Menace to society
Henry Northmore revels in the golden age of war efforts and father’s slippers as he talks to writer Morris Heggie about 70 years of The Beano
As a wee nipper there wasn’t a more exciting day of the week than ‘Beano day’, when your local newsagent would drop a copy of the cartoon compendium onto your doormat alongside your parent’s newspaper. Often rapidly devoured before heading to school, the cheeky antics of Dennis the Menace, Biffo the Bear, Billy Whizz and many others had far more appeal to British kids than the saccharine Disney stable. Now celebrating 70 years since the first issue in July 1938, DC Thomson has released a handsome bumper hardback looking back through the years. The Beano may have changed since the 30s but has always maintained its anti-authoritarian stance and steadfast refusal to treat children like idiots.
‘The Beano was a light-hearted comic paper that looked like The Dandy [which started seven months earlier in December 1937], launched at about 350,000 and just climbed week on week until the war,’ explains writer Morris Heggie. ‘There were paper restrictions and you’d be limited to a 600,000 print run in the 40s and they sold every copy.’ It was a massive success and The Beano threw its weight into the war effort. ‘There were a lot of strips where the characters wreaked havoc on the Nazi forces,’ recalls Heggie. ‘Later on, when people were war weary, The Beano became very escapist, to lighten the mood. Remember in those times, when there was no television and barely any radio for kids, comics were a major influence in their lives.’
As paper restrictions were lifted, sales grew. In the 50s, weekly sales rose to a peak of 1.92m per issue; a staggering 100m issues bought per year. At the same time the adventure stories were dropped and the characters we all associate with The Beano came in a rush of creativity with the likes of Dennis the Menace (1951), Roger the Dodger (1953), Minnie the Minx (1953) and The Bash Street Kids (1954) all launching in quick succession. ‘It was anarchic to a point, but wrongdoers were punished, simple as that. In those days it was corporal punishment, the teacher’s cane or father’s slipper.’
Soon, The Beano had struck a chord with the public like no other children’s comic. Still produced in its Dundee birthplace by the dedicated and passionate staff at DC Thomson, it had a secret ingredient that Heggie thinks helped The Beano outsell its rivals: ‘It was like a school atmosphere; you wanted to appeal to the kids and push the boundaries and the editor was like headmaster making sure you worked.’ And as a former scribe writing The Three Bears, Little Plum, Lord Snooty and Minnie the Minx, Heggie has considerable insight. When he started his 20 years as editor of The Dandy, Heggie’s brief was to outsell the beloved comic but he soon realised it was something truly unique. There was a mix of great artists and writers and a special something that appealed to the British public. ‘I often see The Beano as closer to popular soaps than anything else. From strip to strip you felt as though it was a family of characters. When you think about how these comics were put together, it paid off that DC Thomson had in-house staff who loved the characters.’
The History of The Beano is out now, published by DC Thomson