By Steve Morris

Cor, crikey and blimey, The Beano’s got a bit sophisticated since I last read it, readers! Issue #4139 of the very-long running weekly children’s comic was my first issue of The Beano for seven years, and you wouldn’t believe it: but things have changed during that time. 

In a really interesting slight twist to the formula I knew before – where each issue was filled with different comics about various rule-breaking kids and the adults who try to keep them in their place – The Beano has found a way to connect every story to every other story. Nowadays, I say as a 30-something ancient, everybody in The Beano lives in “Beanotown”, which means their stories interconnect with one another and any character can appear in any story. This week, for example, the Queen’s Jubilee apparently led to an outbreak of dinosaurs in Beanotown. It’s the focus not just of Minnie the Minx and Dennis the Menace (the two most famous Beano strips) but of a few other stories through the issue, a surprising through-line which brings a sense of continuity into the issue as a whole.

Minnie’s story also features other Beano characters in it like The Bash Street Kids, who show up in the background and help her crack jokes. Jokes like: brilliantly, the local policeman has put two police hats onto a Triceratops – a Triceracop? – and is trying to enforce the law as a bunch of kids ride giant dinosaurs down the road. It’s as silly and anti-authority as ever, but with the new idea that any character could show up anywhere, which adds to the unpredictability.

As some of the classic strips like Ivy the Terrible appear to have stopped – and some new strips have taken their place, which I’ll get to later – it’s a neat way to make sure that characters aren’t lost forever. They’re still residents of Beanotown even if they don’t always appear. 

The biggest change, though, is that The Bash Street Kids have picked up three new classmates this week, in one of the biggest lineup changes the strip has ever seen. In addition to the classic roster of characters, the class now features Mahira, Stevie and Khadija on their roster, in what must surely be a scathing indictment of the Government’s inability to control escalating class sizes. They each get a quick panel which establishes their particular quirk, before getting a short three-panel strip later on in the issue to establish them a little bit further. Stevie is a Black boy who is obsessed with being an influencer, Khadija is a Muslim girl and keen artist, whilst Mahira is a football-mad Pakistani girl. 

It’s obviously intended to diversify the line-up of the students, who were all white until a story in 2021 introduced new characters Harsha and Mandi to the classroom. With this week’s three new students that makes five children of colour in The Bash Street Kids, all of whom have helped cause additional mayhem. And their introduction has clearly has had a real benefit for the readership. 

The first and last page of The Beano now publishes showcase features where readers can send in a photo of themselves and get drawn into a story of their own. So on page 1 we see a young reader called Zain drawn into a story with existing character Billy The Whizz, whilst the final page sees a Beano fan called Soleil have a face-off with a supervillain. Both stories remain very much in the classic style of The Beano, where the entire strip leads up to a final pun of some kind, but showcases that the readership isn’t just composed of white kids. The themes and ideas of The Beano are universal, and now the on-page content seems to be really attempting to reflect that in who it features.

Elsewhere in the issue were new stories to me like “Dangerous Dan”, a teenage wannabe-spy; “Har Har’s Joke Shop”, about an Indian family (including Harsha from the Bash Street Kids) who run a joke shop together; “Rubi’s Screwtop Science”, about a girl who uses a wheelchair and is a top inventor; and “Betty and the Yeti”. That last one is particularly interesting, in that the comic was first created back in the early nineties, at which point Betty was a white girl. After a year of existence the strip was cancelled, only to be eventually brought back seven years ago with a redesigned Betty, who is now a brown girl. The stories haven’t changed in style, but it’s a slight change to offer more inclusivity into an extremely established part of British culture. 

This also follows changes to some of the other familiar characters to downplay any bullying that their names might have encouraged in the real world. Within the Bash Street Kids, “Fatty” has become Freddy and “Spotty” has become Scotty, so although they still look exactly the same – and you can guess what that means for both – they’re not subtly demeaned for it anymore. They get to be the same characters without anybody making fun of them. Throughout this random issue I picked up on a lark, you can see The Beano modifying the older-fashion aspects of its format and introducing new characters and concepts which fit the actual readership they have, rather than the readership they’re expected to have. And it doesn’t come at a loss to tradition.

The Bash Street Kids strip here, which introduces those three new students, is drawn by one of the iconic Bash Street Kids artists, David Sutherland, who first started drawing the series in 1962. Since then he’s pencilled more than 3000 Bash Street Kids stories, and is still going… even as he prepares to celebrate his ninetieth birthday next year. Sutherland is living comic book history, and has been present for decades of change, growth and development for The Beano as a whole. That he was the artist to draw the three new students (as he was last year, when he drew the first Bash Street appearances for Harsha and Mandi) shows how cleverly the publishers have managed to marry tradition to development. 

Living in Britain, you tend to watch as the anarchists eventually settle down comfortably into the establishment, usually becoming a TERF in the process. But it’s really neat to see that anarchy in the UK still exists within The Beano eighty years later, teaching generation after generation how to concoct wheezes, schemes and pranks to undermine authority. And with the creation of the Beanotown concept, the comic can now keep its deep-rooted sense of idiosyncratic tradition even as it grows, develops, and changes over time to bring in new residents; new adventures; new mayhem… and the same very very old puns.

Also: this issue taught me how to make dinosaur fossils using plain flour, salt, and coffee granules: roar-some!!

 

The Beano #4139
Published by DC Thomson

 

Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.

 

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