A Brief History of British Comics: Part 2 – A Menace to Society and Jolly Good Chaps… In Space

So, when we last left the History of British comics, we were roughly at the turn of the twentieth century. At this point most of the comics industry at the time consisted of two seemingly disparate elements. It was either grim tales of murder and the supernatural or there was the first proper comic book as we know it- a cutesy comedy about a bumbling working class buffoon- alongside parody/satirical magazines and… it basically stayed that way for decades. Sorry to yadda yadda through about forty years, but trust me- it’s basically the same stuff. Alongside Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday there was Scraps, The Rainbow, Funny Wonder, Chips (which later became part of Whizzer and Chips), Puck, The Coloured Comic, The Magic Comic and Playbox. There’s tons more I’ve left out.

But it’s at this point in British comics history we see what is probably the only time when it’s not all so grim or darkly comical. It’s actually as close to being similar with the at the time contemporary American comic book industry as we ever were and probably ever will be.

Which is extremely ironic as we’ll see.

But first let’s deal with the hangover from that Victorian tradition of funny comics- and the only two still going consistently strong to this day; The Beano and The Dandy.

The Beano will be turning eighty on the 30th of July and it’s a comic book institution in my country. Started by publishing giant DC Thomson and Co. it’s an anthology of hilarious stuff happening involving kids, puns and funny animals. It’s main mascot is a obnoxious scamp named Dennis the Menace (we got one too!) and I read it a lot as a kid. One of the teachers at Primary School had a huge cardboard box full of back issues stretching to the eighties that she’d let you read if she was feeling generous. My Mum’s friend had a huge library of annuals and single issues going back to the fifties. It’s holds the title for longest running British comic book. This thing started in 1938, the year before the Second World War, and it remains standing alongside it’s sort of rival (owned by the same publishing company) The Dandy.

It’s as close as we get to DC vs Marvel rivalry, again, The Dandy is made by the same publisher and it was started a year later than the Beano– so it turns eighty next year- this is a sibling rivalry if anything. However; I’m only going to cover the Beano because it’s the one I know best and I always thought it was way funnier. So there.

But to start with… I am going to show you the cover to the very first issue and um… I got to warn you… It’s disgustingly racist. Like the kind you would expect in 1930s Britain. It’s what you might call a ‘teeth dryer’; i.e. you will be pulling in a hard intake of breath through gritted teeth.

Jesus H Christ.

Of course it changed dramatically over the decades, it’s moved away from casual racism- I mean, a distinctly Victorian brand of humour and more towards the incarnation I know and what most British comic book reading people think of when you mention the Beano.  But there’s no getting away from it- that racist caricature you see in the top left corner was the comic’s mascot when it was first introduced. He was named Peanut (I’ll allow you a pause to throw up in your mouth a little) and he got up to some um… deary me. Who cares. It’s terrible. Moving on.

Strangely enough, he was later removed from reprints of this issue.

And to be fair, there seems to be a collected embarrassment about it and quite rightly too. In a recently published bookazine The Beano: 80 years of Fun they reprinted some of those early issues in order to provide cultural context. To quote Blimey, who reviewed 80 Years of Fun on the 28th of June this year:

… this special focuses on eight issues of the Beano from across the years “to help us understand the wider socio-political landscape and cultural trends of the times”. Peanut, the caricatured black boy who was the comic’s original mascot, has been erased from history, with covers altered to make it look like he never existed. That will no doubt annoy some collectors, but in the current political climate of growing right-wing extremism perhaps it’s for the best to avoid such outdated gross imagery.

So let’s take a page from their book and focus on the two main mascots that came after. The first was a bear called Biffo who was a loveable bumbling goof in the same vein as Ally Sloper.

(We seem to have a lot of bumbling idiots in British comedy- we even elected one as Mayor of London for a while because we wanted to get in on the ‘electing a rich bumbling racist moron with ridiculous hair’ act before you guys I suppose).

Whilst he was hugely popular for a long time, he was eventually phased out until the mascot become Dennis the Menace. That’s this guy:

He mostly gets up to acts of petty vandalism with his dog Gnasher.

To this day, Dennis the Menace continues to be a huge mainstay of British pop culture. He’s had several animated series based on him, along with other Beano mainstays like The Bash Street Kids and Minnie The Minx (my personal hero). He’s as iconic as you can get around here, certainly with my generation and the two generations prior to mine. These days, he might not be as popular as he once was, but he’s still as much a part of our cultural landscape as Judge Dredd and The Doctor. The website for the Beano is now a kind of general kids entertainment site- a kind of Nickelodeon lite- where you can get comedic takes on football (sigh, soccer), current trends (as of writing it’s unicorns, slime and flossing) and Harry Potter (any one else feel like it’s 2001?). This is all still alongside a anthology comic of funny kids getting up to mischief.

I’m kind of proud of the Beano? I mean, our longest lasting comic and most enduring character is a snotty kid who makes other people’s lives miserable. Some part of me can’t help but feel a little smug about that. Even as I work with kids who are basically Dennis every day.

I mean, he’s kind of obnoxious… but at least he isn’t Horrid Henry. God I hate that loathsome little twat.

So. Moving on.

Let’s talk about another um… kind of twat- Dr. Fredric Wertham. You might remember him as the man who basically almost killed the comic book industry in the fifties, based on research that was found to be suspect at best(Though to be absolutely fair to him, he was also a key figure in the fight for civil rights in Brown vs Board of Education. He also provided vital mental health services to young people, particularly black people, who might not have otherwise have got them. He also wrote papers dealing with the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust so… maybe he was actually a pretty upstanding guy in a lot of respects).

He accused the comic book industry on turning children and young people into criminals through stories of violence and horror. In his book Seduction of the Innocents, he also famously accused Superman of being fascist propaganda (sigh), Wonder Woman of being a sexual deviant (uh… he had a point… kinda) who was anti-masculine (I mean… duh) and Batman of being…. um. Gay. Dun dun duh.

His writing lead to the infamous Comics Code Authority, which- whilst it clearly had good intentions in some regards- became a huge hindrance to creativity and story telling for decades.

So, what’s all this got to do with British Comics History you might ask? Well, guess what? We had our own Wertham… but instead of a book moralising over the evils of imported, he produced his own anthology comic along with an illustrator named Frank Hampson. It was called The Eagle and featured another of our most well known comic book characters; Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

As I alluded to in Part 1, we don’t have a lot of traditional action stories or superheroes in our comics history. The closest thing was have seen so far are highway men who were heroes of the Penny Dreadfuls. What we did have were a lot of imported American comics- which, whilst they had all the expected superheroes, they also included the horror and pulp that Wertham was finger wagging at. This didn’t sit well with Reverend Marcus Morris, a Vicar of St James Church in Birkdale, Merseyside (it’s vaguely close to Liverpool, where the Beetles are from- if that helps). In the late forties, Morris was also an editor of a magazines called the Anvil– publishing wholesome content for God-fearing folk.

There were articles, short stories and illustrations aimed at a general audience, but mostly intended for children. It didn’t do spectacularly well, but in 1949, Morris wrote an article about American comics called Comics that bring Horror into the Nursery. There was one bizzare incident where some boys in Glasgow were caught hunting a vampire after reading some US horror comics- this only added fuel to the fire (AS IF WE AS A NATION HADN’T LITERALLY CREATED VARNEY THE VAMPIRE). All was merged into a general moral panic eventually leading to all US import comics being banned by Parliament under an act called ‘Children And Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955‘ (it was repealed in 1969). Nothing was safe; not even Western comics or even Captain Marvel (the first one, Shazam guy)! Luckily we got our own knock off version who would never do anything violent or horror based ever ever.

Again, all of this looks hilarious now given that we’re the country who produced the Penny Dreadfuls prior to this and went on to produce Alan effing Moore and Grant effing Morrison, but go figure. There’s a more detailed account of the whole affair over on an amazingly detailed blog called Down The Tubes. Newspaper articles can be found here and there’s a book detailing the whole sordid affair here. It’s not all that different to the moral panic surrounding Penny Dreadfuls or the one that would come in the eighties surrounding ‘Video Nasties’ (grindhouse movies). We’re the nation of pearl-clutchers who also produced some of the most grim, dark and distopian works in comics (next part?) alongside funny kids who pull pranks. Those funny kids comics were still going and survived this purge pretty well, presumably because they were the only ‘naughty’ thing they were allowed to read after shops no longer stocked American imported filth.

But all of this also meant that the market was well and truly open for Morris, along with long time friend and collaborator Frank Hampson, to produce the Eagle and make Dan Dare a household name.

Again, it’s hard to overstate just how important Dan Dare is to our cultural landscape. This guy was our Lone Ranger or Buck Rogers, he’s still remembered fondly by my Dad’s generation. He had toys and a radio serial. Had we more money floating around in the BBC at the time, he might have been a TV show as well (we got Doctor Who instead, whatever happened to that guy?). He was an RAF pilot who happened to work in space. In the years following World War Two, these guys were national heroes. They were romanticised and idolised, with good reason to be fair (my own Grandad flew in the Battle of Britian), but this meant that Dan Dare would have the perfect cross over appeal; tapping into the current growing interest in the Space Race and the lingering adoration of British pilots.

It was founded in ‘plausible’ science, with Arthur C Clarke acting as a ‘consultant’ and special attention paid to the rank and insignia of the various British army bods who turn up in the comics. It was, basically ‘What if our brave chaps fought funny green men instead of the Germans?’ and it was a huge hit and continued to be a huge hit for thrilling stories and gorgeous art work. Frank Hampson is a master at creating thrilling pulp art with a distinctly British illustration feel that draws you in. He worked from life, with models (including his family!) to create the characters. He wanted realism alongside the fantastical (something a lot of British writers take to mean ‘Make everything as depressing and downbeat as humanly fucking possible.’). Dan Dare himself is portrayed as a decent person fighting the good fight. He seems to have a lot in common with Clark Kent, only he as human as they come (he’s from Manchester! Born and bred!). Just watching this mini-documentary from Pathe (they used to play in cinemas either as a collection or before the main event, along with a Disney cartoon) sums up just how loved this series was.

It provides a lot of entertainment for children for two decades- until the ban on US comics is finally lifted in 1969. By this point, the American comic book industry is still in the grip of the Comics Code Authority, so can’t really provide any of the gruesome horror and violence that it had done in the past, but there were a shit ton of superhero comics… which we didn’t really have.

Apart from one guy.

But that’s for the next part- a kind of interlude where I briefly touch on Marvel-Man before moving onto talking about children’s adventure and drama comics verses war comics.

It basically spelled the end of Dan Dare, who by the late sixties was being seen as increasingly square, boring and a symbol of the establishment. Not to mention he had to compete with Star Trek. The Eagle consigned Dan to the back of the comic and was merged with it’s rival Lion, where he was reprinted in black and white- which to me seems like a really terrible way to treat the art but never mind. Eventually, he was relaunched in 1977 in a brand new anthology comic with a more downbeat, strange and grim reboot that was not terribly popular with either the adults who knew Dan Dare from their childhood or the new kids getting into comics. Normally having a main character flop  like this would spell an end for a comic, but much like the Beano before it- they shifted to a new character who captured it’s audience attention. This character also tapped into an overall grim feeling settling over Britain at that point in time and would later come to define the whole book and become a beloved cultural British icon.

STAY TUNED because there’s still two other bits of British comic book history I need to touch on before I get to the big two oh oh ay dee.

So, on the one hand- throughout the first half of the twentieth century, most British comics were only concerned with making people laugh and with good reason I guess. I can only imagine that to a lot of people it seemed things were getting worse and worse leading through one World War, economic boom and bust, the rise of fascism, another World War and Britain recovering. The post war feeling of optimism fed into our enjoyment of good old Dan Dare.

This particular ‘realism’ was not gloomy or grimly funny- it was lavish, nerdy and tapping into a tradition of British illustration. This might be the only point I’ve found so far where we sit right in the middle of the ‘Spectrum of British Comics’ as well as at the ‘cartoonish silliness’. It was only after things started going south in the late seventies, the same period that effectively sank Dan Dare as anything more than a cultural figurehead, that saw us tip the scale right back to gore and horror. I can only imagine Reverend Morris would have been horrified. All that work he put into providing a clean British alternative to American imported filth… only to find we, as a nation were always good at making our own filth thanks very much.

But there’s one more stopping point.

The other thing that happened in the post war years, as we swung into the sixties and seventies, was that we lost an appetite for portraying soldiers as clean cut heroes and war as something gloriously heroic. There were war comics rising as Dan Dare was falling- they focused on the worst sides of war. They to focused on the real, but the more poignant, angry and downbeat type of real. Alongside this, there were comics about everyday heroes like footballers and- you might want to sit down for this one- an entire industry of comics for girls. We had a whole comic book market for girls. And they were pretty… dark? I never though I’d be putting titles like Bunty, Tammy and Jinty (they are all girl’s names) on the same end as Valiant or 2000AD, but here I am.

And that’ll be our next proper part after a brief fly over in Marvel Man territory- Roy of the Rovers, Bunty and Charlie’s War. Please take a look at the links I’ve provided and I am still super looking forward to talking about 2000AD.


Links I used for research:

Wacky Comics!

Down the Tubes

The Tearoom of Despair

So Long Ago, So Clear

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I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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August 23, 2018 10:25 am

What a wonderful series of articles. Amazing research and some of my favourites from a young life that just gets further away.
Can’t wait for the 2000ad piece.
One churlish “actually” to add, Dandy was a year older than the Beano. You were right about it being inferior.