Why, in the most darkest of days, we should never be without The Beano
In living memory, the last week has been one of the most darkest and tumultuous weeks. Within 24 hours of Jeremy Corbyn’s meeting with leaders of opposition parties to prevent a Tory No Deal Brexit®, Boris Johnson (and possibly his unelected puppets) decided to prorogue parliament. The Queen gave him the nod and within days, numerous protests have taken place across the UK.
For this post, we shan’t elaborate on the PM’s contempt for representative democracy. Instead, we shall focus on a British institution which came to the fore during the Second World War. A publication that has had a great influence on the nation’s humour and spawned several imitators.
I am referring to The Beano. Launched on the 30 July 1938 as a sister publication to The Dandy, it was an immediate success selling 443,000 copies. In March 1950, just under two million copies were sold – an all-time record that remains to this day. Today, it sells 33,000 copies a week. Though lower than the 150,000 circulation it had in the 1980s, it is still the UK’s Number One weekly comic.
In 1938, an uncertain political climate would lead us to the Second World War. 81 years and one month later, in equally challenging times, The Beano’s 4,000th issue hit the news stands. With this special edition, yours truly (long time Beano fan though far from regular reader) had to get that edition. For the princely sum of £2.75.
Inside The Beano’s 4,000th issue
When I first read The Beano, it had 20 A4/half tabloid size newsprint pages. There was only four full colour pages: the front and back cover (with Dennis the Menace and Gnasher) and the centre pages (The Bash Street Kids). Today’s seven-year-olds have the joy of 36 full colour glossy pages. Yes, glossy pages. Also a glossier cover with sparkly red ‘BEANO’ lettering and the (now all-important) web address opposite ‘Every Wednesday’.
With the 4,000th issue milestone, all strips apart from the interactive ‘Make Me a Menace’ strip look at Beanotown in the year 4000. The overriding theme is that anything humorous in Beanotown has been outlawed by Emperor Wilbur Brown. With a slight resemblance to Walter the Softy’s dad and one-time Beano editor Euan Kerr, he claims that laughing drives people to read books by David Walliams or Harry Snotter novels.
Under Emperor Wilbur Brown’s watch. laughing is banned. Even the most minor chortle is detected by a trio of robots with ‘W’s on their chest. Within seconds (Monty Python style Spanish Inquisition fashion), miscreants are sent for de-laughification.
Instead of being a snapshot of 1950s style social housing suburbia, Beanotown in year 4000 is a smog-ridden dystopia with Nineteen Eighty-Four style notices. The backdrop is dotted around with skyscrapers, polluting factories and several ‘W’s atop each tower and chimney. Emperor Brown’s Evil Lair has some resemblance to the tower of St. Martin’s Precinct, Liverpool.
With the juxtaposition of robots and an all-encompassing totalitarian corporation controlling Beanotown’s residents, you could be forgiven for thinking of Sci-Fi references. Particularly Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. For Wilbur Corporation, you could substitute Wilbur for Tyrrel. Instead of robots, you could substitute them for androids.
Ironically, the film was set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles in 2019. Ridley Scott’s version of Los Angeles was inspired by ICI Wilton and other chemical plants along the Tees Valley at midnight.
Instead of an imagined 2019 from a 1982 perspective, issue 4000 could be a reference to present-day concerns. Particularly the environment; instead of Wilbur you could substitute that for Trump. The toxic dump of Beanotown in the year 4000 could even be post-Brexit Britain, a vision of tall towers and (thanks to the lack of environmental regulations) belching chimneys. A place which Minnie the Minx said “is more depressing than my school report.”
Sticking with Minnie the Minx (“She’s tougher than all the boys” according to the strip’s strap line), she meets up with Maximum Minx from 2019. Taking her style cues from Tank Girl, Greta Thunberg and a redheaded school friend of yours truly from the late 1980s, she tries to thwart the robots with her catapult. A battery powered one. Later, her senior relative sees them off with an analogue non-battery powered catapult. Job done.
The unluckiest time traveller in the world?
I used to love the Tom Paterson version of Calamity James. Under the present-day artist and scriptwriter Leslie Stannage, more of the same, though simplified. There is slightly less of the Leo Baxendale/Ken Reid style detail which I liked with Tom Paterson’s work.
This time, with Alexander Lemming, they try to escape the Emperor Bots in a TARDIS and a Delorean DMC-12. Obviously a reference to Doctor Who and Back to the Future. In the end, James still comes out worst despite escaping the Emperor Bots. He crashes into a (well-signposted) top secret lab where he destroys the only prototype of the ‘Bad Luck Removal Ray’.
Roger the Dodger runs into a replicant Dodger and outwits the Emporer Bots. Once again (as with Minnie the Minx), his doppelganger is pulled out of the brown stuff by his senior partner. This is repeated in The Bash Street Kids strip where Teacher finds the ON/OFF switch on the back of the Emperor Bots.
Besides Teacher’s detective work, we find that Bash Street School is ‘closed by order of the emperor’. Soon, we see Class 2B looking at a zombified version of Class 2B (with uniforms) being led by a robot teacher. A classic joke from The IT Crowd prevents a system hack in Rubi’s Screwtop Science. An old fashioned punch in the face works for Bananaman in his one-on-one against an Emperor Bot. Micro chips are seen inside the mouth of Edd’s head in the Numskulls.
IT inspires Billy Whizz’s strip, where a future Billy Whizz doesn’t need to run in Beanotown at all. He ‘runs’ via an internet connection. At one point he is stuck because “too many people are watching cat videos and I’m buffering.” In the end, Billy Whizz Senior unplugs all the routers in Beanotown to help his friend.
The crowning glory of issue 4000 is a double helping of Dennis and Gnasher. Not only in his own strip but also in the two-part Beano To The Future special strip. In his own strip, we see another Dennis The Menace, with blue hair and a friendship with Walter the Softy. Walter uses a form of mind control on both Dennises, leading up to the grand finale of Beano To The Future.
In the two-part adventure, we find the reason why Emperor Brown wanted to stop laughing. He saw it as a free form of energy which undermined the profits of Wilbur Corporation’s power plants. Which in his words means, “carry on using dirty great fossil fuels at great profit to myself!” Later he gets his comeuppance from the future and present versions of the Beanotown massive. Then he disappears into space, only to be seen in the final caption next to a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Relevant in 1938, still relevant in 2019
By changing with the times and responding to your target audience, The Beano’s longevity is no accident. The Beano of 2019 is more interactive than The Beano I loved in 1986. Readers are invited to send jokes and pictures, a version of the Dennis The Menace Fan Club writ large. Many of which under the banner of You’re So Beano! Computer games and social media play a major part with today’s more media savvy Beano reader. The Beano.com website with its games make for a more one-to-one relationship with the title beyond its 36 pages.
I would say The Beano of 2019 is a more cerebral beast compared with the comic I enjoyed in my formative years. It is more commercially minded with its merchandise spin-offs. As well as the odd advertisement for its own publications, Beano subscriptions are also promoted, offering real savings on newsagents’ prices.
As for my comments on the 4,000th edition, it never fails to capture the zeitgeist nor express contemporary concerns. Particularly with this issue, the environment and the concentration of power over individuals by a small self-serving elite (sounds familiar?).
On the whole, a fantastic edition of The Beano. Yours truly gets the cultural references and the subtle social comments which the seven-year-old S.V. might have had some trouble comprehending. Then again, I wasn’t as exposed to as much new-fangled technology and Sci-Fi stuff as today’s target audience. Or superhero type stuff. Or Blade Runner.
Here’s to another 4000 issues of being more cerebral than The Sun newspaper. Long live and prosper.
S.V., 31 August 2019,
Also a one time member of the Dennis The Menace Fan Club.