I bought a random bunch of Beanos:
- No. 2126, 16 April 1983
- No. 2323, 24 January 1987
- No. 2364, 7 November 1987
- No. 2389, 30 April 1988
- No. 2390, 7 May 1988
- No. 2402, 30 July 1988, special 50th birthday issue
- No. 2411, 1 October 1988
- No. 2416, 5 November 1988
- No. 2428, 28 January 1989
That's approximately "my" era. The Beanos I remember from my childhood were in the early 1980s. (This was my first exposure to the characters who debuted in 1988-89.)
THE BIG FOUR
DENNIS AND GNASHER (David Sutherland) - He's horrible! He's a bully! ...well, occasionally. Most of his stories are okay, but every so often he'd do something nasty to Walter the Softy and laugh about it with a "har har har". That's bullying. I'm also unimpressed that we're supposed to think this is okay because Walter's a "softy". Furthermore, this Dennis occasionally looks like a thug. Look at #2126 or #2364. That's a Dredd-like chin. If you saw him coming, you'd flee.
Unsurprisingly, in 1993 the Beano's editor would order Sutherland to tone back his depiction of the character. That said, though, this is the Dennis I'll always have in my head. It fits the character. He's meant to be tough and menacing. When he ties Nasty Norman literally in knots in #2411, you absolutely believe it. Later, softer versions of Dennis have never looked right to me.
For what it's worth, Norman's a far better foil for Dennis than Walter. "I'm Norman, nastiest person in The Beano and you're going to get thumped!" In other words, he's asking for it. I also liked Dennis's misadventure in #2428, which reminded me of the 1950s-60s David Law stories.
Spin-offs: Gnasher and Gnipper (two dog generations), Rasher (Dennis's pet pig), Gnasher's Tale.
ROGER THE DODGER (Frank McDiarmid, Robert Nixon) - I've never really liked Roger, but he's not incapable of generating funny stories. Usually when he's a git and gets punished, e.g. #2126.
Spin-offs: Roger the Dodger's Dodge Clinic (solving reader's problems... but not really)
MINNIE THE MINX (Jim Petrie) - a good, solid children's strip. Nothing wrong with it. Minnie causes no end of trouble, but she's not as actively malicious as Dennis. She also pulls great faces.
BASH STREET KIDS (David Sutherland) - probably the most interesting of the magazine's Big Four strips, given the size of its cast and the range of stories they can generate. Sometimes they give a science lesson, e.g. the tadpole nature study in #2126, or the germs in #2323. Sometimes they just do weird pointless dumb kid stuff among themselves, e.g. #2364, #2411. (Those were probably my favourites.) And sometimes they'll focus on one child, usually Smiffy and his superhuman levels of stupidity. Even knowing what was coming, I was in awe. "Name!" "Er... Hum... Are all the questions as hard as that one?"
Spin-offs: Pup Parade (reinventing all the kids as dogs), Simply Smiffy (our hero)
BALL BOY (Malcolm Judge) - likes football. I never really saw the point of him.
BABY FACE FINLAYSON - unrepentant thief and villain, originally a Wild West supporting character in Little Plum. What's weird is that he's supposed to look cute. In fact, he looks terrifying, with four spider eyes and a fanged vampire mouth. (Two of those "eyes" are actually huge, scarily placed nostrils, but even with that he's still a freak.)
LORD SNOOTY - naaah. They've lost the plot with Snooty. They've no idea how to write for him, although he's better with his supporting cast, e.g. Snitch and Snatch, or the Gasworks Gang. (Compare with the 1930s strip they reprinted for the anniversary in #2390, which has actual bad behaviour.) I liked the acknowledgement of his longevity in the 50th anniversary issue, though.
BILLY WHIZZ - the boy with super-speed and an amazing quiff. I used to like him, but frankly his strips here aren't really that good. He's capable of innocently wreaking havoc, mind you.
SMUDGE - hates being clean. He's fun.
GRANDPA - I love Grandpa! He's adorable! Not always that funny, admittedly, but still lovable. His strip was dropped in 1984, but he popped back for the 50th anniversary.
TOM, DICK AND SALLY - what are these characters doing in the Beano? Seriously. They just look wrong. There's something sanitised about them.
CALAMITY JAMES - he's amazing. Seriously. It's as if he's parachuted in from a strange, surreal dimension. Random background details might include a dragon that's feeding from a tomato soup factory, the world's only tightrope-walking elephant or (worryingly) a small pot labelled "granny". The art's like nothing else in the magazine. His mother tries to murder him. His only friend (a lemming) has to have a think about whether or not to rescue him from being eaten by vultures. The strip's central joke is that James has abysmal luck, which sounds like a rubbish idea but in practice is mesmerising. This one's still in today's Beano and I revere it.
NUMBER 13 - a horror-themed strip. They're all vampires, witches, werewolves, Frankenstein's monsters, etc. I approve... but in practice it's pretty weak beer. UK children's comics had much better examples of this kind of thing in the 1970s. I liked Frankie's pet brick, though.
DANNY'S NANNY - surprisingly good. Danny is a brat. His nanny is a dog.
PROCTOR DOLITTLE - also better than I'd expected.
THE GERMS - a bit like the Numskulls, but blobby and horrible. I love the Numskulls, but the difference here is that the Germs are bringing Ill Will a life of non-stop misery. You might feel that that's a bit of a downer.
IVY THE TERRIBLE - a hyperactive four-year-old. She's a popular, long-running character, but something about her doesn't work for me. I think it's Robert Nixon. Objectively, he's one of the strongest artists in these issues and he draws sexy mums, but he's too rounded and Disney-like for my taste. He started the ruin of Beryl the Peril in the 1970s, while here his artwork's the reason why I don't like Roger the Dodger, Little Monkey and Tom, Dick and Sally.
THE NIBBLERS - mice vs. a cat, but with the twist that the mice's motivation is to eat. This one's good fun.
Gordon Gnome: debut strip in #2402. Fatty Fudge in the Fat-Tum of the Opera.
Beanotown has a castle in #2416.
Ball Boy goes to TV Centre in #2411 and meets a Dalek.
The 50th anniversary issue is full of classic character crossovers and homages, e.g. Pansy Potter, Jonah and Billy the Cat (a non-comedic character from one of the Beano's last adventure strips). It's fun.
Overall, it's a reasonably good comic. None of its characters are successful all the time, but there's usually enough in any given issue to make it worth reading. I haven't covered all the strips (e.g. Biffo, The Three Bears), but then again this is very much a snapshot of its era. I haven't even tried to be comprehensive, but I enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Next: some random issues from the 1990s!