Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Review: THE HISTORY OF THE BEANO (D.C. Thomson and Waverly Books, 2009)

This lavishly illustrated volume traces the saga of Britain's most durable and popular weekly "comic paper," which debuted in July 1938. My own view of British comics, apart from the sober-sided JUDGE DREDD, could never be mistaken for rampant enthusiasm. The few contemporary British "funnies" that I've seen have struck me as indifferently drawn (and tending towards a certain sameness of style, to boot) and thematically shallow. Being a comics scholar of sorts, I brushed up on my basic knowledge by consulting various sources but was never tempted to imitate my friend David Gerstein and plunge into wholehearted fandom. THE BEANO, however, does seem to be one comic that has held up well over time, despite dramatic changes in taste and, I still stubbornly maintain, a definite "regression to the mean" in terms of unaninimity of drawing style.

This book identifies the 1950s as THE BEANO's "Golden Age," which sounds mighty familiar; on this side of the pond, the same sort of nostalgic glow shrouds memories of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES and UNCLE SCROOGE. For sure, the weekly's best artists were on the job during that time: Dudley Watkins and Ken Reid, in particular, can certainly be rated with any American comic artist of that period. Compared to Dell's omnibus "funny animal" titles, which shifted character lineups only at intervals, THE BEANO's roster contained more turnover than a typical "banana republic," though such long-running stalwarts as Biffo the Bear, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx, and Dennis the Menace (no, not the Hank Ketcham character -- the British version, "the world's wildest boy," looks like the unkempt love child of Ernie and Bert and lives to pester people to distraction) served as anchors amidst the phoenix-like rises and falls of lesser lights. Somewhat to my surprise, THE BEANO, up until the mid-1970s, also featured action-adventure strips, including a couple that brushed up against the superhero genre (e.g., BILLY THE CAT, about an acrobatic youth who fights evil while dressed up in a cat suit -- Selena Kyle must not have been amused). When these strips left the premises, the "creeping sameness" that I mentioned earlier appears to have become the mag's "default setting". The strip samples featured herein show a pretty dramatic falling-off in quality as we enter the 1980s.

Though reading this book has given me a new-found sense of respect regarding THE BEANO's long-lived, much-loved stars, I still can't rate them on the same level with the best of American "funny comics." The reason is simple: American "funny-animal" heroes could -- and did -- engage in all manner of adventure stories, whereas it's impossible to imagine the stars of THE BEANO pulling off such a trick. Indeed, given the magazine's maintenance of its short gag-strip format for so long (slightly more elaborate versions in "annuals" aside), the thought of stretching the characters' boundaries to such an extent seems never to have occurred to the editors and writers. Of course, I can't fairly criticize THE BEANO for what it never saw fit to attempt, and what the magazine did choose to do, it did reasonably well. In that respect, its 70-year life span is a tribute to the simple virtue of recognizing what your readers want and giving it to them on a regular basis.

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