Joe O'Shea pines for the loveable rogues of the classic comic world, just like so many other adults who never really grew up
Published 06/02/2010 | 05:00
What's the best day of the week? Wednesday! Coz that's Beano Day! At least it was for generations of comic-obsessed kids raised on two-tone strips featuring characters like Dennis The Menace, Minnie The Minx and The Bash Street Kids.
In the dark ages before 24-hour cartoon channels and the internet, comics ruled our imaginations and sucked up our pocket money.
While you read World War Two comics like Battle, Warlord or Commando, your little brother got his paws all inky with The Beano, The Dandy or Whizzer 'n' Chips.
Bunty and Jackie were for girls (ew!) and your sister could spend hours poring over the posh schoolgirl tales of The Four Marys in between unstapling the latest posters of The Bay City Rollers to thumbtack to the bedroom wall.
In the US, they had the typically flashy superheroes of DC Comics and Marvel -- Superman, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four and the cosmically doomed Silver Surfer.
But American comics were virtually impossible to get in Ireland and the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s, thanks to a ban prompted by education experts who wanted to protect our youth from being "infected" by trashy American culture.
On this side of the Atlantic, we had noble Tommies, forever fighting Nazis (who were prone to exclaiming "Gott in Himmel! Die Englander Pigdog!") or loveable scamps like Dennis The Menace and The Bash Street Kids.
Comics like Warlord and Battle were occasionally grim and graphic, not surprising when you realise that many of the storyboard writers and artists were decorated World War Two veterans.
Warlord readers thrilled to the adventures of Lord Peter Flint, a toff secret agent.
Readers were enlisted as secret agents by Flint and could send away for a fingerprint kit, a heliograph, a secret agent stamp or even the adventure kit including a camera, binoculars and a water bottle.
Beano and Dandy readers, meanwhile, got free gifts like plastic wallets and furry badges. And sales were huge. Even in the mid-1970s, when the comics were beginning to show their age, The Beano was still selling half a million copies a week.
The Dandy, with cow pie-eating cowboy Desperate Dan, was not far behind, with a circulation of 400,000 in 1976. Titles like Whizzer and Chips, Shiver and Shake and Corr!! averaged 250,000 sales a week, making comic book publishers IPC/Fleetway the UK's fastest-growing media company in the mid-1970s.
The Christmas Annuals, hard-backed, must-have stocking fillers for every kid, sold in the millions (and are now collected by nostalgia fans). And nostalgia is big business, a Beano #1 recently sold for €14,100 at auction, making it the highest price ever paid for a British comic.
Mention Roy of the Rovers to 40-somethings football fans today and their eyes will go all misty, remembering the Melchester Rovers striker who pulled off improbable feats of goalscoring over a career that stretched from the 1950s to the early 1990s.
Roy Race shuffled off to that great treatment room in the sky in 1995. But you will still hear older football commentators exclaim: "That's real Roy of the Rovers stuff!" But there is no place in the modern game for an old-fashioned family man like Roy Race, when England captain John Terry is hiding out from tabloid photographers and dashing to the missus in Dubai to explain allegations of an affair that recently hit the headlines.
Comic fans who grew up in the 1970s will be heartened (and probably surprised) to hear that at least two favourites, The Beano and The Dandy, are still available in newsagents.
Weekly circulation holds steady for both titles at around the 120,000 mark, making them the most popular children's comics in the UK and Ireland.
There have been some concessions to modernity. The Dandy was renamed Dandy Xtreme in 2007 in a nod to changing fashions and The Beano got a sister publication titled BeanoMax, aimed at older kids and adults who never grew up.
There are also online versions of both comics, where Dennis The Menace gets along happily with newer arrivals like Astro Boy and you can follow the adventures of The Bash Street Kids, stuck in school for going on eight decades.
Comic creators Fleetway were bought out by publishers Egmont in 1991, long after the comics craze had dwindled. But the enduring nostalgia for classic comics recently prompted Egmont to experiment with bringing back four classic titles as a bumper one-off classic British comics collection. The 1970s girls' comic Misty came out just before Christmas, along with Buster, Battle and Roy of the Rovers.
"They've sold beyond all expectations," says Tim Jones, brand manager at Egmont. "We wanted to bring these titles back to where they started: the newsagent. So people can have a little slice of their childhood back."
Celebrity fans have helped to stoke the nostalgia craze. Jonathan Ross is a huge comic-book fan and is preparing to publish his own comic book in April. Ross's is an adult comic set in Prohibition-era New York. Like many other 40-somethings, Ross has refused to let go of his childhood devotion to the comic format.
And who could blame him? It's comforting to know that in these days of information overload and rapidly changing mass media, kids are still enjoying the adventures of Dennis the Menace and Minnie The Minx.