Some time ago, as a child, various fortnightly Marvel UK titles spun off popular cartoons of the day would pop through the letterbox; as would Whizzer and Chips. The powerhouse titles of The Beano and The Dandy oddly never did, although I was never that far from them. Every couple of months I’d stop off at the barbers on the way home from school for a short back and sides, and as I waited I’d leaf through copies of both The Beano and The Dandy as well as old Giles annuals. Come Christmas time it wasn’t unusual to find an annual or two as gifts.
Both titles still live today. Since the last time I took a gander at The Dandy it has ditched the charming but perhaps anachronistic newsprint in favour of magazine paper stock. It went fortnightly, straying into a more magazine style and going Xtreme for a time. The 2010 reboot, returning to its traditional weekly comic form, drew criticism for daring to be a gleeful collection of strips again as the audience slid. This brought Jamie Smart out firing on all cylinders to take on the internet’s snideness and later addressing further snideness to the initial address.
While this was all going on I would remind myself to take a peek on the shelves for a copy of The Dandy if I was in a newsagent or a mini-local-express version of a supermarket. Sometimes I’d see The Beano but I didn’t see The Dandy.
In a giant Tesco Extra just after Christmas I finally spotted The Dandy and I had to get a copy. Not just any ordinary issue, this was the bumper 44-page Christmas issue armed with seven—count ’em—free gifts.
The main event of the Christmas gifts was the Watch Out Santa! Christmas target game. This consisted of a mouse mat sized dart board sporting a dyspeptic Santa as the bullseye, and two plastic darts with super-sticky ectoplasmic bases. The sort of bases you’d want to keep away from jumpers and carpets and pets, otherwise they’d risk resembling the belly fluff of a forty-year-old Italian male.
The premise is simple: you make the rules up. There’s nothing in the toy bag or in the comic to tell you how to play, so I’m guessing either the highest throw wins or you win if you clock Santa one.
You also get a secret mini-notebook consisting of ten tiny plain paper pages—perfect for Rolf Rollers—along with an industrially sharp Pocket Rocket Pencil, both adorned with Jamie Smart art. There’s an Amazing Bouncing Snowball (a white superball), a Dandy Secret Society badge and a Mega Magnet featuring Rudolph reading the Lapland News during his morning movements.
The final gift was the Dandy Moby-tag. I don’t think I got it. Unless it’s meant to be little plastic fly in a clear, curved plastic case. You can sort of flick the case by applying a lot of finger pressure on one end. Can you tag someone by flicking a case in their direction, and is the fly called Moby? I find this an unanswered mystery.
Cover-mounted gifts have long been a part of the pitch for magazines across the spectrum and kids magazines and comics are no stranger to this practice. If I put myself back into the shoes of an eight year old me these gifts wouldn’t have drawn me to The Dandy unless I was already a committed fan, but I can see myself playing the darts game for a bit; wearing the badge or sticking it on a bag, and using all the other stuff. With the exception of Moby. I wish him all the best.
I’m pleased to find the essence of the comic hasn’t changed. It is cheeky, it is irreverent, it loves a bit of toilet humour and is packed with japes and scrapes. It still throws knowing glances to the reader and, importantly, it’s funny. Yeah, sure the eight year old me would perhaps giggle a little more but that’s because the today me has a darker sense of humour unsuited to these pages.
Appropriate for the season, the dreaded Brussels Sprout appears in several places—swapped with genuine Rent-a-Santa’s Grotto gifts care of the mischievous snowman Frosty; a weapon used against Nuke Noodle wielded by Saint Nicolas; the cause of festive trumps in the single panel strip The Best Thing About Christmas Is…; and the subject of the picture search game Out Of Sprouts where I was relieved to find all 28 sprouts. I still got it.
Comic Megastar Desperate Dan makes a brief one-page appearance delivering a Christmas dessert of ice cream in the desert where a series of crazy contrivances lead a red-nosed Dobbin and ice-cream wearing Dan jingling all the way above Cactusville. I was surprised the story was so brief, but it’s certainly forgivable considering Jamie Smart’s work is spread throughout the issue.
A word or two on Desperate Dan: he’s a burly, top-heavy strong man with a teeny hat and a prominent, stubbly chin. He is often spotted wearing a red long-sleeve shirt and a dark leather waistcoat. Today’s Desperate Dan looks the same, and drawn with as much glee and respect.
Also from Jamie is a reprinted Space Raoul adventure, a That’s Not My Hamster! game and a four-page My Own Genie mega-romp, which was the issue’s highlight. Lula inexplicably forgets it’s almost Christmas and panics she hasn’t perfected her presents list. With shops closed she has no choice but to wish her dog Clive to Lapland as an elf so he can reserve the best presents for her. This only works for so long before Clive is rumbled and Lula resolves to go one step further, stealing the whole sleigh while Santa is taking a comfort break! After a little wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey everyone gets the Christmas they really deserved. It’s a heck of a ride.
Wayne Thompson’s rather Kricfalusi-inspired Bananaman two-pager, crammed with urgency, was a delight; and Nigel Auchterlounie’s My Freaky Family gets a no-prize for being the darkest strip as each member of the family (even Kevin) succumbs to Mum’s non-trump knockout gas to make sure everyone gets a good night’s sleep undisturbed by overexcitement.
Harry Hill makes his final adventure in TV Land to open up the comic. Harry Hill, now an unavoidable face thanks largely to the success of TV Burp, lends himself superbly to cartoons with his quick-fire, pun-slinging sassiness. Jedward becomes skis, X-Factor has-beens get the sandpaper tissues and Harry himself tries his hands at delivering Christmas gifts with cows instead of reindeers.
It was a welcome surprise to see the work of Nigel Parkinson and Lew Stringer again, both familiar names from my childhood run reading British comics. As an aside, Lew wrote a companion piece of sorts to the aforementioned Jamie Smart blogs addressing the current state of good, honest comics in Britain; and also had a few words to say about the Christmas Dandy.
With so many new faces both on the page and behind the scenes, there’s a comfort in knowing there’s a continuity in service from the veteran cartoonists and a continuity of care and reverence from the publisher.
What we have with The Dandy and this bumper Christmas issue, is an energetic and impish title that still feels connected to its history. This feels like a great, British comic book full of whimsy that’s hard to find elsewhere. That it is a regular weekly publication, still kicking and screaming and determined to remain Britain’s longest-running comic, is a hell of a testament to the tenacity of D.C Thomson and the array of cartoonists. I would be pleased to hand this to any child and would be proud if any of my relations were reading a copy.
It’s difficult to talk about The Dandy without putting it in the context of its competition in today’s magazine stands. The Lew Stringer dressing down illustrates the landscape pretty well, but here’s what I see.
Independent newsagents have sadly become an anachronism. This is way more significant than it sounds. If you have what you consider to be a local newsagent it’s still likely to be a Premier or a Mace than a “Your Street Name News”. Slowly the Circle Ks and AllDays became Co-ops; then the supermarkets decided that bringing smaller, local versions of themselves into the burbs was what the people wanted.
Of course we fled to the recognisable names, leaving behind the seemingly out of touch corner shop selling the papers, Refresher bars and twee, flimsy greetings cards. As the independent newsagents gathered dust and started to close, consumers left one important part of their purchasing power with it: influence. Walk into a Co-op or Tesco Express and ask the manager whether they’d stock a particular publication and they’re going to tell you that’s all decided by at best a regional sales manager, and worst at head office. Walk into your corner shop and ask the shopkeep and you’re talking to head office. Ask them if they’ll get The Dandy in and chances are they’ll order a few and see how it goes; if you keep coming in to give them your custom then they’ll keep ordering.
In this market, consumers are less active influencers than they think because demand is only ever measured by how much a product has already sold and not by how many people are actually asking for it. I’m not pretending for a moment that The Dandy can simply earn more sales than it has due to this alone, but there is a grass-roots connection to this sort of title that is better supported to human interaction and not the modern, streamlined, corporate “supply and demand” model.
Last weekend I was doing a spot of grocery shopping in a nearby supermarket and I stopped by the magazine aisle. I stood there for a moment and looked at the youth titles. My heart sank a little.
There are perhaps two, maybe three titles there that resemble a comic. Everything else is a magazine format, almost all tied to a well-known product or TV show, and many of the covers are obscured with free gifts to the point where you could argue it’s actually a toy shop bribing a child to read. A comic book containing original, regular characters duking it out amongst this lot has to really punch above its weight, and if it doesn’t have the best free toy that week you have to worry about its fortunes.
I’d expect these other titles to do a great job of entertaining and educating with stories, games, facts and puzzles in a sort of cute and sanitised and almost patronising way that couldn’t possibly offend anybody. Children giggle about burps and farts, and see grown-ups as weird creatures, and they love a little bit of anarchy and irreverence. There should be room for titles to meet them square at their level and say “come on, while dad’s asleep let’s hide his slippers in the grow bag,” and comics, not mags, are the best format for that.
Parents shouldn’t tell their children they’re too old for imagination and invention, and kids shouldn’t feel pressured into being more boring, and Brits have to get over themselves thinking they’re too sophisticated for a wizard wheeze in a comic strip. The best hope The Dandy and its brethren have is that today’s parents with fond memories of reading comics as children can pass that enthusiasm on to their little ones, and that very humble, word-of-mouth progression through generations is enough to sustain these comics for years to come.