Seventy Years Young

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At the end of July The Beano, the long-running British children’s weekly comic, reached its 70th birthday – a feat surpassed only by its slightly older sibling, The Dandy, at the end of last year. To commemorate this remarkable achievement the U.K.’s Cartoon Museum is holding its very own Beano and Dandy Birthday Bash! – an exhibition of original artwork spanning eight decades of the popular D.C. Thomson stablemates and running until November 2nd 2008. Broken Frontier’s Andy Oliver popped into London’s West End to share a Cow Pie with Desperate Dan and friends…

It is impossible to overestimate the influence that the anarchic adventures of Dennis the Menace (not to be confused with his American namesake!), Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and company have had on British popular culture over the last seventy years. Outrageous and rebellious, their names are synonymous with chaotic mischief and misadventure. Debuting in the late 1930s, The Beano and The Dandy remain staples of a traditionally British kind of humor; fondly remembered by comics and non-comics fans alike as an integral part of their childhoods.

The exhibition covers the earliest days of the weeklies through to their more modern incarnations, tracing a fascinating evolution in style and content that nevertheless at its heart remains instantly recognizable, regardless of the time period it was published. Of particular note for the enthusiasts will be early Dudley D. Watkins work on Desperate Dan and original David Law Dennis the Menace pages.

The 1950s heyday of the comics is also represented in the wonderful work of artists like Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid - their astonishing creative energy and often grotesque casts of memorable characters embodied in pages from Rodger the Dodger, Jonah (Reid), Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids (Baxendale). Hardly surprising, perhaps, that at the beginning of that decade The Beano was averaging weekly sales bordering on an astonishing two million copies…

Those less interested in the creators involved, or simply wishing to separate youthful nostalgia from their appreciation of the exhibits, will no doubt be intrigued by the way in which the changing face of British society is reflected in the timeframe of the comics’ history. Included are examples of wartime propaganda in Lord Snooty and Desperate Dan strips as well as the more overt Addie and Hermie the Nasty Nazis which portrayed Hitler and Goering as clownish buffoons.

Fast forward to the modern day and we have examples of Manga-influenced material and Hunt Emerson’s Ratz which, when I last reviewed   The Beano for Broken Frontier, was topically centering on ASBOs (Anti-Social Behavior Orders much loved by the British tabloid press) as the focus for its humor.

Older Beano fans will remember reading many a Dennis the Menace (pictured right) strip that ended with the tiny tearaway enduring a slippering over his father’s knee. These days Dennis’s occasional comeuppance is, of course, of a far more acceptable kind. While the elements of corporal punishment that featured so heavily in both papers are, understandably, not prevalent in the chosen artwork, each decade-themed section still feels like an insight-filled reflection of Britain at that time – underlining the oft-forgotten importance of so-called "ephemera" in providing a social snapshot of the era in which it originated.

The crossover appeal and cultural importance of The Beano is never far away from one’s mind throughout the exhibition – whether it be the cover of The Kaiser Chiefs’ single The Angry Mob or enjoying original Black Bob and Bully Beef & Chips features that instantly bring to mind the Viz parodies they inspired. Examples of rare free gifts given away with the comics over the years and spin-off merchandising round out an absorbing collection of some of DC Thomson's finest publishing moments.

Whether you consider yourself a fan of the grand old days of the British comics industry, or are merely an unapologetic sentimentalist wanting to recapture warm childhood memories, the Beano and Dandy Birthday Bash! will have you delightedly thinking about characters and stories that have not crossed your mind in years. Treat yourself to an afternoon at the Cartoon Museum and, for a couple of hours at least, remember what it felt like to be nine years old again…

The Cartoon Museum is open: Tuesday – Saturday, 10.30-17.30 and Sunday, 12-17.30 and located at 35 Little Russell Street, London, WC1A 2HH. Admission: adults £4, concessions £3, free to under-18s and students. For directions on how to get there and more information on the museum check out their website  here.

All images are © D C Thomson and Co Ltd

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