AFTER my recent TCW nostalgia-fest about retro sweets, along comes the chance to serve up another tranche of fond childhood memories … about comics.
It’s prompted by the happy news that Dennis the Menace, the wild child of the Beano, was 70 years old on Wednesday.
I’m delighted to note that Dennis and I are around the same age, but rather miffed to see that while I’ve gone gradually downhill with the passing decades, he’s still an energetic, mischief-making ten-year-old.
The spiky-haired schoolboy with his black-and-red striped jumper is one of the many crazy characters who enlivened comics for us avid young readers in the 1950s and 1960s BC (Before Correctness).
As I remember, Dennis didn’t acquire his dog Gnasher or his pet pig Rasher until later in his career. His wimpish, bespectacled, teddy bear-hugging nemesis, Softy Walter, was also a later addition.
Instead, Dennis’s early years saw him getting into scrapes, pranks and mishaps that inevitably ended in the last frame of the comic strip with him being bent over his father’s knee to be spanked with a slipper. Ouch!
Along with the Beano, we kids mainly read the Dandy, the Topper and the Beezer. But I think the Beano was everyone’s favourite.
On the cover was Biffo the Bear, who I reckoned was more Biffo the Bore. However, things got much better as you turned to the inside pages.
There was Little Plum (Your Redskin Chum), a Red Indian kid who was always getting into trouble with his tribe’s leader, Chiefy. When they spoke to each other, they’d never use the definite article, saying instead: ‘I’m going down to um trading post to buy um loaf of bread.’
Then came Lord Snooty and his Pals. Snooty was a top-hatted, tuxedo-clad little toff who lived in Bunkerton Castle and had a retinue of lower-class kids with whom he got up to japes. An odd concept, but it worked.
For me, the Beano’s piece de resistance was The Bash Street Kids, who I believe are still going. I remember the strip used to be called When the Bell Rings, being renamed some time in the late 1950s.
The kids themselves are wonderful creations. Their leader is the wily Danny, with his skull-and-crossbones jumper. Then there’s Fatty, slavering for a slap-up meal, Smiffy – a daft kid who always gets things wrong – Wilfrid, with his jumper pulled up over his mouth (perhaps he was anticipating Covid), brother and sister Toots and Sid; podgy little mole-like ’Erbert; the cosmetically-challenged Spotty and the lanky, cadaverous, flat-hatted Plug. Plug-ugly, that is.
Their teacher (known as, er, Teacher) is a comedy Hitler lookalike, wearing a mortar board and wielding a cane. Later, a classroom creep called Cuthbert Cringeworthy was introduced, who is a mini-me of Teacher – a brilliant addition.
What’s striking in the achingly woke, culturally repressive, dumbed-down world of 2021 is how innocently anarchic and politically incorrect all these zany characters and stories were.
You had bespectacled kids being bullied, others undergoing corporal punishment; a Red Indian boy with a funny accent; a privileged peer mixing with hoi polloi; fat-shamed, thick and ugly schoolkids … and no one gave it a second thought. Apparently (before my time) there were also characters in the Beano called Cocky Dick and Sticky Willie. I make no comment.
Over at the Dandy was Desperate Dan, the tough cowboy who used a blow-lamp for shaving and who smoked a binful of rubbish using a hollow lamppost as a pipe.
He ate cow pies baked by his little Aunt Aggie. These came with a whole cow inside, horns poking through the crust. So much for a healthy diet and lifestyle – but it didn’t do Dan much harm.
In the Beezer, we had a pensioner called Colonel Blink the Short-Sighted Gink, who bumped into things and couldn’t see people properly. Talk about mocking the afflicted!
In the same comic, gun culture was running wild, with The Hillys and the Billys, feuding mountain folk forever exchanging volleys of bullets.
We loved them all because even as kids we knew they were just caricatures and not to be taken seriously – certainly not to be equated with real life, as they inevitably would be by today’s professional grievance-seekers.
How long would Little Plum (Your Redskin Chum) last these days before being Twitter-stormed, protest-marched and cancel-cultured out of existence, or compulsorily rebranded as Your Native American Companion?
Along with the fun pages, some comics carried pot-boiler serials, usually with science fiction or history themes.
One was a wartime saga called The Heroes of Paradise Road, in the Beezer. Hero was the surname of a family of chirpy Cockneys who lived in (you guessed) Paradise Road in the East End.
They had an anti-aircraft gun sited in their backyard (as you do) and endured the Blitz with strong tea, Woodbines, knotted hankies and singalongs, before the lads of the house went off as soldiers and crushed the dastardly Hun.
Another weekly adventure story was The Great Flood of London, in the Beano, in which the schoolboy hero woke up one day to find the capital under 300ft of water (luckily he was in a high-rise flat). It turned out that a comet had come close to Earth during the night and melted the ice caps. Take note, Greta: Nothing to do with greenhouse gases.
After enjoying the fun comics aimed at all children, most youngsters eventually graduated to those specifically for boys or girls. For us lads, it was a diet of war, sport, science and adventure.
In the Valiant was Captain Hercules Hurricane, an unlikely Royal Marine who every week almost won the Second World War single-handed by getting into one of his ‘raging furies’. As he dispatched Japs and Nazis with fists and guns, his runt-like Cockney batman Maggot Malone looked on and quaked.
Let’s not forget the slightly spooky Wilson the Wonder Athlete in the Wizard. Born in the 18th century, he trained his heart to beat incredibly slowly and so lived hundreds of years. He was at the Battle of Waterloo, ran the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister and conquered Everest before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
Then there was The Tough of the Track, the inimitable Alf Tupper, in the Victor. This was one of the best series, unusual in that it depicted a working-class hero. Many of the main characters in the schoolboy comics were still clean-limbed public school types with charming manners who were never short of a five-bob postal order from Pater. By contrast, good old Alf worked as a welder, dressed like a rag-and-bone man, and ate nothing but fish and chips. He was always getting run over by rivals’ sports cars, mugged by thugs in the pay of toffs, or spiking his foot with a nail from his cheap shoes. But he still managed to win his race every week, crossing the line with his triumphantly ungrammatical shout of: ‘I run ’em!’
As with the sweets I listed in my earlier article, I could go on and on. But don’t get me started on other favourite stories from the comics – Here Come the Jellymen, the Kings of Castaway Island, the Black Sapper, Black Bob the Dandy Wonder Dog, Dockland Davy, or Red Rory of the Eagles, to name but a few.
And don’t dare mention The Four Marys or Sandra of the Secret Ballet, stalwarts of my sister’s Bunty and Judy comics for girls, which I read and enjoyed surreptitiously. A lad found reading a girl’s comic back then would have been tarred and feathered by his mates and run out of town on a rail.
I haven’t looked up all the characters or comics I’ve mentioned, so I don’t know which of them – apart from Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids – are still around. But happy birthday, Dennis, and thanks for the memories.