“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”
Nothing in his long comic-book life did Desperate Dan a favour like the announcement that he’s a goner. In print and paper terms, that is. Never again will he eat cow pie or move house, literally, by carrying a residence on his shoulder.
Best career move, ever, his ceasing to exist in print form. Back when the comic wherein he lived sold two million copies a week, all decent parents deplored Desperate Dan and the rest of the questionable characters he hung out with. They worried about the violence depicted. They fretted, did our parents, that we might pick up the terminology he and others used, like saying “Yah, boo sucks” when being cheeky to a teacher. They regarded comics as a kind of gateway drug; if they let us enjoy them, we would, when fully grown, love Blackpool-type postcards with lewd portrayals of farting fat women who stored their false teeth in a glass beside their bed.
Because they were so agin comics, our parents turned them into contraband. We slipped them to each other at the school gate with promises to return them next day, once we’d had our fix. We read them by torchlight under the bedclothes.
Yet the minute the demise of Desperate Dan and the rest of the bad boys was made public, those same characters morphed into a lost collective cultural artefact to be greatly mourned, and those who had grown up on comics moved from being juvenile delinquents in the making to early cultural adopters.
Not being allowed to read comics was one of the first protocols distinguishing families from each other, and one of the least effective strictures ever laid on children. Those of us whose parents wanted us to read books, preferably something by Dickens, and wouldn’t have “one of those rags” in the house had no idea that comics were as much part of their children’s mental maps and calendars as they were part of the purchasers’ minds.
Sunday was for good clothes and Mass. Tuesday was when Judy and Bunty hit the local newsagents. Wednesday was when those of us barred from purchase might get a sneaky look, if we’d sufficiently sucked up to those whose parents had no problem with their offspring blowing the pocket money on comics.
That sneaky look assuaged the anxiety about the previous week’s cliff-hanger. Comics, like early silent movies, always interrupted their stories at the point of maximum danger, and had a matching creativity in dreaming up causes of danger. One of the characters in Judy, for example, (probably named Polly, because all the girls had names ending in Y,) owned a pogo stick which turned her into a superhero, faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. An entire generation of Irish nine-year-olds got pogo sticks for Christmas that year, thereby quickly learning the difference between fantasy and reality. You could bounce up and down on a pogo stick until your fillings came loose and you’d still never build up a head of steam enough to jump a kerb, never mind a building.
You could, on the other hand, learn how to do invisible writing from your comic. This involved an egg-cup of lemon juice and was more problematic than it sounded, because, first of all, it was quite difficult to write a substantive message when you couldn’t read back what you’d just written, and secondly, I had nobody interested in receiving a secret message from me. I wanted to send someone an account of how tough my mother was (no comics, loads of home-work, and let’s not get into horrors like cabbage and porridge) but it would have required me to train them in making the writing become visible again, and since I never posted letters, how would I get it to them? I did a trial run with a harmless message and explained to my mother that she needed to warm up the page to read it.
“Would you not be bothering me?” she demanded, before giving a lecture about the dangers of exposed light bulbs meeting sheets of paper.
I abandoned secret writing and moved on to animation, nearly getting expelled because the lower corners of every single page in every single one of my copy books had tiny drawings of planes. If you turned the copybook sideways and flipped the pages very quickly, the plane would take off and disappear. Teachers, regrettably, couldn’t see the merit of this. If they’d just fostered my talent a little, I could be working for Pixar now.
As well as animation instructions, comics were full of British boarding school features, like midnight feasts and pillow fights. I once initiated a pillow fight with my sister, who didn’t bother telling me that the pillows in the comic books were made of feathers and therefore considerably lighter and more diffuse in their impact than the foam rubber pillows we had because of being asthmatics.
The first time she swung her pillow at me and connected, I thought she’d dislocated my neck. The fact that she obviously thought the same thing didn’t help. Her priority was to conceal the damage from our mother. I remember her begging me to cry more quietly and explaining that if I did have a dislocated neck, loud crying would make it worse. I was afraid not to believe her.
The only acceptable comics, as far as my parents were concerned, were the ones in the Sunday newspapers. When I was about eight, my mother went to America for a holiday, coming home with the comic sections of the New York Sunday Times, each as thick as the entirety of any Irish Sunday newspaper at the time. Seeing familiar comic characters like the Phantom in full colour was as shocking as when we moved from black and white TV to colour and learned that Lucille Ball’s ostensibly black hair was in fact traffic-stopping red. Not only were the comics in colour, but, even better, they were doing things they wouldn’t be doing in the Irish newspapers for several weeks.
I did some casual prediction in school about the future fate of endangered heroines awaiting rescue by the Phantom, and when my prophecies turned out to be correct, was regarded with new — if passing — respect by my classmates. (The respect was passing because I could never repeat the trick.)
The comics that brightened the week for many Irish children and teenagers for so long were, in the main, produced by DC Thomson, a Scottish publishing firm which was, back then, anti-Catholic, anti-trade union and so secretive, they made the Mafia seem like promiscuously chatty extroverts. The contradiction between the happy, clappy product and the source, a grim half-skyscraper in Dundee, could hardly have been more profound.
When sales dropped from two million to 8,000 a week, DC Thomson pulled the plug on Desperate Dan, promising a new life for him on the Internet.
I can’t see that working out for him, can you?