There’s no Dennis without the menace

2018 heralds the 80th anniversary of the longest running comic book in history – the Beano. For generations, working-class kids have grown up with the characters in the Beano. And supreme among them is the eternally naughty 10-year-old, Dennis the Menace, who first appeared on 12 March 1951.

With his red-and-white striped jumper, his black, unruly hair and his catapult, Dennis did all the silly, mischievous things children dream of doing. He showed a total lack of fear in his menacing of adults. And, with the help of his pet dog, Gnasher, he tormented the hapless Walter – the archetypal bespectacled, bowtie-wearing swot who was ‘prince of the softies’.

In the Beano, you were either a menace or a softie. And no reader ever chose to be a softie – even though menacing didn’t always pay. Walter often came out on top, with Dennis and Gnasher being punished and forced to do undignified chores.

But over Christmas, generations of menaces were shocked to hear that Dennis had himself gone soft. DC Thomson, the Beano’s publisher, has renamed Dennis ‘the world’s wildest boy’. In the Beano Annual 2018, Dennis even tried meditation to help win a competition. He was guided by Walter, who now seems to be his equal in wiles and cunning.

This transformation has been on the cards for some time. In 2008, former Beano editor Euan Kerr argued that the characters had to change in order to prevent causing offence (Dennis had been accused of gay-bashing in his assaults on Walter). ‘The relationship between Dennis and Walter was always one that worried me’, Kerr said. ‘We decided to make sure that even though he and Dennis didn’t get along, Walter was completely happy about who he was and a confident, likeable character in his own right.’

In an unwitting parody of the current culture of public apologies for past mistakes, DC Thomson recently said that Dennis had ‘made mistakes in the past’, and has now ‘moved away from his menacing ways’. It claims that Dennis is now more ‘real’. But being real was never the point or the charm of comics, and real children love menaces.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby.

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