They're as British as Marmite, cricket and fish ‘n' chips. They've seen off the Second World War, more than a few recessions and the dawn of computer games and DVDs.
For more than 70 years children have snickered and chortled at the antics of Dennis and Gnasher, The Bash Street Kids, The Broons and Desperate Dan.
And all next week the Belfast Telegraph will giving away issues of the iconic Beano and Dandy every day for all our readers.
The six copies will be identical to the issues that were on sale on November 22 and 29 and December 6, 1975.
During these glory years, Morris Heggie worked for the Beano. He also edited its sister comic, the Dandy, for 20 years. This week, he spoke exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph about his career and the stories behind the comic strips.
“The Dandy started in 1937 and the Beano in 1939,” says Morris. “I joined the company that publishes both comics, DC Thomson, in 1969 and had initially applied to become a journalist. I had gone to work there straight after I'd finished school. They took one good look at me and said that I'd probably be better off in comics...
“I started my career in the Beano. All of the story lines were written by a six-strong staff of young guys. It was a great environment and great fun to work in.”
Morris explains that the characters and story-lines weren't exactly a new phenomenon to the people who had just begun working at the Beano: “It was easy to settle into work for the artists and writers as we all knew the comics. We had all grown up with the Beano and the Dandy and read them on a regular basis before working at DC Thomson, so we had a fair idea of what we needed to do.
“The work that we did back then was very topical. The comics would be heavily influenced by current affairs and the happenings of the day. We kept it fresh and up to date and I think that's what has kept both comics going, from back in the 70s right up to the present day. I have a laugh when our characters get compared to famous politicians, like when The Broons get compared to Gordon and Sarah Brown and Lord Snooty to David Cameron.”
Morris continues to talk of the popularity of the comics in Northern Ireland throughout the decades and the effects that the emergence of computer games had on sales in the 1980s. “In 1975, the Beano had a weekly circulation of around 400,000 – 500,000. But we actually sold 25,000 per week in Northern Ireland alone.
“We had a very big following in Ireland as a whole. In fact, the majority of the letters and jokes we pulled out of our post bag in 1975 — as back then everything was done by 'snail mail' — were from Northern Ireland.”
He adds: “At its peak in 1950, the Beano had a circulation of two million copies. But that depleted over time. All there really was for kids in the 50s was the Beano, the Dandy and listening to children's hour on the radio. Kids spent a lot more time playing outside than they do now. I think the real graveyard period came in the 1980s, when computer games became popular. This is when things started to change. So the comics had to change as well.
“The Beano is still sold on a weekly basis and the Dandy is now available fortnightly. Kids these days are also interested in celebrity culture, though. They want to read |articles about their heroes as well as the comic strips and the Dandy has had to adapt in order to address this.”
The Beano has made various adjustments in recent years to keep up with the times. Its two most famous characters, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, have their own television slot on Children's BBC and the comic has also moved into the realms of the internet. It is easy to grasp from Morris's voice the passion that he has for his work and the pride that he takes in it. He speaks of the characters as if they were long-lost friends, referring to them by their first names. Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan are simply Dennis and Dan.
“We have had a few guest appearances in both comics over the years,” adds Morris. “In one issue, a storyline ran that Dan had come into a lot of money and had disappeared. We had an appeal for a celebrity to take his place on the front cover of the Dandy. Suddenly, we found ourselves overwhelmed with calls and letters from all over the country from PR companies and agents who wanted their clients to appear in the special one-off issue. Eventually, we received a phone call from news presenter Trevor McDonald's wife who suggested that we had Trevor breaking the news that Desperate Dan had gone missing and we went with that in the end.
“It was easy to draw Trevor because the quality of artists working on both of the comics has always been high. We've never had a problem finding artists. They always seem to come to us. If you look at the likes of people such as David Sutherland who has completed over 2,000 episodes of the Bash Street Kids, he has the fabulous ability to never get it wrong and you could really depend on him to do a good job of re-creating Trevor on paper.”
During Morris's time as editor of the Dandy, many characters came and went, but he explains how the publication retained its uniquely British comic book style: “I was editor of the Dandy from 1986-2006 and during that time characters got old and needed to be replaced. Both the Dandy and the Beano are different from the continental styles of comic in that our strips are more fun and robust. French and Belgian comics are more drawn out and have longer story-lines. In America comics are mostly based around some kind of super hero.
“The closest we've ever had to a super hero was the ‘Amazing Mr X' — a very British hero — who wore a woollen suit and and when he needed to get changed into his outfit in an emergency he searched for the nearest changing room. His arch nemeses weren't glamorous either. He would chase people who stole lead from roofs and other small time crooks.”
As with many other comics, the Beano and the Dandy have become very valuable collectors’ items. Morris tells of a a period in history where millions of comics were destroyed: “The problem with getting hold of old copies of the comics is that over time, as is the way with newspapers, the colouring in the ink will eat its way through he paper and destroy it. Copies from the 50s are notoriously hard to track down because during the Second World War most paper was destroyed and re-cycled. It was even advertised in the pages of each comic to re-cycle it after reading in order to help with the war effort. They were quite slim and simply weren't made to last. Because of a combination of both these factors, very few copies still exist.
He adds: “Some copies can fetch thousands of pounds, with issue number one running into the tens of thousands. There was a decline in weekly comic sales in the last few decades, but for our Beano and Dandy Annual sales it has actually been the opposite.
We started off with a bumper 96-page comic in which we used a collection of pre-printed strips that had appeared in issues throughout the year.
They weren't very popular at the start, but in the 70s and 80s they really started to take off. We then started to create strips exclusively for the annuals and the artists used this as a great opportunity to display their best work. If an artist had an idea they really liked during the year they would set it aside for the annual.”
Morris now works in the archives of DC Thomson. He says he still enjoys the work involved with the comics and the fond memories that his career has given him.
“I look after the archives now for the Dandy and the Beano. I do a lot of development work and reproduce some of the artworks.
“When someone rings me about a comic and wants to know a particular detail, we always end up chatting about the comics as we'll both have a great fondness for them. I enjoy sense of nostalgia that this work gives me.”