Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Beano #954: NOW we're talking

And so we continue our journey through the 80-year history of The Beano, the UK's longest-running comic.

If you want to, you can read my personal history of The Beano here, or visit my reviews of single issues from the 1930sthe 1940s or the 1950s. Go on. I'll wait for you here.

You're back! Great!

Okay, today we are looking at issue #954 from 1960 and this is the point where it really starts to look like the comic we all grew up with. Largely thanks to some newer talent. But we'll get to that.
As you can see, Biffo the Bear has stuck around as cover star, still drawn by the great Dudley D Watkins. I love the expression on Biffo's face here (and his pal Buster's face too).
The inside of the comic has, however, made great leaps forward in style. In fact, this issue was chosen for the boxed set because the comic had had a redesigned "new look". 

The editor of The Beano from issue #1 was George Moonie but in 1959 Harold Cramond took over, bringing a fresh approach to the children's comic market. 

For example, there's that new logo you can see on the cover above. That combination of black, yellow and red that (with variations) remained that standard for the almost sixty-tear period since. The page count is now up to a healthy 16 pages.

And there's the characters...
Dennis The Menace is, of course, still with us. His popularity meant he now gets a full page, instead of the half he had when last we saw him. He is also the first thing the readers see once they're past the cover. 

And Davy Law's art really pops off the page here. I love it. His style has developed incredibly well.

The story here concerns Dennis' Dad offering to take on his judo teacher. I love how casually cruel Dennis is to the other boys in town...
Of course the whole thing is a misunderstanding as Dad thought he was challenged to a game of Ludo and after a humiliating defeat he takes it out on the boy.
Our first spanking! Not a slipper though...

On to page three and we get another of those all-time great comics creators. It's our first glimpse (on this tour) of the work of Leo Baxendale.
This is The Three Bears, itself a spin off from Baxendale's Little Plum (more on him later).

Ma, Pa and their son Teddy are three bears who live in a cave near to a town in an Old West setting. They are perpetually hungry and looking for food to steal.

In this story, a coyote is reading smoke signals and discovers a shipment of steaks will soon be passing through. When word reaches the bears they are determined to beat all the other animals to it.
I love Baxendale's cartoony style which looks like it was heavily influenced by US animators like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.

Oh, and it all turns out to be another hilarious misunderstanding.
Adventure time now with The Ting-A-Ling Taylors. This one has a high concept that sounds like a Viz parody.
So it's a family who live on an African wildlife reserve. 

And they own a big red fire engine.
All right, so we've got an ethnic stereotype and the "great white saviour" trope but this was well written and nicely presented so I'll allow it.

This was a two-page story and featured the fire engine being used to subdue the elephant for long enough that they treat the injured foot that was driving it mad.
This strip did not last long, I imagine because the writer ran out of ways a fire engine could be used to solve animal problems.

Time to check in with the only character to have appeared in every review so far: Lord Snooty. And his pals.

The "pals" seem to be the same ones as the last time we saw them, apart from Polly who is no longer in the gang (or possibly has been edited out).
Excitingly, however, we do get our first glimpse of Professor Screwtop! All right maybe not exciting for you but I perked up when I saw him.

Anyway, Screwtop was Bunkerton's abent-minded wacky inventor character and hit all the same cliches of the type from Gyro Gearloose to Professor Branestawm.  In later years he would turn up in other strips. I have an 80s Beano Comic Library where he invents a time machine a sends various characters back through history. I'll do that one here someday.

But more interestingly, a version of the character was brought back into the comic recently and appears in the current Dennis animated series along with his daughter Rubi Von Screwtop.
Image result for ruby von screwtop
Back to the story in hand and the gang find the Professor's invention of a mobile paddling pool useless so head back to the castle...
Note that Watkins was allowed to sign this strip.

Also: this page featured an ad for the latest Black Bob book ("The Dandy Wonder Dog")
It's time for some more of that sweet sweet Baxendale action next as we get our first look at another iconic (and I do not use that word lightly) British comic strip:
Yes! It's The Bash Street Kids! Another bunch of characters we all know.
Drink in that panel. It's fascinating to see how much Baxendale crammed into every drawing at this point in his career. And I love this comedy violence!
Originally titled "When the Bell Rings" in 1954 it was a strip that showcased the chaos of kids leaving school, usually featuring one large panel packed with detail.

In 1956 the formula was simplified and Baxendale picked out his favourite characters and put them all in a single school class and renamed it The Bash Street Kids.

In this strip the kids are recognisably the same as the ones you'd see in today's Beano. Namely Danny, Smiffy, Wilfrid, Sidney, Fatty, Plug, Spotty and 'Erbert. Only Toots is missing.
More please!

The centre pages are given over to The Great Flood of London, another adventure strip set in the far-off future of 1970. Not much has changed but we live underwater.
This was why the Thames flood barrier was built. 

Yes a "mysterious burning planet" caused sea levels to rise and London was evacuated.

Harry Foster, however decided that he was keeping his family there in spite of what an obviously terrible idea it was because Brexit means Brexit and it would be an insult to democracy to give in now.

So yes, they live in the Elizabeth Tower in the Palace of Westminster (it's not called Big Ben) and scavenge from submerged shops.
Remarkably, it is drawn by David Sutherland, the man who would take over Dennis from Davy Law and is still drawing The Bash Street kids today after taking over from Baxendale in 1962! That's 56 years!

Simple gag strip Wonder Boy is next. About a boy who wonders. 

Here he is wondering what it would be like to be a long jumper.
This page also has an ad for the new Beano Book, promoted by more Baxendale art with a picture of Little Plum. I said we'll get to him later.
Next up: Little Plum. 

It's that Baxendale man again.
Again, I love all the little details, like the fish biting things.

Little Plum was a juvenile Native American in an Old West setting. He'd get up to the same sort of mischief as his UK-based contemporaries and usually get punished by the leader of his tribe, "Chiefy".
It was long-running and still occasionally appears in today's Beano, now drawn by another British comics legend, Hunt Emerson.

Some elements could be considered problematic today. For example the way characters talk is um heap big stereotype. But Little Plum is fondly remembered for a reason.

There's a final two-page adventure strip with extra-terrestrial hero The Danger Man.
Nope, no relation to John Drake.
This Danger Man is from Mars and lives on an island in the south Atlantic.
There he waits for calls for help regarding disasters, whereupon he can launch his specially-built rocket crafts, loaded with equipment to deal with any emergency.

This is Thunderbirds, five years early!
He has two child sidekicks, Jet and Jane (I don't know if they are also Martian or not) and while DM pilots the larger craft the Zoomar, they fly the smaller Zoomets.
This week's story sees them saving the cat from a burning skyscraper in San Francisco.

It would be churlish of me to point out that San Francisco does not have any skyscrapers, due to it being built on a fault line, so I won't.

As we head towards the end we get one more Leo Baxendale treat, and another comics icon: Minnie the Minx.
Again, Minnie is a character that survives to this day in the Beano and is as popular as ever. Here we get to see her creator invent some "monsters" that make Min's scary mask prank backfire.
I love these panels, in spite/because of how contrived they have to be.
The inside back cover is Colonel Crackpot's Circus, by Malcolm Judge (who would go on to create Billy Whizz and Ball Boy). A fairly simple concept about the odball characters one would expect to find in a circus.
One of us, one of us...

And so to the back page where we find the other bona fide comics genius working on The Beano at that time.

The genius is Ken Reid and the strip is Jonah.
The concept of Jonah is an odd one. He's a man who sincerely believes that his calling in life is be a sailor. However, a combination of clumsiness and coincidence means that every ship he sets foot on sinks.

Soon his reputation precedes him and no ship will have him so he has to use stealthier methods to get on board. He is, of course, inevitably discovered, usually with a loud "Aaargh! It's 'im!" and then all heck breaks loose.
Unusually, this was a serialised humour strip, with events carrying over week on week. This week starts a new story as Jonah attempts to get cast as "Huckleberry Hack, the runaway who wants to become a chimney sweep on a river boat" in this big-budget movie from Colossal Films.
Seriously Jonah, who's your agent? I'd never get an audition like that...

Anyway, when he's asked to take his hat off he is immediately recognised and break out the heck.
I love Ken Reid's art so much and we'll have a look at his work again some time. Especially his monster designs.
A cargo of springs sends Jonah back onto the ship as it moves off and we have to wait to see what happens next. Please, DC Thomson, reprint Ken Reid's Jonah.

It's worth noting here that Reid also created Roger the Dodger the previous year for The Beano, but at this point that strip was on hiatus. So no Roger today.

But come back next time and we'll see how The Beano looked in the 1970s.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Beano #452; Enter an icon

Let's continue our trip through the decades of The Beano's life, which began with an overview here, continued with a review of the first issue from 1938 here and the first issue to sell a million copies here.

So now we venture into the 1950s and we can see how the comic is evolving and growing to appeal to a new generation.

It's issue #452 from 1951 and it was chosen for the excellent boxed set because of a significant new arrival.
To begin at the beginning: the cover has changed.

Boring old Big Eggo has been usurped as cover star by Biffo the Bear, being relegated to mascot. He now occupies the space previously reserved for Little Peanut, whom I am pleased to see the back of.

Biffo was another Dudley D Watkins creation who first appeared in January 1948 with a Mickey Mouse-inspired look (I assume) and remained cover star until 1974. He continued to appear inside the comic until 1999 has had several attempted revivals since.

The strips were largely rooted in silent comedy and could feature Biffo in any kind of role. Here he is, running a cafe, being vexed by a human fly from a nearby circus.
I do like that image with the laughing walrus.

Time to go inside.

As with previous issues, page 1 has three short comic strips. However this issue has no other page with more than one strip, another sign of the comic evolving, giving characters room to breathe and grow rather than just deliver a quick gag.

Maxy's Taxi is a quick gag strip about a chap called Maxy. Who has a taxi. (Our cabby's here - with fun and cheer)

Here he is delivering a vibrating package: 
No, it's not a box of caravan shakers, it's a jelly.

Have-a-Go Joe (Do or die - he'll have a try) is seen here living up to his motto by testing a batch of bullet-proof waistcoats! 
The last waistcoat is faulty and the final panel is Joe, slumped on the ground, gasping: "Tell my wife I love her..."

Not really, he gets pinged by a small boy with a pea shooter.

The Magic Lollipops (suck 'em and see!) survive from #272, but is starting to look old.

This is a weird one, as a bloke with a complex over his big nose (a kid is seen shouting "What a beak!" in the first panel) and is offered a magic lollipop to help. However the conjuring confectionery turns into garden shears! 
And the chap is insulted, blames the boy and forces him to do chores. The lesson: never offer to help a stranger.

The third page is still the home of Lord Snooty and His Pals, as he was in both our previous looks. However the strip had an 18 month hiatus starting in June 1949 and when it came back, he had all-new "pals".  
Scrapper and Rosie (who were there in #1) are still with us, as are troublesome twins Snitch and Snatch (who joined soon after). They are joined with Big Fat Joe and Mary the mule (formerly Contrary Mary) who had their own strip in #1. Added to that is Pongo the dog and three other refugees from cancelled strips: Doubting Thomas, Swanky Lanky Liz and Polly.

Ah, Polly. now here's another problematic one...

She was a little girl with a clumsy pet dog in a strip entitled Polly Wolly Doodle and Her Great Big Poodle. And she was a black-face caricature.

Like Little Peanut, this creates a dilemma for DC Thomson. Have a look at the image above. Polly is the character second from the right. In this reprint she has been white-washed.

Below is the image as it would have originally looked, published here purely for historical context:
Also note that the reprint removes the names of the pals, I assume to further eliminate the memory of Polly. She is also edited in the strip itself, which hardly seems worth it as she is only in three out of the thirteen panels and barely visible in them. And as a white girl is barely indistinguishable from Rosie.

I get it, though. I understand that this kind of imagery is unacceptable today especially in products aimed at children. However Polly was a rare non-white female character appearing regularly in one the most popular (if not the most popular) children's comics of the day. And she was just one of the gang, completely accepted, rarely the butt of jokes. And that seems special and a bit of a shame to ignore.

Granted, I'm white and not old enough to have read this strips at the time but I'd love to hear opinions of anyone other.

Anyway, this week's story involves the gang trying to ride bikes but as there aren't enough to go round they end up getting help putting the spare parts together to make one big superbike. 
And that's a terrific piece of Watkins art. Incidentally, that's Polly at the back. Now that I think of it, maybe she was always pushed to the back...

My favourite discovery on these reviews has been Granny Green, the boy who pretends he is his own grandmother to keep away busybodies. She/he debuted in #1, continued in #272 and here in #452 it gets rebooted!

They are no longer "Wangles" they are The Quick Tricks of Granny Green. 

"Join the fun with Granny Green - The trickiest Granny ever seen!"
It's still a prose story, but now a page and a half long. And it's a complete rewrite of the story from #1.

It clears up some problems and adds some details to make the premise make more sense (Jimmy's dad has gone on a business trip to Australia; The Aunt supposed to look after him is taken ill; the family solicitor supplies "granny" with money;) but it hits all the same story beats.

The best additional detail is that Jimmy's dad had apparently used to have a drag act! We are told that he had been an actor and "had often done turns dressed up as an old lady". He still has a trunk full of costumes, wigs and make up. I assume for sentimental reasons.

If you're wondering what was on the other half-page, it saw the arrival of a strip about some kid.

"Look! Here's a new pal you'll enjoy - He's the world's wildest boy!" 
It won't last.

Next we have our first picture strip luckless orphans The Hungry Little Goodwins ("Two brave runaways whose only friend is a hunted highwayman"). A weird hybrid adventure serial of Dickensian poverty and robbery. 

A brother and sister, Jeff and Nell are on the run (from what, I know not) but have a guardian angel in the shape of one "Dick Turnpin", a notorious highway robber. 

I'm not sure why the writer chose not to call him Dick Turpin, the name of the real-life highwayman, romanticised in William Harrison Ainsworth's 1834 novel Rookwood. 

It certainly wasn't copyright reasons. And why change by only one letter? He even has a horse with the same name (Black Bess). And the surtitle on page two calls him "Dick Turpin". 
Anyway, this week's thrilling story has our heroes duped out of money by a mean baker and grabbed by the beadle!

The two of them are forced into the workhouse and made to scrub the floors. Things get full-on Dickens when, after being served "thin, watery soup" for a meal, Jeff asks for more. 
Needless to say, Dick rescues them by threatening the beadle with a pistol.

Incidentally, the novel Oliver Twist was published 100 years after Turpin was hanged. But the story was started only 3 years after Ainsworth's novel was published. 

The second of only two prose stories is Tommy's Clockwork Town. And it is bonkers. 
Set in the old west, young Tommy Tucker is travelling across America with Professor Corker and a lorry full of clockwork people and a towns-worth of building to house them. 

This week they run across a small town with unruly children ("all sons of cow-punchers") so out-of control we discover them throwing their school-teacher in the river!

To teach them a lesson, town unleashes the mechanical marvel that builds an entire town next door, complete with clockwork people. Now, as with #272's Tick Tock Timothy, "clockwork people" essentially means androids. 

"The clockwork figures looked so natural that Pudge and his pals thought they were real people."

Take that Boston Dynamics!

Anyway, the town teacher rounds the boys up and thrashes some discipline into them. They are soon turned into model citizens. And I don't mean like clockwork models. It's uncomfortable.

I have, however, been surprised in just how little corporal punishment I've seen in these early issues. I guess it didn't become a comedy trope until later. Was it Leo Baxendale's fault? Come back next time...

Page two of this story is shared with another Wild West story, this time comedy strip Ding-Dong Belle, about a woman sheriff (a woman?). Here she is tackling the contemporary problem of knife crime. 
The second of this issue's two picture strips is the continuing adventures of Jimmy and His Magic Patch (Who is Jimmy's latest chum? None other than Robert the Bruce, by gum !).

We last saw Jimmy as a peasant slave in #272 but our adventure today begins with Jimmy on a school field trip to collect what would today be referred to as minibeasts. Fascinated by a spider he begins thinking about the story of Robert the Bruce. And soon... 
The downhearted King of Scotland is shown the famous spider by Jimmy and it gives him resolve to continue into battle. Jimmy, having recently studied the Battle of Bannockburn, gives Robert the strategy he needs to win!

It's the bootstrap paradox!

It's never mentioned in the story  but Robert's enemy here is the English army under Edward II. This means the English readers of The Beano (a significant majority) would cheering on an English defeat.

The story is resolved by Jimmy pouring his jar of minibeasts down some enemy (English) soldiers' jerkins.

Then, after winning the day, the patch sends Jimmy home.
"If only they knew, Tommy. If only they knew!"

The back cover still has Pansy Potter on it, but thankfully no Tin Can Tommy. Pansy gets the whole page to herself now and the strip has been re-titled Pansy Potter in Wonderland.

The original Hugh McNeill strip has been significantly retooled by Jimmy Clark and is far less cartoony than previous. As the title suggests, she now lives in a land full of fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters. 

This week feature that wacky prankster Old Father Time. He turns her Beano back into a 1949 issue (presumably the one where her new look first appeared).
Also note her Popeye-style limbs now.

After a couple more japes Pansy grabs the sands of time and turns the tables:
With that ends another enjoyable issue that great old institution: The Beano.

Another totally insignificant....

Oh, okay then. Yes this issue is in the box because it has the first appearance of Dennis the Menace, arguably the most iconic British comics character. And one of the most iconic British fictional characters of the 20th century. He is a character I have written about at length, most significantly here.

And, in spite of this being a widely reprinted strip, I will present that first Dennis strip in full for those of you who may not have seen it:
Next time: We head into the 1960s and visit some more famous mischief-makers.