Sunday, 23 May 2010

Heroes (2) Leo Baxendale

Let me take you back to my childhood... childhood... childhood... childhood... childhood...
(Sound FX) Gently ascending chords played on a harp.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. I want to concentrate for a little while on June 1964, when I was seven years old. I wouldn't be eight until December. Up until the April of this year we had a choice of two channels on the telly; BBC and ITV and all in black and white. In April BBC2 started broadcasting and BBC became BBC1. Still with me? Everything was still being broadcast in black and white but we now had a choice of three channels, one of which was impossible to watch unless you had a switch on the side of your telly that allowed you watch UHF broadcasts on 625 lines (BBC1 and ITV broadcasted on 405 line VHF at this point). So, what is the point of all this background information? I want you to be aware of the impact on a receptive mind one single television programme could have at that time. In the here and now, a television programme has to shout very loudly indeed in order to make any sort of impression against the hub-bub of twenty four hour, multi-channel broadcasting. Curiously the programme that impressed me in those tri-channel, black and white days, is impressing a modern audience too: Dr. Who.
The Daleks crashed into my consciousness in December 1963 and if they paralysed or exterminated you, the visual world turned upside down: black became white, white became black. The Daleks had an eerie grace as they glided across metal floors. Their voices were totally unearthly, metallic croaks which no child could imitate for any great length of time in the playground. I was besotted. I drew Daleks and Thals in blue biro on lined, newsprint grade notepaper, cut them out and made stands for them and displayed them on the television set (they kept flopping over because they weren't backed with card and didn't have any support, but I was very pleased with my exhibit). It was a scary programme for children and I was hooked.
Seven months later (June 1964, remember?) another event took place which would fill my spongiform (but in a good way) brain. Odhams published a comic called Wham! and introduced me to the art and wit of Leo Baxendale. I had already unwittingly come into contact with Leo Baxendale's surreal world in The Beano and The Beezer before I set my little peepers on Wham!, but all the work in The Beano were by anonymous beings and I'll touch on this fact later.
Baxendale (as any fule kno) is the creator of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in The Beano. My comic reading at that age was a bit erratic and mainly depended on whether my mum and dad could afford to buy me a comic that week. When I could, I would opt for The Topper, The Beezer, The Dandy or The Beano (all published by D. C. Thomson), or else TV Comic (published by Polystyle). There were other comics too, of course, lots and lots of them and, rather like television today, a comic in those days had to be a little bit special in order to stand out from the others, which is exactly what Wham! did. This brilliant panel is one of the reasons why. This was thrilling and scary stuff for a seven-year-old boy. This particular frame is taken from Eagle-Eye Junior Spy which tuned into a mass of popular cultural trends and would continue to do so throughout its run. Eagle-Eye was a schoolboy spy, reflecting the fact that the James Bond franchise was starting its ascendancy: From Russia With Love had been released the previous year and Goldfinger was just around the corner; as was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., another slick, super-spy fantasy partly created by Ian Fleming.
Grimly Feendish, Eagle-Eye's arch-enemy, inhabited a world of half seen horrors with octopoidal tentacles snaking out of roadside gratings and strange, three-eyed things grinned with dagger-teeth at you out from the dark. Best of all these thrills and horrors came at you in floods of brilliant colour. One of Baxendale's most nightmarish creations was a horrible entity called a Mouff. It bounced along on one foot and swallowed people whole. Let me assure you, I was VERY reluctant to turn off the Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound Nightlight after clocking that particular monstrosity. No doubt a Freudian psycho-analyst would put this horror of the Mouff down to a vagina-dentata fear deeply buried in the Id (at the age of seven? I do not think so), nevertheless it was a scary creature to have depicted in a children's comic. I should point out here that these images were printed in a comic that also published Ken Reid's Frankie Stein - more stuff of nightmares! Small wonder, then, that I turned out like I have. I refer the reader to the various postings on this site of cartoons, the theme of which are almost all based on monsters, either human or inhuman, as an illustration of my own worrying psyche.

Wham! was printed through a process called photogravure as opposed to the more usual, cheaper newsprint of other comics. This was reflected in the comic's price, which was roughly twice as expensive as the D.C. Thomson output, but the colour quality matched that of The Eagle and TV Comic. Not every page was in colour, just the outer cover and the centre spread, but they really made a strong impact. In addition to these riches, Baxendale would often add little clockwork Daleks in his pieces. He had, naturally, won my heart and soul.

So, how the hell did I know who this genius was? I knew through the simple fact that, in Wham!, he signed his work. His fellow artist, Ken Reid, was also allowed to sign his work. This simple act was almost unheard of at the time. I think I'm right in saying that the only exceptions to this comic artists' anonyminity were Dudley D. Watkins (Lord Snooty, Desperate Dan) and, much earlier, Alan Morley (Hungry Horace, Keyhole Kate), both being staff artists for D.C. Thomson and the latter artist was only allowed to sign his initials. Baxendale had never been allowed to sign his work in The Beano and when he did, it was removed before it went to print. His Beano work was said to have directly increased the sales and success of that comic.
Although I was a Beano reader before Wham! came out, I could not have been aware of LeoBaxendale as an individual artist. I have vague memories of a Bash Street Masthead which depicted an adult hand wielding something that looked like a split-ended wooden plank with the kids racing away en masse. It was something called a tawse, was made of leather and seemed to be used exclusively in Scotland. Spare the rod, eh?

There were other visually thrilling and conceptually exciting features drawn by Baxendale in Wham! (General Nitt and his Barmy Army, Georgie's Germs), but I want to move on a bit.

I'm a bit fuzzy on publishing facts, but basically Odhams became part of IPC which owned Fleetway that used to be part of the Amalgamated Press. I think that's right, but I'm always open to correction (oo-er, Matron!) and as a result Leo Baxendale became anonymous again, but his style was immediately identifiable, so as a child I could recognise who drew The Pirates in Buster and the Lion Gang in Lion, or The Champ in Whizzer and Chips.
Then I stopped reading comics, left school and started working in the big, scary world. I worked for a stint in the mid seventies in an engineering firm where I read in an newspaper about a new sort of comic-book by Leo Baxendale. I never saw it in the shops, so I didn't really pursue it. Then later, when I was working in an hospital, a young Doctor waxed lyrical about Leo Baxendale and Willy the Kid and the new Willy the Kid book. This would have been Book 3. I had missed the boat again. Until, quite soon after, I stumbled accross Willy the Kid Book three in a sale at my local book shop. I had no idea how it got into the sale, because I never saw it displayed on the book shelves. I bought it and was immediately smitten with Mr. Baxendale all over again. Years went by and I acquired Books 1 and 2. Here is part of a sequence from Book 1 that had me howling with laughter. It is a bit of incremental ridiculousness that builds up, layer by layer into utter madness. The Willy the Kid books are much treasured possessions, but they are not the only ones.
Over the years, and especially for landmark birthdays, my wife has bought signed Baxendale prints and autobiographies (there are two - A Very Funny Business and Pictures in the Mind). The prints are framed and hang in the hallway. I have a very understanding wife (or should that be long-suffering?).
Every now and again I have sent off little missives to The Guardian letters page relating to Leo Baxendale (if you do a search for Brendan McGuire at The Guardian's web-site you'll find them), usually berating The Guardian for not mentioning him despite the fact that he used to draw a daily strip for them (I Love You Baby Basil). My goodness, if you rile me I'll immediately fire off a letter to The Guardian, so take that as a warning.
The idolatrous climax of this obssession came on 11th November 2003. The Cartoon Art Trust hosted a touring exhibition of Baxendale's art to celebrate fifty years of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids. I wrote off for a ticket for the private view night and went along. After poring over the art-work and shyly looking accross at the great man himself, Leo's wife approached me and asked me if I would like to meet Leo.
"Ooh, yes please!"
When I introduced myself, he said, "Are you the Brendan McGuire who writes those indignant letters to the Guardian?"

HE KNEW WHO I WAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He then went on to talk about cycles in children's entertainment. When he started off, his work and the work of others like Ken Reid and David Law were a reaction against the use of magic as a subject in children's comics. And now, with Harry Potter, magic had come back into vogue. I can only imagine that he thought he had been lumbered with the village idiot as I stood there grinning and nodding in agreement.
At that point he was led away by Steve Bell (yes, the Steve Bell) to address the assembled audience.
Leo Baxendale can come accross as a little fierce and scary in his autobiographies. That evening I met a softly-spoken, gently self-deprecating, warm and gentle man. Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes, because they will always disappoint, was plain wrong in this instance. That evening was a thrill from beginning to end for me. AND Steve Bell drew a penguin for me.

I just want to finish this piece with another little bit of Baxendale daftness. It is from a book titled THRRP! (pronounced - blowing a raspberry) which is best described as a celebration of rudeness. This particular panel is part of Leo's take on the Hare and the Tortoise and probably the least rude image I could use on a public domain. It is the penultimate panel of the story and I present it here purely as a study in silliness.


  1. Interesting article Brendan, your a lucky man meeting him and seeing his original work. I have his book "A very funny business " which I have read countless times... Ohh to have such talent !!!

  2. Oh indeed, John. Perhaps, one day, the Cartoon Museum will mount an exhibition celebrating Baxendale in the same way they have for Searle. I live in hope.

  3. lovely, lovely stuff. I encountered his stuff as it should be found - the second Willy the kid book, aged about 8 or 9 - then worked back. Just love his work. I can't draw breath, myself, but Leo Baxendale's work just fizzes with life.