IN MY line of work, I sometimes find myself in situations that, as a child, would have seemed impossible dreams. Today, though, takes the cake. In fact, it takes the cake, gobbles it and then helps itself to a ziggurat of mashed potato with sausages sticking out. I am visiting the offices of The Beano.
First published on July 30, 1938, The Beano is approaching its 70th birthday. It has always been produced in the grand Dundee office of DC Thomson, the lion rampant flying from the roof. On one side of the building is the old High School; on the other, the graveyard known as The Howff. This seems symbolic: between the scholastic pressures of childhood and the inevitable decay of the flesh there is The Beano, so get your laughs while you can.
The Beano editorial office overlooks The Howff. It's a large room, the posters on the walls including a reproduction of the very first cover, which featured Big Eggo, a comedy ostrich. Written on a white board are the results of market research. Apparently the typical Beano reader, aged 6-12, is inward-looking, obsessive and wary of girls. That sounds right. Growing up in Aberdeenshire, I was a member of the Dennis The Menace fan club and owned the hairy Gnasher badge, much coveted by local loons but hardly catnip for quines.
It's quiet in the office today, but I get talking to George Cobb, who has the plum job in the comic – writing Dennis and The Bash Street Kids. "It is a lot of pressure," he says. "You have to keep coming up with new ideas." Cobb is 54 with grandkids and has worked for DC Thomson since 1972, starting on The Dandy before defecting. It's interesting that many of the men behind this comic are in middle age or older and have been in their jobs a long time. The Beano has had only four editors since 1938.
David Sutherland, who draws The Bash Street Kids at home in Broughty Ferry and brings it to the office on Mondays, is in his mid-seventies and has drawn the strip since 1962. Cobb shows me some artwork Sutherland finished earlier in the week, his 1,940th Bash Street strip.
A good number of the Beano artists are freelancers working from home. It used to be different. Jimmy Glen, a cartoonist who looks really rather like a grey-haired Walter the Softy, is 64 and started working here in 1962 when he was 18. He remembers walking into the art room, which was on the floor above editorial, and seeing 50 artists sitting working at their desks. He was a little daunted, but soon slotted in and was put to work drawing Lord Snooty.
It could be an eccentric place to work. "We used to have paper aeroplane day," recalls Glen, who will give a talk on DC Thomson's comics at 2pm today as part of the Dundee Literary Festival. "These things would go flying round the room and hit you on the back of the neck while you were trying to do an intricate bit of work."
Glen was an avid Beano fan as a boy growing up in Dundee. His father worked as a mechanic in a jute mill and would come home each Thursday teatime with a copy of the comic folded inside his jacket. But by the time Glen started working for The Beano in 1962 it was already in relative decline as a commercial force. In 1950, the sales peak, the weekly comic was selling around two million copies of each issue. These days The Beano shifts around 250,000 over the course of the month. There are so many other things competing for kids' attention these days – telly, video games, even celeb mags such as Heat which apparently attract surprisingly young readers. Terrible to think that Paris Hilton is more interesting than Minnie The Minx.
DC Thomson is trying various strategies to cope, for instance a second try at making a Dennis The Menace animated cartoon for TV. They have also launched a monthly mag, BeanoMAX, which mixes comic strips with lifestyle content and is aimed at slightly older boys. It is produced by former Beano editor Euan Kerr and two colleagues, Gary Aitchison and John Anderson. The three share a small office and a taste for baked goods. They have a competition between them to guess the month's sales figures. Whoever is furthest out has to buy cakes. Kerr, a man of conservative tastes, favours a plain doughnut. "I'm more of a Devon slice man," says Aitchison. "Yesterday, John had the biggest fudge doughnut I've seen in my life. It was the size of a bridie."
Kerr takes me upstairs to the room containing the comic archive, where they have bound copies of everything. A few years back, the first issue of The Beano sold for over 12 grand at auction, but the early copies in this room aren't in great nick. They have a warehouse elsewhere in Dundee containing every piece of original art for The Beano and other titles, and things are stored more carefully there.
This room, though, is the domain of former Dandy editor Morris Heggie, who is in the process of pulling together vintage material for a coffee table book on the history of The Beano. He shows me some bizarre pages from 1941 in which a regular Beano character was used as part of the Allied propaganda effort.
"Derek, The Wild Boy Of The Woods, was not only a nature lover, but also a skilled technician who built a giant Adolf Hitler," he explains. "This mechanical Hitler walks across the English Channel to France, and the Germans are fair pleased to see him. But of course the Wild Boy is inside, operating him, and he wrestles German warplanes from the sky. In the end, of course, he marches back to Britain with a captured U-Boat and they burn the effigy in a bonfire. In another story, the Wild Boy teaches a snake to use a machine gun."
For this sort of thing, the then editor, George Moonie, was put on a Nazi hitlist; had they won the war, he would have been shot. Personally, I'd have given him a medal. Moonie and all the inky geniuses that came after. Happy 70th birthday, Beano. You look really good for your age.