Just after Christmas, perhaps because they’d been drinking too much mulled wine while reading this year’s top-selling Beano annual, some of Britain’s national media got into one of its occasional “comics aren’t what they used to be” funks. Specifically, with coverage of the new Dennis and Gnasher TV series – and what they claimed, wrongly, were new changes to Beano comic.
Some of the reports are now getting another airing thanks to social media as more comics folk filter back to work, so it seemed opportune to bring you an update.
The Mirror seems to have been the prime mover in decrying the loss of “the Menace” from “Dennis the Menace” in the comic, a theme picked up by other papers and Sky News, while Channel 4 News sniped at the title’s “declining sales” in an otherwise quite interesting news item about Beano Studios audience research, which it turns out, had been in preparation for some time and dropped the use of an affectionate cartoon dig at news anchor Jon Snow.
The Mirror’s report that, from now on, Dennis will be simply be known as Dennis as the character “moves away from his ‘menacing’ ways”, appears to have stemmed from Mike Stirling, head of Beano Studios Scotland, despite him pointing out that Dennis had not been a menace for years, although the strip was still branded “Dennis the Menace and Gnasher” in the latest Beano annual.
(The paper is clearly unaware of how far in advance the annual is usually prepared).
Mike Stirling told the paper the comic was “reflective of the world we all live in today and today’s Dennis is a flawed hero, a ten-year-old boy who fears nothing and sometimes gets into trouble as a result”.
It was a argument picked up by Emma Scott, Head of Beano Studios in London, in the Channel 4 News item, reporting on the new Dennis and Gnasher TV show. The item noted the title’s current sales at 39,000 a week and the company’s efforts to bring the comic into the digital age with the help of its readers through both face to face and online consultations.
(This seems to me to be a little more sophisticated than the “cut and and post” polls comics of the 1960s and 1970s ran asking readers to choose their Top Three strips of the week. The Guardian, which was ahead of the curve in its coverage of the new show and actually bothered to talk to some involved, reported in early December how, to keep a finger on the pulse of the playground, staff at Beano Studios interview a panel of young “trend spotters” once a week. Aged eight to 12, they talk about what they are watching on YouTube and television, and what music they like. The names that have come up most in the past year are Donald Trump, Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. “Trump is their arch-villain, their Darth Vader – and they don’t really understand him,” Scott told the paper.
The Guardian noted that it’s that type of feedback that now feeds into all Beano content – whether it’s for the comic, the website, the app, television, even the forthcoming live shows.
Post Christmas pudding, however, some news media were happy to play the role of “journalist provocateurs” and get their proverbial knickers in a knot (and, in turn, some of their readers) about the introduction of what they described as “PC” characters to Beano, including as wheelchair-using Rubi – who’s actually been in the comic for a while and is one of the Dennis and Gnasher TV show stars.
Beano cartoonist Lew Stringer charted the latest furore, noting with some exasperation, that the “Menace” part of the title was dropped from the strip over a year ago, and the strip was simplified to Dennis and Gnasher for a while back in 2009 – and the media stirred the pot back then too.
“So… either none of the reporters remembered that they’d covered the same story eight years ago or they simply needed something to fill their papers and distract people from shady politicians and corporate bankers,” Lew suggested. “Either way, it worked, and their readers hammered their opinions into their keyboards. The opinions were pretty much the usual blathering about ‘political correctness’ and ‘snowflakes’.
The vitriol spread to various parts of social media, too, including groups where it was soon apparent that those shouting loudest about political correctness clearly hadn’t picked up a Beano in – well 40 years, by the look of some of the comments, and neither were they likely too any time soon.
A quick flick through any recent copy of Beano will confirm the comic has lots none of its bonkers, enthusiastic and enjoyable sense of fun, often at the expense of authority figures, a point former Beano artist and writer Kev Sutherland happily pointed out to Sky News during an interview picking up on the re-branding “news”.
Other comic creators, including the strip’s current team – writer Nigel Auchterlounie and artist Nigel Parkinson – were also quick to leap to the title’s defence, with Nigel A happily posting an image from the first Beano of “the new touchy feely, PC, Dennis smashing two windows, scarring a gull, breaking a bird bath, chopping the heads roses and decapitating a gnome in one picture!”
As for the TV show and the name changes to the strip, the actual reasons for the change that caused so much outrage post Christmas in fact are down to very practical and mundane reasons that aren’t as headline-grabbing.
“Here’s the thing that most of these stories ignored or didn’t bother researching,” Lew Stringer pointed out. “The main reason that the cartoon series is called Dennis and Gnasher and not Dennis the Menace is so that it can be sold internationally and not be confused with the American Dennis the Menace. By coincidence, both the British Dennis and the American one debuted in the same week in 1951. (Over here, the US Dennis was sometimes called ‘The Pickle’ so it’s always caused problems).
“I guess the practicalities of a business decision were too boring for the media so they chose to blow things out of proportion and pander to their readers by claiming it was all about “political correctness gone mad”.
Despite this, you can be sure the national media will be getting itself in a lather again very soon, because after the resounding success of the Dennis and Gnasher show, next to get a makeover will be the equally iconic Minnie the Minx.
“I want to make sure there’s a good strong girl character coming through on to the screens,” Emma Scott told The Guardian, which is simply wonderful to hear, but she might still want to invest in a pith helmet…
• The latest issue of Beano is on sale now in all good newsagents across the UK, and it’s available digitally too. Go and find out what all the fuss is about! Official site www.beano.com (we do wish they’d make it easier to find out more about the latest issue of the comic, though)
• The unseen bit of the Channel 4 News report – Nigel Auchterlounie and Nigel Parkinson’ Dennis versus Jon Snow cartoon – is on Nigel Parkinson’s web site
The Beano © DC Thomson/ Beano Studios
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.