It's probably not an overstatement to say that Dennis the Menace revolutionised the Beano, and, by extension, British comics in general. From the moment the strip arrived in 1951 the Beano entered a new era. Replacing Allan Morely's rather more formulaic "Sammy's Super Rubber" was, in the words of Bash Street creator Leo Baxendale, "a remarkable new character in an urban setting". Within three years the comic had been invaded by a raft of other young characters that the readers could actually identify with - Minnie, Roger, The Bash Street Kids - and it all started here...
Dennis the Menace was created by D.C. Thomson staff artist David Law (17th March 1951 - issue 452).
As is noted elsewhere, one of the most interesting things about Law's style is the extraordinary degree to which it changed over the years. The early Dennis strips were notable for their short, squat characters and tidy artwork (see the panel from the first strip, left). Within a few months the style had loosened up, and then over the rest of the decade the characters became gradually taller. For a while they became absurdly tall and thin, before eventually returning to more normal proportions. (These strange vaccilations are even referred to in Dennis's 1991 40th anniversary issue.) As the fifties wore on Law's artwork became increasingly rough, and eventually rather scratchy. But why?
In issue 1030 Dennis swapped places with Jonah, to appear on the back cover in full colour for the first time.
In 1968, Dennis was joined by his faithful dog, Gnasher. Their first meeting (issue 1363, 31st August) is shown to the right. As you can see, Gnasher has also changed a bit over the years, being fairly terrifying at first; by the early seventies he had become the cuddly figure we know today.
Law died in 1970, his last Dennis strip being the July 25th issue. After a single episode drawn by the Pup Parade artist, David Sutherland was chosen as a permanent replacement. This may have been because he had already made a success of The Bash Street Kids, even though the two strips could not have looked more different. Sutherland managed to keep Law's simple style of framing and movement, but improved the draughtsmanship. In 1974, Dennis finally replaced Biffo on the comic's cover, a move which would arguably not have been possible during Law's tenure.
For most of his menacing career, Dennis had operated on his own, but towards the end of 1975 that all changed. Dennis introduced us to two of his pals: the mop-topped Curly (who had been his friend back in the early days), and the pastry-fixated Pie-Face (who just may be related to another young acquaintance of Dennis' from way back). The threesome became collectively known as The Menaces, and each week pitted themselves against their rivals The Softies - Walter (now known as "Prince of Softies") and his two new friends Algernon "Spotty" Perkins and Bertie Blenkinsop. This set-up continued into the eighties and is fondly remembered by those who were the right age at the time (such as me).
Missing Gnasher storyline - March - May 1986. Introduced Gnatasha, Gnancy, Gnaomi, Gnorah ad Gnipper.
As the eighties progressed, Sutherland's Dennis began to take on a life of his own. He became taller and stockier, his nose more bulbous and his chin ever broader. As the nineties dawned, Dennis was looking like a thuggish teenager, some way from the cheeky, if surly, youth Law had created and nurtured. In 1993, editor Euan Kerr stepped in. As he later explained to me:
"It was felt that Dennis had become just a bit too elongated and consequently older than he should be. A more active look was also sought for. Another reason behind the change was to make him easier to animate for the Beano Video which was then being planned. ... To be honest, the artist probably went a little too far and made Dennis too young and cute. However, some readjustment [was] made, and we feel he is now just about right."
Sutherland certainly did go too far in the opposite direction! The new 'active' Dennis, who was phased in gradually over a couple of months, was not only shorter, younger and constantly 'zooming' about Beanotown, he also lacked any trace of surlyness. His trademark scowl all but disappeared, and despite the adjustments Euan refers to, it was several years before Dennis really looked himself again.
Two other characters underwent subtle transformations at this time; Dad, who swapped his forboding striped suit for a more laid-back pullover, and Mum, who had her hair done, started wearing leggings, and seemed to lose about ten years as a result. Another gradual change was that Dennis's traditionally flat world became more three-dimensional, allowing him to speed about more naturalistically.
Immediately following the 60th anniversary issue, Sutherland went into semi-retirement from Dennis. By then he had drawn the strip for 27 years - seven more than its creator. The new artist was David Parkins, who had previously drawn a revival of The Three Bears, and has a wacky but detailed style. Although this was still the TV-friendly, hyperactive, three-dimensional Dennis of recent years, such rampant modernity was balanced by a number of small touches he introduced which, to the trained eye, appeared to pay tribute to Law's dinstictive style.
At the same time, the scripts took a noticeable turn for the better. Dennis's annoying habit of guffawing at his own actions ('Ha ha! Look Gnasher! Chortle!") was played down, as, more importantly, was much of the gimmickiness that had overtaken the character - the "menace sign", the "menace car", etc. Although some considered his new sister, Bea, to be gimmicky, by comparison she was an entirely logical addition to Dennis' world. Alongside all this, his old chums Pie Face and Curly also made occasional returns. Which brings us almost full circle...
Any week now it will be Dennis' 50th anniversary. Expect some bumper celebrations, starting with this special charity print drawn by David Parkins in the style of his late namesake, Mr Law... Currently on auction at Compalcomics, if you fancy bidding against me!