If people aren’t taught the language of sound and images, shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write? – George Lucas
I wasn’t a great reader growing up as a kid. My parents never read and although I wasn’t discouraged I wasn’t really encouraged. My father was more tolerant of non-fiction – we had no less than three sets of encyclopaedias in the house and he had a fondness for self-help books like The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics – but I never saw either of them pick up a novel. How I became a writer is a complete mystery to me.
I did read a lot of comics growing up. British comics are not like their American cousins. They have more in common with the newspaper funnies than superhero comics. In fact they were printed on very poor quality paper and for a long time contained no interior colour at all. Also, whereas American comics would have glossy covers, what we Brits got were simply two strips in full colour on the front and back but on the same paper.
When I think of comics the first one that comes to my mind has to be The Beano. It was published by a Scottish firm, D. C. Thomson & Co. Ltd, but it was hugely popular throughout the UK. The 28-page paper was printed on the same letterpress machines which produced the company’s newspapers and 4-colour was restricted to the covers with a few 2-colour pages inside. It was first published on 26th July 1938 and continues to this day. In September 2009 The Beano's 3500th issue was published. Needless to say the comic holds the world record for being the world's longest running weekly comic which is interesting because The Dandy (also published by D C Thomson) actually predated it, being first published on 4th December 1937.
These weren’t the only comics D C Thomson produced. In addition to The Beano and The Dandy it’s best known for producing Oor Wullie, The Broons (two very Scottish titles) and Commando comics. Here's a delightful wee animation someone's done of Wullie reciting 'A Man's a Man for aw that':
I also read The Dandy and occasionally two of its other comics the The Topper and The Beezer. These last two were a bit different in that they were tabloids (twice the size of the other comics on the market) and so felt even more like newspapers. The Topper ran from 7th February 1953 to 15th September 1990, when it merged with The Beezer (which had been on the go since 21st January 1956) and both comics were renamed as Beezer and Topper which ran until 1993. The merging of comics was a common practice in the UK.
In addition to the weekly comics there would also be an annual. These had hard-backed covers and so have lasted well and are quite collectable. Every Christmas you could expect two or three annuals. In addition to the regular annuals in time the most popular characters would get their own books: Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids (Beano), Beryl the Peril (Topper) and Desperate Dan (Dandy).
The British Dennis first appeared on 17th March 1951. Coincidently the US Dennis appeared on 12th March 1951. Dennis Mitchell (US) is a precocious but lovable, freckle-faced five-and-a-half-year-old boy with a blond cowlick and a penchant for mischief; the British Dennis (surname unknown) is 10 years old (though at times he has been portrayed as slightly older again), he has dark spiky hair and an iconic black-and-red horizontal-striped jumper. Unlike the US Dennis, he is more actively malicious than merely mischievous.
Just as The Topper had developed a female version of Dennis (Beryl first appeared in print on 7th February 1953) so did The Beano: Minnie the Minx. She first popped up in issue 596, dated 19th December 1953. Like most DC Thomson characters, Minnie's parents are never mentioned by name; and are referred to simply as 'Min's dad' and 'Min's mum'.
Roger the Dodger was probably my personal favourite. He first appeared in The Beano issue 561, dated 18th April 1953, and is still on the go. His appearance is vaguely similar to that of Dennis the Menace: he wears a black and red chequered jumper, black trousers and takes better care of his hair; he also used to have a white tie but it seems to have disappeared over the years. What I liked about Roger was that he was thoughtful. It wasn’t he was any more successful that Dennis and was often caught out but I liked his approach to being bad. Only Roger’s motivation wasn’t so much to be bad as to get out of doing things he didn’t want to do. He would retreat to his room, consult his many books of dodges and come up with a plan.
DC Thomson had a style that remains essentially unchanged right down to today. Before them we had what we would think of as the weekly British adventure comics – story papers which had pages upon pages of text stories with a couple of spot illustrations per story and maybe a couple of pages of comic strip to break up the monotony of the solid text. All that changed with DC Thomson. The humour in all their comics was basic, cartoonish – the fun stemmed from the eccentric and often larger than life characters which were carefully designed to allow readers to relate to and sympathise with them and laugh at the ridiculous scrapes they got themselves into. Authority (generally parental, school or even the police) might be challenged in the strips but the establishment invariably won through in the end. Anthropomorphic animals were commonplace: the lead character on The Beano was, for many years, Biffo the Bear; Korky the Cat held the same position on The Dandy.
It was rare for any of strips to involve the real world. A rare exception was Billy the Cat who was something of a Robin character without any Batman. His costume consisted of a black leather cat suit, with black backpack attached by yellow straps. He wore a crash helmet, modified to look like a cat's face, to hide his identity. Later he was joined by his cousin, known as Katie the Cat, who dressed the same way. Each of them utilised a weighted nylon line to lasso things. The end of the line has claws on it for hooking objects at which it is thrown. Not only can it hold the weight of a child without breaking, but it is also strong enough to be used to tie up adult criminals.
I have two clear memories concerning The Beano. Do you remember the day you stopped calling you father ‘Daddy’ and he became ‘Dad’? I do. I had gone out with my Beano and I was reading it on the kerb which is not nearly as comfortable as it looks in the comics. I noticed that Dennis and co called their parents ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and so I determined to do likewise. My dad noticed when I did – I remember it registering on his face – but he never said a thing and he was ‘Dad’ from that day until the day he died.
The second memory was going to the corner shop with my mum and asking if I could have a different comic rather than The Beano. I was growing up. What I asked for (and got, as I recall) was The Victor. The first issue of The Victor appeared on 25th February 1961 and lasted for 1657 issues. It was also published by DC Thomson. The Victor had numerous war and sport related stories. It was quite similar to The Hotspur and The Rover. Not having much interest in fighting or sports I didn’t read these kinds of comics very often but I wanted to show I was growing up.
What I did eventually progress onto was comics based on TV shows, most notably TV Century 21. Finally something by a publisher other that DC Thomson! TV21, as it soon was renamed, as you might expect had a very heavy TV bias. The majority of the strips were based around the various television series produced by Gerry Anderson whose production company was called Century 21 Productions. TV 21 was first published on 23rd January 1965 and ran up until 1968 when it merged with TV Tornado. The comic came into existence at the same time as Anderson’s latest project, Stingray, was broadcast – I remember sitting down to watch that with high expectations having been a great fan of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and Supercar. My tea was fish fingers covered in batter (which was also something new), chips and peas – that’s how clear the memory is in my head. TV21 included stories covering all Century 21 Productions and so, as the years went by, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. In time there were others added to the mix, most notably Terry Nation’s Daleks, a spinoff from Doctor Who.
In contrast to the earlier TV Comic which ran at the same time and was a traditional strip comic, although with higher production values than DC Thomson’s offerings. TV21 on the other hand was presented as a newspaper for children with a front page of "Stop Press" items and "news" style photographs of their puppet heroes. TV Tornado featured the popular series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Saint. I have no doubt I bought issues of all of the comics over the years.
Unless you lived in the UK in the sixties it’s impossible to appreciate the immense popularity of the Gerry Anderson television shows. Forget the truly awful life action Thunderbirds and go back to the source material. The same goes for Doctor Who. It might be back in favour but that’s only because those kids who watched the shows in the sixties and seventies were so enthralled by it that as soon as they got a bit of power you simply knew it was only a matter of time before it came back.
The other comic I was buying around this time was Lion, another non-DC Thomson comic but a more traditional one as far as its production values went. Lion was brought out to compete with Eagle which I don’t recall ever reading before it was incorporated by Lion in May 1969. Lion I remember for one character, The Spider:
In the summer of 1965 we were introduced to The Spider. Created and written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and superbly drawn by Reg Bunn. The Spider was a brilliant criminal mastermind who desired to become the uncrowned king of crime. He possessed some amazing gadgetry including his famous steely-web, the helicar and helium gas bubble. The story initially consisted of just two pages, but quickly increased to 4 and sometimes 5 pages. The layout of the frames was different as well. Instead of the usual 4 rows of drawings we had just 3, which meant that each frame was much more detailed thus accounting for those extra pages. The Spider, who looked a little bit like Star Trek's Mr Spock, started his Lion career as a villain. He was ably assisted by Professor Pelham, a crooked scientist, and Roy Ordini an ex-safecracker. As the story went on, the master of crime declared his intention of smashing Crime Incorporated, an organisation of gangsters, and with the help of the Exterminator they set about "tackling the individual gang-bosses, relentlessly pursuing them to wherever they have hidden their loot and taking it from them!" Although the Spider was a bit of a crook you were always willing him to be successful, usually because his foes were even more crooked. – comicsuk.co.uk
American comics were around in the sixties but rare. There was one newsagent in the town centre that stocked them but getting two issues of any comic in a row was rare; luckily most stories were only an issue long and arcs weren’t too common. The first comic I remember buying was Forever People #1 circa February 1971 but I know I’d read Superman and Batman before that. My main source for superhero material was a comic called Smash! Smash! ran for 257 issues, between 5th February 1966 and 3rd April 1971. It was part of Odhams' Power Comics line and was basically an amalgam of the best of Pow!, Fantastic, Wham! and Terrific. (no idea why Fantastic didn’t get an exclamation mark like all the others.) These comics reprinted material from Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The quality would have been considerably inferior to the original issues and the strips would often be in black and white.
Interestingly the one superhero I remember from that time was actually Rubberman. I can still picture a single panel with him squeezing his body into effectively a drainpipe – a tight squeeze even for him – and his brow is covered with beads of sweat; he realises that now he’s committed himself to this he has to succeed or die. Why, I wonder, should that image have stuck all these years when I couldn’t even remember the name of the comic he appeared in?
Times have changed. Boy have they changed. The Dandy has just been revamped (and not for the first time) and reissued. Now, needless to say, there’s a website and everything and the focus has also changed. According to The Drum:
The Dandy will also no longer look to offer cover mounted free gifts and focus more on its characters, including Harry Hill’s Real-Life Adventures in TV-Land running exclusively in the now weekly title.
As well as Harry Hill, other celebrities will make appearances within the pages of comic as it looks to spoof popular culture, while new characters will include Pepperoni Pig, Postman Prat, Clive 5, Bill Oddie-Watch, The ZZZ-Team, The Y-Factor and Bear Thrills.
I’m not a big Harry Hill fan I have to say. But he is hugely popular and I can see why it might be a coup to have a strip actually written by him. I suppose the closest in comedic terms in my day would have been Benny Hill who had a comic strip in Look-In which came out in the early seventies. It was another comic like TV21, slightly higher end featuring strips of the likes of The Tomorrow People, The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie's Angels, Knight Rider, The A-Team and my personal favourite, Timeslip.
What really shocked me was the news that The Dandy was lowering its cover price to £1.50 from issue #3508. [Cue Yorkshire accent] When I were a lad it cost 2p! That’s an annual increase of 11½ percent every year since then. I had a wee look at the website and downloaded a couple of the free strips. I was appalled at what they’d done with Desperate Dan. He used to be such an imposing figure. Now look at him! And don’t get me started on the new additions, Shao Lin Punks, George vs Dragon and Count Snotula – that last one looks like is was cut and pasted from the pages of Viz which, in case you’ve never heard of it, was an adult comic brought out in 1979 to lampoon comics like The Beano and The Dandy. It specialises in toilet humour. I was not a fan.
The Beano also has a website and you can download a PDF of a sample comic. I have to say that I was relieved to find that Dennis, Minnie, Rodger and the Bash Street Kids all looked pretty much as they did when I left them.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I turned into my father spending more time looking back to an idealised past rather than stand to have to look at the present. I do try not to be nostalgic for its own sake. Things weren’t always better when I were a lad and if you’ve no idea what I’m referencing there it’s Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch. The big question still stands as to whether comics are good for our kids. I would like to say they didn’t influence me but they clearly did. I let a character in a comic decide how I should refer to my father. I suppose he should just be grateful that we weren’t living at a time when Coneheads had been turned into a comic strip or I might have started calling him a parental unit and I'm not sure I would have got away with that when I was five.
Researchers in the UK in 1994 and 1995 investigated the reading interests of 8000 children. The authors of that report found that:
- overall, comics were less popular than books amongst 11-14 year olds;
- in the 10+ age group the percentage of children who bought comics (34.2%) was about the same as that of those buying books (35.9%) although it is possible that this high figure for book buying also includes comics which children have classified as books;
- boys bought more comics than girls and maintained their interest in them over a longer period of time;
- older children who had read comics turned their attention to newspapers and magazines; and
- girls' choice of periodicals followed socio-economic lines while boys' tastes crossed social barriers.
A 1997 survey (a much smaller sampling however) came up with similar figures:
- 31% of boys and 9% of girls read a comic of some kind;
- whilst all the girls read magazines or books as well as comics, 6.7% of boys read only comics;
- most of the boys (25% of the boys surveyed) who read comics chose The Beano and Dandy; and
- a small number of boys (about 3% of boys surveyed) opted for more violent comics like Judge Dredd.
It’s the ages that interest me. I would have thought that nowadays by puberty kids wouldn’t be so interested in comics like The Beano and The Dandy. Maybe that’s changed in the last decade since the Internet has tightened its grip. I don’t know. What I do know is that words and images have never been so close.
Kathleen Monnin, Assistant Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida, likes to point to the central role of comics by invoking today’s all-important goal of “image literacy.” “We find ourselves living during the greatest communication revolution in history, where image-dominant literacies of screen, animation, technology, video game, and picture are starting to share the stage with the traditional print-text literacies.”
In short, want to show kids how billboards catch your attention in a matter of seconds as you drive along the highway? Study comics. Want to teach the way that the layout of a print ad or a Web page maximizes the impact of the available space through strategic combinations of print and graphics? Ditto. You can teach formal elements such as composition, rhythm, colour, typeface, page navigation, and many more, all by using comics as your springboard. – Peter Gutierrez, ‘Sparking Media Literacy with Comics’, Bookshelf
I have to say I’d never really thought about comics that way. I found life on the Internet easy from the very first day I logged on; I intuitively got it. Maybe the years and years I spent as a kid (and an adult) reading comics had helped prepare me for this new experience and I never knew it. It’s a thought, isn’t it?
Let me leave you with Reservoir Dodge:
And The Beano All Stars: