Dennis the Menace at 60
- 17 March 2011
- From the section Magazine
The Beano's Dennis the Menace is 60 years old. How did this definitive naughty boy of the comic world make it all the way to the 21st Century, asks Tom de Castella.
The "world's naughtiest boy" was born in 1951 on the back of a cigarette packet.
Within a short time he'd stolen a red and black jumper, revitalised the Beano and inspired a new wave of comic strip kids to shake up post-war, austerity Britain.
By 1988 his fan club boasted over a million members. Today he remains the Beano's most popular character and has his own international TV spin-off, albeit that the strip has been renamed Dennis and Gnasher, in recognition of the loyal canine sidekick who joined him in 1968.
So how did this young tearaway batter his way into children's affections?
It all began in Dundee, where the Beano's publisher DC Thomson & Co is still based. The idea emerged - the Beano's history reveals - when the comic's editor George Moonie heard a music hall song with the chorus "I'm Dennis the Menace from Venice" and ordered a character to fit the name.
According to Scotsman writer Stephen McGinty, the eureka moment arrived in a St Andrews pub while chief sub Ian Chisholm and artist Davey Law were brainstorming. Chisholm grabbed a cigarette packet, sketched a picture of "a knobbly-kneed boy with dark spiky hair" and a comic strip legend was born.
For contemporary Beano artist Lew Stringer, it was Law who turned a promising concept into a character to rank alongside predecessors like Desperate Dan in the Dandy, Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective Comics.
After a few false starts, with Dennis wearing a tie and blue jersey, Law gave him his distinctive red and black jumper, outsized shoes and devilish grin.
The stylised action and transgressive storylines kept the Beano in business and changed the face of British comics, Stringer believes. "Dennis the Menace was like a thunderbolt. The Beano was flagging by 1950 and no longer radical. But there was an energy to Dennis the Menace, it was modern and became one of the first naughty kids characters of the post-war period."
In his wake came the Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger. Many Beano characters, like Biffo the Bear - whom Dennis replaced on the cover in 1974 - have since fallen by the wayside. So why has Dennis endured?
Matthew Jarron, the curator of a Dundee University exhibition celebrating the Beano's 70th anniversary in 2008, says the strip has evolved without losing its essential nature.
"1951 was a totally different world. One of the great challenges has been to maintain that traditional look and character but make it relevant to the modern world."
Over the decades, what children are allowed to do has changed hugely, as have the punishments. The beatings - or slipperings - that concluded each week's story have had to stop in our gentler age but the editors have managed to keep the "blatant anti-establishment" tone, he says.
And while Dennis looked "quite evil" in the past, he's now been softened for television, to seem "fun" and younger looking, Jarron says. In the late 1980s, the Beano even changed Dennis's attitude to Walter the Softy to avoid accusations of homophobia.
Euan Kerr who edited the Beano between 1984 and 2006 revealed in a book about his time in charge that he turned Walter into a "confident, likeable character" and toned down Dennis's bullying of his swotty, flower picking nemesis . "We eventually gave Walter a girlfriend too as a measure to combat any further criticism," he revealed.
The children's author and campaigner Michael Rosen believes Dennis has endured by bucking the trend of much of children's literature.
"In most children's books a bad child gets made good. But the great thing about Dennis is he never gets better."
It's a celebration of the naughty boy, a movement that goes back to the late 19th Century German characters Max and Morris and the Just William books of the 1920s. Today the genre is alive and well in the form of the Horrid Henry series written by Francesca Simon.
"Like Dennis he's permanently bad, his younger brother is like [Walter the] Softy and his mum and dad can't cope," says Rosen. "The great thing about him is he's a complete egotist who must have the best and always fails."
Readership for comics is falling in the internet age. But Dennis inspires artists in unexpected places such as Nick Newman, creator of Private Eye's David Cameron spoof - Dave Snooty and Pals.
The cartoon is based on the Beano's Lord Snooty but Newman saw Dennis as a better fit for Boris Johnson.
"When most politicians get into trouble it ends their career, whereas Boris bounces back every week. Like Dennis the Menace it's relentless and there's no learning curve. It's sort of loveable as well as being laughable."
But in the age of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), anti-bullying strategies and health and safety fears, is Dennis still an appropriate character?
On the contrary, Rosen believes Dennis is a great inspiration to teenagers today. "There's a constant attempt from adults to put fences around children. Instead of seeing that we created who they are, we think about punishing them. So Dennis - who is a survivor - should be a great inspiration to us all."
And Jarron thinks that Dennis offers safe escapism at a time when parents are inclined to wrap their offspring in cotton wool.
"Parents are so fearful of letting their children roam around. So Dennis can provide that vicarious pleasure of going out and doing anything. And it's menacing of a pretty benign kind."