Review by Peter Duncan
Hardback annuals have been a staple of the British comics industry for decades. An easy Christmas present or stocking filler for busy parents or unimaginative uncles, they covered all genres and age-groups, from nursery titles, through the adventure comics aimed at older children to books featuring sports or pop stars. For kids, they were something special, a giant version of their favourite comic or a new storybook to pester parents to read to them over and over again. Often, they were something to do on Christmas Day when the grown-ups finally got fed up and demanded just half an hour of silence.
A visit to any bookshop, newsagents or supermarket – or online store – will reveal that of the Annuals published today, most are now related to TV Shows or films, football teams or pop stars, or, increasingly, to games. The large number and variety of comic-related titles that formed the backbone of the range in years gone by has disappeared, replaced by books that often contain little, if anything, of interest to the comics fan.
There are exceptions however – survivors of that bygone still remembered fondly by many of us. There has been a Rupert Annual every year since 1936. Almost unchanged in format and celebrating 100 years of Rupert Bear this year, these annuals still feature the same mixture of pictures, text and those weird verses that told an edited version of the story. Apart from the addition of colour and the removal of unacceptable racial stereotypes, the stories of Rupert and his friends still look very much the same as they did and remain popular with both young kids and a loyal band of, much, older enthusiasts.
The bestselling of all the annuals is, and has been for some time, the venerable, Beano Annual, which, alongside The Dandy Annual, still published despite the loss of its weekly comic some years ago now, has this year supplied 224 pages from some of the finest writers and artists working in British comics.
The Beano Annual features all the usual characters from the weekly comic, a title that pre-COVID, had been bucking the trend for magazines and was actually increasing its circulation. Unlike the weekly, there are no credits in the annual, but the styles, and sometimes the signatures, of artists like Nigel Parkinson on “Dennis” (the Menace)”, Leslie Stanage on “Calamity James” or Laura Howell on “Minnie the Minx” are easily recognisable.
The scripts are funny, and more adventurous than many older readers will remember. This year, we are treated to a cross-over story featuring the Beanolympics, drawn by Nigel Parkinson. It features many of the stars of Beanotown – Dennis, Minnie, Roger the Dodger and the Bash Street Kids – in a story almost certainly originally created to tie in with the cancelled summer Olympic games. (An indication of just how far in advance the annuals are prepared).
Minnie goes on a Dungeons and Dragons inspired adventure and there is a long story, again by Nigel Parkinson, featuring Dennis, the Greek God, Hermes, and the Golden Fleece. The Bash Street Kids are visited by Hairy Trotter, in a story featuring some jokes that are obviously written for much older readers.
One highlight is Nigel Auchterlounie’s version of “The Numbskulls“, the little guys who live in your head, a favourite of mine from The Beezer, that is a regular in the weekly Beano. Abandoning the usual adventures in the head of his main character, ‘Edd,’ things are made a little special for the annual. This time we get sight of the Numbskulls that control the Beano’s classic characters, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and Calamity James, with Nigel taking on the art in his own distinctive style.
As a special treat, we also have a Numbskulls episode featuring “Betty and the Yeti“, also by Nigel, taking over for the annual from writer and artist Hugh Raine, who normally rites the strip.
Other, old, familiar, characters appear in a series of newspaper style strips, a different format and one that demands a different skill set from the writers. But for the older readers, it’s nice to see old favourites like Billy Whizz, Biffo the Bear and Lord Snooty, the latter drawn by Lew Stringer.
This isn’t the Beano that older readers remember. It’s written for modern kids and reflects the world they live in and the culture they know and understand. There are no cane-wielding teachers or fathers bearing down on Dennis or Minnie with violent vengeance in mind – and some of the cultural references are probably going over my head. But that doesn’t mean that the strips are not professionally written, that the art isn’t of a really high standard.
And it certainly doesn’t mean that the annual is childish or inaccessible to older readers.
On the contrary, like all good children’s entertainment, the creators here are having a good time, they are producing work they would enjoy reading, and it shows.
That being said, it’s companion title the Dandy Annual that was the real treat for me this year. With a freer attitude towards innovation, creators appear to be let loose to have fun with characters who are, perhaps, not as important in terms of ongoing merchandising and, therefore, don’t come under the same scrutiny from management.
Again, with no credits it is difficult to tell who the writers of the various strips are, but we can identify art from Mike Collins, who gives us a ‘hulked out’ version of Desperate Dan and Steve Bright’s Beryl the Peril which is wild and wonderfully surreal. Lew Stringer helps by adding his signature to his “Postman Prat” stories, where he manages to incorporate time travelling pants, and “Keyhole Kate“, into one of the sets.
But three stories really stood out. David Law’s creation from 1960, “Corporal Clott“, was always a highlight of The Dandy. Nigel Auchterlounie, manages to capture the anarchic humour and loose, expressive art that made Clott a real favourite, without in any way copying what went before.
Jamie Smart’s “Pre-School Prime Minister” is a genuinely funny and weird story of the meeting of the preschoolers who are, in his strange world, the British Prime-Minister and the American President in a story that many will feel is closer to reality than one would hope.
But for some reason, the strip which really caught my attention was, “Winker Watson“, an old-fashioned boarding school story brought somewhat up to date, with a hunt for hidden treasure in the school grounds. It was the art, and particularly the colouring of, Dublin artist, Alan Ryan that really drew the eye., especially in the opening sequence.
These two annuals are really funny and entertaining books, firmly aimed at young readers, with enough in-jokes and satire to keep oldsters like me more than happy. They remain one of the main gateways to future readers of comics. For many kids these annuals, given by one of those lazy uncles, may be the first and only exposure they get to the format and their best opportunity to learn the ‘grammar’ of the medium and to develop the skill of reading comic strips.
Now if only there was something to keep them reading, something to bridge the gap between Beano and Commando or 2000AD…
• Both the Beano and Dandy annuals are available from all good book shops, some newsagents selected supermarkets
All images copyright Beano Studios/DC Thomson Media
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk
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