The Bash Street King

 

© 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.

 

From kazoop.blogspot.com

 

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

 

No longer fine and Dandy

(c) DC Thomson / The Daily Telegraph

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time the United Kingdom had a thriving comics industry.  In my formative years, back in the 1970s, you were spoilt for choice.  There were titles read by younger boys and girls alike – the Dandy, Beano, Topper, Beezer, Sparky, Cor, Buster, Whizzer and Chips, Shiver and Shake, Knockout and Monster Fun.  For older girls there was the Mandy, Misty, Jackie, Tammy, Jinty and Bunty, and for older boys there was the Lion, Valiant, Smash, Tiger, Thunder, Warlord, Battle, Victor, Hotspur, Hornet and Valiant.  But that was it.  When you weren’t a boy or girl any longer, but a teenager, there was nothing.  British society tended to look down its nose at comic-book culture – I can think of several adults who never used the word ‘comics’ without preceding it with the word ‘trashy’ – and if anyone past the first year or two of high school was seen with their nose in one, it was assumed there was something seriously wrong with them.

 

Meanwhile, attempts to market comics at a slightly more mature readership in Britain ended in disaster.  Most notoriously, the hard-edged Action comic, which featured strips like Kids Rule OK, Look Out for Lefty, Dredger, Hellman of Hammer Force (the first British World War II comic strip to have a German hero) and the graphically-illustrated killer-shark saga Hook Jaw and which ran briefly and bloodily from 1976 to 1977, was forced off the stands by an unholy alliance of the dreary and conservative chain-newsagent’s W.H. Smith, indignant tabloid newspapers like the Sun, and that self-appointed guardian of Britain’s moral wholesomeness in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

 

It was an attitude that eventually doomed Britain’s comics to near extinction.  If the only function of comics was to entertain kids, they were obviously going to be in trouble as soon as those kids found something else to entertain them – which they did, once gaming technology began to develop in leaps and bounds in the 1980s.  By this time, a British comic had appeared that was smart and knowing enough to be appreciated by older as well as younger readers, with the result that those readers didn’t stop buying it when they were on the cusp of adolescence.  That comic was 2000 AD, which is still on the go today and whose modern readership, I imagine, is largely a middle-aged one that’s been buying it since its inception in 1977.  But even while I was enjoying 2000 AD strips like Strontium Dog, the ABC Warriors, Robo-Hunter and the peerless Judge Dredd, I was at the same time trying to get my head around some strange new contraptions that were turning up in the local amusement arcades – Space invaders, Space Duel and Asteroids, the first foot-soldiers of a new and eventually massive gaming industry that in Britain would help kill off nearly all of 2000 AD’s more juvenile counterparts.

 

I was thinking about the comics of my early youth last week because the final edition of Britain’s longest-running comic, the 75-year-old Dandy, went on sale then.  Once a titan of the British comic industry, selling two million copies weekly in the post-war era, the Dandy’s sales in recent times had declined to a pitiful 8000 a week and its publisher, the Dundee-based D.C. Thomson, lately decided to pull the plug on it.  (Though it’s not entirely gone – an ‘e-comic’ Dandy will continue to appear online.)  What does that leave now in the way of traditional paper-and-ink British comics?  There’s 2000 AD and its spin-off, Judge Dredd Megazine; Commando Comics, the last survivor of a once-crowded field dealing in comic-strip tales of derring-do from World War II; and the Dandy’s DC Thomson stable-mate, the 74-year-old Beano.  The yin to the Dandy’s yang, I suspect things must be looking grim for the poor old Beano these days as well.

 

News of the Dandy’s demise brought much indignant complaining and nostalgic caterwauling from middle-aged and elderly British journalists, columnists and politicians though none of them, I’m sure, had actually bought the bloody thing in at least 30 years.  However, I have to admit that – no doubt like the vast majority of Britain’s modern children, who were supposedly the Dandy’s target audience – I didn’t feel particularly bothered to see it go.  The Dandy was never my favourite comic.  Even when I was a small kid, I found something stiltedly old-fashioned and insufferably middle-class about it.

 

All right, I thought that hulking, slow-witted but amiable cowboy Desperate Dan was a stand-up kind of guy, as George W. Bush would say.  And Bully Beef with his ruddy face and pudding-bowl haircut, who featured in the strip Bully Beef and Chips, was a memorably psychotic piece of work.  But most of the Dandy’s strips left me cold – especially compared to those in the Beano, which always seemed to combine a joyous anarchy (see Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and the mind-bendingly illogical Roger the Dodger, who went to extravagant lengths to get out of doing household chores for his parents, to the point where he expended ten times as much energy dodging the chores as he would have by just doing them; in the last frame he inevitably winked out of the page and said, “Great dodge, eh, readers?”) with the gently surreal, like the suburban Red Indians in Little Plum whose tepees came 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 bestowed on Ian Astbury, singer with hard rock band The Cult, who had a rather embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.

 

Typical of the Dandy strips was Brassneck, the adventures of a robot schoolboy whom an inventor created as company for his flesh-and-blood schoolboy son.  Togged out in short pants and a school-cap and with a leather satchel strapped to his back, Brassneck looked about 40 years out of date even in the 1970s.  And, worse, he wasn’t very funny.  There was also Winker Watson, about a smart and super-smug prankster at an expensive boarding school who made life miserable for his teachers and his dimmer-witted schoolmates – a bit like the Jennings books combined with the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  In my day too, the Dandy was still printing Black Bob, a sedentary black-and-white strip about a shepherd and his faithful Border collie living in the Scottish hills, which had first seen publication in 1944.  Joyous and anarchic it was not.

 

The most perplexing Dandy strip of all, however, was the Jocks and the Geordies, a tale of rivalry between two schoolboy gangs who lived on facing sides of the England-Scotland border, the tartan bonnet-wearing Jocks and the school-uniformed Geordies (from England’s northernmost city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).  In subsequent decades, I discussed the Jocks and the Geordies with many of my comic-reading contemporaries in Scotland and none of us could ever figure out why, in all the stories where the two gangs squared up to each other, the Geordies had always come out on top.  By the law of averages, you’d expect the Jocks to win half of the encounters, or at least to get a symbolic victory now and again.  But no, the Geordies always vanquished them.  This was despite the fact that the Dandy’s publisher, DC Thomson, was Dundonian and therefore Scottish.  What was going on?  Well, no doubt DC Thomson understood that their English readers outnumbered their Scottish ones by about nine to one and were giving the majority of their readers what they wanted – eternal English victory.

 

By the 1980s, DC Thomson may have regretted being so nice to the Geordies of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, because by then four young artists and writers in that city – Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp – had devised the scatological and massively-popular adult comic Viz.  In between printing strips that poked fun at certain social types familiar in modern Britain (Mrs Brady – Old Lady, Student Grant, The Fat Slags, Sid the Sexist, The Modern Parents) and printing strips that poked fun at certain British B-list celebrities (The Adventures of Little Shane MacGowan, Saint Bernard Manning, Tony Slattery and his Phoney Cattery, Andrew Motion – Poet Laureate), Viz printed strips that poked fun at the famous comic-book creations of DC Thomson, usually ones that’d appeared in the Beano or Dandy: Biffa Bacon (a violent Geordie version of Bully Beef, punctuated regularly with headbutts, blood, broken noses and bust teeth), Little Plumber, Roger the Lodger (“Great lodge, eh, readers?”), Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner, Tinribs (a spoof on Brassneck featuring a really crap schoolboy robot) and, inevitably, Wanker Watson.  Needless to say, Viz became so popular so quickly during the 1980s because it was lapped up by undergraduate-age readers who, a decade earlier, had been the last generation to read the likes of the Beano and Dandy en masse.  When DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.

 

Incidentally, if I had to name my favourite British comic strips, I would probably opt for Adam Eterno, the saga of a sorcerer’s apprentice cursed to drift through time and space (thus having adventures in the past, present and future) for eternity, or for at least until he was struck down made by a weapon made of gold; and Janus Stark, about a Victorian escapologist with sinister powers of muscular contraction who used his snake-like body and Houdini-esque wits to fight crime and right injustices.  Adam Eterno first turned up in the Thunder in 1970 and is commemorated by this website: http://adameternoforever.tripod.com/; Janus Stark made his first appearance in the Smash in 1969 and also has a website dedicated to him, which was set up in France – the strip’s gothic charm was apparently better appreciated by French comic fans than by British ones: http://janustark.free.fr/.  Both strips ooze with a haunting 1970s weirdness that British comics managed, occasionally, to conjure up when they forgot they were supposed to be catering for children and allowed their writers and artists to stretch their imaginations.

 

Meanwhile, for an insider’s website about British comics generally, try this blog by artist Lew Stringer: http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/. And if you’re suffering Dandy withdrawal symptoms already, you can always check out this new website: http://www.dandy.com/.  I’ve just looked at it and – aaargh! – Brassneck is on it.

 

(c) DC Thomson