In Beanotown

Mark Sinker

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Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules (at Somerset House until 6 March 2022) consists of pages and tales from the comic’s eight decades, loosely organised into themes, along with work by some forty non-Beano artists that amplifies its characters, motifs and slapstick. There’s a pair of mid-1960s latex knee-caps by Claes Oldenberg, and a ceiling-full of Philippe Parreno’s orange mylar speech-bubbles. Horace Panter (formerly the bass player in the Specials) has Dennis the Menace and Gnasher diving into David Hockney’s swimming pool. Cuttings from tabloids celebrate the goofball performance-art stunts of Mark McGowan: pushing a peanut with his nose as a ‘protest’ or sailing to Scotland in a shopping trolley.

The show is curated by the sculptor and video-artist Andy Holden. Many of the artists selected ‘had never considered the Beano’s impact on them’, he writes, ‘but when prompted suddenly recounted the hours spent poring over the details.’ The paperfirst appeared in July 1938, more than four thousand issues ago; its circulation peaked in 1950 at nearly two million. As drawn by Dudley Watkins, ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’was a hit from that very first issue. The ‘pals’ were urchins from the local Ashcan Alley gang, invited to run riot through Snooty’s castle. This cross-class alliance, which spent the war years playing japes on Nazis, only dissolved in the early 1990s, and largely survives today misread as political shorthand for Etonian cronyism.

Dennis was created by David Law in 1951 (with Gnasher arriving in 1968). Ken Reid’s Roger the Dodger and Leo Baxendale’s Minnie the Minx both appeared in 1953, while the Bash Street Kids (also Baxendale) began their forever war on Teacher in 1954. In playgrounds in the 1950s Beano meant ‘feast’, and even before you get to the down-tier Bash Streeters that only nerds like me can name, there is a choice array of types to identify with: red-headed Minnie disdaining dolls and girlish domesticity; Roger with his head in a self-authored book, the autodidact scholar of his own vast compendium of let’s-not stratagems.

The artistic styles are varied too. Watkins had an attractive black-and-white line that was meticulous and tidily figurative, his action scenes never marred by movement lines. Baxendale, by contrast, unleashed a protean vortex of spotty baby-shaped humans of all ages, all wrinkled clothing and knobbly joints in landscapes awash with saliva and digestive juices, dotted with signs setting up plot points or frame-breaking gags.

The themes at Somerset House include food, school and family life, Beanotown as a community, and the many times that characters put on smocks and berets to throw primary-coloured paint around Jackson Pollock-style, or a panel of quasi-cubist swirl descending to mask our view as they received a slippering. If there’s one form of rule-breaking that covers the entire exhibition, it’s the way the lowly kitsch of commercial publishing can so easily be horseshoe-theoried round to meet the tics of the high avant-garde.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s film The Way Things Go (1987) features an elaborate machinery of overtoppling objects – one thing leads to another – setting things on fire and releasing dangerous liquids, in a larger context of sticky gunk. You can cite Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely – or else W. Heath Robinson, Jan Švankmajer, the boardgame Mousetrap and Leo Baxendale. (Fischli/Weiss undertook many of their projects dressed up as a rat and a bear.) The carnival overthrow of the status quo rarely lasts even to the final panel of a Beano strip – these are diligent professionals working under the publisher D.C. Thomson’s strict constraints – but isn’t that also true of most of the rule-breaking artists whose work is now safely displayed in galleries?

Meanwhile, modern Beanotown adapts to the times. ‘Mandi and her Mobile’ is about phones and social anxiety. Mandi (Mandira Sharma) joined Harsha Chandra (of the strip ‘Har Har’s Joke Shop’) in Bash Street’s eternal class 2B this summer. Beanoworld has a TV arm, based round Dennis’s chums, many of them girls these days – including Rubi von Screwtop, who has a wheelchair and is given to jaw-cracking whorls of Dr Who-ish jargon. Dennis’s nemesis Walter is no longer a ‘softy’ but a knee-jerk snob.

The usual scolds may wish to start fussing about wokeness here – but since those early Snooty strips, the comic has never not been navigating the complexities of the social divisions its readers encounter. ‘Getting your own back’ has always been a moral conundrum. Conflict and kindness have always been intertwined – and time can de-sediment in startling ways. It’s bracing to see a character as anodyne as Biffo the Bear in the 1940s chucking fireworks at a policeman, and the strip endorsing this as a charming child-like prank.

The rush of affectionate recognition can also curdle. In the first panel of Steve Bell’s Thirty Years On(1984), a stressed Minnie is sitting at a typewriter, yelling at a room full of ugly squalling babies while Toots screams ‘You bastard! You said you’d have the kids this afternoon!’ down the phone at Plug. In Nicola Lane’s Dennis and Gnasher ZOOOOM (2021), a round-bellied Dennis, still in shorts, his artlessly scribbled hairline long thinned, walks Gnasher to a wellness centre run by a bespectacled modern-day Minnie. There’s genuine anger to Bell’s idea, while Lane’s makes more melancholy use of warring layers of passing time, incorporating panels she made for the underground paper IT in the mid-1970s: Minnie’s red-and-black look once chimed with the anarchist and feminist dissent and activism of the punk years – but 21st-century social disenchantment now doubly betrays these deep friends of our youth. Not that the present-day comic can’t ambush older readers in similar ways. It’s uncanny to read ‘Dennis the Menace’ today and realise that his portly and put-upon dad is the Dennis of the 1970s, watching forever hapless as his boy-child runs wild.