The lunchtime choice, at last weekend’s inaugural Comics Salopia weekender held across the width and breadth of Shrewsbury, was a toss up between Kieron Gillen interviewing Image Comics’s publisher Eric Stephenson, or attending The Beano panel fronted by Nigel Parkinson, Lew Stringer, Laura Howell, Hunt Emerson and its editor, John Anderson. I had to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed their 80th anniversary panel held at last year’s London Film and Comic Con, so with that in mind, I decided for the latter. And, I’m glad I did, as it was as joyous and fun a panel as previously witnessed with Parkinson – a great ambassador for the comic – holding court across the hour and to a room full of parents and their kids. Kids avidly holding on for dear life to copies of The Beano to get signed afterwards. Although, it wasn’t the kids asking the questions when it came to it, I can tell you. But, what I wasn’t expecting was some of the frank and honest answers given by the panel when questioned on diversity in this popular weekly comic that many a child in the UK reads at some point in their pre-pubescent lives.
With the sun shining outside and the vibe of the festival fizzing through the various historical building such as the castle and old prison, the streets and the shopping malls of Shrewsbury (where you could find the likes of Sean Phillips, Yanick Paquette and Laurence Campbell), the party atmosphere spilled out and into this kid-friendly panel.
Of course there was always going to be a comparison with the past, especially on a comic that’s as old as Superman, but with far more issues under its belt, and, as with other comic book publishers, when once The Beano’s creators worked all under on roof in Dundee, Scotland, their freelancers lived all over the UK, and even overseas.
In reminiscing about the past, this group of modern creators – ranging in experience working of The Beano from anything between 10 to 30+ years – remembered classic artists such as David Sutherland, who worked on the much-loved Bash Street Kids (created by Leo Baxendale) for over 60 years. Quite a feat for any working artist in comics of any era. And, he would still hand in his pages personally, even when modern technology allowed you to be more economical.
What was interesting to learn is how many of the panel have had no formal training in the arts; in fact, I seem to recall all of the creators had had none whatsoever. Quite remarkable given their collective talents. The irony, possibly, is that Anderson, the editor, actually trained a an animator and was the only member of the panel not drawing comics himself.
When asked about digital comics, a quick survey of hands in the room, informing the panel of how may people read online, only myself and one other put our hands up. And I only read digitally for review purposes. ‘Nuff said on that one.
Sister publication, The Dandy, while still existing as a hardback annual (it went the way of the dodo back in 2012), seems to have had it’s day in print with no-one around the table seeing it ever coming back.
As to the ‘house style’ in The Beano – very much in the style of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, the quintessential artists of the comic – all agreed that it was changing, albeit it subtly and incrementally.
However, when quizzed on the lack of diversity in the comic, there was an acceptance that they could do better and the argument put across by Anderson that the page count dictated the content, wasn’t a strong one I felt. But, I suppose, when you have such a huge catalogue of favourite characters that mostly happen to be white boys of a certain pre-teen age, its hard to replace them with newer characters that readers will love. But, they are trying. Maybe just not quick enough. It wasn’t unnoticed that on a panel consisting of 5 creators, only one was female.
But, there was good news as The Beano has worked with Young Minds in the past, a young people’s mental health charity, which is to be commended. Although, Anderson did frankly admit this project wasn’t done through the comic but then PR company set up in London, a far cry from their offices in Dundee.
The Beano is out weekly in the UK from DC Thomson.