This week I bought the Beano comic for the first time in, well… decades. As a child I had it delivered from the newsagents. ‘Beano Day’ was definitely a highlight of a week dominated by school and its associated joys/miseries. It was the first comic I ever read, and I’ve never stopped reading comics since. I’ve even had a go at making my own – its influence is enormous.
The Beano has recently had a revamp and I thought I’d have a look, and compare it to the comic of my boyhood. I was reading the Beano in 1977, which would have made the gap a nice, round forty years, but I must have thrown those issues in the bin at some point as the earliest I have is 1979. So here is a comparison of today’s Beano with that of thirty-eight years ago instead.
Fear not! This is not an old-man-ranting review. I appreciate today’s Beano is not made for me. I’ve self-published comics, edited comic anthologies and I write for children. I have some understanding of how much effort and cost it takes to get something like this into the shops every week (A LOT) and have a professional interest in what’s current in kids’ culture. I’m also a history nerd and documenting changes in popular culture is a useful exercise in seeing how far our society has progressed (or not). I also thought it would be a fun thing to do, so here goes:
The Beano was a cheap item in 1979 (a pint of milk was 15p, as opposed to about 45p today) and certainly my hard-up parents didn’t begrudge it. £2.50 per week doesn’t seem too bad for a big, glossy, full-colour item these days. The digital version (take that 1979!) is £1.49. Although newsprint has nostalgia appeal, I can vouch for the fact it does not age well.
There’s a much greater variety of content in the modern Beano, with games, puzzles, jokes and the opportunity for reader contributions.
Having a comic version of me feature in a story, or having my own comic idea drawn by a Beano artist would have completely blown my 8-year-old mind! I also liked how the features link in with the comic story that preceded it.
The Beano of 1979 had a letters page, part of the elite Dennis the Menace Fan Club (including Gnasher’s Fang Club) but the rest was all comic.
I’ve noted ‘advert pages’ appearing in today’s Beano, but to be fair, these advertise the Beano itself, or its digital content and shop (Beano-branded Monopoly!). There is one page of phone-in toy giveaways which have nothing to do with the comic but I was pleasantly surprised about how relatively ad-free the new Beano is in comparison with other news-stand children’s offerings.
Plenty of favourites have weathered the last forty or more years. There are eight survivors from 1979, with Ivy the Terrible and Calamity James having a decent publication history behind them too. Also are a couple of refugees from other bygone comics: the Numskulls (the Beezer, Beezer & Topper, and the Dandy) and Bananaman (Nutty, then the Dandy). There are three comics in the current Beano that involve reader contribution (#SOBeano, Comic Challenge and Make Me a Menace) which I think is great, and certainly something that never happened in 1979.
Story-wise, the slapstick scrapes the characters get into are pretty familiar, though the humour slightly drier. Terrible puns are passed down from generation to generation like precious heirlooms. However, Minnie the Minx does not get spanked by her father for her misdeeds in 2017. That’s the only act of corporal punishment in my 1979 comic, though it was pretty much a standard (and creatively lazy) ending to a story in those days.
The art is strong in 2017 Beano but there’s a much more consistent look to the artwork from story to story. I don’t know whether there is a deliberate house style, or artists having common influences, but 1979 Beano does have more distinctively different and interesting art styles compared to its descendant. Artists and writers are uncredited in 1979, something that I’m very pleased to see has changed.
Readers in 1979 would have had no concept of ‘diversity’ as we understand it. As a middle-aged, middle class, white male, I’m not the best-qualified person to discuss diversity, but I’ll make a few brief observations. Your comments/corrections of my ignorance are welcome.
The Beano has traditionally had broad appeal and hasn’t, as far as I know, ever been marketed specifically as a boy’s or girl’s comic. However, the majority of characters featured in its stories are very much male and that remains true today (I’ve included dogs, mice, bears, little-people-who-live-inside-heads and yetis in my survey). I’m guessing this stems from the old idea that boys could be naughty in a way that girls could not, and it’s those characters that have survived, with the exception of Minnie the Minx (who still has to have the tagline “She’s tougher than all the boys!”). Also of note, Rubi, of Rubi’s Screwtop Science, is a wheelchair user as well as being a tech genius.
I’ve assumed that all the 1979 creators are male, as I know Laura Howell was the first female artist to have a regular comic in the Beano. From this snapshot, it appears she’s still the only female artist/writer, which is a bit of a shame. There are hundreds of talented female creators producing amazing comics, so there is no lack of talent.
I don’t blame the Beano – it’s possible it’s just not on the radar of the younger female comic-maker, who now has so many (albeit mostly non-paying) outlets for comic-making and maybe didn’t grow up with the Beano at the centre of their comic world.
I hope that changes. If the sample of readership featured in the 2017 comic is an accurate reflection of the whole, then it surely will: there’s a pleasing 50/50 split between boys and girls.
There are two POC (people of colour, i.e. non-white) characters in 1979 Beano, both of whom are unfortunate reflections of the time: Little Plum (“Your Red Indian Chum”) and Lord Snooty‘s friend Polly, drawn with pickaninny-type characteristics. Ball Boy‘s best friend was a black boy called Benjy who featured often, but he doesn’t appear in this particular issue.
Modern Beano has two POC headliners, both girls: JJ in JJ’s Jokes and Betty from Betty & the Yeti (by comics pal Hugh Raine). There’s a smattering of POC background characters, with Ball Boy taking the lead again, but I do have an overall feeling of ‘could-do-better’ here, given the sheer number of characters having walk-on parts throughout the comic.
The major difference between 1979 and 2017 Beano are the digital resources that complement the printed comic. I’ve mentioned the e-comic, but the Beano.com website is brilliant, colourful and engaging – there are funny videos, drawing games (submit your pics to the editor) and how-tos, as well as a shop with quality-looking merchandise. It’s a smart addition to the brand and I hope they’re able to keep pace with young people’s technology use in the future.
Design-wise, I’m bound to have a soft spot for 1979 Beano. There’s something soothing about the broad, calm, white border and formal, unbroken panel layout. Modern Beano seems brash and busy to my eye, but it stands out on the magazine rack, which is the most important thing, and I guess youngsters don’t really care whether or not they’re reading a design classic. I have to say I absolutely love the revamped logo – with the yellow background behind it, it’s quite stunning.
Overall, I feel very positive about today’s Beano – I really hope its long-term future is as secure as anything can be these days and I won’t be waiting another few decades before I pick it up again.