I have a great sense of humour. I have moody moments too but, when on form, I can whip out a witty one-liner and slay the room, as they say in Las Vegas. I have no precise idea where it came from but I would hazard a guess that the humour seeds were sewn by reading comics when I was young. It wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that I read my first grown-up novel which happened to be the western Shane by Jack Schaefer. Comics are responsible for igniting my young imagination and making me laugh out loud.
We were a household of seven children, four boys and three girls. We had comics delivered every week, usually the Bunty for the girls, the Valiant or Hotspur for the boys and the Dandy, Topper, Beezer and Beano for all of us. Of the last three titles, my favourite was the Beano. It seemed to have better characters and be more colourful than the others. But I loved all of them including the Bunty, launched in 1958, which featured The Four Marys, tales of life at St Elmo’s boarding school. I don’t know why. It just caught my interest.
Valiant was a bit more macho for boys and it boasted heroes like Captain “ragin’ fury” Hurricane and Kelly’s Eye in which the eponymous character became invincible by wearing a Mayan jewel around his neck. It was rugged, action stuff and it certainly did stir my imagination. The Hotspur, eventually incorporated into another comic called the Victor, was okay. The most memorable character was The Wolf of Kabul, a British intelligence caper. The hero was Bill Sampson who carried just two knives on his person, no firearms, and his Oriental sidekick, Chung, who favoured a cricket bat (“clicky ba”) as his weapon.
But away from the rough and tumble of derring-do, much lighter entertainment was provided by the the Dandy, Topper, Beezer and Beano. The Dandy was almost as good as the Beano. It was launched in 1937. It starred Desperate Dan, a big fella with a bristled chin, who gained his strength and considerable bulk from consuming vast quantities of “cow pie”, a strange looking dish that had two horns sticking out of the crust. The other star of the Dandy was Korky the Cat who had human characteristics and, bizarrely, was accepted by human beings as perfectly normal.
The Topper first appeared in 1953 and it featured Beryl the Peril, Mickey the Monkey and Sir Laughalot. There was also a strip called Dopey Joe! The Topper eventually merged with The Beezer. The Beezer’s first issue appeared in 1956. It featured Pop, Dick and Harry, Mick on the Moon, Nosey Parker and Hornet Wilson and His Educated Insects. But my favourite was “the short-sighted gink”, Colonel Blink, a walking disaster with no idea where he was going or his whereabouts at any given moment.
By the way, all but one of the comics mentioned came from Dundee-based D. C. Thompson. Valiant was an IPC product.
But, it’s hats off in 2018, to celebrate the best of the bunch, The Beano, first published on 30 July, 1938, is 80-years-old. I have a copy of the first issue in front of me. (Thanks to my sister, Mary. X) Sadly, it is not an original but it is a good enough illustration of the kind of printed children’s entertainment of the time. No. 1 contained a free gift – a whoopee mask which was basically a strip of cardboard with two eye holes, a nose arch and two loops of elastic to attach to the ears. The cover price was 2d. No. 2 promised “a packet of sugar button sweets FREE”.
Now, in this modern era of increasing political correctness, ultra-sensitivity to almost everything and retrospective apoplexy, there are some images, text and story plots that would make some people recoil in horror, but this is the way it was in 1938. The cover features a drawing of a young black boy in dungarees eating a slice of melon. Why? I have no idea. Someone seemed to think of this image as a mascot. It might have had some connection to the British Empire but it’s hard to think that through to a sensible conclusion. The cover strip featured Big Eggo, a daft ostrich who sits on what he thinks is his egg only to find out with a mighty nip that he had helped hatch a baby crocodile.
Inside, we find Here Comes Ping, a boasting “Elastic Man”, with the storyline: “The crowd tied poor Ping in a knot, to prove he wasn’t talking rot”. Next up was Brave Captain Kipper and an encounter with a whale. But on page three, there was the very first appearance of Lord (Marmaduke) Snooty and His Pals – Rosie, Hairpin Huggins, Skinny Lizzie, Scrapper Smith, Happy Hutton and Gertie the Goat. The premise was that aristocratic Snooty preferred the company of, for want of a better phrase, ordinary people. He had little time for snobby Algernon, Percival and Vernon. The first story was all about a birthday party that went wrong. Even now, I found it quite amusing. Lord Snooty and his Pals lasted longer than any other strip in the Beano.
Then it was a more serious Morgyn the Mighty, The Strongest Man in the World, fighting a giant eagle and wrestling with a shark. “The strong man had won battles in the air and in the sea.” Readers were told that he could make good of the skin and the flesh of the shark. It is assumed the eagle got away with a punch to the beak.
There was a pause in the illustrated strips for The Adventures of Tom Thumb, a two-page story of a mischievous tiny person. “Except for his size, Tom was just like an ordinary little boy. His tiny body was perfectly shaped. He had sturdy little arms and legs, and he looked a proper little dandy in his bright-coloured doublet.” The story was of a wood-cutter, Tom’s normal-sized father, having a spot of bother with boar hunter Jasper, the son of the Black Baron. Tom Thumb saves the day. The trailer for the next story: “Next Tuesday, Tom Thumb in a fight with a great big rat.” They omitted to add: ”But don’t have nightmares, kids.”
Wee Peem, :”He’s a Proper Scream”, played practical jokes on people; Little Dead-Eye Dick – “He’s a fun-man with a gun-man” – walked around dressed as a cowboy and toting a loaded pistol; Hairy Dan competed in a boat race and used his extra-long beard as a sail to give him an advantage; Whoopee Hank, The Slap-Dash Sheriff – “Star on his Shirt, slugs in his gun, laugh at the Sheriff, he’s chock-full of fun” – foiled some bank robbers; Cracker Jack, The Wonder Whip Man sorted out a bunch of gun-blasting gangsters with his “30-foot lash”; Hooky’s Magic Bowler Hat was a take on genie and lamp stories. This was about Hooky Higgs who is given a bowler hat and suddenly out pops wispy Mikki, “the slave of the magic bowler hat. I will do anything you ask”. The story was about a charging bull and an instant suit of Hookey-sized armour.
Other characters included Contrary Mary, a clever donkey; Smiler the Sweeper, a canny labourer in dungarees; Helpful Henry who actually is unhelpful; Rip Van Wink coming to terms with the modern (1938) world after a long seven-hundred-year sleep; Uncle Windbag, a tall-tale teller who gets his comeuppance; and Tin-Can Tommy, The Clockwork Boy about an inventor father who mourns his dead son and decides to build himself a metal replacement. Yes, really. Finally, a strip called Big Fat Joe – “He hasn’t been weighed since the age of three, the weighing machine always broke you see.” In the story, Big Fat Joe plunged into a swimming pool and soaked a bullying busy-body.
The first issue of The Beano was a curious mixture indeed. It contained some quite funny slapstick comedy with reasonably good fiction and it is easy to appreciate its appeal eighty years ago. Some of the jokes are corny and some just fall flat but no one can deny the variety of material on offer. There is enough between the covers to make young readers laugh as well as think. The illustrations ranged from the basic to the quite stylish. The stories, written by adults for young readers, make up a menu of oddities. Cheeky characters, scammers, criminals, gunslingers, adventure heroes all featured.
Over the years, the comic found its feet and most of the original characters faded away to allow room to introduce the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher his dog, Minnie the Minx, Pansy Potter, Roger the Dodger, Billy Whizz and many more. It was always a treat to get the weekly comics but Christmas was never Christmas without annuals. They looked brilliant and the smelt gorgeous with that freshly printed ink aroma. The family rule was that no one could read anyone’s annual until the recipient had had first dibs. And woe betide anyone who broke the spine of another person’s annual.
If only my copy of the first Beano was the genuine article. In 2015, an original copy was sold at auction for £17,000. From two old pennies to seventeen grand in just under eighty years is some going. But, putting my financial disappointment to one side, the entertainment and education provided by the comic, and the imagination it stirred make it priceless and a significant player in my early life. Thank you, Beano, from Joe, not quite as big and fat as your guy.