Memories of comic book capers
PUBLISHED: 15:19 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:53 14 August 2018
As The Beano celebrates its 80th year, Lynne Mortimer looks back at the kids’ comic which has entertained generations of children.
I would say 1960s Beano comics are a guilty pleasure − except I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty.
They were very much of their time − a time when corporal punishment at school and in the home was common, when racial stereotypes pervaded popular children’s culture, and when bullying the class swot was held to be acceptable.
Naturally, no-one would condone the dissemination of such politically incorrect sentiments now but, I’m afraid that’s how it was when I was at primary school and I never questioned what I was reading. It all seemed to fit comfortably with the world view and no one challenged it − or, if they did, I was unaware of it. Of course, this sort of latent violence, bullying and racism no longer features in kids’ comics and they are all the better for it although not necessarily more entertaining.
My over-riding memory of Dennis the Menace is the final cartoon picture which shows him perched, face down, over his father’s lap. His dad is holding aloft a carpet slipper which is poised to descend on to his son’s posterior. Dennis’s misdemeanour, for which he was being physically punished, was rarely for his treatment of weedy Walter, the “softy” and the target of the red-and-black striped one’s scorn.
Personally, I was never punished with a slipper or a cane but I know boys at my primary school would routinely earn “six of the best”. It seemed to me The Beano told it like it was back in the Sixties.
Nicknames were rife and often picked on weaknesses. As a child I was often called “four-eyes” because I wore glasses. I didn’t regard it as a slight − it was a sort of recognition.
Elsewhere in my beloved Beano, the young American Indian (he was a Red Indian in those days) Little Plum and his family and friends were doomed to speak in sentences with “ums” inserted into them. He was a member (steel yourselves) of the Smellyfoot tribe. The “um” was eventually dropped, never to appear again.
“I wish I could fly like um eagle.” intones Little Plum in the Beano Book 1980 (his story ends ends with a group of shotgun-toting hunters, letting loose a fusillade at the airborne boy).
I am, however, fairly sure that I did not labour under the illusion that the indigenous peoples of America actually spoke like this. It was a device.
My favourite strip − it usually occupied the centre pages − was The Bash Street Kids, a motley crew of schoolchildren, some of whom were not blessed with good looks and including four lads who had little or no hair on their heads. And this was well before it was considered a style statement. The class had a token girl (Toots) but gender was not an issue here. The main thrust of the storylines was for the kids to bamboozle their long-suffering teacher (full name, Teacher) who, despite everything, continued to take them on school trips. There was Danny, the one who looked most normal, Spotty, who sported an overlong tie; Wilfred whose jumper covered half his face; Fatty − you can probably guess his USP and my favourite of them all, Plug. Plug, with his two teeth, his tongue lolling from his mouth, his cap on backwards, and ears like chanterelle mushrooms was the least lovely to behold but by far the most interesting character... and his mum, from whom he inherited his looks, adored him.
By 1980, the world was moving on but The Beano? Not so much.
The 1980 annual shows Minnie the Minx getting the slipper from her dad; Dennis the Menace and Gnasher (his dog) tormenting the so-called “softies”, cheating in a fishing contest and finally getting the slipper from his dad − an even-handed approach to the genders although a heavy-handed approach to child discipline.
As I graduated to more girl-focused comics such as Bunty, Judy and Diana, so threat of the slipper faded away to be replaced by Cinderella rag-to-riches stories about talented but a poor girl (often an orphan) who wants to be a prima ballerina/Wimbledon Ladies’ champion/Olympic show jumping medallist.
It wasn’t only the cartoon strips that beguiled me, however, it was the factual pieces and allusions that caught my imagination. The Valentine’s Day poems composed by the Bash Street Kids included Plug’s variation on Robert Burns’ Red, Red Rose - my first encounter with the Scottish poet.
Bunty told the stories of the ballets, the true story of Handel’s Messiah and countless other parcels of information that would, eventually, come in useful.
It wasn’t all bad.