ONE of my childhood’s most cherished heroes has exited stage left from newsagent shelves. After 75 years, The Dandy, an instantly recognisable comic for decades, has migrated online due to falling sales. The world’s third oldest comic, and home to familiar characters like Korky the Cat, Keyhole Kate, The Numbskulls and Bananaman, the famous weekly loved by generations has become a victim of changing times. Its circulation has plummeted from a high of 2m copies in the 1950s to a paltry 8,000 today. The comic’s Dundee-based publisher, DC Thompson, has brought out a digital edition in a last-ditch effort to appeal to 2013’s tech-savvy generation.
“Desperate Dan has certainly not eaten his last cow pie,” said The Dandy’s print editor, Craig Graham. “All of The Dandy’s characters will get a new lease of life in the online format.” That’s as may be, but it’s still an emotional wrench that the familiar paper-and-ink version will be no more.
In my primary school days, I’d be first in line outside Eager’s Newsagents, on High Street, in Killarney, anxiously waiting for the latest weekly exploits of those wild and wacky animated characters — and all for the princely sum of six pence.
The demise of this comic institution gave Paul McCartney the chance to fulfil a lifelong wish: his animated features were preserved for posterity in the final print edition, in which he had his fingers badly squeezed in a firm handshake by Desperate Dan. In an interview with the New Musical Express, in 1963, the then Beatle said one of his greatest ambitions was to appear in The Dandy. Hearing the news about the print edition’s upcoming demise last August, Macca immediately wrote to the editor, saying “I hope it’s not too late.”
As sales dwindled in recent years, The Dandy tried to stem the tide by featuring a host of celebrity-based comic strips, including Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson — all to no avail.
Over the decades, The Dandy has survived more than its share of world events — including World War II, when paper shortages forced it to alternate weeks with sister title, The Beano. During the darkness of the blitz in 1941, Desperate Dan did his bit for ‘king and country’ by bringing down Nazi planes with a peashooter, and planted a punch on Hitler’s nose that landed him all the way back to Berlin.
The same Dan kept his name in lights as recently as 1997, when he did a Sinatra and announced his retirement in an edition in which he was shown sailing off into the sunset with the Spice Girls for company. It turned out to be a cute ploy to celebrate the comic’s 60th anniversary. During the BSE outbreak in 2001, Dan really did get desperate when he was forced to give up his beloved cow pies.
But while us fans must now find The Dandy’s comic kicks in cyberspace, at least we can rest-assured its slightly younger sister, The Beano, featuring Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids, will remain in print format.
For those of us who predate the IT age of the X-Box and the iPad, the joys of our comic era remain indelibly hardwired to schoolyard fun centred around favourite reads.
While the girls had Bunty, Mandy, Jinty and Judy, us lads had Wizard, Buster, Eagle, Valiant and The Hotspur. In a non-PC world, where male chauvinism ran happily rampant, the annuals became required reading for all under-12s, not just for the glory of their colourful graphics and dramatic storylines, but the mental tests. In those days, before the all-pervasive addiction of TV’s instant, multi-angle playback, sporting weeklies like Roy Of The Rovers and Shoot! gloried in their ‘you are the ref’ section — a brain-buckler in which our decisions might influence the cup final outcome between 10th division no-hopers, Losers United, and the pride of the Premiership, Snottyshirts FC. Long before we were old enough to know, or care, what punditry meant, many a schoolyard Giles or Dunphy emerged from that rich seam of enlightenment.
While the circulation figures of The Dandy and The Beano were 2m copies apiece at their height, the actual readership was probably much greater, given how many greedy pairs of hands a single copy might pass through as the most sacred of junior legal tender.
Being the first to pull the most recent copy of The Dandy or The Beano from your schoolbag meant instant street cred and a posse of eager mates in thrall to what The Bash Street Kids were up to that week.
While a pristine copy of The Beano made €15,000 at auction recently, the scarcity of early editions in good condition is eloquent testament to how few survived the damaging fingerprints of those multiple readers.
Leo Baxendale, longtime illustrator with DC Thompson and creator of Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids, vividly recalled the life-changing moment he saw The Beano for the first time in July, 1938, aged seven. “I was standing in the playground of St Mary’s Elementary school, at Chorley in Lancashire, on a brilliant summer’s day. An older boy rushed up to me and shoved a comic into my hands saying, ‘Look at this.’ I was completely drawn into the colour, the story, the mad grins across all the characters’ faces,” he said. “There was something in the zest of them I could completely associate with — that need to get the better of the schoolmaster.” In my own playground, down in County Kerry, I seconded that emotion.