Saturday, August 09, 2008

Happy Birthday Beano: The Official 70th Anniversary Exhibition, Lamb Gallery, Dundee University

You hear some strange things about Beano publishers D. C. Thomson, living in Dundee. A colleague at an old job remembered seeing their office in the 1960s: clerks standing at sloped desks with inkwells, straight out of the nineteenth century. And a question to be filled in at a job interview I once had there: ‘Which church do you attend?’ Why on earth would they want to know something like that? A couple of things which make me uneasy about revisiting The Beano now, on the occasion of its 70th birthday. More generally, I can’t help being slightly suspicious of the corporate side of things: The Beano isn’t one artist or writer’s vision, or even an editor’s, it is an accumulation, a movement by trial and error towards the conclusion that naughty kids are what nice kids want to read about. Once it arrived at this very successful idea, some time in the 1950s, it stuck to it, and hadn’t shifted by the time I was reading in the 1980s. Laura Howell’s website describes her current Beano strip Johnny Bean as ‘ASBOs come to Trumpton’, which suggests that not much has changed since then, either. Another part of me – the ten year old boy, who adored the comic – is delighted to go back for another look.

Howell’s short talk at the exhibition opening fuelled my suspicions somewhat: the writing for Johnny Bean is done ‘in house’, she said. By an individual? A committee? It just sounded a bit needlessly secretive. Perhaps the company is slowly becoming less so: artists can now sign their work, at least. When I was reading, you had to identify signed work by the same artists in rival publications (Whizzer & Chips, Buster – the IPC comics) to find out who had drawn what. Beano-only artists (like David Sutherland, who drew Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids) remained anonymous. Howell’s talk was really good, giving a rounded account of what it’s like to be a Beano artist: sketching a set of characters into existence for her own strip, ‘ghosting’ other artists when drawing theirs (‘if the ghosting is well done, the reader shouldn’t be able to tell the difference’), and trying to establish a happy medium between convention and her own drawing style when taking on old favourite Minnie the Minx. She showed us a Manga-influenced updating of Billy the Cat which looked great, made perfect sense.

The exhibition itself is almost entirely comprised of mounted original artwork. It’s fascinating to see the way some strips were put together: drawings cut out and glued on to the main sheet of paper, then drawn on some more to make them fit the boxes*; lettering carefully following ruled lines. As you walk in you have Roger the Dodger, Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids to your left: this is all I saw for some time, in fact, being slightly overawed in their presence. The Bash Street Kids strip is one of Leo Baxendale’s: two pages, one drawing on each, masses of detail as the Kids first look through the glass of an aquarium, then jump in and get a hiding from the creatures within. Dennis is riding a stagecoach pulled by a bull in his strip, and again this takes a whole page. On the gallery tour D. C. Thomson archivist Morris Heggie pointed out that Dennis’ face is drawn on top of several layers of white-out, explaining that artist David Law was something of a perfectionist. Which was unexpected, because his lines are always so shaky. A little further on, into the ’70s, we came to a large Dennis drawing from an annual cover – still shaky, but less so. David Sutherland, also present, explained that this was him ghosting David Law, and contrasted it to the far surer line he used (and still uses) to draw The Bash Street Kids, which – initially at least – found him ghosting Leo Baxendale. This quiet old gentleman has drawn the strip for almost half a century and lives just along the road from here. He didn’t want to give a talk, but agreed to accompany the group around, and answer questions.

As we moved on to the 1980s, the lines in the art became surer still – too much so, perhaps. Particularly in the Grandpa and Tom, Dick and Sally strips (both on show), which were never really up to scratch, being too clean cut. Lettering was replaced with type, stuck to the page with glue, and this reduced the hand-made feel still further. Still, it made the impact of Tom Patterson’s more chaotic style all the greater, of which there is one example on display (not Calamity James, sadly). There is much else in the exhibition to love: some fantastic World War II Lord Snooty strips, some early Dennis the Menaces, an incredible Leo Baxendale Minnie the Minx which verges on war itself (rival gang destroys most of Minnie’s gang’s hut but have to pause for lunch; before they come back, Minnie equips herself with a castle). Standing next to the latter, Heggie told us something of the tensions between Baxendale and the editorial staff: the artist wanting to produce outlandish set pieces the whole time, his editors arguing that the strips should be a bit more normal, that kids didn’t want to have their minds blown every week. He likened the appeal of comics to that of soap operas: people like to be comforted. Which I’m sure is right, but it’s the more ambitious stuff which steals the show here.

The exhibition continues until 20th September.

* Apparently this wasn’t typical: the Roger the Dodger strip shown above was drawn for the weekly comic, then re-sized for an an annual. Each individual frame was slightly enlarged.


Anonymous said...

D.C. Thomson is a very odd company indeed. I've spent some time in their offices, and little has changed since the 30s - highly polished linoleum and brass, hardwood desking, and a warren-like office lay-out. It's all very Spartan.

The owner/directors are referred to formally; but because they share the same surname an odd formula, based upon Christian names, is applied - Mr Brian, Mr William, and so on.

Provided the papers are 'clean', the owners, generally, do not interfere with editorial policy. One of the ways they used to ensure that the papers remained 'clean' was to, as you allude, ensure that only right-minded people were employed - a Catholic uncle of mine, perfectly qualified for an open role, was once interviewed; the interview ended when stated which school he had attended.

For all that, I loved and still love The Beano. Leo Baxendale was a favourite, though looking at the Tom Patterson panels you link to, I can't help but feel that I didn't give Calamity James the attention he warranted.

Chris said...

Calamity James was just about my favourite strip. I am alarmed to find very little of him on the internet - there are a few pages here.

I felt a bit bad mentioning the church thing, the Beano folk were so friendly doing the tour, and doubtless it has nothing to do with them personally. All the same - bigotry.

Tim Footman said...

Baxendale's a particular hero of mine. I first became aware of the name through the Bad-Time Bed-Time Books in Monster Fun (c. 1975), and only discovered he was behind the Bash Street Kids afterwards.

His autobiography, A Very Funny Business, gives a sense of his tense relationship with Thomson and other publishers.

Chris said...

Thanks Tim, may have to track that down fairly soon! I am now thoroughly confused about how much Baxendale stuff I have seen, and how much was Tom Patterson picking up where he left off...

The chap who did the Baxendale web page has a rather attractive blog, it turns out. There's a site on Badtime Bedtime Books as well. They look sweet. In the pic of Leo in the '70s, he manages to look like both Krankies at once.

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