The Beano Book 1959
Medium: comic, book
Year: 1958
Keywords: The Beano, UK kiddie comic
Format: 128 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 8 January 2021
Welcome to the 1950s. The Beano might still mostly be adventure serials, but this is the decade when the magazine's stars were born. Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and the Bash Street Kids... they're all in this book and still going today. There's also Little Plum.
(There's a subset of modern Beano characters who aren't from the 1950s, admittedly. It's also a home for refugees from other, now-deceased children's comics, e.g. The Numskulls, Tricky Dicky and Bananaman. The latter even had his own 1980s TV show.)
The differences of tone are interesting. The original Bash Street Kids are far greater terrors, but this Dennis the Menace isn't malicious. This is probably my favourite version of the character. He makes more trouble than his modern incarnations and never shows a shred of remorse, but he's more likeable. Minnie the Minx is on the evil-good borderline, but Little Plum, Roger the Dodger and especially Grandpa are particularly worth discussing. They're all engines of chaos. Their victims would see little difference between Grandpa and Dennis... but Grandpa's a lovable old buffer you'd want to cuddle and take home. Everything he does is by accident.
This book has comics, text stories and picture stories. Going through them in approximate page count order, bearing in mind that some pages are half one thing and half the other...
PICTURE STORIES (69 pages)
That's more than half the book. These are usually illustrated short stories, but some are full comic strips that aren't comedic. They're almost always four pages long and perfectly okay, but also much of a muchness.
WAIF OF THE WILD WEST (11 pages) = far longer than anything else in the book. The ending's weak, but it's quite a compelling adventure and I cared about that waif. Unfortunately, I suspect it was written as a short story and promoted to comic strip status, without being retooled for its new medium. It's narrated through caption boxes.
JIMMY AND HIS MAGIC PATCH (8 pages) = time travelling buttocks. Here, Jimmy visits Robin Hood and the 1652 Battle of Dungeness. The battle of what? A modern book wouldn't dare assume this much historical knowledge from its readers. (Tom Thumb, Strong-Arm the Axe-Man and Red Rory of the Eagles are also historical characters, incidentally.)
TOUGH DUFF (8 pages) = circus strongman.
...and everyone else is 4 pages or less. The nearest we have to a superhero is Jack Flash, the flying boy from the planet Mercury. (He delivers milk, which is charming.) Instead, boys will often have met eccentric inventors. General Jumbo is a boy with an army of toy soldiers that come alive. The book has cowboys, circus performers, lots of people with great strength and the adventures of a sheep. The latter isn't even anthropomorphised. He's realistically written. He's an ordinary ram up a mountain... but his name's Thunderflash and he's cool.
There are also giants. Jack the Giant-Filler is amusing, but I boggled at The Invisible Giant. A cobbler's boy called Hector is carried around by a giant called Presto with boots of invisibility.
"Pirates, Presto! They're sacking the village!"
"Presto quickly removed his boots and became visible lest the sight of Hector, apparently floating in the air, should further terrify the villagers."
Whereas of course I'm sure dark age peasants would be cool with a giant appearing from thin air.
COMICS (39 pages)
LITTLE PLUM (1953, Leo Baxendale, 13 pages) = towering over everyone else in this book is a tiny Native American. That's a tenth of the pages. His "me um injun" dialogue is unfortunate (and gets removed in modern reprints), but he's rather good. Baxendale saw him as a puny character in a dangerous cartoon world. What's more, Baxendale was one of the magazine's star artists and he makes Plum fun and dynamic.
Plum's quite the little businessman, buying a 200-dollar car and a 5000-dollar house, applying to be a train driver and starting a tobacconist's shop. Plum's still around today, incidentally, most recently drawn by the great Hunt Emerson.
I've included the startlingly violent endpapers in Plum's page count. Ten little furry bears have incidents that whittle down their numbers in a comedy conveyor belt of death. Ultimately, they're all gone. Some of them might still be alive, perhaps, but that just creates uncertainty. Worried modern readers will be going, "Is that one dead? Or him? That looked fatal, but surely... oh, shot by a hunter and became a fur coat."
MINNIE THE MINX (1953, Leo Baxendale, 3 pages) = again, the great Baxendale. Good grief, Minnie's young here. I think she's canonically thirteen these days, but this one's almost a toddler in some panels. She also seems Scottish, as admittedly you'd expect from her hat.
THE BASH STREET KIDS (1954, Leo Baxendale, 2 pages) = bloody hell. The St Trinians films were in cinemas around now, but the Bash Street Kids could give them a run for their money. Teachers shake with terror. They look slightly wrong, mind you. The definitive versions have become David Sutherland's, since he's been drawing them for about sixty years since 1961. As originally drawn by Baxendale, Plug looks human and Danny's baby-faced.
DENNIS THE MENACE (1951, David Law, 2 pages) = blew my mind, because I'm a huge Beryl the Peril fan and of course they're both David Law characters. It's obviously his artwork.
ROGER THE DODGER (1953, Ken Reid, 2 pages) = I don't like modern Roger, but here he's good. The writing doesn't revolve so much around his dodging, while importantly Ken Reid's the Beano's best artist.
GRANDPA (1955, Ken Reid, 3 pages) = I remember Grandpa! His original run was 1955-57, but other artists revived him in 1971-84. He's my favourite character in this book. Imagine the cuddliest havoc magnet ever, with a playful soul and a perpetual look of surprise.
BIFFO THE BEAR (1948, Dudley D. Watkins, 2 pages) = doesn't fit the magazine's new style, but he's okay as a change. Mind you, I disliked what he did to a mother bird to get worms for fishing.
LORD SNOOTY AND HIS PALS (1938, Dudley D. Watkins, 2 pages) = practically Dennis the Menace in a top hat, but Snooty's victims deserve it.
The other comedic strips needn't detain us. Wee Davie and King Willie, The Wizards at War, Prince Whoopee, Our Ned, Pooch, Scrapper and Kat and Kanary. One notices lots of toffs and royals, incidentally. Willie, Whoopee and Lord Snooty. You could write a thesis about that.
STORIES (16 pages)
Lots of standalone two-pagers. "Poobah the Elephant", "The King with the Cauliflower Conk", "What made Toni do it?", "The Boy who made Faces", "Geordie's Magic Whistle", "The Wishing Tree", "Sandy" and "Black Flash the Beaver". The last two are again heroic but realistic animals. (Flash your Beaver isn't what you're imagining.)
The book's dense. Lots of pages, text and content. Even the comic strips have far more detail than you'd get today, plus a higher frame-per-page count. (I called Reid the best artist, but Baxendale's also worth stopping and admiring.) It took me a while to read. For what it's worth, some people call this the Beano's golden era, before Reid and Baxendale quit in the early 1960s.
It's still more than two-thirds adventure stories, though.