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With the recent sad demise of The Dandy in print format, the Beano (albeit in a very different form) is the only surviving British comic out of all the wealth of titles that sprang up in the 1940s-1960s. This book, published in 2008, celebrates the comic's 70th anniversary and takes you through a decade by decade look at how the comic has moved with the times in order to ensure its continuing popularity and survival.
The first thing you will notice about this book is that it's not one you are going to want to carry around with you - it's huge and very heavy. In fairness, it's not really designed with that in mind and is the very definition of a coffee table book - a large, liberally illustrated book that you will want to plonk down in a central place so that you (and others) can flick through it at leisure.
There's no doubt that this is a book that encourages browsing, as it looks superb. Text on each page is kept to a minimum (usually just a few short paragraphs) with the bulk of each double spread page is taken up with illustrations, as befits a book about a very visual medium. A particular delight is that the book contains full page reproductions of original comic strips, so you can read them in full (very often these sorts of illustrations are shrunk down so that the text becomes unreadable). This offers a rare opportunity to read (or re-read) a whole host of stories from the Beano's past that you might never have seen before, or to meet characters you never knew existed.
There are plenty of other illustrations too to break up the pages and add to the variety, including some behind-the-scenes photographs of influential people and places in the Beano's history. These offer the reader a glimpse into a side of the comic which you rarely get to see and give an interesting insight into the background to the comic and how it was put together.
If there is one disappointing aspect it is that the text entries are very short. As noted above, they are usually limited to just a few short paragraphs and there is only so much information which can be conveyed in the 200 words or less that is normally available. It's obviously a fine line between bogging people down in too much information and not providing enough, and for the most part, the book gets that balance right. There were, however, a few times when I would have liked just a little bit more information about people, places or characters that I was not familiar with. You do sometimes feel that there is a very rich history here behind 75 years of The Beano and these entries are only scratching the surface.
On the plus side, the text is very well-written. Most of the entries are reasonably informative and written in a readable, light-hearted way that captures the spirit of the original comic. It's clear that the author really knows his stuff and that is writing this book from the perspective of a life-long Beano fan, rather than it simply being a job to do. There is no evidence of this being the cheap hack-job we too often get with this type of tie-in/celebratory book and everyone involved has given their best.
The book is arranged in a very logical and structured way. It is split into a series of chapters, with each chapter covering a decade in the comic's history. The opening chapter, for example, covers the 1930s and provides some context as to what the comic scene was like in that decade, prior to The Beano's arrival; whilst the final chapter looks at how comics have evolved to survive in the internet age. This chronological approach gives a real sense of history of the comic, whilst also allowing the reader to see how drastically it has changed from its text-heavy beginnings - virtually unrecognisable as a comic to today's readers - through the Golden Age of comics in the post-war period down to today's more modern (and modest) offerings.
There's also a couple of nice indices in the back of the book. One provides a chronology of key characters and stories, the other a list of Beano artists down the years. This means that if you are interested in what the book has to say about a particular artist or a favourite character, you can leap straight to that section without having to read anything else.
D C Thomson (The Beano's publisher) are rightly proud of their comic and the fact that it has now been bringing joy to children for over 70 years. This book is a fitting tribute to that achievement. Gorgeously illustrated and sympathetically written, it's a must-have book for anyone with fond memories of reading The Beano as a child. It's not cheap - a new copy will cost you around £15-25 and it's not that much cheaper second-hand, but if you want that nostalgia buzz that will bring happy childhood memories flooding back, then it's a very worthwhile investment
The History of The Beano
Waverley Books, 2008
(C) Copyright SWSt 2013
The Beano, as I'm sure we all know, is a humorous kids' comic published in Scotland. I used to read it when I was a kid - I was in Dennis the Menace's fan club and everything. Turns out the comic was 70 years old last year, and this oversized hardback has been published to cash in. (Seventy years is a pretty arbitrary anniversary. Seventy-five, sure, but seventy?) I bought it for a quick burst of nostalgia (albeit pricey nostalgia - this costs £25).
I'd forgotten just how unfunny The Beano actually was - I was even aware of that when I was a child. I was always slightly bemused by the fiction the comic laboriously maintained, that The Beano was the funniest thing in the world, with characters falling about laughing at the mere mention of its name. I liked it, although I can't really remember why; it certainly wasn't because it was funny.
Maybe it was the weird old-fashioned aspect of it. The comic strips were all much the same as one another, presenting a peculiar world of childish fantasy in which disobedience was cheered on and authority resisted purely for the sake of it. There was a kind of Just William feel to the more enduring characters, albeit a bit more urban. Children would get savagely beaten at the end of each episode by their parents or teachers, and they were obsessed with food (or 'grub', or' a good feed', usually represented by a large plate of mashed potato with sausages sticking out of it).
The book strikes a nice balance between being something kids can enjoy (if they enjoy The Beano - the humour doesn't seem to have changed much in 70 years) while giving grown-ups a nice nostalgic glow. There's information about artists and writers, which is of some interest. The only name I knew before reading this was Leo Baxendale, creator of The Bash Street Kids (he's still alive and contributed to Bryan Talbot's excellent Alice in Sunderland graphic novel a couple of years back). The comic's progress is followed through the decades in informative, short side panels.
But the main reason to want to own this is for the many, many pages of comic strips reprinted. The visual quality of individual strips is excellent, and they're mostly given a full page each, so are easy to read. The first issue of the Beano is reprinted in its entirety, and is followed by representative strips from all eras of the comic.
It still isn't funny. But it does have a charm all of its own, and it's fascinating reading the early stories, trying to figure out how this might have been received at the time (it was very popular right from the start). I love old cartoon strips and their absolutely incomprehensible humour. The Beano's first cover star was an ostrich named Big Eggo, whose shtick seemed to be that he was always trying to find his lost egg - a potentially rather traumatic idea, I'd have thought. There's very little dialogue, and what there is tends to be over-descriptive ("If only these ducks knew that this is only a barrage balloon with a face painted on it!" Yes. If only.)
The only strip from the first issue that I recognise is Lord Snooty, an aristocratic kid who used to have comic adventures with a gang of adoring working class children and a goat. There were a surprising amount of serious adventure strips. Some of these are utterly bonkers, like a 'Wild Boy of the Woods' adventure which features a 60-foot tall steel Hitler stomping around Germany freeing Allied prisoners of war (it doesn't even make sense in the context of the story...).
There's a lot of anti-Nazi and anti-Italian stuff from the war years. They gave Mussolini his own comic strip ('Musso da Wop') in which he was repeatedly humiliated. It's incredibly difficult to imagine something like that happening now. The book's reasonably upfront about the various racist caricatures that appeared in early editions of the Beano (there's an offensive drawing of a little black boy munching on a watermelon on the front of the first issue). Weirdly, the only censorship in this volume seems to be the dialogue of a comical rustic in one reprinted strip. It looks a lot like tippex has been used so that he's saying "ain't" instead of "bain't" and other such alterations. This is very odd considering the stuff they've left in. (Are country folk sensitive about that kind of stereotyping? If they are, they should stop marrying their sisters and visit a dentist once in a while. Ha ha.)
As time wears on the baffling old characters (Uncle Windbag, Big Fat Joe, Frosty McNab) are replaced by ones that are still going today, like Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger (I was always fond of Roger, probably because I'm very lazy myself). Little Plum the Red Indian is perhaps um bit offensive, but the Three Bears (always one of my favourites) was a spin-off from his strip, so I can forgive him.
Biffo the Bear was quite disturbing in retrospect, a grotesque bear/human hybrid in red lederhosen. His very human feet particularly freak me out. There's one reprint here, in which he's trying to kill a frog with a mallet, in which his facial expression is quite unpleasant in a way I can't quite put my finger on. Also mildly disturbing is General Jumbo, an adventure story about a kid with an army of remote controlled little tanks, planes etc. In a 1960s story reprinted here he brutalises and humiliates a local homeless guy - go Jumbo!
But all these stories, while rarely actually funny (the only one that made me snigger was a character called Jonah, the unluckiest sailor in the world) have a great deal of charm. Trying to recreate the mindset of the children who'd have read them is a fascinating if ultimately impossible exercise.
As things move into the late 70s and 80s, the era of the freakish Billy Whizz and the irritating Ball Boy, I start to find it less interesting. The artwork becomes less rough-and-ready as fashions change, and to my eye it all looks a bit less distinctive. Weird that my nostalgic interest fizzles out when I get to stuff that I actually half remember. I wonder what that says about me. That I'm handsome and intelligent, probably.
As it moves on beyond my childhood it gets worse and worse, but then I'm not the target audience by any stretch of the imagination. I just about remember the terrible publicity stunts of the late 80s from reading the predictable tabloid outrage - Gnasher goes missing; Dennis gets 'trendy'; the Bash Street Kids are made 'politically correct' etc. The modern stories have computerised lettering, which is a shame as it detracts from the slightly old-fashioned feel that the comic always had. They also feature too many cameos by the likes of Ronan Keating. But hey, The Beano has at least survived, which is more than can be said of The Dandy, The Beezer and other comics of its type.
I still have a lot of affection for The Beano, and it's nice to rekindle that a bit with this book, even if I was more interested in stories that predate me (and even my parents). This is pretty expensive, and is a bit too big and heavy. But if you have fond memories of characters who shout "yaroo!" when they get hurt; or if you like crazy stories in which bears disguise themselves as Napolean in order to hijack food shipments; or if you just pine for a time when it was OK to thrash children to within an inch of their lives, then this book probably has something for you.