July 30, 2008
And Now Children, the Story of How a Comic Helped a Generation Love Words
By Dan O'Neill
ALTOGETHER, now. After me: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Beano, happy birthday to you."
And just in case you didn't get the message, yes, Beano, billed as the greatest kids' comic of all, is 70 years old tomorrow.
And still going strong, even though Lord Snooty must be pushing 80while Big Fat Joe is no longer with us - probably to avoid accusations of fatism.
Well yes, it's happy birthday, but today's Beano isn't a patchon the one that appeared for the first time on July 30, 1938, with, FREE INSIDE, a Whoopee Mask.
Beano 2008 is a 30-second read, if read's the word. Big pictures, plenty of colour but-well let's look back to that No 1.
Front page feature on that long-ago day was Big Eggo, six pictures showing her hatching a crocodile egg by mistake and being bitten.
Eggo didn't have star quality. Not like the Dandy's Korky the Kat.
Anyway, over the page to find Ping the Elastic man and Brave Captain Kipper who takes A Sail on a Whale.
Then a true immortal who, those first readers learned, was "Son of a Duke but always Pally with the Beezer kids of Ash-can Alley."
Yes, Lord Marmaduke, Earl of Bunkerton, the great Lord Snooty.
This first 13-frame strip introduced the world to Eton-suited Snooty and his scruffy mates, although that word "beezer" was new to Cardiff kids.
One of the comic world's obligatory strong men came next. Morgyn the Mighty, muscled like Hercules, sporting a leopard skin, carrying a huge club had appeared years before in the Wizard (an all-text "tuppenny book") but true aficionados always reckoned Strang the Terrible (from Adventure) would have murdered him. In this first issue he sorts out an eagle and a shark. Par for the course.
"Stars on His Shirt, Slugs in his Gun.
Laugh at the Sheriff, He's chock-full of fun."
That's Whoopee Hank, the Slap-dash Sheriff whose Wild West is unaccountably filled with Chicago-style gangsters and their limos. They don't last.
"Whoopee Hank don't never fail, Big-Shot Smith is booked for jail."
The other fighting cowboy is Cracker-Jack, the Wonder Whip-Man, 12 panels with hefty chunks of text beneath each one.
Getting kids to read. Again, he and his horse (whose name, unfortunately, is that dreaded N-word) are up against gangsters in high-powered cars. Yes, he wins as well.
Then, every small boy's dream. Rub Little Hooky Higgs' bowler hat and out pops a genie.
A Mystic man from Magic Land, the Slave obeys the Boy's command.
Then it's on to Wee Peem (A Proper Scream), Little Dead-Eye Dick, Hairy Dan, Smiler the Sweeper and Helpful Henry, plus Big Fat Joe who hasn't been weighed since the age of three - the weighing machine always broke, you see.
Rip Van Wink wakes from his 700-year sleep just in time for the Beano and here's Wild Boy of the Woods, again, plenty of text beneath the pictures of Derek (would you call a Wild Boy Derek?) who lives with an ancient hermit who found him wandering in the forest and carried him back to his secret cave.
You have to wonder how that would go down these days.
This is a 28-page comic so there's still room for Uncle Windbag (When Uncle's tongue begins to wag, you may be sure he means to brag) and Archie the Monkey and his cricket team composed of lions, bears, antelope and giraffes.
Wouldn't the lion eat the antelope?
Nope, this was the Beano.
Little Peanut's page of jolly jokes and tricky riddles is on the inside back page - Tin Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy on the back - and they're not exactly Russell Brand material.
Teacher: Who's the father of the Black Prince? Billy: Please sir, Ole King Cole.
Noticed anything? Apart from Eggo there's only one female in that first Beano. And she's a donkey - Contrary Mary the Moke.
But what makes it so different to today's comics are the stories, densely printed, each between 1,500 and 2,000 words long, to repeat, making children actually read.
Six stories: The Adventures of Tom Thumb and a circus tale featuring a criminal ape in waistcoat and top hat; there's Black Flash the Wonder Beaver and slingshot expert Granny Green, The Wishing Tree and the blockbuster, the adventures of a family "shipwrecked in a strange land".
So there it was, a Beano that could last a couple of days. Today it lasts maybe a couple of minutes. But still, Happy Birthday.
(c) 2008 South Wales Echo. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.