Sunday, 16 September 2012

Batman pays tribute to The Dandy

Ah, The Dandy. Good Ol' Dandy. Doomed, soon to be defunct Dandy.

One of the better-known strips out of the many to have been published is called "Bully Beef and Chips".

It debuted in 1967, drawn by Jimmy Hughes and featured an amiable boy called Chips, perpetually threatened and/or thumped by a big bruiser called Bully Beef (or "Beefy" for short). Here's a picture from their first outing, helpfully reprinted in The Dandy 75th Years Special which is out now (sadly exclusive to WH Smith):
 It was a simple format that made it enduring. Bully picks on underdog, underdog uses cunning to defeat bully. Born and bred in the briar patch. The style changed a little over the years. Here's the version I grew up with, this image taken from The Dandy Book, 1975:
 It lost its appeal (at least for the publishers) during the 90s when children being bullied became a touchy subject for comedy but after a couple of revival attempts this is how they look in the current issue of The Dandy:
 But another reason they have been remembered over so many other characters is that the spirit of the strips was transferred to the decidedly non-child-friendly pages of Viz in the form of Biffa Bacon (taken from the annual The Last Turkey in the Shop):
 "Yes, yes" you say "But what about Batman?"

I was reading the latest issue of Batman Incorporated this week (Volume 2, Issue 3 if you must know, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Burnham) and watched Matches Malone (one of Batman's undercover identities) quizzing a boy about Leviathan. Or a man with a growth deficiency who looks like a boy. "Huh" I thought "That henchman looks familiar."
 I reached over a grabbed a Dandy (always keep a Dandy handy) and flipped to Bully Beef and Chips. Yep. Looks just like him. If that's a coincidence it's a terrific one. But Morrison (a Scotsman) has previous form here. He attempted to introduce a British comics sensibility to Batman Incorporated before during a storyline in which Batman came to Britain to aid The Knight and The Squire, who then had an excellent spin-off miniseries written by Paul Cornell. That miniseries paid direct homage to the Oddhams/Fleetway comics style, including having a villain called "Jarvis Poker, the British Joker".
 Then the little fella calls his goon "Bully". Okay. Definitely deliberate now. Oh, hang on doesn't he look like... Yes, it's not as obvious but he's dressed like Chips and has his silly curls. And when Batman calls him "Small Fry", he gets corrected:
So there you have it. The British Joker is called Jarvis Poker and the American Bully Beef and Chips are called Bully and Fry.

And people tell me I've wasted my life.

The timing of this means Morrison couldn't have known he was paying homage to a comic that was about to end (unless something very unusual happened) but I doff my cap to him once again.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Britain's Oldest Comic To Cease Publication on its 75th Birthday

The Dandy. Reliable Dandy. Good Ol' Dandy.

The Dandy is Britain's oldest comic and will celebrate 75 years of publication in December this year. Then it'll stop.

That's right, they've finally thrown in the towel and the comic will cease to exist as a published, printed, stapled-together paper thing this year. Although owners D C Thomson claim to have digital Dandy projects in the works. We'll see what that means.

As it is lots of newspaper column inches and nerdy blogs have been given over to discussing what this means. Is it a terrible destruction of a British icon or a long-overdue mercy-killing of a pre-war relic? And there are those (like Charlie Brooker in The Guardian) complaining that these writers have no business pontificating on something they don't read and isn't aimed at them. They're just pining for their lost childhood.

Well guess what. I read it. I am an adult man and I read The Dandy. And I enjoy it.

Admitting you like good art specifically aimed at children gets you looked at with either pity or suspicion in this country. We've yet to have our own movement like the Bronies. But our time is coming.

I grew in a time when there was a huge choice in children's comics. After the true golden age had past but I still had plenty to choose from. I generally preferred the Odhams/Fleetway/IPC stable (the company changed hands a lot) as they generally seemed more anarchic and weird but D C Thomson's output was always consistently great too.

The king of those comics (and soon to be the last man standing, more-or-less) was The Beano. The Dandy (which was less than a year older) always seemed the less fun one. The Topper and The Beezer also seemed slightly "cooler" than The Dandy for reasons I couldn't explain as a kid. However when a comic failed to meet its target circulation and was cancelled, the popular characters who still had legs found themselves in The Dandy. This had the effect of gradually strengthening the parent comic.

Thus Nutty's TV star superhero Bananaman moved to Dandytown and Hoot's anarchic toddler Cuddles merged into a strip with Dandy's anarchic toddler Dimples (oddly ret-conned into being twins eventually). And as more titles dried up Topper and Beezer characters joined them too.

Since my teenage years I hadn't paid The Dandy much attention. Until the horrific relaunch as "Dandy Xtreme" a magazine (!) with a pull-out comic (!) in 2007. I was working in a shop that sold comics at the time and I was furious. The publishers were making it hip and cool and "not your father's Dandy" and Poochie. And the comic part was secondary. "That's it." I said. "It'll be dead within a year." I was wrong, as it turned out, but it did damage the Dandy brand.

Then, brilliantly, nearly two years ago, the comic relaunched. As an actual comic. With no regard for free gifts or two-page features on the latest CGI movie with tie-in McDonalds toys, it was back and better than ever.

It reminded me of my favourite read as a kid; Oink!

Oink!, which incidentally was the aforementioned Charlie Brooker's first writing gig, was great. It was anarchic, rude and hilarious. Outside of Viz (which was TOO far for my sensitive Catholic eyes) it was the most punk rock of the comics.It even had Frank Sidebottom, a funny bloke off the telly, doing strips starring himself. And it was peppered with fake adverts for all the stuff marketing people were telling me to buy in other comics. Ace.

And most of that last paragraph can be used to describe the "new" Dandy. Just replace Frank Sidebottom with Harry Hill (cover star for most of the relaunched comic's first year) and pretty much still stands. And it was funny. Properly funny. To my grown-up brain. It was a joy.

And in the (nearly) two years since it has been consistently entertaining, innovative and giving exposure to new talents. Everything I would have wanted in a comic as a child or an adult.

And this is what we get. Shame.

I'm willing to bet that the more popular characters like Desperate Dan (genuine British icon - he's got a statue in Dundee y'know), Bananaman and hopefully a couple of Jamie Smart's brilliant creations will live on in the pages of The Beano (which appears safe for now) but it's a sad time for British comics. I'll be watching the fortunes of Toxic and The Phoenix too. Because that's it once they've gone.

Excuse me.... I have something in my eye....