Jul 18, 2011

Let's talk about the Beano

To make it easy on me, all these scans
are from Beano #3348, from 2006. I chose
it completely at random.
Ahh the Beano.

The Beano is an ongoing British comic book that started way back in 1938. It’s not a fart remedy, or an obscure Portuguese band. It’s not an ESPN commentator. It’s not even an Eric Clapton album. Okay, it’s on the album, and some people call it the Beano album, but that’s not what I’m talking about!

Look, the point is – the Beano is a British comic book. In fact it’s THE quintessential British comic book. It’s not the oldest British comic book, it’s not even the oldest book that’s still in print. It is however the longest running weekly comic book of all time. So that’s pretty impressive.

The Beano, like most British comics is an anthology series made up of a bunch of comic strips. Each strip stars a main character, or cast of characters, and generally the title of the strips describe that character and who they are pretty thoroughly.

There’s Dennis the Menace, Biffo the Bear, Minnie the Minx, Rodger the Dodger, Billy Whizz, and… god there’s so many others.

 What's that? Yes, I said Dennis the Menace. No I don’t mean that Dennis the Menace.

The Beano’s strength lies in its willingness to engage its audience, and to quickly adapt to the preferences of new eras. Because its not built on a single comic strip it can continually bring in new ideas, or revamp old ideas, giving them a new veneer for a new generation. If something works, then it's able to last nearly forever, and if something doesn't it can be dropped without hurting the Beano as a whole.

Long running Beano character Ball boy,
prooooobably by Dave Eastbury.
A strip by Barry Appleby, which appeared
between 2006 and 2009.

Each of the longest running strips are based around fantasies or characters that children can immediately understand and cling onto. For example, early strips include an Ostrich named “Big Eggo” and a rich kid named “Lord Snooty”. 

I know that doesn’t sound like instant icons, does it? But anthropomorphic animals have always been a winner with children, and in Britain fantasies about the class divide like Lord Snooty (a rich kid who hangs around with a gang of poor misfits) immediately had resonance.

Still, it was in the 1950s that the Beano really became the powerhouse that allowed it to last all the way to the present day. That’s when they discovered the basic truth about children that allowed them to create a host of classic and iconic characters known by every British child.

That basic truth? Children love being goddamn naughty.

American parents would be horrified by a  comic character teaching kids* to pull
this trick. British parents would be horrified if Dennis didn't pull this stuff!
1951 saw the birth of Dennis the Menace – a spikey-haired little shit of a kid in a stripey jersey. Dennis was the quintessential wilful and naughty child, a kid who does anything they want, and represents everything that rambunctious young kids wish they could be.

A succession of these kinds of characters exploded in the 50s. 1953 gave us Minnie the Minx (effectively a female Dennis), and Rodger the Dodger, (whose whole goal was to avoid chores or punishments through elaborate ‘dodges’). A couple of years later, in 1954 the Bash Street Kids debuted, they were an entire gang of belligerent kids who attended the roughest school in town.

This strip (drawn awesomely by Mike Pearse) is from
a series of solo stories about the Bash Street Kids.

These delightfully… well… evil kids continue to dominate the Beano to this day. Talking animals are still popular too. There’s other fantasies that have been popular over the years. Ball Boy is a kid obsessed with football (y’know, soccer) – Billy Whizz is a kid with super speed – Smudge is a kid who just loves to get dirty. 

From a collector’s perspective the Beano is a delight. Having run weekly (except during World War II, when it was bi-weekly) since 1938, the Beano has one of the largest runs of any comic book in the world. It could actually be rather daunting to someone not familiar with the series. Detective Comics, which debuted in 1937 is only just approaching 900 issues (yeah, yeah, they're restarting the issue count, like that'll last). The Beano, meanwhile has more than 3500 issues to its name. Where the heck do you jump on with a 3500 issue run?!

Anywhere, dufus. It’s not a continuity book. It’s not like you’re missing some vital story clue by jumping in on issue 3432.
Drawn by Dave Eastbury, Freddie Fear is not
exactly the world's most startlingly original idea.
Trying to sum up the entirety of the Beano and its vast collection of characters, concepts and artists in one article is nearly impossible, so we’ll definitely have to talk about this more at a later date. For now, consider this your warning. 80 Page Giant ain’t afraid to talk about British comics too.

--Andrew S.
(*I should note that for the purposes of this joke I willfully ignored the existence of American characters like Bart Simpson.)

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