The Beano first appeared (as The Beano Comic) in July 1938 as a companion to Dundee-based publisher D.C. Thompson’s pioneering The Dandy Comic, which had debuted six months earlier. Along with The Magic Comic, which would follow a year later, these new weekly comic papers represented Thompson’s highly successful campaign to extend its success in the field of boys’ weekly adventure-story papers into that of humorous comics. The Beano’s founding editor, George Moonie, had worked on Thompson’s famed “Big Five” boys’ papers, as had several of the new comics’ writers and artists. While sales of the debut issue of The Beano fell short of those of the flagship Dandy, they significantly exceeded those of all the Thompson story papers, and in the postwar period The Beano would emerge as the most popular British comic ever. Its cultural standing among even some older readers was confirmed in 1966 when John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album prominently featured a picture of Clapton himself reading a copy of the comic.
Like The Dandy, The Beano featured on its debut a mix of comic strips, picture strips (a series of illustrated panels accompanied by text captions), and prose fiction, as well as a diversity of genres, including various types of adventure stories familiar to readers of the “Big Five.” However, the main emphasis was on the comic strips such as “Big Eggo,”a funny-animal strip featuring a talking ostrich that occupied the front page until 1948, and “Lord Snooty and His Pals,” which chronicled the misadventures of the improbably democratic young Earl of Bunkerton and the working-class chums whose chaotic company he preferred to that of his “snooty” social equals. Wartime rationing forced reductions in both page-count and frequency of publication, but both The Beano and The Dandy persevered throughout the war years, despite the severe restrictions on paper usage that forced the cancellation of many periodicals, including their junior companion, The Magic Comic. When the British comics industry reached its peak during the postwar era, The Beano emerged as the top-selling comic paper in the United Kingdom.
In part, this success may be attributed to the distinctive, working-class irreverence of the Thompson comics, which were marked from the outset by a willingness to mock adult authority figures such as parents and teachers; state authorities, especially the police; and those who would claim social superiority, such as Lord Snooty’s family circle. These comical challenges to authority became significantly more pronounced with the introduction of two new strips in the 1950s: “Dennis the Menace” in 1951 and “The Bash Street Kids” (initially entitled “When the Bell Rings”) in 1954. Dennis the Menace, not to be confused his tamer American namesake, is a wiry-haired lad, perpetually clad in a striped jersey and black shorts, who manages to find a new way to live up to his epithet each week, most often at the expense of his gentle, bookish neighbor, Walter—whom Dennis variously denigrates as “soppy” and a “softy.” For decades, until concerns about excessive violence forced changes, Dennis’s imaginative if cruel efforts would inevitably result in an across-the-knee spanking from his father, whose footwear choices appeared to have been made with these weekly punishments almost exclusively in mind.“The Bash Street Kids” gave full reign to the anarchic tendencies more subtly evident in other Beano strips. Artist Leo Baxendale’s panels and occasional splash pages were madly busy with humorous detail as the beleaguered teacher, who even slept in his mortarboard and glasses, attempted—pointlessly—to guide his unguidable charges through some academic or cultural pursuit. The popularity of the strip eventually earned it a two-page centre spread, which gave Baxendale, and his successor Dave Sutherland, even more room to celebrate the chaos the kids effortlessly manufactured.
Dennis eventually became as emblematic of The Beano as Desperate Dan was of The Dandy. He and his dog, Gnasher, displaced the considerably less menacing “Biffo the Bear” on the coloured front- and back-cover pages in 1974, a coveted spot the strip has yet to relinquish in 2015. A Dennis the Menace Fan Club was introduced in 1976, and its membership grew to 1.5 million before the publisher closed it down in 1998. The character has also had the rare distinction, shared with Desperate Dan and the Eagle’s Dan Dare, of appearing on a Royal Mail stamp as part of a 2012 series featuring beloved British comics characters.
After the giddy successes of the 1950s, the British comics industry went into a decline. Circulations dipped, forcing ever more numerous cancellations and mergers during the 1970s and after; even the once mighty Dandy ceased print publication in 2012. Imports from the United States and Japan claimed a significant share of the UK market, and comics producers struggled to compete with emerging forms of popular entertainment, from home video to gaming. The Beano’s publishers have experimented with other formats such as the smaller, single-story Beano Comic Library (1982-1987) and Fun Size Beano (1997-2010) and the monthly Beano Max magazine (1997-2013), which remains in print as The 100% Official Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Megazine. The Beano’s most popular character has also ventured onto television with two animated series, the first produced by the BBC in 1996 and the second by CBBC beginning in 2009.The Beano also inspired the Beano town section in the Chessington World of Adventure theme park in Greater London, where children enjoyed Beano-themed rides, games and raucous custard-pie fights from 2000 until 2009. Most remarkably, though,The Beano itself continues to appear in print each week, a unique survivor from British comics’golden era.
— Brian Patton