Part 1 - The Fun Factory
Comics Britannia is a three-part BBC4 television series celebrating the classic British comic strips of the past 70 years. First broadcast in September 2007, the series featured interviews with the creators of iconic characters from The Beano, Bunty, Commando, Viz, 2000AD and more. Paul Gravett contributed a series of three articles to supplement each programme, which were originally featured on the BBC4 dedicated Comics Britannia website, as well as appearing as a ‘Comics Brainiac’ on the programme itself.
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Most people in Britain, and many more worldwide, know The Dandy and The Beano. The famous double-act of children’s funny comics was devised shortly before the outbreak of World War II and both comics are still going strong today. Their larger-than-life characters, from cowboy strongman Desperate Dan to untameable terror Dennis the Menace, have mirrored changes in British society and been companions and icons to millions. Fewer readers, however, knew about the writers and artists behind these comics, because for years the majority had to toil anonymously. Recognition for their skill, invention and sheer comedy genius is long overdue.
A Dandy From Dundee
Three weeks before Christmas 1937, canny Scottish press DC Thomson kicked off a revolution with their first weekly comic for kids. The Dandy stood out instantly from its more polite, middle-class competitors from London, with its brightly coloured cover and compact half-tabloid format. While The Dandy ran several story-paper text thrillers, what hooked youngsters above all were the modern, dynamic comic strips, starting with only six pages in all but gradually taking up more and more of the weekly. Even those who could not read properly could follow these stories from the sequences of pictures and any dialogue inside speech balloons. There was no need to read any words to animate Korky the Cat’s silent fish-stealing sketch into a cartoon film on paper.
Thomson knew already how fast these American-influenced comics were catching on after the success of Oor Wullie and The Broons in the Fun Section of the Sunday Post from 1936. The prolifically imaginative and versatile artist on these newspaper pages was Dudley Dexter Watkins, who drew The Dandy‘s longest-running star Desperate Dan from the first issue. A man of religious convictions, Watkins always worked with a Bible open by his drawing table and, exceptionally, Thomson’s allowed him to sign his artwork.
Birth Of The Beano
Thomson unveiled The Beano at the end of July 1938, in time for the school holidays. The new comic was the same size and price as The Dandy and offered a Whoopee Mask as a free gift in issue one, then eight sugar buttons in issue two. Here Watkins began his record 31-year Beano career with Lord Snooty and His Pals, about the spirited young Earl of Bunkerton, who much preferred to dodge his duties and play with his poor, street-kid chums. In this class-contrast fantasy, Snooty’s gang end up living with him in his castle and devouring slap-up feeds.
Sometimes the comedy in these early years appears dubious to modern readers; the racist stereotypes proving particularly challenging. In Christmas 2006 the first Dandy Book from 1939 was reprinted in exact facsimile: retaining the ‘n’-word in one strip, where Smarty Grandpa gets covered in soot and mistaken for a black minstrel. Huge controversy ensued. More acceptable were the caricatures lampooning Hitler and Mussolini, targets of satire and assaults in many wartime propaganda episodes.
The Baby Boom Beano
The arrival of three extraordinary young cartoonists transformed The Beano and Dandy during the Fifties and helped sell more copies than ever (before or since) to the children of Britain’s post-war, pre-television baby boom. First came Davey Law, who introduced the world’s wildest boy, Dennis the Menace, in The Beano in March 1951, the first of his more than 1000 episodes. Shaggy-haired Dennis is like a juvenile anarchist in a red-and-black striped pullover, who unleashes pure mayhem on his family home and staid suburbia. Instead of Cactusville or Bunkerton Castle, now the everyday world of the reader could be the location for the craziest mischief.
Leo Baxendale was so inspired by the frenetic energy of Law’s Dennis that he submitted his art samples to Thomson’s and from 1953 began his phenomenal Beano career, starting with Little Plum, Your Redskin Chum, then adding junior Amazonian warrior and proto-feminist Minnie the Minx and classroom tearaways The Bash Street Kids. Into every story Baxendale poured hilarious wit and detail, adding extra gags and phrases relished by the readers.
Completing the trio, also in 1953, came Ken Reid, who drew Roger the Dodger. From 1958, Reid’s greatest Beano achievement would be the sea-faring jinx who sunk a thousand ships, Jonah. Walter Fearne wrote the Jonah scripts, usually designed for around a dozen panels, which Reid would elaborate into as many as 30 panels in a single page to maximise the comedy.
From Wham! To Monster Fun
Pressures of weekly deadlines would take their toll. Watkins died at his drawing table in 1969 and Law soon after, neither enjoying their retirement or company pensions. Younger men Baxendale and Reid were working to the point of collapse. In 1964, both quit Thomson’s and jumped ship to rival London publishers, Odhams, on the promise of more creative freedom, better pay and full credit for their work. On Odhams’ Wham! (a deluxe, photogravure-printed ‘Super Beano’), both could cut loose with more goonish extremes, such as Baxendale’s Eagle Eye and Reid’s Frankie Stein.
When Odhams extended Wham!‘s page count, they stretched the talent pool too thin and eventually cancelled the comic in 1968. The following year, however, new London-based owners IPC challenged Thomson’s by releasing Whizzer & Chips, the first in a wave of wacky weeklies that entertained kids into the Seventies. The mix of humour and horror caught on with Reid’s Faceache, a schoolboy who could ‘scrunge’ his face into a thousand grotesques, and Baxendale’s Badtime Bedtime Stories for Monster Fun: make-your-own mini-comics in which he warped familiar fairytales and classics.
Weathering some 70 years of competition, evolving in the face of health and safety and political correctness, The Beano and The Dandy look set to continue as indestructible favourites, spinning off into animation and websites and regularly refreshed by new characters who join those hardy perennials, Dennis, Desperate Dan, Minnie, Bash Street and company.Posted: November 25, 2007
This article originally appeared as part of the BBC 4 television Comics Britannia season in September 2007 celebrating UK comics. This article originally appeared on the dedicated BBC4 Comics Britannia web-site.