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The Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules

by on 25 November 2021

Tearaway Strip Tease

The Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules

curated by Andy Holden

Embankment Gallery, Somerset House, London until 6th March 2022

Review by Heather Moulson

Biff!  Bang!  Whizzz!  Ouff!  Ouch!  Curator Andy Holden had been planning this exhibition since March 2020 when the lights were switched off by Lockdown.  Proving that patience and careful planning really does pay off, he lays this infamous comic treasure trove bare before us.     

I was greeted by Biffo the Bear at the ticket office, the character I mourn the most, along with his extraordinarily strange chum Buster.   Once having the status of Desperate Dan, he stopped appearing in strip form in 1986.  Biffo was wholesome and neat in his red shorts, which could have been his downfall, yet he kept up his end with his maverick counterparts for many years. 

Along the walls into this amazing cave are images of the very dubious Snitch and Snatch from Lord Snooty and his pals.  In fact, Lord Snooty’s gang was very bizarre indeed.  Residents of the working class Ash Can Alley, they came to live with him in the castle: the ultimate breaking down of the class barrier; the glamorous Aunt Matilda being the only solid figure in Snooty’s life.  Snooty now seems to have become an art dealer – a more feasible role in today’s aristocracy perhaps. 

Another ludicrous character was Billy the Cat whose image climbed up the walls.  Even before cynicism set in as a child, it was unbelievable that this blazered schoolboy could get into such a bizarre outfit and take on hardened criminals.   

Despite flaunting the Beano’s nostalgic glory, issues are brought to us head on; the first being their History of Food.    These particularly concerned Little Plum and The Three Bears and gluttony being their ultimate goal.  Who can forget that huge pile of mash with tempting sausages sticking out?!  Who didn’t dream of a table groaning with grub?  And sitting back groaning with bulging bellies?  What was once revered has now become a serious health issue. 

Then we walk into Discipline and Punish.  A very big issue indeed.   With caning banned in state schools in 1986, Teacher of the Bash Street Kids no longer had his cane-motif bedspread or the significant implement kept by his desk.  Dennis was relegated to bed without supper, and thankfully Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger were spared the slipper too.  The clouds that the punishing slipper made and exclamations of pain in the last frame disappeared from our comic strips. 

The next section was Birth of the Mavericks, and needed no introduction; Roger the Dodger, who really should be prime minister, his cracking dodges making us draw breath; and of course the red and black striped Dennis – later abetted by his dog, Gnasher and even later, Gnipper.   There was a delight to see some archives drawn by the iconic David Law.  And Minnie the Minx, created by Leo Baxendale, is now drawn by the first female Beano artist, Laura Howell.   It wasn’t really a surprise who followed; genius Roger the Dodger by surprisingly, an uncredited author, and the enigmatic Bash Street Kids, created by David Sutherland.  Their long-suffering teacher standing alone.  All misfits, all great mates.   Danny, Smiffy, Freddy (formerly Fatty), Sidney, Toots, ‘Erbert, Plug, Scotty (formerly Spotty), and Wilfred. 

After getting a good look at Beano Town, grown very modernised over its 80 years, a place where rules can be blissfully broken, we go into the revered and slightly feared section…

The Beano Editor’s Office.   This is illustrated by a clever cartoon piece called aptly The Visit by David Sutherland where the usual suspects are involved.  An iconic piece. 

The prim, and once bullied, Walter the Softy (whose relationship with Dennis has mercifully changed) is featured alongside the letter sent to Jacob Rees-Mogg accusing him of distinctly copying this killjoy character and to desist before teacher gets involved.   Ending with the Beano Home, certain nostalgic visitors are sated and glowing from being back in that world of running round the sweet shop on a Thursday where the newsagent had put the comic aside with your surname written in pencil on the back.  Those days have gone forever but so lovely to revisit. 

Down points in this section were the fairly new persona of Dennis’s parents – no longer the stripe suited headmaster patriarch, and the apron wearing matriarch.  They’re just too trendy now.  Beano was unusual with its heavy presence of parents in their comic, and the action that centred on the home.  The struggle between child and parent set in a suburban house resulted in chaos and quite frankly, delight.   Rules were broken then reinstated. 

Towards the gift shop, newer characters are given a nod to, but little else, as we all knew the sort of clientele who would patronise this colourful and well-thought out exhibition.  The ones, like me, who wanted to revisit these days again and reminisce about the art of breaking the rules. 

See it if you dare!

Heather Moulson, November 2021

Images by David Sutherland, courtesy of Beano

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