When I was a kid the Beano and the Dandy were like cats and dogs: you liked one or the other and your preference reflected your personality. I was a Beano fan. The difference between Dandy and Beano fans, I imagined, was the same as the difference between the comics’ two lead characters, Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace. The Beano’s Menace was a mischievous – in retrospect, borderline psychotic – schoolboy with knobbly knees, a soot-coloured mongrel called Gnasher and a catapult, which he’d use against his wispy arch-enemy, Walter the Softie. He was cunning, cool and funny. Dan was an oaf: a portly cowboy with a square jaw and an indefatigable appetite for ‘cow pie’ – whole cows, baked in pies, with the tails dangling over the edge of the crust. He didn’t want to menace, he wanted to help, but kept causing disaster by misjudging his strength. Here’s a typical Dan storyline: a group of boys are trying to sail model boats on a lake, but there’s not enough wind. Dan comes along and blows into the sails, but blows too hard and wrecks the boats. By way of apology, he turns his body into a boat by wrenching the paddle wheel off a steamer, tearing up a streetlamp to use as a mast, and attaching them to his corpulent figure.
I never knew any Dandy readers. By the time I was at comics reading age, the Beano was outselling the Dandy by two to one. Dandy readers were concentrated in the north, whereas Beano readers were spread more evenly across the country. Both titles are published by the same company, DC Thomson of Dundee, but the Dandy had a more local flavour, thanks to strips such as Wild Young Dirky, which was set during the Jacobite rising, Black Bob the Wisest Sheepdog in Scotland, Hamish the Haggis-Basher, and the better known Jocks and Geordies, about two groups of boys, one Scottish, one from Newcastle, who live to clobber each other. Still, when DC Thomson announced earlier this month that they were going to stop printing the Dandy and move the publication online, there were enough Dandy fans in London for the last ever issue to sell out entirely. I had to wait for another print run before I could get my hands on a copy.
Paul McCartney, a Dandy fan and a northerner, is in it. Apparently, when the NME asked him in 1963 what his personal ambition was he replied: ‘to have my picture in the Dandy’. So when he found out that DC Thomson were going to stop the print edition he wrote to them asking whether they’d let him be in the 3610th and final issue. He appears as a special guest at a party at the Dandy offices. He’s introduced by the editor to the comic’s cast and offers to sing a song for them: Bananaman fetches him a grand piano, which Dan squashes like a concertina to make room for dancing, before a giant Dandy logo falls on his head and sends him and the piano crashing through the floorboards. Everyone starts singing ‘Hey Jude’, with McCartney accompanying through the hole.
This story bookends a series of 75 strips featuring Dandy stars old and new. There’s the psychosexual nightmare that is Mitch and his Mummy, about a boy whose mother is a mummy in the ancient Egyptian sense; a strip about a reluctant chevalier called Coward de Custard written in tourist industry olde worlde (‘If ye caught those villains we could buy all the hot cross buns in England’); and a surreal strip about a boy with a pocket-sized grandfather. Many of the Dandy’s characters seem to have begun as puns: Izzy Skint (‘he always is’), the useless football coach Owen Goal, hyperactive Dinah Mo, Postman Prat, Julius Sneezer. One character, the Smasher, was clearly designed to hoodwink the drunk or myopic into buying the wrong comic: he has the same hairstyle as Dennis the Menace, a black and red jersey, and goes around smashing things.
The issue also contains a pull-out replica of the first ever Dandy, which was published in December 1937. It’s quite different from the comic I knew (if only by reputation). Its cover star is Korky the Cat – Dan only made the cover in 1984 – and its Dan is a real desperado. In his first appearance Dan threatens a horse dealer with fisticuffs if he fails to provide a beast tough enough for him. Over the years the editors introduced new characters to retain the comic’s competitive edge: in 1984 they created Bananaman as a riposte to American superhero comics; more recently they came up with the lamentable Jak and Todd, a pair of skateboarding scamps drawn in the style of Japanese Manga. Moving the Dandy online is just the latest of these modernising initiatives. It will have interactive games, and animated cartoons, and is more likely than the print comic to appeal to a generation of kids weaned on Minecraft and Penguin Diner. One of the wittier strips in the final issue features a couple of blue rabbits, Jibber and Steve, and mocks the stuck-in-the-muds who are paranoid about digital publishing. It’s four frames long and goes like this:
[Steve and Jibber are sitting on a sofa reading; Steve a comic, Jibber an iPad]
Steve: It’s weird this is the last issue of the Dandy.
Jibber: It’s not the last. It’s just going digital. It’s on phones next week. Then the week after that it’ll get laser-blasted into your eyeballs. A month from now the Dandy will be jammed into everyone’s dreams using the mind hammer.
Steve: We should do something special for it though.
Jibber: I am!
Then Jibber slaps his companion in the face with a giant dead fish.