© DC Thomson
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the passing of the American comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. Most famously, Wrightson was the creator of the DC Comics strip Swamp Thing, about a mutant superhero who was half-human and half-vegetable and who inspired my twelve-year-old self when I was “drawing monsters on the covers of my school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better.” Sadly, another comic-book artist who had a big impact on me has just died too, though one from a different time and place and one who appealed to me when I was a different age, a kid of seven or eight years old: the Lancastrian artist Leo Baxendale.
Actually, by the time I got around to reading Baxendale’s most famous creations, he’d already stopped drawing them. But even though they were being drawn by other artists, Baxendale’s style endured, as did the spirit he’d originally invested in them. And it was that spirit – in equal parts surreal and anarchic – that was his biggest contribution to British comics, which’d tended to be conservative and staid. Baxendale helped to blow the cobwebs off them.
Hired at the age of 22 by DC Thomson (as opposed to DC Comics), the publisher based in the Scottish city of Dundee, Baxendale spent the 1950s working on one of the company’s two most famous comics – the Beano, which, like its stablemate the Dandy, attracted a weekly readership of two million children in the immediate post-war era. In February 1954, he launched a strip about some riotous schoolchildren called When the Bell Rings, which two years later was retitled The Bash Street Kids and which still appears in the Beano today. When I started reading comics at the start of the 1970s, The Bash Street Kids became my favourite strip for a good few years.
One nice thing about The Bash Street Kids was that unlike other groups of youngsters in popular British culture up to that point, such as those in Ronald Searle’ St Trinian’s cartoons or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, both of which were set in boarding schools, these ones were unmistakably working class and received their schooling in an urban environment – similar to the experiences of most kids reading the Beano at the time. Baxendale drew the characters in an eccentric, even slightly grotesque fashion, whilst imbuing them with a refreshing, forward-looking rebelliousness. The result is somewhere between Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl.
When I started reading the strip, the clothes and facilities already seemed old-fashioned: the teacher’s cane and mortar board, the wooden desks with their inkwells, etc. But the irreverent, at times anti-authoritarian mentality of the kids seemed bang up-to-date. I could imagine at least three of them, the skull-and-crossbones-wearing Danny, the silent and oddball Wilfred (whose habit of always wearing his sweater right up to his nose can’t have been hygienic) and the aesthetically-challenged but sensitive Plug, getting seriously into punk rock when they were older.
© DC Thomson
Baxendale devised other enduring strips for the Beano, including Minnie the Minx, a female version of the Beano’s most celebrated strip, Dennis the Menace. First appearing in 1953, a year before The Bash Street Kids, the eternally Tomboy-ish Minnie was once admiringly described by her creator as ‘Amazonian’.
He also masterminded two strips set in the American Wild West – despite its location in the un-Western setting of Dundee, DC Thomson had something of an obsession with the Wild West and the most famous strip in the Dandy was the one about the strapping cowboy Desperate Dan. These were Little Plum, which also made its debut in 1953, and The Three Bears, which became a spin-off from Little Plum in 1959. Probably not anthropologically accurate, Little Plum was (and still is) a sweet and eccentric strip detailing life among a decidedly suburban Red Indian tribe, whose tepees come equipped with televisions sets and refrigerators. It was somehow inevitable that in the 1980s, ‘Little Plum’ was the nickname that Britain’s music critics sneeringly gave to Ian Astbury, singer with rock / goth band The Cult, who had an embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.
The Three Bears featured a family of three anthropomorphic and rather pudgy grizzly bears who spend their time trying to steal food from the local retail outlet, Hank’s Store. The stories frequently ended with Hank chasing the pesky bears and peppering their butts with shot from a blunderbuss. The Three Bears appeared in a Beano annual as late as 2015, but in an era more attuned to concerns about animal cruelty, I doubt if Hank was still using his blunderbuss on them.
Throughout its history, DC Thomson had been famous, if not notorious, for its conservatism. This included an aversion to its employees being in trade unions and it can’t have been a relaxing or sympathetic environment to work in with weekly deadlines hovering like vultures. In 1962, a stressed-out and physically-ailing Baxendale quit – “I just blew up like an old boiler and left” – and during the 1960s and 1970s he worked for other publishers like Oldhams Press, Fleetway and IPC on comics like Wham!, Smash!, Buster, Valiant, Lion, Whizzer and Chips, Knockout, Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun.
Possibly his most famous creation from this period was Grimly Feendish, a comic villain billed as ‘the rottenest crook in the world’ who bears a slight resemblance to Uncle Fester in The Addams Family. This inspired the song Grimly Fiendish by the punk / goth band The Damned, which got to number 21 in the UK singles chart in 1985. As late as 2005, Feendish popped up among a plethora of other characters from 1960s / 1970s British comics in the six-issue Albion series, Alan Moore’s curious tribute to the comics of that era.
In the 1980s, Baxendale waged a lengthy legal battle against DC Thomson over the rights to the characters he’d created for the Beano, a battle that ended finally with an out-of-court settlement. He used the proceeds from that to set up a publishing house called Reaper Books. Incidentally, two decades earlier, at the time of the Vietnam War, Baxendale had published (and ultimately lost a lot of money on) an anti-war newspaper called the Strategic Commentary – one of whose subscribers was none other than the celebrated linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.
As I’ve said, Baxendale’s creations were joyfully anarchic and surreal. It’s telling that in the 1980s when four young artist-writers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp, devised the anarchic, scatological and massively popular adult comic Viz and started satirising the famous British children’s comics that’d gone before them, there wasn’t much they could do when satirising Baxendale’s famous Beano strips other than make them even more surreal. Little Plum became Little Plumber and The Bash Street Kids became The Posh Street Kids. Meanwhile, The Three Bears were parodied as The Three Blairs (with Tony, Cherie and Leo Blair trying to steal from Gordon Brown’s store) and as the ultra-weird The Three Chairs.
Compare that with the brutal treatment that Viz meted out to the strips in the more cautious and traditional Dandy, like Desperate Dan (parodied as Desperately Unfunny Dan), Winker Watson (Wanker Watson), Korky the Cat (Corky the Twat), Black Bob the faithful Border Collie (Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner) and Bully Beef (Biffa Bacon, with the Dandy’s schoolboy bully replaced by a Geordie psychopath who butts head, busts noses and breaks teeth). Brilliantly, when DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.
I suspect that the leading lights in the ‘British invasion’, i.e. those comic-book artists and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Steven Dillon and Grant Morrison, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s and helped revitalise the comics scene in the States, were greatly inspired in their early youth if not by Baxendale himself then by the characters he created. Indeed, Moore said as much in 2013: “We started out ingesting the genuine anarchy of the Beano, when Baxendale was doing all that wonderful stuff, and then we moved on to American comics.”
© Rex Features