Fulfil your childhood dreams and step inside the mischievous world of Beano
As Somerset House celebrates 83 years of the iconic British comic, we gain insights from the artists involved in the exhibition as they tell us what childhood favourite Beano means to them and how they attempted to respond to the creative brief through various mediums for this epic, one-of-a-kind interactive show.
Inside all of us, there’s a little mischievous child. You know, the one who gives you the unexplainable urge to draw all over your bedroom walls before remembering you rent the property, or eat your flatmate’s cookies and lie about it (I am definitely not speaking from experience…). Whatever it is, it can be fun to break the rules sometimes, and that’s why the Beano resonated with us all so much as children, and still holds a place in our hearts as adults.
Beano is commonplace in British culture, and is as much a part of our national identity as queuing and saying “sorry” too much. A favourite of David Bowie and John Lennon, the publication does not only belong on the shelves of comic-book “nerds” and devious little rascals, but has found itself in popular culture since its inception, and firmly rooted itself there.
It’s July 1938, and somewhere in Dundee, Scotland, a child holds in his hands the very first Beano, newly equipped with all the tools to make (to the dismay of his parents) a bit of mischief. Beano began as a weekly comic, published by DC Thompson and created by R.D Low, and the comic is still created weekly in Dundee. In 1951, Davey Law’s iconic and notorious Dennis the Menace made his appearance – tagged as the “world’s naughtiest boy” – followed by his dog Gnasher in later years. In 1970, David Sutherland, the artist who was responsible for Biffo the Bear and The Bash Street Kids at the time, took over, and thereafter saw Dennis’ popularity grow to become the most famous character from the comic.
Curated by Andy Holden, a life-long fan of Beano, Somerset House’s newest exhibition takes us back to a simpler time overrun by the organic medium of comic books – remember those? Dennis the Menace and his trusty sidekick Gnasher were an emblem of our upbringings and Andy’s team have created an immersive Beano experience which has never been seen before. The mammoth exhibition opens with a selection of over 100 comic artworks, rare archive artefacts, and even new work from over 50 contemporary artists. To add to the fun, the exhibition is even complete with its own Beanotown. For the show, there’s a special edition Beano comic set in the exhibition itself, featuring many of the artists involved. And there are interactive elements like Plug’s mirror created by Simeon Barclay, a jukebox in the Beanotown Record store, and chances to make some art in Peter Liversidge’s sign making project.
“Beano has a history of breaking rules about gender, class, and identity. So there’s a lot that we can learn from that attitude.”Sam Jacob, graphic designer and 3D artist for the exhibition.
It’s been 70 years since the launch of Beano, and although the comic and its characters stay near and dear to our hearts, the rapid rise of technological advancements have had a historic and irreversible impact on the nature of art, publishing, and comic books. More of us are choosing to take to our screens rather than flick through pages due to the accessibility, longevity, instantaneousness, and economical nature of digital publishing and content. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still want some relic of paper-pasts to exist in our lives, if only for its nostalgic capacities.
On one hand, it’s Dennis’ 70th birthday, “so that’s something to celebrate,” says Sam Jacob, who turned two-dimensional cartoon graphics into three-dimensional structures for the exhibition. And on the other, “it’s a show about the very Beano idea of rule-breaking: how can culture – from Beano to contemporary art – challenge authority.” In essence, Sam points to the timely, political themes running throughout the exhibition which make the here and now a more appropriate time than ever for this large-scale art show. “Beano has a history of breaking rules about gender, class, and identity. So there’s a lot that we can learn from that attitude.” Sam also thinks that “maybe it’s a good time, after years of degrees of isolation, to step into something bright and challenging and larger than life.” Wanting to bring the Beano world from the page to our three-dimensional world, Sam, who has always loved working between two and three dimensions, tried to carry across the imaginative world of the page into Somerset House. Reflecting the evolution of Beano’s artistic and editorial style, and reflecting the changing printing technologies which have seen Beano throughout the years, “the colours get brighter and more lively as you walk through, just like the print technology has allowed Beano to get more vibrant,” claims Sam. For this reason, “this is a show that you really need to experience in the flesh to get its full delight,” the artist claims.
Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules not only suggests that it will showcase artworks relating to rule-breaking, but that the act of breaking a rule can be a work of art in itself. Most of the time, we’re punished if we break the rules, or we’re made to feel guilty. But what if the rule itself is unjust? What if we’re not actually in the wrong, but the ones who put that rule in place are? Rene Matic scrutinises this very dilemma. Recently graduated from Central St Martins, Rene was commissioned to observe the ways in which Dennis is always recognised as a troublemaker, even before he’s caused mischief. Rene wanted to relay this feeling to the experience of growing up as a Black Brit. Rene, interested in the black and red stripes worn by some of the characters, noticed the colour pairings’ similarity to the pan African flag, which is made up of red, black and green. So when approached with the brief for the exhibition, Rene conjured up Moonstomp, a character who takes their name from the 1970 song Skinhead Moonstomp by Symrip. Rene’s intentions for this character is one who wears red and black and dances throughout space and time, choosing to exist in the liminal space as opposed to “finding home” in either Britain or a different country. Even Olivia Sterling’s painting of a slapstick scene from a children’s tea party is featured, aiming to address identity in modern-day Britain.
For some kids, the world of Beano wasn’t just a riotous exercise in mischief and mayhem. For Alex Wheatle, Beano became an escape and a haven whilst growing up in the notorious Shirley Oaks children’s home in Croydon. These meditations in the exhibition mean that The Beano as a children’s comic, and its crafty take on rebelliousness, take on a whole new meaning when social commentaries about race and political welfare are weaved into the artworks in a coded subtlety or even a covert manner.
“There was that sense of the anti-establishment.”Exhibition artist Simeon Barclay on what Beano meant to him.
Stephen Chung: I Fought the Law and Won by Banksy, 2004, at Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
Stephen Chung: Splash by Horace Panter, 2018, at Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
Elsewhere, Nicola Lane, who imagines Dennis the Menace as a 70-year-old on his character’s 70th anniversary, looked back 44 years to when she was creating comics for The International Times, an underground newspaper dedicated to “disruptive and Avant-Garde ideas,” the artist tells It’s Nice That. “My comic strips were a British riposte to the American comic-strip hegemony of the Underground press – dominated by Robert Crumb and other Californian comic strips, like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” Nicola continues. Inspired by Beano, she turned Dennis, the Bash Street Kids, and the other Beano characters into their adult 1970s selves: “unemployed, living in squats, and as the 70s drew to a close, discovering radical politics.” Fascinatingly, these strips were forgotten until the scholar Paul Gravett, somewhat of a comic aficionado who’s been working in the comics industry since ‘81, included an extract in his British Library exhibition Comics Unmasked; Art and Anarchy in the UK, which then led Nicola into being included in 2016’s Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comix at the House of Illustration.
“Colouring outside the lines”Nicola Lane‘s approach to her artwork for the exhibition.
For the new comic strip exhibited in the Somerset House-based retrospective, Nicola had to start thinking about Dennis’ “survival as an iconic character,” asking herself, “has print technology changed him as much as social attitudes?” Dennis was born in 1953, Nicola was born in 1949. “We are both Baby Boomers!” she proclaims. So she wanted to explore her own process of ageing through Dennis’s ageing. This self-referential approach from Nicola might help some of the older visitors see Dennis as even more relatable. “The graphic style and printing technology of Beano in the 1970s was a big influence,” she tells us, “I love the spiky expressive line of pen and ink, the crude and expressive colour printing with ‘Ben Day’ dots and inexact registration,” says the artist, referring to the mechanical printing method developed by Benjamin Day in the 1880s and recognisably used in Roy Lichtenstein’s works. Nicola wanted to incorporate these same techniques into her own work. In order to immerse herself in a Beano sensibility, Nicola took on a “colouring outside the lines” approach, not wanting the work to be framed: “it seemed contrary to the ephemeral, mass-produced nature of comics like Beano,” she explains, so she asked Andy Holden if the final piece could be pasted directly on the wall.
Although Nicola is an admirer of the print technology of the 1970s, using this retro tech to print the final piece would have “cost a fortune!”, so a brainstorm began on how to combine “yesterday’s techniques with today’s digital process.” Comix Creatrix had introduced the artist to women creators in contemporary comics and she had become interested in the techniques of digital colourising. “I approached comic artist and architect Alison Sampson,” she says, “and asked her to recommend someone who might be interested in working on my project.” Alison then put Nicola in touch with Dee Cuniffe, a prolific colourist, working on books for DC, Marvel, Image and others. Dee was able to bring techniques to the project that he had developed for his creator-owned ‘Crossover’ comic, featured in Image, to help bring the “old school” look to Nicola’s piece. “It was so important to have that collaborative element in creating the work,” she argues. “Comics are mostly created by people with different skills, all working towards the final piece.”
“A healthy disrespect for the rules.”Scenic designer Gareth Wild on why he thinks Beano has endured for so many years.
Gareth Wild, a designer and founder of Apropos-, echoes Nicola’s sentiment, telling us that the retrospective was truly a group effort. “Andy Holden curated and researched the show, set the tone and oversaw its application,” Gareth explains, whilst he was recruited to manage the scenic graphics. Gareth worked with Andy and 3D designers from Sam Jacobs Studio to “dress the space and walls with graphics from Beano”: the characters, the locations, notices, and posters. “The Beano world made real,” Gareth continues, “a flying tomato here, a smelly sock there. Many of the older characters were painstakingly re-traced and we made a Beano typeface for signs and posters.” And Emmi Salonen was brought on board to create the graphics for an information system for the exhibition, including section titles, information panels, speech bubbles and captions. Despite being an exhibition built for young and old alike, the creative team wanted the show “to work for kids,” so all the free-standing, cut-out characters were created child size, “selfie-friendly,” as Gareth Wild calls it, who designed the scenery for the show. “We also thought about the height of information panels and artwork captions, and included smaller graphic details at lower levels – eyeballs peering through cracks in the wall, smelly socks, flying tomatoes and banana skins, even ‘squelchies’ on the hand-sanitiser pumps,” Gareth continues, “like easter eggs spread throughout the show.”
“I’m not a regular reader [of Beano] but it’s always been around.” It was Gareth’s sister who was the true devotee, belonging to the Beano fan club, as well as his school friends reading the comic around him growing up. Even Gareth’s kids read it, meaning the comic has always been a staple in the corner of the designer’s eye. “Everyone knows who Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx are, the red and black striped jumpers and sound effects, THWACK!” Gareth thinks it’s the attitude that’s “so endearing,” explaining that a “healthy disrespect for the rules with the swats getting their comeuppance” has helped keep the Beano around for generations – the universal language of rebellion: “really the language of Beano is part of popular culture, a visual shorthand which we grew up with which is almost second nature.”
GalleryStephen Chung: Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
The curatorial team didn’t have to look far for inspiration: referring to the comic itself, Gareth and Andy were able to bounce creative ideas off of one another, as well as off of Nigel Parkinson, a current Beano artist, who produced artwork specifically for the exhibition. “I dipped into old copies but Andy had been researching the show for well over a year before I got involved and was able to send me material,” Gareth tells us. Andy gave Gareth a “crash course” in some of the more “obscure historical characters,” he explains. “Many, many copies of Beano!” chimes in Sam Jacob, the 3D artist for the show, on how they began the creation and curation processes. “Luckily, old Beano annuals are readily available on eBay,” continues Sam, “so we’ve had piles of them in the studio. As much as possible, we’ve tried to have some reference point for everything we’ve designed, from trying to be as accurate as possible in recreating Minnie the Minx’s wallpaper, to commissioning bespoke artwork from Beano artists.”
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Stephen Chung: Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
Leeds-based artist Simeon Barclay has been a fan of Beano for a long time. “I have a different relationship with it today but the impression it has left on me is quite profound,” Simeon relays. He claims that a couple of years ago, Beano references began seeping into his work; “It gave me the realisation that in part, my early inclination to draw was the urge to mimic and copy the illustrations in the pages of those British comics like Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips.” Mischief, comedy, kinship, solitude, and escapism were what the pages of those comics opened up to a young Simeon. “And yes, there was that sense of the anti-establishment that chimed with a lot of the news stories that took centre stage whilst I was growing up,” the artist continues. As a boy, anti-Thatcher sentiments, strikes, and uprisings were commonplace. Simeon thinks there exists a “revelry within the space of the frames for anarchy and turning conventions upside down, so there is an element of the carnivalesque, a sort of release for the viewer”. But this release, continues Simeon, is nevertheless contained, edged by the straight lines of the frame and “encapsulated in the regular format of the comic”.
For the exhibition, Simeon created a neon two-way mirror inspired by the Bash Street Kids character Plug, who the artist claimed as a leitmotif in his work: “his innate ugliness places him on the fringe of society. A mirror to societies’ normative tropes, he stands proud at the fringe in the liminal space where his mere presence enacts a criticality.” Simeon’s scrutinisation of Plug’s role takes the character beyond merely a comic trope, but becomes almost a socio-political reflective exercise. “Looking back throughout my readership of the comic,” Simeon narrates, “I can see that the illustrators have had real fun with him, constantly morphing him, his unpredictability was really exciting to me.” Plug’s character was “all the more heroic” in his unconventionality, says Simeon. He claims it’s a shame, to say the least, but in the absence of any relatable or expansive Black characters at the time of Simeon’s reading in the 80s, “Plug’s bonkers individuality opened up an unorthodox and contingent space in which to insert and mirror myself within the frame of the comic,” continues the artist.
Using neon as a material, Simeon explains that its functionality as a means of communication is what draws him to its use, but he’s also drawn to its “seductive quality”. As a form of illumination, “it’s quite ostentatious and vulgar”. There’s no denying neon’s reputation for outlandish adornment, and its association with “the architecture of the backstreet,” Simeon argues. This has landed neon in a position “that has it occupying both the centre and the periphery, off the beaten track.” Its radiance, says Simeon, “overwhelms and bounces about on every surface in a way that can be deemed tasteless and repulsive in this way”. So, in keeping with the character Simeon is portraying, he used neon for its “constantly adaptable” nature, in kinship with Plug, for it has “all these transgressive qualities that chime with the comic as I remember it,” claims Simeon.
“His innate ugliness places him on the fringe of society. A mirror to societies’ normative tropes, he stands proud at the fringe in the liminal space where his mere presence enacts a criticality.”Simeon Barclay on the character Plug, who acted as the basis for Simeon’s neon mirror artwork.
Sam Jacob’s memories of Beano also served as a source upon which to rely on creatively for the show: “There’s a whole Beano intelligence that permeates its vision of the world. I remember it as a kid, that voice, that attitude. It’s self-aware, breaks the fourth wall. When you are reading it, it feels like it knows you are reading it.” So he and his creative team tried to translate this “self-aware” quality into the show. “It’s aware of it being a show about Beano, as well as aware of the conventions of an exhibition.” For example, there are museums within museums, and the gift shop is a supermarket: a version of the Beanotown supermarket Widl, “but it wears its self-referentialism lightly, hopefully in a Beano-eqsue spirit”. And where the team invented new objects and pieces specifically for the show, they tried to channel Beano’s attitude – “so the contemporary art gallery that’s in the show is Beano Museum of Modern Art (BMoMA, obviously),” Sam relays, “with its own jokes about gallery spaces that might not typically be a Beano subject matter.” He hopes that the ironic and self-deprecating jokes about art and exhibition-making within the exhibition itself fuse seamlessly into a Beano-like world, where irony and that very British self-deprecation are already found within the historic comic’s core. “And like any good joke, it's only funny because of the serious truth that’s at its core.”
When I ask Sam to tell us about the challenges of creating for the show, he says it wasn’t so much “a challenge as a delight”. Sam sees this show as “one giant meta artwork” that Andy Holden has assembled from everything within it: “That’s made it a different kind of exhibition to design,” argues Sam. “It's not just a show with some art in it and some Beano content.” It’s a show consisting of ideas about art and culture which tries to use Beano as the mechanism through which visitors can view these ideas from different perspectives, “and hopefully the art helps us see Beano differently too,” continues Sam. “It's a show about being a show, as well as a show that shows you things.” How’s that for a tongue-twister?
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Stephen Chung: Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
Stephen Chung: Artwork by Ruth Ewan at Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. Courtesy of Somerset House, 2021.
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.