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Why the Kids are still all right: Curator on secrets of The Beano’s enduring appeal

© PAA member of staff enjoys the Beano show at Somerset House.
A member of staff enjoys the Beano show at Somerset House.

They’ve being menacing, minxing, dodging and whizzing through Beanotown since 1938 but the posse of pea-shooting rebels has just rampaged off the pages of the famous comic and into the rarefied world of fine art.

An exhibition, Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules is celebrating the iconic publication’s 83-year history amid the neoclassical grandeur of Somerset House in London.

Curator Andy Holden and his team have introduced the gallery, typically home to installations about druidic multisensory festivals or the role of fungi in modern design, to the colourful chaos of The Beano via exhibits like 3D models of Lord Snooty’s Castle and Bash Street School.

The labour was one of love for Holden. His decision to immerse himself in the year-long task of creating the exhibition was down to a childhood when Dennis The Menace, Minnie The Minx, Billy Whizz and the rest felt like friends.

“I went home to Bedford and told my mum I wasn’t sure about taking the exhibition on,” he said.

“She laughed and fetched an old cookbook from the kitchen and pulled out a bookmark. It was a drawing of Biffo The Bear I’d made when I was seven. I thought there was so much love in that drawing, it made my mind up for me.

“People ask if I’m a lifelong fan but I’m not sure that’s possible. Once you love it, it becomes part of you but it’s not like you continue to read it. I think The Beano goes to the back of your mind.

“Once I read the comics once more the memories were stirred up and I thought, ‘Yes! I do love this’.

After poring over a floor scattered with job lots of Beanos he bought on eBay, Holden selected the strips with the help of the expert archivists at the Beano’s – and The Sunday Post’s – publisher, DC Thomson.

The curation was carried out on his behalf by chief archivist, and guardian of the treasured Beano back copies, David Powell.

He and his staff patrol the archive rooms, which smell faintly of lignin and old paper; they carefully collect, bind and arrange the comic and its sister titles within a maze of shelves.

Bound copies of long defunct titles such as Blue Jeans, Black Bob or Hotspur are comfortably outnumbered by the archive’s more than 4,000 editions of The Beano – a full set, David points out proudly.

“We did a bit of maths recently in response to a query about the entire print run,” Powell says. “We were asked if all the issues printed would reach the moon and back.

“At one point we were printing one-and-a-half to two million issues a week so we calculated the width of the paper and multiplied that by 30 pages a week over nearly 4,000 issues. We figured out that it would!”

As well as calculating lunar distances Powell monitors the archive carefully for microscopic intruders.

Classic pre-war Beanos may be old but they’re still young compared to newspapers from the early 1800s in the DC Thomson archives. Nonetheless both are vulnerable to the weather.

Humidity and temperature spikes are measured diligently lest a mold outbreak claim the early adventures of Big Eggo, Beano’s first cover star.

“You can’t stop paper from deteriorating,” says David. “All you can do is slow down that process as long as possible. Digitisation – scanning all the pages – is a way of capturing the comics in a moment and it helps access the comics.

“Some people say digitisation is a preservation medium but to me it’s not. It helps people access the comic in future but I still come back to the original object. To me, the original is the thing that should be preserved.”

That even includes the free gifts like antiquated toffee bars Sellotaped to the front of Beanos from almost 40 years ago. The Beano, like The Dandy, was credited with ushering in a new era of children’s entertainment.

“If you look at the artist Leo Baxendale you can see things like a large ‘BANG!’, those onomatopoeic noises were a DC Thomson innovation,” he explained.

“Going heavy on speech bubbles was innovative. We didn’t invent them but we really pushed them in our comics. Prior to that a lot of speech appeared in boxes below the panels, putting the speech in bubbles made things more exciting.”

Even the cartoonists broke the rules likehere in a typical scene of chaos in Class 2B as the Bash Street Kids run amok in this 1971 frame drawn by artist David Sutherland.

The birth of the Beano and the other comics produced by DC Thomson came at a time when children’s entertainment was being revolutionised.

Previously children’s stories were text-heavy but The Dandy and The Beano – following the lead of The Hotspur and The Rover, as well as The Posts’s favourites The Broons and Oor Wullie – forged a new type of publication; one with more pictures, excitement and jokes.

“That was, through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the golden era for these comics where we had so many titles,” said Powell.

“Bunty, Twinkle, Mandy, Judy, Debbie, Jackie. There were a host of boys’ titles; I think there were 10 comic titles coming out per week from this company alone, which is a phenomenal amount of art and story-writing.”

The sales of comics were equally enormous. Although The Dandy at its peak may have sold more copies, The Beano seemed to capture the imagination; even after years of decline which saw its sales drop, it remains an iconic title and has endured and thrived.

It is thanks to, according to Holden, the Beano’s unique anarchic spirit. Even decades beyond its golden age, The Beano is staging a remarkable comeback; unlike most print titles it is gaining readers.

“The comic lives in the present and it’s for kids now,” says Holden. “I would say The Beano has done so well in updating itself in the last five or six years.

“Probably in the last decade it gradually remembered what it was and honed it and brought in more diverse characters. You’ve got Dangerous Dan now, and Rubi, who uses a wheelchair. They’ve really made a real effort to be a bit more representative of society. I’d say that makes it loads more relevant again.”

Bash Street’s Fatty is now Freddy while Dennis The Menace’s arch-enemy is no longer Walter The Softy but just Walter. He’s still the nemesis of Dennis but not quite so soft, a development welcomed by Holden.

“In the ’90s Walter’s softness was really pushed, which was troubling looking back at it; he’s shown doing daisy chains and watercolours and poetry,” he says.

“As a kid I had painting lessons and was so embarrassed, I thought I’d get beaten up. I realised much later that came from The Beano and Dennis; painting was apparently for softies.

“The world has moved on and the softness has been phased out. Now he’s an aristocrat and, essentially, a young Tory.”

It’s an apposite character change given how Walter has been compared to Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg. Walter existed first of course and The Beano jokingly sent Rees-Mogg a cease and desist letter in 2018 asking him to stop copying Walter.

The modernisation of The Beano will continue as long as children buy it, according to Holden.

“It’s really only the nostalgic adults who have any problem with it being tampered with,” he adds. “And that’s quite funny as in the comic the adults are stuck in their ways.

“You love The Beano as a child because it’s all about getting one over the adults, and then you become an adult and want it to stay the same. You become like the caricatures of adults in The Beano.

“We wanted the exhibition we to look at modern and contemporary art in a way that plays on the themes of The Beano in a riotous, rebellious way, and then maybe it becomes a gateway for kids to get into art.

“I hope it gives them the sort of spark you find in The Beano.”