The Beano at 70

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It has poked fun at Hitler, introduced some of the most famous characters in British comic history and always tried to move with the times. As the Beano hits another landmark, what does its future hold, asks Jim Gilchrist

IN THE beginning was the burd… It was one Big Eggo, an accident-prone ostrich, who galumphed about the front page of the Beano when the comic first appeared 70 years ago on 30 July 1938 – price 2d. The big feathery character would stay on the front page until 1948, when he was replaced by Biffo the Bear in his shorts and braces.

The Beano has been part of growing up for three generations. As it approaches its platinum jubilee, various events, from a planned reunion of former staff, an exhibition and conference at Dundee University and a show at London's Cartoon Museum, will celebrate what is, along with its sister publication the Dandy, a phenomenon in the world of British comics. Apart from the early Harmsworth titles Chips and Comic Cuts, both of which appeared from 1890 to 1953, only DC Thomson's Dandy (which celebrated its 70th birthday last year) and Beano have chalked up more than half a century of comic capers.

The Dundee-based publishing empire had already established its comic credentials with a quintet of popular boys' action comics – Hotspur, Rover, Adventure, Wizard and the shorter-lived Skipper – offering well-drawn strips with text below each frame. Honing what would become near-legendary skills on these was Thomson's artist Dudley D Watkins, who would invest the emergent Beano and Dandy (not to mention the already established Broons and Oor Wullie strips in the Sunday Post) with near-surreal cartoon genius. Watkins was followed by other illustrators who would become renowned in the annals of British comics: Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Dave Law and Dave Sutherland. Between them and their scriptwriters, they peopled the childhoods of generations with a riotous assembly of eccentric characters such as Biffo, Dennis the Menace, Lord Snooty, Roger the Dodger, the Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx and Jonah.

Today, as the current issue of Book & Magazine Collector points out, a first issue of the Beano can fetch between 8,000 and 12,000, while the first Beano Book, which appeared in 1940, can change hands for as much as 3,500.

At its peak in April 1950, weekly Beano sales reached 1,974,072, the Dandy actually topping the two-million mark around the same time. Today, despite the inroads of television, the internet and much other competition, the comic still sells 75,000 a week. "Although it sounds like a ridiculous statistic, the received knowledge is that 2.4 people read every copy," says its present editor, Alan Digby. He attributes the comic's enduring (if inevitably shrinking) appeal to having "inherited strong characters such as Dennis and the Bash Street Kids, who are almost woven into our collective subconscious".

Steering such a famous and wildly idiosyncratic institution through changing times obviously has its challenges. "I think it was the previous editor (Euan Kerr] who described it as 'the best job in the world'," says Digby, "although it doesn't always feel like that. The major balancing trick is to avoid too many changes, while at the same time trying to keep some kind of relevance with the modern world."

Digby agrees that the comic's post-war "golden age" set the template for several of its most enduring characters. "There was definitely a period in the early 1950s when the writing staff and the artists seemed to click, in a meeting of like minds and talents."

The ebullient Beano scriptwriter Ian Gray, not long before he died last September, talked on BBC Four's Comics Britannia about the paradox which placed such an anarchic hotbed of creative talent within the strict and sober Albert Place hub of the DCT empire. "We were like a big squad of mischievous schoolboys ... but, at the same time, churning out some of the funniest comic material that's ever been written."

It was Gray who was credited with inventing Dennis the Menace's dog, Gnasher, in the late Sixties, telling artist Davy Law simply to draw the Menace's hairstyle, then "put a leg on each corner and two eyeballs at the end".

DC Thomson's 70th anniversary, magazine-format Special Collectors Edition of the comic charts the debut of some classic characters and their creators: Dudley D Watkins, having already drawn Desperate Dan for the Dandy, introduced the zany world of Lord Snooty and His Pals, one of the longest-running Beano strips, but defunct since the 1990s, although it seems you can't keep a good peerage down – this week the comic features his grandson, Lord Snooty the Third.

Watkins also drew "straight" adventure strips, such as Jimmy and his Magic Patch, as well as other comic characters including Biffo, while 17 March 1951 saw the advent of the Beano's most enduring character, Dennis the Menace, from the pen of David Law. Following on were Leo Baxendale's manic depictions of the Bash Street Kids, while scriptwriter Walter Fearn and artist Ken Reid, a master of the grotesquely zany, came up with the fanged chinless wonder Jonah, a figurehead, you might say, of that anarchic Beano spirit, though the moronic mariner scuppered his last vessel in the comic in 1962. Beano and Dandy share a distinguished war record, so lampooning Hitler and Mussolini that unearthed documents have since revealed that, in the event of Germany invading Britain, the comics' editors (and the ever-inventive Dudley D) would have figured on a "hit list". Lord Snooty and His Pals foiled dastardly Nazi schemes in often bizarre ways, while elsewhere the comic exhorted youngsters to recycle for the war effort, with enjoinders such as "Don't make paper aeroplanes with your old comics... help make real ones."

The Beano's patriotic front particularly interests Dr Chris Murray, lecturer in English and film studies at Dundee university, who will be among speakers at an evening of celebratory talks there on 30 July, in association with "The Official 70th birthday Exhibition" the university is running until 20 September. "My favourite parts of the exhibitions are, or course, the work by Baxendale and Watkins," says Murray, "but especially the wartime material. These comics are such wonderful examples of how wartime messages can be conveyed through unusual means to an audience hungry for images of patriotism and ridicule of the enemy."

The Beano and Dandy, says Murray, picked up on the visual impact and speech-bubble dialogue of American comics that were just starting to circulate here during the 1930s and made them their own. In doing so, he says, "they reshaped the face of British comics. Their success was that they attracted the very best artists working in Britain, and recruited some from abroad. These were comics that were bought by children, not for them, and they spoke to children in a language they understood. Long may they do so."

However, Paul Gravett, author of Great British Comics and a consultant for BBC Four's Comics Britannia suggests that children may know the characters but that doesn't mean to say that they buy the comic. "The Beano is thriving ... but the Dandy has not done so well and is now fortnightly ... and it's not impossible to imagine the two of them eventually merging" – an eventuality which Digby says has never been raised at editorial level.

"The important thing is to keep renewing these comics," says Gravett, pointing to the signal success of a recent Beano addition, Derek the Sheep, created by Gary Northfield, which has developed such a cult following it has been translated into French and is about to be published in collected form by Bloomsbury.

Gravett, to his regret, can't make the Dundee event, but he will be speaking at the peak at the forthcoming Edinburgh International Book Festival about a rather different if no less imaginative comic art form – Manga editions of Shakespeare. What the Bash Street kids would think is anybody's guess.

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BIG EGGO: An accident-prone ostrich, drawn by Reg Carter, who featured on the comic's front page until he was replaced in 1948 by Biffo.

BIFFO THE BEAR: Biffo grinned up from newsagents' counters every week until September 1974, when he was replaced on page one by Dennis and Gnasher. He eventually retired in the early 1980s.

TIN CAN TOMMY: A robot created by Milan-based cartoonists the Torelli brothers in 1938. A letter from the Torellis to DC Thomson in 1939 assured the publisher that "our countries will not go to war", but they were never heard of again. Tommy clattered on into the late 1940s, drawn by DC Thomson's own artists.

JONAH: The slavering, dithering creation of Ken Reid, Jonah is regarded by many as the last of the truly great Beano characters. Introduced in 1958, he sank without trace in 1963, although was resurrected for a spell in the Dandy during the 1990s.

FREDDIE FEAR: "Son of a Witch". introduced in 2002 and currently drawn by Dave Eastbury, Freddie is a normal schoolboy whose fanged, pointy-hatted mum is a source of constant embarrassment to him, especially when supernatural guests drop by and spells go wrong.

DEREK THE SHEEP: Unexpected favourite created by Gary Northfield, which has appeared, if erratically, in the Beano since 2004 and established a cult following. About to be released between hard covers by Harry Potter publishers Bloomsbury.

BEA: Allegedly Dennis the Menace's baby sister and introduced in 1998, Bea rockets about her page with well-aimed bursts of flatulence.

Political correctness may have curtailed some of the more entertainingly violent antics of Beano folk, but toilet humour is evidently quite permissible.