“Well done! You've saved the day! Let me reward you with these tickets to the circus and a slap-up feed at the Hotel De Posh!”
The Hotel De Posh's signature dish: a mountain of mashed potato with sausages sticking out horizontally all round it, and a bottle of fizzy lemonade (or, more likely, Irn Brue). Desperate Dan's favourite, his Aunt Aggie's speciality, is far too famous for it to be worth my mentioning it here.
Lord Snooty and his pals. Roger the Dodger, Minnie The Minx, Dennis the Menace. Little Plum and the Three Bears. And Pansy Potter, who let slip her Dundee origins because her title didn't rhyme unless pronounced with a Scots accent. She was the Strong Man's Dotter.
A subtle Scottish cadence ran through all the speech bubbles. People were asked to fetch messages, for instance, while we ran errands in the Black Country. And all those Dads in the last frame, with their slippers! They're all tall, lanky, square-headed Scots.
When I was a child, our house had lots of books – shelved floor to ceiling in most rooms, piled on the stairs and window-sills – but we were never bought comics. (In theory, we had weekly pocket money to buy our own, but in fact this pocket money arrived in our pockets only once or twice a year). My parents had nothing against comics, they just didn't think them worth spending their scarce income on, when they could buy us a second-hand book from Dudley market for very little more.
Next door lived a brother and sister who were obviously filthy rich, because they had several comics each week. On Friday evenings it was my regular chore to carry next door a bloody joint of meat wrapped in newspapers (the Sunday joint, delivered by a mobile butcher, and taken in by my mother for her neighbour.) Every month or so my reward was to have my arms piled with a great stack of comics and magazines, and I'd hardly be able to say, 'thank you,' for grinning. Home I'd scuttle, clutching the pile, bursting in through the back door with a cry of, “Comics!”
“Bags me the Beano,” my Dad would say.
The Bunty, The Judy, June, Jackie and, later, The Romeo and The Valentine. Even, occasionally, The Red Letter, which my mother remembered from her own young days. Looking at the cover she said, with satisfaction, “They've still got the nasty neighbour peering round the curtains – she was always there, every week.”
But the girls' comics were quickly skimmed through and thrown aside, with their tales of butch (female) car mechanics made-over to win beauty contests, and champion hockey teams kidnapped and forced to play for aliens. They were appetisers, something to read while other people had the comics you really wanted.
Those were the boy's comics: The Beano, The Dandy, The Topper. The Valiant, the Buster, The Hotspur, The Victor. After we'd finished with them, my Dad took them to work, and his workmates read them during their tea break, their feet up on the stove, laughing at The Bash Street Kids. It takes a real man, I think, to admit that he finds the Beano a good read.
My Dad (born in 1928) often told us that he'd bought the very first copy of The Beano, complete with its give-away 'flash-bang'. He wished he'd had the sense to put it away carefully and keep it mint. Instead, it was probably used to light a fire. (And research suggests it was actually The Dandy he bought. Wishful remembering: The Beano was always our favourite, The Dandy a poor second).
My Dad, my brothers, my sister and I, all drew. The house was littered with opened out envelopes and other scrap paper covered with drawings, and we pored over the comics' illustrations as well as the stories. (We could never understand why friends didn't seem to notice, or care, when a favourite strip was drawn by a different artist). The comic art was often of a high order. The drawings of 'The Steel Claw' (in The Valiant) were favourites: a sort of comic-strip 'film-noir'. But the Bash Street Kids, careering along in a massed group, all feet off the ground at once, were a joy, full of liveliness and movement.
The artist who drew the thick, woodcut-like drawings for 'Faceache' and 'Jonah' was a master. His strips were not only grotesquely beautiful, but laugh-out-loud funny. I remember one in particular, where Faceache had resolved 'to be good'. This turning over of a new leaf was often how a story of Minnie the Minx, or Dennis the Menace, or Roger the Dodger began.
Anyway, Faceache swore, that for that day at least, he wouldn't twist his face into terrifying gurns, causing unrest and panic among the populace. Instead, he was going to be good and help the baker. Queue a series of wonderfully managed panels where Faceache burning his hand coincides with an innocent delivery man looking through the window just as pain convulses Faceache's already unlovely features into a particuarly inventive and novel shape. Panic and unrest ensues. It was almost filmic. I remember my Dad took that particular strip to read in the bathroom. He said it nearly gave him a rupture.
My brother, sister and I used to discuss the comics like a sort of junior book-club. We laughed at Captain Hurricane, his 'raging furies' and exclamations of 'Suffering Sausage Munchers' and 'Cowardly Cabbage Crunchers!' (My mother told us that, as a child during the Second World War, she'd seriously believed that Germans only ever said, 'Achtung, Pig-Dog!' Well, apart from 'Heil Hitler!' obviously.)
We discussed whether it was sensible of Fish Boy (who had been abandoned in the wild and raised by fishes), to take an injured fish from the water and lay it on a rock to 'bathe its wounds'. And which was better – Galaxo, the giant robot ape, or the boy who controlled an army of little robot men by means of an armband (the name of this strip escapes me). We were cutting our critical teeth.
At the same time I was reading the Norse Myths, Hans Anderson, Kipling – but that was 'literature'. I could enjoy it, but hands off.
Comics were on our level. Often well-drawn, often funny, often inventive, but emphatically not literature. We could kick them around, say and think what we liked about them, have our own opinion. We learned discernment, by and for ourselves. Once learned – and not least of the lessons was that it was enjoyable – we could carry it with us into other fields.
I once read an article in which a critic declared that it was impossible to appreciate Tolstoy and Mickey Mouse equally. In order to be refined enough to appreciate Tolstoy, I gather, you had to leave Mickey far behind.
Rubbish. You can enjoy and appreciate Mickey – and Dennis, and The Bash Street Kids – and Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam and Daffy Duck - for what they are, and for the skill, verve and wit that they have. And then you can shift gears - though whether you are shifting up or down is a matter of opinion - and appreciate Tolstoy, on his level, as someone who had entirely different aims. The ability to move from one to the other demonstrates a flexible mind – which is probably necessary for creativity.
George Orwell got a lot out of smutty postcards.
It takes a real critic to appreciate both Mickey and Natasha.