By Sean Farrell

Back in 1990, I was seated at a media lunch beside one of the directors of the D.C. Thompson Publishing Company. I was reminded of this last week at the news that, after 75 years, the print edition of the children’s comic The Dandy will cease next December, though the company assures us the title “will be taken in a different direction.”. The news is hardly surprising. Even twenty years ago the titles were in decline as technology advanced and fashions changed.

From its heyday in the 50s and 60s, when the circulation of the Dandy and its sibling, The Beano (which is to continue), was several million, the Dandy has slumped to a mere 7,000, the Beano to 60,000, mainly under 10s and, interestingly, overwhelmingly from the A, B and C social classes.

There was traditionally fierce brand loyalty among readers, none more so than in our house, where my two boys scorned the anaemic Dandy and fought so fiercely over the more full blooded Beano that, reversing Solomon, we the parents swallowed hard and bought two Beanos every week. There was always something slightly subversive about the Beano, with its flagship characters Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids, which the Dandy lacked. Students of the sociology of the comic can trace, in the Beano, the spiritual inspiration, if such be the phrase, of that comic for grown up boys, VIZ, still going strong, though also far down from its heyday.

The Beano and Dandy were only two of the extensive Thompson stable aimed at the post – 1945 children’s market in Britain and Ireland. In the era before television copies of both comics were snapped up as soon as they hit the newsstands. The Thompson empire, which included newspapers as well as comics and magazines, was built up by David Coupar Thompson, a bigoted curmudgeon who hated trade unions, Catholics and Winston Churchill, and who remained company chairman until his death, aged 93 in 1954. His feud with Churchill caused him to ban Churchill’s name from his newspapers until World War Two, when using it became unavoidable.

Dandy and Beano readers eventually graduated, with many a fond backward glance, to the next generation up of Thompson publications, for boys the quartet of the Wizard, Rover, Hotspur and Adventure, for girls Bunty and Judy. The successful formula in all was a mix of high adventure, sport and boarding school stories. The school stories in particular were interchangeable with the boys having the same adventures as the girls a year apart.

The boys’ adventure and sports stories featured a succession of working class heroes. Boys played soccer not rugby, tennis was unknown and the cricketers habitually crushed the Australians. In the war stories the Germans were constantly outwitted and out fought, not to mention Afghan tribesmen. It was British heroes all the way, chief among them Flight Sergeant Matt Braddock, V.C. who more or less defeated the Luftwaffe single handed, yet was scornful of brass hats, red tape and officers.

A special word here on the strangest character of all, the Wizard’s Wilson, the Wonder Athlete. With Wilson the writers excelled themselves. Living in a cave on the Yorkshire Moors, Wilson was almost 200 years old, surviving on a special diet of herbs and berries. He broke world records casually, ran the mile in three minutes and won the Ashes for England (the Year of the Shattered Stumps). A morale booster during the war, he kept Johnny Foreigner in his place.

Production all round was cheap and cheerful and, with growing prosperity the Thompson comics entered a slow decline. The superbly produced Eagle was first to dent them, then Roy of the Rovers stole their soccer thunder. By the 1980s most were gone. It’s a testimony to their creators that the unique characters in the Beano and Dandy helped them survive for so long.

A final note. Several months later, as Christmas approached, I received a parcel from my Thompson lunch companion. The covering letter recalled that lunch, and my anecdote about being obliged to buy two Beanos every week and enclosed not one but two copies of the Beano Christmas annual.

August 2012


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