I grew up with The Beano. It was a weekly fixture of the breakfast table, arriving with the Times and the Radio Times. But in deepest suburbia, it never really spoke to me. There were no roustabout Dennis the Menace characters among the cul-de-sacs and commuters. Even then, The Beano felt like it was from a different, earlier age. An age of rationing and bombsites, of homemade go-karts and gobstoppers. So I guess maybe it’s not The Beano’s fault that this show devoted to its 83-year history left me a bit cold.
Because there is a lot of good stuff here. The comic has been home to some remarkable, visionary artists and writers – Leo Baxendale (who created The Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx), Dudley D Watkins (Lord Snooty) and Davey Law (Dennis the Menace). These people – many of them from humble origins in Scotland and the North – forged a whole new comic language that took tropes from US ‘funnies’ and mixed them with British working-class music-hall humour, before making the whole thing suitable for kids.
Trouble is, that language is meant to be pored over, not stuck on a wall, so Somerset House’s obviously lovingly curated show rather dilutes its impact. Instead of blowing up whole strips so they can be read in a gallery setting, it elects to put the original art on the walls and in display cases, and adds a lot of colourful kids’ TV-style scenery to brighten it all up. It’s quite dark, as well, which doesn’t help. The curators have also added works by contemporary artists that more or less plays homage to The Beano – or at least its sensibilities – with varying degrees of success. There are some googly eyes by Ryan Gander, a custard-pie splat by Olivia Sterling and a mystifying LS Lowry pastiche populated by characters from the comic, that I enjoyed a dad trying to explain to his small child.
A bit like when I was a kid, it all feels like The Beano looking for an audience and slightly failing to find it. In the age of Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the best comparison for Lord Snooty really Gilbert & George? I’ve never been chased by a park keeper, worried I might get the slipper or wanted a mountain of mashed potato with sausages sticking out horizontally from it. I understand what those things are, though, and what they represent, and I did when I was a kid. I pretty much never say/think this, but just for once, it would have been good if this show had been aimed more at children.