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November 25, 2008

Christie Davies returns to the comics of his childhood and explains why The Beano and The Dandy were so superior to The Eagle

Posted by Christie Davies

After a visit to the Cartoon Museum's recent exhibition on The Beano and The Dandy, Christie Davies argues that if today's children were to read more classic comics they might be more literate.

The Dandy was born in 1937 and The Beano in 1938 in Dundee. They are one of Scotland's very few contributions to British popular culture. They grew out of the success of two Scottish cartoon strips, The Broons and Oor Wullie first published in 1936, written in dialect for Scottish children but accessible with the help of a dictionary.

Private Eye has recently adopted The Broonites for its cartoon strip about Gordon Brown and his Jockshire chums, much as it has appropriated Dave Snooty and his pals to satirize the antics of Cameron and his little clique of old Etonians. Private Eye must be assuming that its readers are familiar with the originals.

The famous Dundee publishers and printers, D.C. Thompson, soon saw that they had a winner in their two cartoon strips for children published as a supplement to Scotland's Sunday Post and quickly produced two new comics written in standard English (well, more or less) for the British market.

By the 1950s they were selling as many as two million copies every week. During the Second World War the comics carried the patriotic, if in today's terms politically incorrect, adventures of "Musso the Wop, he's a Biga-da-Flop" and of Addie and Hermy, otherwise known as Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. No comic today would dare to have Italians and Germans as buffoons speaking broken English. For Addie every "the" is a der and for Musso it is a da. If you were to try it now the EU would close you down.

Much of their success was due to the artistry of Dudley D. Watkins who created Desperate Dan, an American desperado with a huge yesterday-shaved with a blow-lamp, Scots jaw, who always wears a gun on his belt as is the fashion in that country.

From the start Dan devoured huge crude meals including his famous cow pie made of an entire cow with the horns poking up through the pastry. There were no worries in those days about children's obesity or a proper regard for animals or indeed political correctness.

Desperate Dan still exists, though not in the original uninhibited Watkins form. There is a seven foot high statue of him in the centre of Dundee. Dan is to Dundee what Adam Smith is to Kirkcaldy, the two greatest men to come out of Fife since Macbeth.

The best thing about The Beano and The Dandy was that there was no tedious nonsense about morality as there was in The Eagle run by a Church of England padre called Marcus Morris, who turns out to have been a randy old adulterer. Children do not like being preached at when there is fun to be had.

The Eagle was also snobbish with an officer-class Dan Dare, pilot of the future, ministered to by a deferential comic Lancashire batman called Digby, a cog who relished hierarchy. The cartoon character Ernie Entwhistle spoke Lancashire with pride and independence, Digby did so with servility.

There was also a nasty whiff of planetism in The Eagle in the way the Mekon was treated as "the other"; his Martian followers were chlorophyll green like mere plants and his monstrous head indicated the comic's deep hatred of intellectuals.

The central characters in The Beano and The Dandy such as Dennis the Menace or the kids of Bash Street School aspired to a life of disorderly anarchy and were only restrained from this by powerful, threatening authoritarian adults.

It has been suggested that Minnie the Minx was an early feminist heroine but she like the snooping Keyhole Kate always lost out in the end, receiving hearty spankings from a male adult. Curiously studies of children's games imitating the life of their primary school at that time show them as acting just such patterns, alternating between shameless and rebellious insolence and crushed grovelling. The children were not imitating the comics; the comics were imitating the children's imaginations.

The comics likewise showed a keen awareness of the British class system. Lord Marmaduke of Bunkerton, "Snooty to you", always wears a top hat, and other foolish David Cameron style clobber, in marked contrast to the grubby garb of the ruffians below him.

In one characteristic strip from 1940 Snooty tries to help two of the latter get jobs as radio announcers on the BBC, men who always spoke in the poshest and most precious of accents and dressed immaculately for the microphone, even though no one could see them. In the cartoon strip the BBC officials even spray themselves with scent.

Snooty sends the rough kids to "M.Pongo (Proprietor) French school of Good Manners" run by a man who speaks like Renė Artois. They emerge dressed like swells, complete with monocles, saying

Thank you, Snooty, old fella, for your kindness in having us trained. Jolly decent of you,
and are immediately taken on by the BBC.

At the other end of the scale are the kids of Bash Street school, including Spotty, who gives each one of his pimples a name of its own, always beginning with "S". True socialist realism.

Such comics were denounced by the educational establishment because they believed that comics prevented children from reading proper continuous prose. They thought the children would be trapped at a level of literacy where words existed only in bubbles coming out of characters' mouths. Yet children in the 1950s could read better than they can today, and many of those who read them also read books.

Today many children leave school functionally illiterate, and yet the international agencies to the gratification of our government say that we have 100% literacy. They measure literacy by input, namely how many years you have wasted in school, and not by output, meaning what people can do when they come out. We should go back to comics.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations.


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What a nasty attack on fine people. Marcus Morris may have been a compulsive adulterer but he never allowed it to influence the contents of his comics which were a model of purity with never a hint of sex. Purity is the virtue of an ordered society in which the Lancastrian defers to the properly spoken officer class, the impure language defering to the pure. Even the names reflect this. What could be nobler than the name Dan Dare. Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to defy Babylon. By contrast Digby is a name fit for a mole from 'to dig' and the pagan suffix -by. Perhaps Digby's surname was Moldewarp , a typical Lancashire name .
Likewise we should admire the immaculate Cameron and not sneer at Osborne's cut glass English.If Conservatism is to thrive it must return to its class roots and sense of an unchanging hierarchy. The Eagle was part of this whereas the oiks who read the Beano are the ones who brought about our social decline

Posted by: James at November 26, 2008 10:53 PM
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Marcus Morris was from Lancashire but had the homely speech of that county knocked out of him at Cheltenham and then went to Brasenose Oxford where they speak like Boris Johnson. Finally he became an RAF padre and officer. His life was a transition from lowly Digby to pukka Dan Dare.
It would be interesting to know why the name Digby was chosen for this latter day Sancho Panza or that other batman Hasek's Svejk. It fits him as it conveys a certain sense of vulgar plebian dim-witted amiability but where does it come from. I do not think I have ever met anyone called Digby.Why choose an obscure name when the more familiar Herbert or Willie would have done as well.

Posted by: Jay at November 27, 2008 10:01 PM
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I read the Eagle as a child, as well as the Dandy and Beano. I would say it was OK, except when it ventured into religion, usually having one such story told in the Eagle Annual.

Of course it was a bit unrealistic, having what was in effect the RAF in space while in fact the USA and the USSR were having their race. (Incidentally, one of my favourite Giles cartoons shows a child's bedroom with wallpaper illustrating "The Cow jumped over the Moon". The Moon is looking askance at two rockets, one labelled USA and the other CCCP, that are racing towards it.)

Also, Proffeswr, the Mekon and his Treens were from the southern hemisphere of Venus, and perhaps did look a bit like green Africans, while the "good guys" from the north were golden-haired supermen called Therons. Nevertheless, my lack of colour prejudice has been ascribed (not by myself) to assimilating the idea of human-like races in red, yellow, green and blue who were generally on the "good" side, and allies of Dan Dare.

However, I suggest that James read the book of Malachi. God would not accept the offerings of a serial adulterer, however "pure" they may seem in themselves. I have many overseas friends who are continually inviting me to travel to see them, but I don't. For an exempli gratia, a religious phobia that I can directly trace to the Eagle Annual  has ruined my enjoyment, even in retrospect, of a conference trip to a beautiful and friendly central European country which in every respect was good and well organized. But the "bug" bit me.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 28, 2008 07:46 PM
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Can someone remind me but was there not a Digby Andersen who was connected with the Social Affairs Unit ? He used to write cookery books.What ever happened to him? What does he do now? Perhaps he was named after the man in the comic.

Posted by: hilary at December 5, 2008 08:18 PM
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