Unlike other comics that focus on superheroes protecting the law, The Beano is about the joy of breaking them. As the longest-running weekly comic, The Beano has entertained children for over 80 years with characters who refuse to obey the laws. This is the inspiration for the current exhibition at Somerset House in London, curated by artist Andy Holden (b.1982). Holden works by the philosophy that “You cannot make art if you stick to the rules.” He did not want to create an art exhibition; instead, he wanted visitors to walk directly into The Beano world and experience life as a comic book character. By bending the rules (and waiting for other rules to lift, e.g. COVID-19 regulations), Holden created a spectacular exhibition that takes people on a journey from 1938 until the present day.
Many characters have come and gone throughout The Beano’s production, most notably Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger. The majority of characters are human, but the first edition, published on 30th July 1938, introduced Big Eggo, the ostrich. The big bird was the first character to appear on the front page of the comic and remained there until 1948. Each strip began with the words “Somebody’s taken my egg again!” followed by Big Eggo’s comical attempt to retrieve it.
The Beano, published by DC Thomson, aimed to replicate American weekly comic strips on a larger scale. They also wanted to appeal to children, so asked themselves, “What would a child find funny?” After much discussion, the publishers and illustrators agreed that children did not like being told what to do, which sparked several ideas for rule-breaking characters. The first edition of The Beano sold 443,000 copies, forecasting the comic’s success for the future.
The name “Beano” is a short form of “bean-feast”. During the 19th century, a bean-feast was usually part of a celebratory meal, often held during the summer. It derived from the Twelfth Night feast celebrated in January, during which an object or “bean” was hidden within a cake for one lucky participant, who earned the title “Bean King”. Whilst The Beano stories did not revolve around food, the final panels often depicted the characters tucking into a meal: usually a pile of mashed potato with sausages poking out. In some ways, food was the ultimate reward at the end of a day of breaking rules, particularly when the characters got away with it.
Readers of The Beano in the 1940s and early 50s related to the characters’ love of food. In the aftermath of the Second World War, certain foods were difficult to obtain, and families were only entitled to a small portion of their favourite items. Bacon, butter, sugar, jam and sweets were rationed, so having any of these items was a real treat.
One of the most memorable Beano characters is Dennis the Menace, who first appeared in the 452nd issue on 17th March 1951. The eternal 10-year-old has caused havoc and broken rules for over 70 years, often with the help of a slingshot and faithful pet dog. Gnasher, the Abyssinian wire-haired ‘tripehound’, joined Dennis in 1961 and has not left his side since.
Cartoonist David “Davey” Law (1908-1971) created Dennis the Menance and gave him his iconic red-and-black-striped jumper, large shoes, and impish grin. George Moonie (1914-2002), the editor at the time, suggested the name after hearing the British music hall song I’m Dennis the Menace from Venice sung by Eddie Pola (1907-95).
Dennis is the archetypal badly-behaved schoolboy and often finds himself in trouble with his parents. The bully often goes out of his way to tease “softies” (well-behaved boys), especially his next-door neighbour, Walter. The Beano does not condone bad behaviour and often shows Dennis’ punishments for picking on other boys. On occasion, Walter gets the last laugh when Dennis’ plans backfire.
Contrasting with Dennis’ deliberately awful behaviour, Roger “the Dodger” Dawson does not intend to cause trouble. Instead, Roger goes out of his way to avoid responsibilities, punishments and rules. By dodging all the things he does not want to do, Roger often creates much more work for himself.
Roger the Dodger, first drawn by Ken Reid (1919-87), appeared in 1953 and has featured in most of The Beano issues ever since. Over time, his appearance has altered to suit contemporary styles, but Roger remains recognisable from his red-and-black chequered jumper. Roger remains the second-longest-running character in The Beano, behind Dennis the Menace.
Following Roger the Dodger’s success, The Beano introduced a character to appeal to female readers. Minnie the Minx burst onto the scene in December 1953 with illustrations by Leo Baxendale (1930-2007). Minnie showed girls that they could stand up for themselves and take no notice of silly boys. With her flaming red hair and red and black jersey, Minnie is the perfect rival for Dennis the Menace and even stole his much-loved slingshot.
Minnie is a typical tomboy who hates being told what to do. In her first appearance, The Beano described Minnie as “wild as wild can be”, and she has lived up to this ever since. Her mother’s attempt to get Minnie to explore her creative side quickly backfired when Minnie misunderstood the purpose of a “scrapbook”. Minnie certainly got into a lot of scraps, beating her classmates up with the book instead of using it for its intended purpose.
As well as Minnie the Minx, Leo Baxendale created The Bash Street Kids, who first appeared in Issue 604 in February 1954. The nine children attend Class 2B of Beanotown’s local school, although they would rather be doing anything but classwork. Baxendale wanted to create “a surreal school, unlike any school that existed in real life” and achieved this by including dangerous antics that no child would ever pull off in reality.
When Baxendale left The Beano in 1962, David Sutherland (b.1933) took over, incorporating Baxendale’s style into contemporary settings throughout his long career. Each Bash Street Kid has a name and unique characteristics, such as the leader of the gang, Daniel “Danny” Deathshead Morgan, who always wears a skull and crossbones jumper and a floppy red school cap. When the comic strip characters overlap, Danny emphasises his dislike of Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx.
The least mischievous of The Bash Street Kids is ‘Erbert, full name Herbert Henry Hoover. Resembling a human mole, ‘Erbert wears thick-rimmed glasses and is often teased by the other students. Any mischief involving ‘Erbert is usually accidental and caused by his inability to see. Freddy is also teased for his appearance and his love of eating. The obese character went by the name Fatty until May 2021, when it changed to Freddy to stop children from using the name as an insult for overweight classmates.
The nicest member of The Bash Street Kids is a tall, gangly boy with protruding ears, two buck teeth and a wide nose called Percival Proudfoot Plugsley. Known as Plug, the boy is sympathetic towards the others when they are unfairly treated. Despite his exaggerated facial features, Plug thinks he is the most handsome boy in Beanotown. Similarly, James Jasper Cameron, nicknamed Spotty, is proud of the 976 black spots covering his face and is not embarrassed by his appearance.
Kate “Toots” Pye is the only female member of the original gang. She and her twin brother, Sydney, both wear blue and black striped jumpers and have dark hair. Unlike the others, Toots is nice to Minnie the Minx and has a crush on Dennis. In 2021, two other girls were introduced to the class, Harsha Chandra and Mandira “Mandi” Sharma. The latter often advocates for mental health charities, but Harsha is more of a prankster.
The quietest and smallest member of the gang is Wilfrid John Wimble, who resembles a tortoise in his high-necked green jumper. Wilfrid suffers from social anxiety and often hangs around with those who can speak on his behalf, such as ‘Erbert and Spotty. The last of the original members is Aristotle John Smiffy, who is usually known by his surname. Whilst Smiffy is sometimes kind and intuitive, he is not very bright. He often cannot remember what the colour of the sky is and, instead of answering “Present, Sir” during roll call, he says, “Gift, Miss.”
The Bash Street School is located in Beanotown, a settlement located on the side of Mount Beano. Everyone in The Beano lives in Beanotown, next to Nuttytown and just along from Cactusville. The town is “ten minutes away from every town… on a very fast skateboard!” Maps of Beanotown over the years have not been consistent, with houses moving locations and shapes to suit the storylines.
The buildings in Beanotown tend to have similar physical characteristics to their inhabitants. Dennis, for instance, either lives in a red and black striped house or a thatched building that resembles his hair, depending on what map is used. Regardless of the shape, size and number of houses on the map, there is always a castle at one end of the town.
Lord Marmaduke Bunkerton, more commonly known as Lord Snooty, is the young inhabitant of Bunkerton Castle. The Eton-educated schoolboy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins (1907-69), appeared in the first issue of The Beano in 1938. Lord Snooty had a regular slot in the comic until 1991, after which he appeared more sporadically. Despite his upbringing, Snooty is jealous of the freedom of working-class children, whereas they envy his enormous castle.
Lord Snooty often snuck out of the castle to play with the local children. His suit, waistcoat and bow tie made him stand out from the crowd, and Snooty regularly became the butt of jokes. Occasionally, Snooty invited his friends to his castle. Whilst he felt at home, his friends quickly decided the life of a Lord was not for them.
Unlike the other main characters in The Beano, Lord Snooty does not have parents. Instead, he is looked after by his guardian, Aunt Matilda, and relies on servants to keep the castle tidy. The other children are expected to complete household chores, which frequently results in a battle between parent and child. Characters, such as Roger the Dodger, attempt to “dodge” these chores or make them easier and quicker to achieve. Unfortunately, these schemes usually backfire, either at the child or adult’s expense.
One regular comic strip focuses on keeping the head clean and functioning, rather than the house. Known as The Numbskulls, they first appeared in The Beezer and The Dandy magazines before joining The Beano in 1993. The strip takes place inside Edd’s head, which is controlled by several small creatures called Numbskulls.
Five Numbskulls live in Edd’s head (and allegedly everyone’s heads) that control the brain and four of the basic human senses. Brainy is the leader of the Numbskulls, and as his name suggests, works in the Brain Department. Blinky works in the Eye Department, Radar controls the ears and hearing, Snitch works in the nose, and Cruncher controls the mouth and tongue. The Numbskulls have to work quickly to react to Edd’s movements and surroundings, but frequent misunderstandings result in some hilarious consequences.
Although The Numbskulls suggest people are not completely in control of their thoughts and actions, The Beano encourages readers to embrace their differences and discover their true identity and self. In recent years, The Beano introduced characters with special abilities or disabilities to emphasise it is okay not to be perfect at everything but to focus on specific skills and interests.
One of the most recent characters to join The Beano is Rubidium “Rubi” von Screwtop, who relies on a wheelchair. Her disability is never discussed or focused on in the comic strips, instead, the other children are in awe of her intelligence and technical genius. Her father, Professor von Screwtop, runs Beanotown’s Top Secret Research Centre, and Rubi follows in his footsteps by researching on her tablet.
Some characters have particular interests, such as Ball Boy, who plays football for Beanotown United Juniors at Cold Trafford. Similarly, Billy Whizz loves to run and is allegedly faster than Usain Bolt. He claims he is too fast to enter the Olympics, and the soles of his trainers are made from Formula 1 tyres. Yet, having an interest does not require anyone to be an expert. Take, for instance, Les Presley Pretend, who likes to dress up and pretend to be whatever or whoever he wants. In one strip, Les may dress up as a martian, and in the next, he is a bumblebee. He has even dressed up as his mother. Whilst this is amusing, Les is showing readers they can become whoever or whatever they want.
The exhibition, Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, looks at The Beano through the eyes of an artist. As well as introducing all the characters, there are examples of original drawings and strips that reveal how each character developed. The exhibition is also about breaking the rules, which many characters do regularly. Even the artists and illustrators break the rules, occasionally engaging with the storylines and talking to characters through speech bubbles.
The curator has collaborated with many artists to create a modern art exhibition alongside displays of The Beano drawings and paraphernalia. Some are old works that were inspired by The Beano and others were commissioned for the exhibition. All artworks are by artists who “break the rules” to create their contemporary pieces, including Phyllida Barlow, Martin Creed, Ryan Gander and Philippe Parreno.
Ironically, an art exhibition is something none of The Beano children would find interesting, except perhaps for Lord Snooty. With that in mind, Andy Holden curated the exhibition to cater for the mischievous characters. Comic strips around the exhibition show the characters enjoying their visit to Somerset House, and anything they find slightly “boring” is labelled “Warning!!! Things your parents might like”.
Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is suitable for The Beano fans as well as people who are unfamiliar with the comic. Those who know and love the characters will enjoy a trip down memory lane, and other people will experience the joy of discovering the mischievous characters and stories. Ultimately, this exhibition will prove there is no age limit on the art of breaking the rules.
Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is open at Somerset House, London, until 6th March 2022. Tickets cost £16 (£12.50 concessions).