Sunday, September 14, 2008

Leo Baxendale – ‘A Very Funny Business: 40 Years of Comics’

The most recent Asterix book, Asterix and the Falling Sky, is a two-pronged allegory targeted at the state of comics and the state of the world as they were in 2005. The Gauls’ magic potion becomes Iraq’s supposed stock of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which a group of aliens representing America (and, in the other allegory, Disney) see it as their duty to confiscate. A second group of aliens, the Nagmas (representing Manga), also want to get their hands on the magic potion, because they are evil and want to stomp all over good old traditional comics / western nations with their rampant commercial success / enhanced biffing power. It’s all a bit confused, and a good example of the megalomania which can creep in when a comic artist is stuck at a drawing board for years on end, churning out the funny stuff. I mention it because Leo Baxendale has a bit of an ego on him too, and in this history of his time in comics (thanks to Tim for the recommendation) he rarely misses an opportunity to tell you how good other people think he is, how good he thinks he is, and how he has been ripped off regarding the rights to his strips and characters. The wounded pride is tangible, as it is on his website , where almost the first thing you see is this:

The rights of Leo Baxendale to be identified as author of The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, The Three Bears, and The Banana Bunch, have been asserted in accordance with ss. 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The site also refers to a ‘7 year High Court action over my Beano creations’, so clearly there is bad blood between Baxendale and his former employers. Of course he is entitled to remind people of how badly he has at times been treated, but I was a little worried at the start of this book that it might be simply an exercise in vindication, more about the arguments than the comic strips.

Thankfully, it isn’t. Leo Baxendale loves comics. Though chapter one has the ominous title ‘The creation of Bash Street’, it actually begins with the moment in 1952 when, aged 22, he saw his first Dennis the Menace strip, in a cast-off Beano of his brother’s:

Here was a remarkable new character in a modern urban setting. The Dennis page seemed to crackle with life. I thought ‘I could do something like this’, and promptly started sorting out samples of my cartoon work to send off to the Beano. (p. 6)

This is Baxendale in a nutshell: there is very little separating his appreciation of other people’s talent and his appreciation of his own. At first this is irritating, because he’s always telling you how great he is, and how well developed his humour (‘Animals behaving sneakily are funnier than people being sneaky. I don’t know why this should be, but it is so.’ (p. 8)). It takes a while to absorb the fact that as well as being a touch boastful, Baxendale is very acute in his judgements: he knows what he likes, in himself and in others, and when he finds it, he says so. Much of A Very Funny Business is not about Leo Baxendale at all, but about David Law (who drew Dennis the Menace), Dudley Watkins (Lord Snooty) and Ken Reid (Jonah, ‘an incandescent creation’ (p. 60)). He praises Watkins’ professionalism, but identifies more with Law and Reid as they struggle to keep up with ‘the relentless pressure of the non-stop comics schedules’ (p. 61). He visits the widows of Law and Watkins in the final chapter, ‘Dundee revisited’, and asks them both the same question: ‘Do you think he did too much?’ (p. 128). Baxendale is quite candid about the effect of speed on his drawing: his best, ‘vintage’ work was done slowly, and his career in comics is told as one long struggle to get his workload down to a level at which he can produce good drawings.

He is specific about when this was possible, too. Someone at D. C. Thomson should go through this book (he’s really not that unpleasant about them – IPC come off as faceless and second rate by comparison) and take him at his own estimation: print a collection of the stuff he rates. Starting with all his Bash Street Kids, Little Plums and Minnie the Minxes from 1957-8. He writes about the different styles he went through (drawing under pressure elongates characters, he says, in all seriousness), and you can see the change comparing the ’50s strips reprinted here with the ’70s Willy the Kid material. Both are styles I recognise – the former from Minnie the Minx strips in old second hand Beano annuals (a few going back to the ’70s, but no earlier) and possibly the odd reprint; the latter from IPC’s Whizzer and Chips in the ’80s. Baxendale had retired from comics by then, and hadn’t worked for The Beano since walking out in the mid ’60s. Before seeing the Beano exhibition the other week and then this book, I probably hadn’t seen very much of Baxendale’s work at all, but it looks very familiar. He describes the phenomenon of watching other artists pick up styles he himself used only for a matter of months: his chaotic detail and consistently awesome facial expressions (furious, fiendish, gleeful) became part of the fabric of British comics, and continued after he stopped drawing them himself. He’s earned his time in the garden.

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