson draws his cake-loving rodent rebels, Ratz

In another sign of change, for some time now Thomson’s artists have been able to sign their strips (Paterson signs here Dennis and The Numskulls, while "DS" (David Sutherland) signs his Watkins-style Biffo, Fred’s Bed and Bash Street Kids, and Ken H. Harrison signs Minnie the Minx), though the writers remain uncredited. Hunt Emerson delivers another riotous Ratz page and Laura Howell, one of the newest Beano cartoonists and one of the very few women ever to draw for the weekly, blends her manga and Emerson-inspired animation styles for a modernised version of superboy Billy the Cat.


Manga dynamism invades even The Beano
in Laura Howell’s revival of Billy the Cat

Laura Howell also shows up this week in The DFC for their tenth issue, illustrating the cover for new series Sneaky, The Cleverest Elephant in the World. It’s the most Beano-ish looking series so far in The DFC and she and her scripter Peadar O’Guilin get full credits, as everyone does, on their strips and on the contents page. At £3 and by subscription only, The DFC is more than three times the price of The Beano at 99 pence and not on newsstands, but it does offer 36 pages, almost entirely of comics, plus a few illustrated puzzles or pin-ups, with no advertising or editorial/club pages. The Beano usually clocks in at 32 pages with a paper "self-cover" and even the 40-page birthday special, which costs more at £1.50, contains 24 pages of actual comics in total.

I’ll come back to The DFC, but next let’s hop over the Channel and see what Spirou readers get for their, or their parents’, euros. Published by Editions Dupuis in Charleroi, just outside Brussels, for 2,30 euros (that’s about £1.95 these days), Spirou No. 3653 offers 52 pages including a glossy cover, with four different variant covers for subscribers only.

The birthday cover I’ve got, illustrated by Hugo Piette, a former contributor to the late-lamented children’s monthly Capsule Cosmique, has that sharp, retro "Atomium style" and class of Ever Meulen or Serge Clerc. In contrast to The Beano with its in-your-face birthday cake and distinct lack of any mention of seven decades, all we see of the eponymous bellboy in his red trim and his pal in blue Fantasio are their feet and arms, with Spip the squirrel’s tail, as they clink champagne glasses and lie back on the roof getting merry, with a huge hoarding overhead declaring ‘70 Years’ and a noisy party below.

Incidentally, I subsequently discovered that this issue marks the arrival of a new look and new editor, the publisher/writer Frédéric Niffle, the fifth editor in five turbulent years and three previous revamps. Notable changes Niffle brings include a new logo, a 25% drop in pages from 64 to 48 plus covers, keeping the price the same, and a decision to serialise only one rather than three album stories each issue and completing them in four longer chunks of around 11 pages, rather than shorter, more numerous episodes. In theory, what this formula loses in variety it gains in getting readers more immersed in a story and able to get to the end more quickly. The days of fantasy adventure serials in The Beano and The Dandy, like The Iron Fish or The Red Wrecker, are long gone, and these days everything is strictly for laughs and wrapped up in one issue, with no cliffhanger building up anticipation and compelling you to count the days till the next number hits the stands or your doormat. Whereas, as we’ll see, The DFC relies almost entirely on serials.

Inside Spirou‘s special editor Niffle and his crew find several imaginative ways of celebrating the weekly’s origins, heritage and future. For openers there’s a very witty five-panel gag by Salma and Libon set in 1938, the year Spirou began, showing a purchaser consulting with a fortune-teller about whether it will thrive. He points out, "With the multiplication of leisure choices, people buying 78 rpm gramophones, going to the circus or those cinematographic seances, can it compete?", especially with war looming. The mystic madame consults her crystal ball and predicts, "Hitler won’t go far, there won’t be a world war, the number of cars will stabilise, but your Spirou, sorry to say, won’t last the winter." To which the client says, "Ok, thanks, I was almost going to subscribe…" Great stuff.


Clan Of The Shark

The big lead serial is Clan Of The Shark, the third part of Seuls (Loners) by Vehlmann, Gazzotti and Cerise. Five kids, two girls, three boys, aged between 5 and 12 (so covering a good proportion of the readership), wake up to find they are all alone in the world, their families, friends, pets and everyone in their town have vanished overnight. This next chapter has some pretty strong content. In the opening scene, they are attacked by a pack of ravenous wild dogs and Dodji fires a gun to keep them at bay and allow his pals to seek refuge in the green double-decker bus they’ve commandeered. Later, they arrive at a pirate theme park where one of the captured hounds is hurled into a pool as a meal for a massive shark. It’s crisply, almost cutely drawn, (Gazzotti is the artist on Soda, the fine, long-running detective series written by Tome) but its gripping, Lord-of-the-Flies edge almost reminds me of the notorious 1970s British weekly Action or taut modern manga.

A real highpoint for me is Émile Bravo’s dense, rich period five-pager, an intro to his sort of ‘Spirou: Year One", set in 1938 and preview of the full album published a week later. Here, at last, is the secret origin, too scandalous to tell at the time, of the hotel groom and his pet squirrel Spip. Spirou was originally called Jean-Baptise, an orphan and choirboy in the St. Pancras Catholic Orphanage for Boys. When he and his friend René hear a noise from the chapel and find the crucifix fallen off its nail, they put it back and René stumbles across the key to the cupboard where the wine for mass is kept. René knows it’s a secret stash for the boozy Father Albert and decides to piss in one of the bottles. He has his reasons - he’s in the orphanage because his alcoholic father killed his mother and died in prison; as for Jean-Baptiste, he never knew his parents at all. But at that moment Father Albert storms in and starts punishing J-B, knocking over the ladder, dislodging the crucifix which crashes onto the priest’s head and kills him. At that very moment another priest discovers them, seemingly caught in the act. Both "culprits" are hauled off to the Abbot who splits them up, sending René to prison and J-B to work in a hotel as a groom. As René leaves, he entrusts J-B with his pet squirrel Spirou, a name that becomes his own when he starts working there.

There’s a subtly played four-panels en route where the priest asks J-B: "You can confess to me, did René want to save your purity?" When J-B doesn’t understand, the priest continues, "I… I suspected Father Albert’s weaknesses." J-B answers by asking if he means alcohol, but the priest replies, "What about alcohol?" In a wordless panel, there are understated hints of another of Father Albert’s weaknesses which J-B has been saved from. It’s an example of what Bravo does so well revealing the hypocrisies and injustices of adults and the innocence and wisdom of childhood. Bravissimo for Bravo! You can find his cunning, mostly pantomine comedies in Fantagraphics’ Mome anthology and his Angoulême "Essential" graphic novel, My Mommy, is coming next year from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. You can see a preview here.

There are other Spirous who populate these anniversary pages. In Vehlmann and Yoann’s modern tale, Spirou is sent to find some ancient issues in the archives at Dupuis, in the unexpectedly deep bowels beneath their offices, "the reserve of the unsold copies". Far from being pulped or recycled, all the unsold copies have been stored for decades in these labyrinths - because "a father would never allow his children to be pulped!" Deeper still, Spirou and Spip find an old soldier appointed by Mr Dupuis to make sure no Tintin magazines, their rivals, invaded their premises.  Spirou laughs, "That old Spirou-Tintin war has been over for ages." In fact, Spirou has outlasted its main competitor by many years now. The story ends cleverly with Spirou’s return and a DeGaulle lookalike official dismissing a gaggle of wannabe replacements auditioning for "Spirou Academy".

Two other treats are an interview with French-born cartoonist Riad Satouf (another French great awaiting discovery in English), raised in his father’s homeland, Syria. In an accompanying flashback strip Satouf recalls how he was able to read only Tintin weekly, sent by his grandmother, and only heard about the mythic Spirou from his mother.

As a boy, he imagines a hilariously inaccurate version of Spirou as a moustached gun-toting hero, with Fantasio as beefy as Arnie Schwarzenegger, and Spip as a long-tailed monkey. "Who’s more muscular, Tintin or Spirou?" "Spirou, much more muscular."

There’s also a fascinating history page, first of a series, tracing the roots of the weekly, and a backpage gag by Tome and Janry of their hit junior version, Little Spirou. Other Spirou regulars are also celebrating, including grave-digger Pierre Tombal and winsome teenage witch Melusine, with two albums now in English from Cinebook. Overall this issue is a strong celebration and affirmation as the magazine embarks on its next decade. See more at www.spirou.com.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, The DFC has just hit double figures and next issue brings more new serials - both Jamie Smart and Gary Northfield are in the wings with new series, as is Tony Lee’s Prince of Baghdad, plus the exclusive selling-point, Philip Pullman’s John Blake serial, resumes next week. A changing line-up is what keeps any anthology fresh and hooking different readers. I was speaking to a friend whose son gets the weekly and it was interesting to learn that he was now following only certain stories, and had all but given up on more ‘girly’ stories, like Kate Brown’s The Spider Moon.


The Spider Moon
by Kate Brown

The DFC has hardly any complete stand-alone strips, all but Sarah McIntyre’s Vern & Lettuce and Jim Medway’s one-pagers are "to be continued" in episodes of one to five or six pages maximum. I’ve been enjoying all of them, though some yarns develop rather slowly. If I had to pick out favourites, as well as McIntyre and Medway, I’d plump for Jamie Stewart’s zany, inventive Super Animal Adventure Squad, Kate Brown’s enchanting eco-fairy tale Spider Moon and Dave Shelton’s Good Dog, Bad Dog with some snappy patter and clever twists (I loved Bartholomew Quigley, Duncan McBoo’s flea, who comes to his rescue by chomping on their canine captor. "Didn’t know you had fleas, McBoo." "Just the one. We have an arrangement." Marvellous - and reminds me of Tex Avery’s sublime ‘What Price Fleadom’ cartoon). John Blake is stoking up well, so I look forward to his return.


Super Animal Adventure Squad
by Jamie Stewart

That said, it does slightly puzzle me that I’ve read several of the strips in DFC, like Monkey Nuts, Robot Girl and Good Dog, Bad Dog, previously in The Comic which comes with the Saturday Guardian. This has been a very visible way to preview and promote The DFC and the creator gets paid twice: the standard DFC fee plus a 50% share of what The Guardian pays to the DFC for the material.  I do wonder if some subscribers to DFC paying up to £3 a week might feel a bit short-changed when they find that stories they have already read for free show up again, admittedly printed better and on much nicer paper. I know this was the tradition back in the 1930s when American newspaper strips were repackaged as the first comic books, but it’s unusual these days. At least the weekly Guardian Comics are online and downloadable  just for their current week, so there’s no archive to re-read them later. Over on The DFC‘s own site you can catch up with summaries the stories so far (not complete episodes) and you can now order back issues too to complete your set (though I just noticed the latest issue, No. 10, is sold out already!).


Good Dog, Bad Dog
by Dave Shelton

It’s an amazing time right now for children’s comics. Some grown-up graphic novel devotees might mutter, ‘I don’t read kids’ comics’. But these three titles, in their own ways, all brim with humour and invention and look ahead as well as looking back. Hears to them all continuing and developing and diversifying for many more years to come. They’re for kids, and for the kid in all of us.

Posted: August 5, 2008

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Article Links

Publications:
The DFC
The Beano
The Dandy
Spirou
Derek The Sheep
Space Raoul
Cinebook

British Comic Sites:
Lew Stringer
Down The Tubes
Bear Alley

EXHIBITIONS
Beano & Dandy
Birthday Bash
Cartoon Museum

London
30 July to 2 Nov, 2008

Beano
Official 70th
Anniversary Exhibition
University Of Dundee

Dundee, Scotland
18 July to 20 Sept 2008

Article Tags

British Comics
Childrens Comics
Emile Bravo
Euro Comics

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Featured Books


The Beano #3443
(August 2, 2008)


Spirou No. 3653
(April 16, 2008)


The DFC #10
(August 2, 2008)


Classics From
The Comics #148


Derek The Sheep
by Gary Northfield


Space Raoul
by Jamie Smart


Seuls Vol 3
by Vehlmann, Gazzotti
& Cerise


Spirou
by Emile Bravo


Melusine
by Clarke & Gilson