The Beano #1
Medium: comic
Year: 30 July 1938
Country: UK
Keywords: The Beano, UK kiddie comic
Artist: Basil Blackaller, Charles Gordon, Charles Holt, Dudley Watkins, Eric Roberts (not the actor), Hugh McNeill, Jack Glass, James Jewell, Reg Carter, Richard Baines, Roland Davies, Steve Perkins, Torelli Bros
Format: 24 pages in my reprint, 28 pages in the original
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 4 January 2021
It's nothing I recognised as The Beano. It's like a distant ancestor of the same name, as dissimilar from its modern incarnation as dinosaurs are from birds.
Natsuki has a subscription to The Beano, but I sometimes read it as a child... and so did my mother, who's nearly eighty. It's the world's longest-running comic of its genre, having been published weekly since 1938 almost without a break. (It went fortnightly during World War Two because of paper rationing, alternating with The Dandy.) Today's Beano is wall-to-wall humour strips, but on debut it had:
2-PAGE ADVENTURE SERIALS: "The Adventures of Tom Thumb" (Dudley Watkins), "Cracker Jack The Wonder Whip-Man" (Jack Glass), "The Shipwrecked Kidds" (Jack Glass), "The Ape's Secret" (Richard Baines), "Wild Boy of the Woods" (Richard Baines), "Morgyn the Mighty" (George Anderson)
1-PAGE LIGHTER FARE: "Big Eggo" (Reg Carter), "Lord Snooty and his Pals" (Dudley Watkins), "Whoopee Hank the Slap-Dash Sheriff" (Roland Davies), "Hooky's Magic Bowler Hat" (Charles Gordon), "The Wangles of Granny Green" (Charles Gordon), "Big Fat Joe" (Allan Morley), "Rip Van Wink" (Eric Roberts), "Tin-Can Tommy The Clockwork Boy" (the Torelli brothers)
PART-PAGE FUNNIES: "Here Comes Ping The Elastic Man" (Hugh McNeill), "Brave Captain Kipper a Sail on a Whale!" (the Torelli brothers), "Wee Peem He's a Proper Scream" (James Jewell), "Little Dead-Eye Dick: He's a Fun-Man and a Gun-Man" (Charles Holt), "Hairy Dan: How Dan won the race with his hairy face" (Basil Blackaller), "You can't play a joke on Mary the Moke: Contrary Mary" (Roland Davies), "Smiler the Sweeper" (Steve Perkins), "Helpful Henry" (Eric Roberts), "Uncle Windbag" (Charles Holt), "Monkey Tricks" (Reg Carter) four pages of "older content that doesn't meet modern editorial standards". That's the racist stuff that generally gets censored from modern reprints. My copy doesn't have those, although I do have Peanut alongside the masthead on the front cover. (He's a black boy with a slice of watermelon.)
This Beano isn't a comic. It's an illustrated short story magazine that also has comics in it.
Over half of my 24 pages are adventure serials, usually as short stories in a tiny, eye-straining font. The alternative is a version of what I think of as the Rupert Bear format, i.e. a six-panel grid with no word balloons. The pictures are mere illustrations, with the text underneath.
These are, frankly, a bit dull. My favourite of the text stories was The Wangles of Granny Green, i.e. the one-pager that's not an adventure. Jimmy's mother is dead and his father's away on work, so he poses as his own grandmother to shut up the neighbours. (There's also a surly bully called Captain Moffat.) Of the others, Morgyn the Mighty is the world's strongest man and a castaway on Black Island. Tom Thumb is the character from English folklore, complete with barons, castles and Robin Hood costumes. The Shipwrecked Kidds are what you think, while The Ape's Secret involves a circus.
Then we have two problematic ones.
Cracker Jack Silver is a whip-wielding cowboy on a horse called Nigger. Guess what colour it is. Um. He also foils bank robbers, which is a popular hobby of these heroes.
Wild Boy of the Woods is "a young Tarzan"... called Derek. Six years ago, a hermit found him wandering in the forest. He carried him to a cave and kept him there. Today, our cave-dwelling hero wears rabbit skins and is friends with the animals... but it's set in the modern world, complete with gamekeepers who chase him for poaching. What the hell? What about school? Did that hermit abduct any other children? You can tell that the 1930s didn't have social services.
The rest is humour... sort of. That was clearly the intention, but something often gets lost in translation. The nearest it gets to Dennis the Menace anarchy is also, bizarrely, Lord Snooty and his Pals. (He smashes up a cart, then blames his victims.) This Snooty's interesting. Here, the strip has a point. It's attacking the 1930s class divide. (Wee Peam is another strip here that's doing the same, but in a more throwaway fashion.) Lord Snooty, aka. Marmaduke of Bunkerton, is a toffee-nosed earl, but he also likes sneaking out in disguise to play with the Beezer Kids in Ash-Can Alley. He's a scamp. To his upper-class peers, he's rude and hostile.
Snooty's the only strip from the first issue that survived into the 21st century. Here, that makes sense. Of the other strips, Big Eggo is a big "eh?" I don't get it. I stare blankly at the page, wondering what about this was meant to be entertaining. One curiosity that I only got from googling, though, is that he's a male ostrich trying to lay a egg. Big Eggo was male, for no clear reason. There are a few animal strips, with Contrary Mary the donkey and Monkey Tricks.
Ping the Elastic Man is a pre-superhero deconstruction in six panels. I laughed at Brave Captain Kipper and Hairy Dan, i.e. the magazine's two bearded old men. Hmmm. Hooky's Magic Bowler Hat has an ethnic stereotype. Big Fat Joe isn't that obese to modern eyes, although it's true that he should go on a diet. Rip Van Wink(le) is a comedy based on the Washington Irving character, while Tin-Can Tommy is Astro Boy before Tezuka.
These strips are brief and dense, often with three to a page. The art and storytelling can be simple, almost naive. It's hard not to see them as throwaways... but they're not. We've merely forgotten them. Arranging a selection in order of longevity:
1. Tom Thumb was the first fairy tale printed in English, in 1621. He kept going in the Beano until the fifties.
2. Rip Van Wink(le) comes from a 1819 story and had two runs in The Beano, the second ending in 1959.
3. The last regular Lord Snooty strip ended in 2011, with his obnoxious grandson. Contrary Mary and Big Fat Joe would migrate into Snooty's strip and joined his gang.
4. Hairy Dan ran in the Beano until 1946, then returned in Sparky, The Beezer and Dandy Monster Comic. Last seen regularly in 1972-81.
5. Morgyn the Mighty was already ten years old here. He lasted forty years altogether, across various magazines.
6. Helpful Henry only ran briefly in The Beano, but returned in Sparky in 1969.
7. The Shipwrecked Kidds popped up again (sort of) in Judy in 1961.
8. Wee Peem and Uncle Windbag both ran for almost twenty years, on and off, until 1957.
9. Big Eggo ran until the artist's death in 1949, then remained as the Beano's masthead mascot for another five. Lew Stringer revived him for six months in 2018.
10. Granny Green lasted until 1951, on and off.
11. Little Dead Eye Dick disappeared during the war, but returned for a couple of years in 1949-50.
12. Brave Captain Kipper and Tin-Can Tommy were by two Italian brothers from Milan. Brave Captain Kipper only lasted 57 issues, but Tommy continued even after World War Two, albeit drawn by other artists. He ran until 1947. It was really a translated reprint of an Italian strip called Le Avventure di Roberto Robot.
13. Ping the Elastic Man, Hooky's Magic Bowler Hat and Whoopee Hank ran until issues 126, 108 and 57 respectively.
This magazine is a time capsule. Children today would run a mile from something this dense and wordy. Reading it takes a long time, whereas you can barely sneeze in the time it takes to read a modern Beano. You'll find cowboys and sheriffs. It's got Rupert Bear style strips, with rhyming couplets. It's racist, even in censored reprints. It's like visiting another world.
"Every Tuesday look for fun. The Beano's on sale for everyone."