A little look at something different!
I nearly started this article by suggesting that when most readers were young, the newsagents were full of comics, but then I remember that Slugger has readers who are too young to remember Buster ending with the last issue of 1999, leaving only the Beano, the Dandy, 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine on newsagent shelves.
To my shock, my generation is the last one to remember the days when you could walk into a newsagent – indeed, when there were newsagents in every village rather than convenience stores – and choose between a dozen traditional comics. Mixed in with standards like the Beezer, the Topper, Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Whoopee were peripatetic comics such as Sparky, Nutty, Krazy, Cheeky, Jackpot starting and stopping after a few years, and topped off with boys and girls comics such as Victor, Eagle, Tiger and Bunty.
By the mid-1980s, Whoopee had folded into Whizzer and Chips, and Hoot would become the last of the supporting cast to the big DC Thomson four of Beano, Dandy, Beezer and Topper. Tiger, the original home of Roy of the Rovers, was merged into the new Eagle, and late 1980s experiments such as Wildcat and Oink had limited lives. Whizzer and Chips finally closed in 1990, the last DC Thomson boys comic, the Victor, would end in 1992, the Beezer and Topper would merge in 1990 and close in 1993, and the Eagle ended in 1994.
And scarily, most readers will have no idea what any of the above were. You might vaguely remember the Dandy which closed in 2012 on its 75th birthday, and there have been three new entrants to the newsstand market: Toxic, Epic (formerly Beano Max and the Dennis and Gnasher Megazine) and, in Waitrose and Forbidden Planet, the Phoenix.
But the daddy of them all now is the Beano, which was first published 80 years ago on Friday. A collectors’ set published a couple of weeks ago includes facsimiles of memorable Beanos, postcards and a poster alongside a bookazine with potted histories, editor and artist profiles and the famous Dennis the Menace fan club wallet with 1990s badges. Sales figures bear no resemblance to even 1970s figures, but are nevertheless rising from their lows earlier this decade.
So what’s the secret? In a digital world, how does one keep going?
DC Thomson have adopted a hybrid solution. With newsprint long abandoned (sheetfed and heatset web offset on magazine paper maintains quality parity with competitors, as does full colour) the weekly Beano does well on the news stands for what the market is, as well as healthy print and digital subscription figures, but it’s backed up with the beano.com website, Dennis and Gnasher unleashed and a forthcoming show about Minnie the Minx.
But the key is still in the comic itself.
The Beano found the key to its longevity in the 1950s. Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and Roger the Dodger (with a short gap in early years) have been constant companions for over 60 years – even Lord Snooty didn’t last that long.
The strength of the characters. Dennis is no longer a bully, but leaves destruction in his wake as still an extremely naughty boy who has an understanding with Santa (the Beano kids save Santa, Santa gives them presents), while Walter has stopped being a softy and is now a very nasty piece of work we are glad to see lose every week. Minnie leaves a trail of chaos behind her, usually with her Dad in the middle. The Bash Street Kids have barely changed. Roger the Dodger has had the same theme for 65 years of trying to get out of some sort of work and occasionally succeeding. Throw in newer characters like Billy Whizz (1960s), Calamity James (1980s – currently drawn and written with occasional nods to NI destinations by Belfast graphic designer Leslie Stannage) and the ultimate British superhero, Bananaman (originally in Nutty in 1980 and now the last Dandy star standing).
It’s a carefully curated core of key characters well written, and with the slippers long discarded, the kids usually come out on top in their battles with their parents and authority figures.
Around that core are other stories, old and new – original cover star Big Eggo was brought out of retirement earlier this year in the hands of Lew Stringer; Ball Boy who originated in the 1970s gets frequent football-themed runs; the Dennis and Gnasher supporting cast such as crazy inventor and wheelchair user Rubi; Betty forever hiding her Yeti around the house; the Numskulls, 25 years after they escaped from the Beezer; and the indomitable Tricky Dicky recycling a character’s name from the Topper into a young and clever prankster whose teacher is no match for him.
Each week two readers feature as characters – one who has chosen the best joke, read the stories early and is featured as the week’s #sobeano character, and one who gets a superpower based on their menace name and a full strip on the back page.
It’s very different from the 1970s and 80s, and the further you go back, notwithstanding the wonderful Jonah by Ken Reid and the fact that Dave Sutherland has been drawing the Bash Street Kids since 1962, the more distant in style the content is.
But you have to remember one thing. I’m a bit old for the Beano. Most of us are, and that’s why only a few of us didn’t stop reading it when we were kids.
And the evidence is… the 2010s Beano is working. It’s engaging the kids. The characters are as naughty as ever, and more often than not, they get away with it in a way that they never did in the days when they were punished every week.
I mentioned that there are other comics in the market. Only the Phoenix, 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine are in the market for mainly comic strips with relatively low feature content, and yes, I subscribe to them too – print for the Phoenix as no digital edition is available, and digital for the Tooth and 28 year old Meg.
2000AD was 40 last year, and I got to meet several of the creatives through Paul Trimble’s Enniskillen ComicFest (with Omagh ComicFest coming on 8th September), including Mike Carroll, who is probably contributing the largest share of ongoing Judge Dredd stories, together with artist and writers from all over Ireland, especially Northern Ireland, and guests, including occasional Beano contributors from England, Scotland and Wales.
But today we toast the Beano. Happy birthday Beano – and, as Gnasher would say, Gnever be without a Beano.
The 80th birthday issue of the Beano, guest edited by author David Walliams, is still available in all good newsagents, Easons and most supermarkets, together with The Beano – 80 years of fun.
Among the many websites discussing British comics – past and present – is Comics UK, where Andy admits to being one of the moderators…
Oh. One last word for those who know. DING!
Andy has a very wide range of interests including Christianity, Lego, transport, music, and computers. Anything can appear in a post.
Andy tweets at @andyboal