The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Beano’s Immortal Birthday Secret

The Beano is 80 years old this week. Michael Stirling, Head of Beano Studios Scotland, offers his take on its enduring popularity, in this article for the Children's Media Yearbook 2018...

A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd 2018

As Beano zooms – Billy Whizz style – towards being 80 years young, it’s proud to finally reveal the secret of its success, via a bold call to action: Rebels Wanted! The mission? For us all to think more “kid” and rebel, at least a little, every single day.

National institutions are rarely “rebellious”.  The definition of the term is not always entirely positive. However, Beano recognises the transformative potential of a rebellious mindset. This everyday rebellion is the recurring factor in Beano’s creation, success and enduring appeal.

Beginning as a 28-page comic on 30 July 1938, Beano has since entertained generations.
In late 2016, an exciting multi-media expansion extended the original mission to entertain far beyond the printed form. Beano Studios was created: a global entertainment powerhouse designed to spread the original mischievous magic from the comic worldwide.

At the centre of this strategy, beano.com was launched as a new, entirely safe, online playground. A free, daily feed of fun, it’s already emulating the original success of the comic, becoming the nation’s fastest-growing kids’ website.

Over 27 million people in the UK have been regular readers of the comic and a copy is sold every 17 seconds. Digital reach is similarly phenomenal; a recent, good-natured prank upon a famous politician resulted in over three billion online impressions as it enjoyed viral popularity.

A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd 2018

It’s a virtuous circle of development, inspired by the original rebellious Beano spirit, which advocates taking a chance outside of your natural comfort zone. That something, or someone, can be rebellious and badged “So Beano” has now entered the nation’s playground lexicon. It’s a badge to be worn with pride. A badge proclaiming “rebel”. But what’s so great, “So Beano”, about rebellion?  Is it truly a good thing, or just a cool word?

Simply put, if no one ever rebelled, if we all conformed neatly, it would end innovation, inventions and discovery. Babies are born rebels, brains fizzing with synaptic potential. No concept of restrictive rules and regulations. Behaving instinctively. Spontaneously. Creatively.

Sometimes, this innate ability is nurtured, with awesome results. Leonardo da Vinci was the archetypal childhood rebel, who continued to break rules his entire life.  The vast majority of Nobel Prize Winners have been proven to demonstrate rebellious behaviours and attitudes, encouraging them to push things further than most, for positive dividends.

Sadly, potential is more often encumbered, then slowly eroded, via crushing convention. Don’t do that! Grow up! Do as I tell you! Stop acting like a seven-year-old! Or worse. Grown-ups rule society. But they’re also victims of the tyranny of rules, whether societal conventions, or personal restrictions designed to safeguard self-image, to avoid any risk of embarrassment.

Beano rejects this. Instead, we believe the most important mindset is to think like a kid for ever. To laugh at oneself, every single day. This applies to lapsed kids (i.e. grown-ups) as much as every new generation. So never grow-up: it’s a trap!

It seems a simple and positive philosophy but faces strict opposition. In schools, kids who embrace the natural inclination to rebel are stigmatized. They’re rewarded for following rules and crushed if they don’t. Spirit and creativity is devalued and demotivated. Society therefore loses the opportunity of nurturing minds to provide innovative solutions to the problems we’ll face tomorrow. That’s a bad thing.

So how do we rebalance a societal disincentive to becoming a rebel? Rebels seem attractive in popular culture – something dangerous to aspire to, without living such a life ourselves. Beano celebrates thinking differently; more imaginatively. Beano characters show the same attitude in a more conventional and accessible way – anybody could be a rebel. Most importantly, Beano has the provenance and credibility to own this mission.

Historically radical Dundee was the birthplace of Beano, and it was her daughters who powered Beano’s rebel heart. At the turn of the last century the city was nicknamed “She Town”, due to the high proportion of women who worked in the famous jute mills and their bravery and tenacity in challenging industrial inequality.

A high proportion of these women were the sole family breadwinners – matriarchal figureheads. This created a unique set of circumstances which powered conditions leading to the creation of Beano. Simply, it would never have happened without them.

Dundee’s children were inspired by these proud women. They were either mothered by them or worked alongside them. School-aged kids represented the second-largest sector of the jute workforce. Over 20% of Dundee’s children held exemption certificates, which meant they spent half their educational hours in factories, developing rebellious attitudes of their own which they could take back and share amongst their classmates.

Women and children were poorly treated in the mills. Despite being the vast majority of the workforce, they were poorly rewarded and factory conditions were appalling. The dangerous environment endured by both their own children and junior co-workers motivated women to actively protest. Unrepresented by formal union support, Dundee’s rebel women instead used their own initiative and word-of-mouth organisation. The demand for their labour meant they were confident to rebel against injustice. So, rebel they did. Between 1889 and 1914 there were over 100 recorded strikes led by woman jute workers in one company alone.

The inspirational influence of militant mums and working women upon children cannot be overstated. It’s the key reason why Dundee became the epicentre of a national phenomenon in 1911. School strikes!

In an era where the draconian Victorian attitude that “children should be seen, but not heard” was still prevalent, the strikes became a shocking nationwide scandal. Kids all over the UK, increasingly educated and smart enough to read newspapers, were influenced by the potential of industrial action as a lever to improve conditions.

In Dundee, children had first-hand experience of rebellion and the city therefore witnessed the most extensive schoolkid strikes in the country. Less homework and a ban on corporal punishment seemed reasonable demands. Sadly, the rebels were thwarted on this occasion, with even more of the latter the inevitable consequence. However, a rebellious spark had ignited. Pushing back had felt good.

Some of these rebel pupils went on to gain employment in a different sort of factory from their parents – one with infinitely better conditions. This was the Fun Factory at the publisher DC Thomson. It was here that they tore up the rule book of creating comics and used their rebellious spark to make Beano light the way for every generation thereafter.

Print media at that time was hugely influential. Comics for kids were established as a form of entertainment, second only to the movies. Telly was still for posh people – with nothing decent on anyway. It would be a rebellious move to dare to change the existing, successful comic formula. Challenge accepted!

The standard text-heavy adventure stories were jettisoned, replaced with a rebellious new approach. A cheeky sense of humour was combined with a determination to tell stories visually above everything else. Critics were stunned by DC Thomson sanctioning what they snobbishly – and mistakenly – viewed as an intellectually inferior product.

The new format ultimately made Beano more accessible, inviting ever more recruits into a world of mischief and mayhem. The fact that they were often showing up the adult world was even more rebellious!

This rebellion was emphasised by brave, continued production during the war years. Overcoming paper shortages, Beano fulfilled a secret mission to affect a propaganda battle against the enemy. The consequence of this was the chilling post-war discovery of a Nazi-hit list which marked Beano staff for the ultimate sanction.

The rebellious momentum of thinking kids continued after the war via another notable innovation. During the ’50s, Beano’s character cast was revolutionized to focus upon kids as the heroes. This focus was again deemed rebellious – especially when the majority of the stories had the kids not fighting against one another, but uniting to question and usurp adult authority.

Cover star Biffo the Bear – inspired by the transatlantic success of Mickey Mouse (resembling a more hard-bitten creature who’d endured a far tougher paper round) – was upstaged by Dennis, Minnie, Rodger and the Bash Street Kids. Beano was now entirely ruled by rebellious kids, and has been ever since.

The characters – and the Beano fans they represent – remain indefatigably mischievous, always prepared to take every situation to the limit. Wantonly outrageous behaviour is morally smacked-down by a justifiable twist of fate. The inspirational truth is, no matter how many times our characters are toppled, they demonstrate a resilient “bouncebackability” to rebel yet again.

A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd 2018

Today, the world needs Beano as a rebel’s reference guide more than ever. Kids are questioning prime ministers and presidents; bombing and Brexit. Beano knows this due to the extensive audience insight which informs everything we create and do. A rebellious kid is more likely to discover the cure for illness or become a transformative entrepreneur.  These heroes of the future will be So Beano!

Beano exists to remind us that we can all be everyday rebels in some small yet important way. We should always search for the rebel inside ourselves. No matter what age we reach, by thinking like kids we can feel forever young. Once a rebel, always a rebel.

 

This article was first published in the Children's Media Yearbook 2018

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