The Beano is a weekly comic published by Dundee-based publishing firm DC Thomson and Co1. At its peak it had over two million weekly buyers, with the number of readers reckoned to be much higher. As a comic anthology, each issue contains numerous different stories involving different characters, with recurring and occasional one-off characters too.
In 2018 the comic is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The best way to learn about The Beano is still to go to a newsagents and come out with £2:752 less than you went in with.
The Beano was born on 30 July, 1938 a very different creature to what it is now. An ostrich called Big Eggo was the front page star, and the comic only cost 2d. The central composition was also different. While the modern Beano is entirely based on comic strips, the early Beano had adventure stories told with illustrated text as well as panel stories rather than comic frames. The panel stories were told with pictures in boxes with short paragraphs beneath explaining what was going on. These were usually less cartoony, the characters looking more realistic and detailed and the stories themselves were often more serious. The Beano also lacked many of the characters that are synonymous with it now. Like today, each issue came with a free gift; the very first one was a mask.
The Beano was the second comic publication by DC Thomson and Co. A few months earlier The Dandy had been launched, and a year afterwards another sister comic, The Magic began. Due to the Second World War however, only two of these were to survive and so The Magic was consigned to history.
The Second World War
The war meant paper shortages so that comics had to use fewer pages, be printed in fewer numbers and less frequently. This meant that the Beano and Dandy were made smaller, only available to those who pre-ordered them, and each was printed fortnightly on alternate weeks. They provided a vital service in the war, warning children to leave alone things like mines on beaches and printing stories to outline the difference between Nazis and normal Germans and so teaching children not to demonise people based on nationality. They also pictured the enemy leaders as bungling fools, such as in The Beano strip Musso the Wop and in the many times that Lord Snooty and pals went to give the Führer a piece of their mind.
Finally in 1949 paper shortages ended and The Beano and The Dandy both became weekly once more. The 1950s is thought to be the golden age of The Beano as so many of the most popular and long running characters were created then, such as Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Rodger the Dodger and the Bash Street Kids.
By the 1950s each story began as a script with descriptions about what will appear in each picture. When approved by the editor this was sent to an artist, where the drawings were drawn at twice the published size and then sent to have the text added by the letterers and also to the colourists department. This was then checked for errors and sent for the editor's approval.
As The Beano was published cheaply, thin, low-cost, paper that yellows over time was used. Similarly, with the exception of the front cover, colour ink was kept to one colour. Whereas The Dandy used predominantly blue ink, The Beano used red. This meant that both Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx wore red-and-black horizontally-striped tops, Ball Boy had vertical red and black stripes, Billy Whizz wore a red shirt and Roger the Dodger had a chequered red and black squared top.
Meanwhile DC Thomson continued their quest to dominate the British comic publishing market. They launched sister comics including The Topper (launched 1953) and The Beezer (launched 1956). Declining sales led to these comics merging in 1990 as Beezer and Topper only to be cancelled in 1993, with some of the most popular characters finding new homes in The Beano as well as The Dandy3. Sadly The Dandy's normal comic run also ended in 2012, with some characters again transitioning to The Beano although The Dandy continues in the Christmas Annual format.
In September 1961 The Beano had published its thousandth issue. In 1975 The Beano went all comic after General Jumbo made his last appearance on 11 October 1975. In 1976 The Dennis the Menace Fan Club was launched and the following year the first Beano spin-off magazine, Plug, began, based on the 'Bash Street Kids' character of the same name, although it only lasted until 1979. The 2,000th issue was published on 15 November, 1980 and in 1982 The Beano Comic Library was launched; this contained one long story per issue rather than numerous stories lasting from a couple of panels to two pages in length. This continued until 1997. By then The Beano was publishing over 800 stories, 1,000 pages, and 11,000 individual pictures each year.
The Beano celebrated its 50th birthday in style. Between December 1987 and November 1988, artwork from the Dandy and Beano went on a national tour of Britain. In 1987 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the milk snatcher wrote,
Congratulations on the 50th Anniversary of 'The Dandy' and 'The Beano'. These must be among the world's most famous and most loved comics. Over the years they have given enjoyment to countless numbers of children and the characters in their pages – such as Desperate Dan4 and Minnie the Minx – have become household names. I very much hope that both comics will continue to delight boys and girls for another fifty years.
Since 1988 The Beano has enjoyed full colour. Since the 1990s readers polls have appeared to encourage readers to vote for new characters and rate existing ones, which have been used to decide which strips to stop and which characters to continue. The Beano Comic Library was replaced by The Fun Size Beano (1997-2010). Another spin-off magazine, BeanoMAX, launched in 2007 and is still going today. This includes reprints of older stories. The Beano's 3,000th issue was appropriately published in January 2000. The Beano's 70th birthday was declared Gnashional Menace Day.
Although the popularity of comics with children overall has declined with the introduction of other forms of entertainment for children, the future of The Beano continues to look bright. Even in the 21st Century, a survey in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland showed that the Beano was still the most popular comic among eleven year olds. If a similar survey was carried out among comic collectors, the results would be the same - with The Beano at the top of the list, closely followed by The Dandy. In fact, sales figures for 2016 showed a 3.2% increase of sales compared to 2015 while in 2017 The Beano was still the UK's best-selling comic and graphic novel for young adults on Amazon.
Annuals: An Annual Tradition
Ever since the 1820s, a Christmas Annual has been a British festive tradition. This continues 200 years later; in 2016 The Beano Annual was the 28th-best selling Children's Book on Amazon.
The first Beano Annual was published in 1939 as The Beano Book, featuring Big Eggo and Lord Snooty. This sold incredibly well and Beano Annuals became an annual tradition5. In 1955 the first spin-off Annual was published, the Dennis the Menace Annual. Following this success it was decided to see if Annuals would sell well in the summer as well as the winter, and so in 1963 the only combined new Dandy-Beano publication, Dandy-Beano Summer Special, was sold, followed in 1964 by the first Beano Summer Special. In 1979 The Bash Street Kids Annual was launched as a bi-annual Annual, alternating with the Beryl the Peril Annual. 1983 was the most successful Beano Annual to date. Yet they remain popular to this day; in December 2017 The Beano was the most popular Annual, selling over 100,000 copies.
Double Dennis: Confusing Coincidence
Dennis the Menace should not be confused with US comic strip character Dennis the Menace, known as Dennis in the UK. Unbelievably, both the British and American Dennis the Menace had their debut comic strips published on the same day in 1951. The British Dennis the Menace is known as Dennis and Gnasher in the United States.
The comic had given birth to a number of spin-offs, such as collectable figurines, playing cards, t-shirts, and computer games. In 2014 Dundee named a road 'Bash Street' in honour of the Bash Street Kids' 60th anniversary.
In 1983 Smarties used The Beano as part of their advertising campaign. This resulted in posters depicting a crafty Dennis the Menace and Gnasher getting hold of Walter the Softie's Smarties by any means necessary, captioned with the brilliant slogan: 'Someone's after your Smarties!'
A copy of issue 1 sold at auction September 1995 for £4,200. This at the time represented the highest price paid for a British comic, however in 1999 the price paid for issue 1 was a record £6,8206. In 2016 the same issue was valued at £20,000 as only 20 copies are known to survive. At their peak in the mid 1950s their circulation was said to be over two million copies per week each. Many copies were read by two or three children, meaning that the total readership was staggering. One of the reasons for the scarcity of pristine early copies is that very few survived their readers' attention in mint condition - an indication of their popularity at the time.
In 1979 the adult comic Viz was created as an adult parody of The Beano and The Dandy, with The Beano's 'Three Bears' inspiring 'The Three Chairs'. In 1995 when The Dandy's 'Winker Watson' was parodied, DC Thomson's lawyers threatened to sue. Viz's response was to create a new strip called 'DC Thompson, the Humourless Scottish Git', spelling Thompson with a 'p' to try and prevent legal action, with the resulting media attention increasing sales on both sides.
In 1988 100 school children under the direction of David Hann of the Scarborough Visual Arts Extravaganza modelled the 18 June 1988 Beano front cover as the world's largest beach sculpture, measuring 150 feet by 250 feet.
In 2000 Chessington World of Adventures theme park opened Beanoland, although the land and rides have since been rebranded.
Comedian Ken Dodd once dressed as Dennis the Menace in a sketch in which he became Kenneth the Menneth, saying,
My love of comics goes way back. The day 'The Beano' appeared through my letterbox was fun day, and reading 'The Beano' was the foundation of my sense of humour. In fact, I still read 'The Beano'… One of the greatest honours of my TV career was when I was given permission to dress up as Dennis the Menace for a TV show!
The Krankies, comedy characters in the 1980s featuring a small, fully-grown woman dressed as naughty schoolboy Wee Jimmy Krankie, once said,
Wee Jimmy is based on Dennis the Menace (he's probably the nearest living thing to him!) and of all his possessions, he's most proud of his membership of the Dennis the Menace fan club.
Since 1938 there have been hundreds of characters come and go and it is impossible to name them all, however here is a quick selection of a few.
The Bash Street Kids (1954+)
Originally appearing in a strip called 'When the Bell Rings', in 1956 the story was renamed 'The Bash Street Kids' and are among the most popular characters in The Beano. Living in an eternal 1950s school, the children are Danny, 'Erbert, twins Toots and Sidney, Smiffy, Spotty, Fatty, Wilfred and Plug who terrorise the poor Teacher, Headmaster and Cuthbert Cringeworth. There have been numerous spin-offs including 'Pup Parade' featuring the characters' remarkably similar dogs; Danny's dog is Bones, 'Erbert's is 'Enry, twins Toots and Sidney have Peeps and Wiggy, Smiffy has Sniffy, Spotty has Blotty, Fatty has Tubby, Wilfred has Manfrid and Plug has Pug.
Big Eggo (1938-1948)
An egg-obsessed ostrich and the original Beano cover star, he appeared throughout 1938-1948. He was replaced by Biffo the Bear when his artist Reg Carter died. He has occasionally returned, briefly appearing in issue 2000 and more recently has reappeared in 2018 as part of the lead up to the 80th Anniversary celebrations.
Biffo the Bear (1948+)
Biffo the Bear was the second cover star, featuring from 1948 until 1974 when he was replaced by Dennis the Menace. Biffo is an anthropomorphic black bear who has Mickey-Mouse-like ears. After losing the cover he declined in popularity and by the mid-1980s was no longer a regular character. He continues to appear sporadically but no longer seems able to talk.
Billy Whizz (1964+)
The world's fastest boy, he can run at supersonic speeds for tremendous distances, which usually inadvertently results in complete chaos. He has two strands of hair on his head and traditionally wears a red shirt and shorts. He had a theme park ride named after him, the Billy Whizzer.
Dennis the Menace (1951+)
The character most associated with The Beano, and since 2004 the longest-running, he has been the cover star from 1974. His friends include Curly and Pie-face. He spends his time bullying Walter the Softy, who was first introduced in 1952, attacking him with pea-shooters and catapults. His popularity has led to countless spin-offs, including one focussing on his toddler years titled 'The BamBeanos'. In 1998 Dennis' younger sister Bea the Mini-Menace was born.
Dennis' pets include dog Gnasher, introduced in 1968 and pet pig Rasher, who arrived in 1984, while Walter's dog, frequently menaced by Gnasher, is called Foo-Foo. In 1986 Gnasher famously went missing for several weeks in a plotline that made news headlines. Following the 'Gnational Gnasher Search' it was eventually revealed that he had fathered several puppies, including son Gnipper and less prominent daughters Gnatasha, Gnanette, Gnancy, Gnaomi and Gnorah.
General Jumbo (1953-1975)
General, later Admiral Alfie 'Jumbo' Johnson had his own radio-controlled toy-size army, completed with numerous soldiers, tanks, fighter jets and a veritable fleet of warships, armed with pea-shooters. This was a panel strip rather than a comic. One Researcher recalled,
My favourite [was] General Jumbo. I can remember spending ages wearing a cheese grater with a knitting needle stuck in it 'commanding' toy soldiers and Airfix models.
Ivy the Terrible (1985-2011)
A terrible toddler who was really the toughest character in Beanotown so that even Dennis the Menace respected her. She was later replaced with Dennis' sister Bea the Mini-Menace.
Little Plum (1953+)
A little Native American boy who is a member of the Smellyfeet tribe, fierce rivals of the Puttyfeet tribe. His rivals The Three Bears gained their own comic strip (1959-2016). He has been spoofed by Viz who have a character called 'Little Plumber'.
Lord Snooty (1938+)
Lord Snooty, an ordinary boy who happens to be a fabulously wealthy earl, first appeared on page three of the very first issue. Since December 1950 his gang has consisted of characters who had previously had their own series. These were Big Fat Joe (1938-9), Contrary Mary (1938-40), Doubting Thomas (1940-2), Polly Wolly Doodle and her Great Big Poodle (1946-7) and Swanky Lanky Liz (1948-9).
Long the longest-running strip in the comic, in 1991 he was dropped from The Beano and Dennis the Menace has since overtaken him. He returned briefly in 2013 for the 75th Anniversary and is expected to return to mark the 80th.
Minnie the Minx (1953+)
The world's wildest tomboy, she is a flaming red-headed ten-year-old girl who hates authority, and usually wears a red-and-black striped top. A fierce rival of Dennis, she frequently gets into trouble. She is now the third longest-running Beano character and even appeared on the front cover for her 60th anniversary in 2013. There is an 8-foot tall Bronze statue of Minnie the Minx armed with a catapult in Dundee town centre, which was unveiled in 2001.
Pansy Potter (1938+)
Pansy Potter the Strongman's Daughter is a girl with spiky hair and incredible strength. In the 1950s the strip became Pansy Potter in Wonderland where she frequently encountered nursery rhyme characters. Although she left The Beano in the mid-60s, she has occasionally returned since.
Roger the Dodger (1953+)
Roger the Dodger is a schoolboy who has constant cunning plans, or 'dodges', for getting out of doing homework and chores – many of which are more complex and time consuming than what he is trying to avoid – and often fail and get him in trouble. He is now the second longest-running Beano character. He is one of the least naughty characters in The Beano as his aim is to avoid work rather than cause mischief. In Chessington he had a ride named after him; Roger the Dodger's Dodgems.
Calamity James (1986+)
The thirteenth character that must be mentioned is the world's unluckiest boy. Short with buck teeth he wears a t-shirt with the number 13 on. His pet and best friend is Alexander Lemming. Little alien squelchy things were never far away.
And so on
With over 200 recurring comic strips, each containing multiple characters, it is of course impossible to list them all. However one Researcher has said,
I remember 'Grandpa' with affection; I hoped I would grow up to be like him eventually, and eventually, I have.
As television comics such as Ken Dodd were inspired by The Beano to create television characters it is no surprise that the comic itself has since inspired its own television shows. These have successfully adapted to this medium while still retaining the comic strip 'feel'.
The Beano's Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show (1990-1991)
An ITV puppet show that originally featured Dennis, Gnasher and Walter, with Mum and Dad added for the second series in 1991.
The Beano Video (1993)
A short made-for-television/direct-to-video release broadcast on ITV. Dennis' voice was by Susan Sheridan, known to trillions as the voice of Trillian in radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Dennis the Menace, later Dennis & Gnasher (1996-1998)
A cartoon made for CBBC about the adventures of Dennis The Menace and his dog, Gnasher. Many of the regulars from the comic (Mum and Dad, and Walter The Softy most notably) were re-introduced to this new medium, while others were added (such as Nog, a shape-shifting space alien whom Dennis befriends and Captain Trout, a Captain Nemo-like figure searching for the whale that ate his father). Instead of Dennis being regularly punished when caught by being hit by a slipper, a new threat is seen in policeman Sergeant Slipper, who then joined The Beano as a character in the series. Two series were made with the stories published in comic format for the spin-off Beano Super Stars series.
Dennis & Gnasher (2009)
A far less mischievous Dennis appeared in 2009 on a 52-episode series for CBBC, starring Ace actress Sophie Aldred as the voice of Dennis.
Dennis the Menace and Gnasher (2013)
Another a 52-episode series for CBBC, starring Chris Johnson as the voice of Dennis.
Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed! (2017)
Of course with characters held in great affection by millions of readers, it was inevitable that a fan - or even fang - club would be launched. The Dennis Fan Club: the Dennis and Gnasher Fang club ran from 1976 to 1998 when it was replaced by the Beano Club, a move which coincided with the revamping of the comic itself. Celebrities who joined the club's ranks included Mark Hamill, famous for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films, who joined in 1979. In 1988 Simon Palmer became the club's millionth member.