Not many would dispute the claim, made here, that the English children's comic is 'one of the great achievements of popular culture'.
From December 1937, when D.C. Thomson of Dundee launched the Dandy, this brand of entertainment became so addictive to its huge market that one of the commentators described it as the crack cocaine of its day. Within a year, the Dandy had been joined by the Beano, and then, after a little local difficulty called World War II, the larger-format Topper and Beezer. At the high point, each of them was selling up to two million a week.
To add to the mass of comic situations presented in the stories themselves, there were certain ironies about their publication. The house of D.C. Thomson was Scots-puritan in culture, about as far removed from the world of Desperate Dan or the Bash Street Kids as you could get. But it also displayed that other quality, rightly or wrongly attributed to the Scots, of being ever so slightly tight with a penny. The artists who had brought so much joy to the nation's young were viewed by their employers as the hired help, not entitled to any rights over their drawings, however often they were re-used. Indeed, only one of them was so highly-valued that he was allowed to sign his own work: Dudley D. Watkins, also, perhaps curiously, a religious puritan. Despite this, they remained passionately dedicated to turning out these endless cartoon-strips, two of them driving themselves into a breakdown.
In the limited time available, the commentators manage to pack-in quite a lot of sociological observation. The readers were assumed to be mostly from the slums, so for example, a slap-up meal represented an escapist dream. Yet the stories found favour a long way from the slums, as many public-schoolboys would testify. The top-hatted Lord Snooty was meant to be taken down a peg by the other characters, yet always made friends with them. And then, of course, the racist issue. 'Little Plum, Your Redskin Chum' may have sounded innocent enough to us, but his scriptwriters would be in bad trouble for that kind of humour today.
Depending how much help D.C. Thomson may have given the producers of this programme, I think they have presented these particular comics as rather more innovatory than they were. (Tiger Tim's Weekly, in similar style, dated from 1920.) And they even seem to be suggesting that they had devised the speech-balloon, which dates back at least as far as Regency days.
Still, it's good to touch hands with so many heartwarming memories from our childhood, even if the fun factory wasn't exactly a barrel of fun itself.
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