As a kid I had a giant cardboard box – big enough to have seen service as a spaceship – which was stuffed with comics: DC titles from America and all the DC Thomson favourites produced in Dundee.
Beatles vs Stones? That would come later, but first for me the eternal struggle, the great debate, used to be Beano vs Dandy The former invariably came out tops and that was mainly down to the Bash Street Kids.
How much? £2.75? “Yikes!” as Beano characters hopefully still say. “Arrgh!” Thumbing the now glossy pages I can’t find the most anarchic classroom in the entire history of the world, the universe, the entire solar system – what’s Minnie the Minx doing in the centre-spread? – and then there they are: Danny, ’Erbert, Wilfrid, Smiffy, Spotty, Plug and Fatty, except we can’t call him that anymore. “Drat! Urrgh! Boo!” Political correctness hits the Beano. Again!
Fatty reverts to Freddy, his real name (who knew?), for fear of causing offence in what is the most obese country in Western Europe. Now, it pains me to say this, but none of us dealing in the printed word – be it in speech-bubble form with lots of exclamation marks or the more sober style of The Scotsman – has the power and influence we once did.
The Dandy gave up on print, tried digital and died. The Beano still fights on the newsstands and I do mean fight, having had to shove aside piles of toy-laden, TV show spin-off publications to locate issue number 4,086 (oh for a Bash Street chemistry-lesson bomb!).
But for the first time in my life I find myself agreeing with Lord Snooty, Leader of the House of Commons – sorry, I mean Jacob Rees-Mogg – who says of the nickname-nixing: “I expect this is just publicity-seeking… otherwise it is comically woke.”
The Beano reached an all-time circulation high of 1,974,072 by being cheeky, unruly, irreverent and much more besides. It was subversive. It gave the impression it was underground. It looked to have been written for kids by kids, as if the wildest ones in every classroom had joined forces in a revolutionary cell. It wasn’t, of course. The strips were drawn by a bunch of genius child-like grown-ups. And now?
It’s not entirely fair, I know, to scrutinise the Beano through adult eyes. Today’s kids have far more to entertain them than comics. There’s less deference so a teacher’s neck being pinged by a peashooter won’t carry the same shock and awe. How then can the Beano remain as edgy as it once seemed to seven-year-old me?
The New Musical Express used to be edgy and look how it tried to arrest tumbling circulations: by endlessly writing about big but bland groups – Coldplay, Mumford & Sons – of the type which would never have been given houseroom in the mag’s pomp.
The Dandy resorted to similarly desperate measures by introducing Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole to its pages. This seemed like a betrayal of the original comics code: don’t let in the real world and certainly not its more frivolous representatives. The Beano may not have followed suit – yet – but it’s obviously listening to the woke brigade.
Has Fatty – sorry, Freddy – ever been ridiculed or ostracised by the other Bash Street Kids specifically for being on the rotund side? It seems the nickname has been used affectionately and that he’s always been in on the gag of the relentless terrorising of “Teach”. In other words, the Beano ticks the boxes for diversity and inclusivity.
Who will the PC lobby go after next? In the current issue Freddy – who’s missing his trademark bag of cakes – is sat at the back of the class in between the two surely most as peril.
How long before Spotty loses his nickname because it’s deemed hurtful to kids with plooks, pimples, rashes and zits? How long before Plug must switch to his real name – Percival Proudfoot Plugsley, would you believe – or undergo cosmetic surgery to smooth out those gloriously gawky features which have left him unperturbed while amusing everyone else for the past 67 years?
Talking of peashooters, are they even allowed in the Beano anymore? Catapults? Or am I just showing my age and yearning for a bygone era of prankery which – let’s not forget – would be punished with a slipper, a cane or the belt?
Well, Dennis is no longer allowed his “Menace” appellation and, before his sad demise, the Dandy’s Desperate Dan was forced to give up the cow pies and submit to a diet, stop shaving with a blowtorch and, in deference to the anti-smoking lobby, kick his habit of lighting a dustbin full of rubbish and inhaling through a drainpipe.
There have been plenty of dissenting voices. Ex-Beano editor Euan Kerr argued all of 13 years ago, when joke was still a word and woke wasn’t, that the comic had become too PC and urged for a return to its anti-establishment roots.
“Kids understand that a comic is a comic and not anything like real life,” he said. Around the same time, John Midgeley of the Campaign Against Political Correctness asserted: “It’s a great shame that in recent years a national institution [like the Beano] has been watered down to placate a tiny minority of humourless, do-gooding adults.”
When Minnie the Minx artist Jim Petrie retired, he lamented having to cut out the dust clouds signifying mass punch-ups. Grrr and phooey to all of that, but what do I know? My nine-year-old has walked off with my Beano and she’s currently chuckling away.