No, I'm not about to embark on an epic read-through unfortunately! I think that'd be a task way beyond anything I could manage, seeing as how Beano is now officially the world's longest-running weekly comic in the Guinness Book of World Records. Hitting it's 80th birthday today and having recently released a superb 80 Years of Fun limited edition box set, I decided after receiving it to mark the occasion with a weekly look at the eight comics included in that set, each picked to mark a particular occasion in Beano's lifetime. Today, the actual anniversary day, #1 with its famous front cover is up first.
I first saw this in the special hardback book released to celebrate both this and The Dandy's 50th anniversary back in 1987, so it's a special delight to see it in the flesh, so to speak. What we have here is a fantastic 24-page reproduction of the 28-page original issue, now printed on high quality matt paper that's been given a colouring treatment to make it look as authentic as possible. It's a neat idea and really makes it feel like you're reading an old comic. Being able to physically touch such a famous first issue adds to the experience immensely and you can't help but be swept up in the nostalgia. So much so, on more than one occasion I forgot this was a copy and one of only eight issues. I kept looking forward to #2 after this.
The front cover strip saw Big Eggo introduced to young readers in the UK and he'd remain there, welcoming the kids every week to a new issue for a whopping ten years. He was then brought back to the comic just this year courtesy of Lew Stringer. These days he's constantly looking for his egg (Eggo, not Lew) and you can see how that was also the basis of the first strip from Reg Carter above. It's beautifully drawn and coloured, the only fully coloured page in the comic, a gorgeous introduction to not only the mischievous ostrich but to The Beano itself. There'll be more from Big Eggo next week but for now let's crack open this premiere issue and see what else it introduced to its unwitting public back in 1938.
Lord Snooty, here drawn by Dudley Watkins, is the only character in this whole comic who appeared in the annuals belonging to my brother that I'd read in bed on Christmas morning before we were allowed to wake anyone else up. Indeed, Lord Marmaduke Earl of Bunkerton appeared in every single issue for 53 years, right up to 1991! Living a life of posh luxury was never enough for this young man, who'd sneak out every chance he got to go and play with his real friends, the kids of Ash Can Alley. It showed money couldn't buy happiness and as the accompanying bookazine in this set states, "Beano readers would have identified with the playful working-class kids and understood why Snooty liked them". Indeed, even though this is only his first strip I'm already glad he survived for so long because it means I have more to read through the coming weeks.
Snooty is the closest this comes to feeling like the classic 70s/80s strips I used to read in the pages of reprint periodicals Big Comic Fortnightly and Funny Fortnightly back in the 90s, so it has a particularly nostalgic feel for me personally. Watkins also fits so much onto the page! There's easily a double-page IPC strip's worth of content here, with five rows of panels (plus the title banner) squeezed in. Each panel is intricately drawn with loads of detail and the strip didn't shy away from adding in plenty of speech on top of all that. I look forward to seeing how this one develops into the one I remember from decades later. For now, it's on to the first adventure story. An adventure story? In The Beano?
Just as with The Dandy and, later, Buster etc., the early issues had a mixture of adventure and comedy stories, as well as a pretty even split between text heavy tales and lighter comic/picture strips. Morgyn the Mighty was a picture strip tale of the strongest man in the world, who lived on his own island with only the animals and nature for company. I was introduced to him in that book I mentioned above a few decades ago but this is the first time I've read a full chapter. George Anderson's artwork is as dynamic and bold as you'd expect from an adventure tale of the time but unfortunately, as with all the contents of these classic issues the names of the writers aren't known.
All of The Beano's scripts were written by freelancers and as with most comics of the day there's no credits on the pages themselves. Oink! stood out from the crowd as late as the 1980s when it credited all of its creators, so fifty years earlier it's not surprising to see no one's name here. For the artists' names I'll be mentioning throughout this series my thanks go to Lew and his The Beano Diaries book by Ray Moore, published back in 1991. I wanted to make sure I could credit as many people as possible, after all this is their work we're talking about. As far as I'm concerned, if I was showing off comic work and not saying whose work it is I'd just be waffling for my own benefit!
One thing that does stick out in Morgyn's pages, as well as in the Brave Captain Kipper strip where the "hero" is seen as brave for killing a whale, is how animals such as eagles and sharks are seen as mindless monsters out to kill Morgyn for no reason. It's very much of its time and is fun and exciting in a quaint way. Obviously painting any powerful animal as a monstrous beast to be killed is something a modern comic wouldn't even consider and D.C. Thomson have added in a little reminder of this at the bottom of the penultimate page, below the delightfully innocent Monkey Tales from Reg Carter.
Older Beano fans who pick up this set will probably notice the racial caricature has been edited out of the comic's front page, as has his jokes page within. I'm all for this. If this was simply a serious, factual book for studying The Beano or comics in general then yes, with written details about why it was used at the time and explaining the context of the period I could see it being included as historical information. But this is a comics box set aimed at families and children, including the comic's current readership, in modern times. We live in a much better world now. It's not a perfect world and there's still work to do, but there's a difference between content which could be seen as unsuitable for modern children's comics, and content which we can now clearly understand should never have seen print in the first place. (I touched on this briefly in the video introduction post where I also state I'm happy the publishers are acknowledging this with this edit.)
Back to the contents of this issue. Now, when I was a lot younger some of my comics contained a mix of different kinds of story formats too. Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends had picture strip stories like Morgyn's as well as prose ones. Even The Real Ghostbusters contained text stories and features in amongst its handful of short strips every issue. Neither of these comics would've contained the sheer amount of text the pages here have though.
With an illustration by Dudley Watkins, this first chapter in the adventures of Tom Thumb certainly didn't shy away from telling lots of story in its two pages, a format he would keep until the 1940s when he changed to picture strips. Compare this with the size of font used in the second of the two Marvel UK comics mentioned above and you'll see how we were catered for in a much different way. But back in 1938 this was the norm for comics, with D.C. Thomson actually revolutionising British comics of the day by including more comic strips with balloons than other publishers. While those rivals also published on larger, tabloid-esque pages the likes of The Dandy and The Beano went the way of American comics and printed on the page size we would become accustomed to in the UK. By doing so, but also wishing to maximise the content in the same way, the comics ended up jam-packed with every last inch used to entertain the young readers. It feels like a compacted, meaty read and you can see why it was such a runaway success right off the bat.
But Master Thumb wasn't the only prose story, not by a long shot. In these 24 pages there's a total of 9 with similar levels of text, then we've also got Wild Boy of the Woods which shares the same double-paged format as seen with Morgyn the Mighty above. There's also a few comical picture strip stories which act almost like a halfway point between the prose tales and the comic strips, such as Rip Van Wink, illustrated by Eric Roberts.
In fact, there's only a total of six pages worth of the kind of comic strips that would eventually encompass the entire page count in years to come. Apart from the cover all of the pages inside are either black and white or use red as a spot colour as you can see in the final photo below.
This back page story is actually a reprint of an Italian comic by Torelli Bros (according to a few Beano fansites), translated for the British kids obviously. I never knew The Beano did this if I'm honest and it's a lovely addition to end the issue off with. It's an endearing tale of parents whose son died a year before the tale, which in itself was a surprise to read here, and they decide to "make another one", but not in that way! The Professor sets about building his own robot-like clockwork boy and this first strip ends with, "Now see the Professor show his wife, Their clockwork son chock-full of life. And Mr Lee jumps as he thinks of the fun, He'll have with Tommy his tin-can son" as the two previously depressed parents jig for joy. It's heartwarming stuff and when I finished it and set the comic down on my bedside cabinet I was actually saddened to think I couldn't simply pick up #2 to see what would happen next with this unique little family.
As I've said above I can clearly see why The Beano was a hit with the children of the day. Reading it now in 2018 as a 40-year-old man I thoroughly enjoyed it and, even though it's double my own age, it managed to fill me with nostalgia and put a big, dopey grin right across my face for the duration. This issue was the main reason I bought the special box set instead of just the bookazine and it's almost worth the asking price alone.
A great, fun start to these eight comics and I'll be back next Thursday 2nd August with #272 which is a somewhat thinner publication at 12 pages, but they had a very good reason for that at the time! See you then I hope.
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As part of this series I'll be pointing out some other articles online for further reading on this phenomenal achievement of Beano's and about this box set. This week, check out a superb, lengthy read on Marvel UK editor John Freeman's Down the Tubes site where numerous UK industry professionals discuss their love for the comic and why they think it's been able to endure for so long. Readers of the blog look out for contributions from Oink! stars Patrick Gallagher and Lew Stringer, Enniskillen Comic Fest organiser Paul Trimble and a wealth of current Beano talent including pig pal Andy Fanton.