Monday 1 May 2017

Britain is no longer a country for, says "Farewell" and listens one last time to the Godfather of Kid's Comics, Leo Baxendale

Listen to Leo *****!!!!!

whose comic creations brought weekly pleasure to hundreds of thousands of baby-boomer kids in austerity-bound 1950s Britain and who over 22 years in the business had drawn between five-and-a-half thousand and six thousand pages, has died at the age of 86.

He was born in the Autumn of 1930 in the village of Whittle-le-Woods the son of Gertrude and Leo and brought up in Preston, Lancashire, where his father struggled to support the family with income from a variety of  jobs which ranged from chauffeuring, to supervising the boilers at the local power station on the River Ribble.

Leo recalled seeing his first Beano comic in his junior school playground on a "brilliant summer's day in 1938, aged seven, when an older boy rushed up to me and shoved the first issue of the Beano into my hands. I looked at it, but then I handed it back. The comics I read at the time were above my age and I was disconcerted by a comic with an ostrich on the cover. But by then I knew I wanted to be an artist for the comics and so I did, eventually, start reading it during the War - when it was published on alternate weeks with the Dandy because of the paper shortage."

Looking back he could see how the economic recession of the 1930s had affected his family : “The Depression had destroyed my parents’ livelihood. But my mother and father began to talk about how "Our Leo will be a great artist" " As a result, after tea each evening, the table was cleared so that he was given room to draw as it became became obvious to everyone in the family that the boy had talent.

Leo was very specific in what he liked and disliked in comics in these years : 'As a kid in the 1930s I liked sharp-edged comics like 'Weary Willie' and 'Tired Tim', the spies 'Serge Pants' and 'Prince Oddsocks.' They all had sly faces; I didn’t like Roy Wilson’s twee smiling faces. I preferred something a bit more daft, like George Wakefield’s comics or Dudley Watkin’s early Lord Snooty‘s and Desperate Dans - very funny and quite grotesque." He studied these characters for "professional interest" because he "knew by then that, as an artist, I meant to deal in comedy" and didn't want to "sentimentalise my characters at all." 

In 1941, having passed the 11+ exam, Leo took up his place at the boys grammar school. Preston Catholic College, in Winckley Square, run by Jesuit priests. Founded on the principles of St Ignatius Loyola, laid down in the 16th century, it would have, in theory, encouraged Leo to excel in his chosen field with a view to fulfilling Loyola's precept to use his talents to serve the wider community. In reality, the aspiring young cartoonist found little encouragement at school “Because I was taught by Jesuits, I found out all kinds of stuff about philosophy, but not everyday things that mattered to me the Ben Day tints that you find back to the 19th century in comics, for instance. I asked lots of people who did those. At one point I tried to draw them myself and I realised I couldn’t."

When he was 14 in 1944 he recalled : 'a crucial event : the comedian Max Wall came on the wireless as the star of a new series, 'Hoopla.' Wall unsettled my father, who switched off the radio, but I seized on his surreal, dry drollery and absurdist humour. I knew I had to listen – and learn.' 

Leo left school at the age of 16 in 1946 and got his first job at the 'Leyland Paint and Varnishing Company', designing labels for paint pots, then two years later he was called up for his two years National Service in the RAF where he served as a catering clerk. Back in civilian life, at the age of twenty, he joined the Art Department of the Lancashire Evening Post as a staff cartoonist in 1950, wrote short humorous articles illustrated with drawings and drew the occasional comic strip and numerous sports cartoons. He also continued his self-education when he found the paper used Ben Day tints and he discovered "how they worked and who invented them.”

Already, his talent for cartoons and unconventional humour, which would serve him so well in the years to come, were in place as he recalled : “The one thing that mattered to the manager selling the adverts was to make money, but he was quite amenable to any suggestions I made. So it came about that when a local travel firm placed an advert in the paper detailing the tours they offered, I said I’d draw something cartoon-fashion to go with it. I did this coach full of tourists, teetering over a 10,000-ft drop. Of course, later I used the 10,000 foot drop all the time!”

Leo was 22 when he first saw the cartoon of 'Dennis the Menace' in his kid brother's Beano, decked in his stripy red-and-black jumper knitted by his granny and it had a profound effect on him and gave him the same jolt of excitement that he’d experienced on first hearing Max Wall :

 "I just picked it up, flicked over, expecting to see the same old stuff, Lord Snooty and so on and there was this jolt of excitement and there was this two thirds page Dennis. I didn't know who had drawn it but it was very different to what had gone before and I thought, 'This is great. This is wonderful. This is vibrant' and I thought, 'If they can print this they might print what I can do'."

Leo was ready, Jesuit-style, to go out into the world and later said : "I set out from the start to dominate the comic market." In reality, Leo got in touch with the Beano's publisher, D,C, Thomson in Dundee and on a freelance basis was given the job of drawing strips for a Heath Robinson type inventor called 'Oscar Crank' and the Chinese detective 'Charlie Choo.' He was uninspired and in the months that followed sent in idea after idea, none of which impressed the Managing Director, R.D.Low.

Seven months after the start of his work for Thomsons and desperate for success, Leo saw a picture of Hiawatha on the back of his kid brother's 'Mickey Mouse Weekly' and sat down at his drawing board in April 1953 to create a cross between a mischievous Dennis and something that 1950s kids who played 'cowboys and indians' in the street could identify with : Little Plum, ‘Your Redskin chum’. He recalled :
 "Little Plum was a world of thirsty deserts and hungry vultures with knives and forks and ten thousand foot drops and Plum was a puny creature in this dangerous world and he had to be cunning, sneeky and trecherous to survive and he did."

The comedy took place with Plum, a member of the Smellyfoot Tribe along with his faithful horse Treaclefoot and friends Chiefy and Hole-in-um-Head who spent much of their time trying to outwit their rivals, the Puttyfoots, while dodging the bears that shared their land. Leo put it this way : “Plum and Chiefy disparaged the bears - thought they were idiots. They were always guarding themselves against the Puttyfoot tribe. Yet, in reality, the bears won. There’s a single frame where the bears - a bit like the Vietcong - reached a point where they’d managed to steal so much weaponry from Plum’s own lot, they found they could wage conventional warfare!”

Leo was breaking new ground with his elaborate sub plots, jokes, microscopic gags in the corner and running gags for his readers to follow, all against a backdrop of escalating humour. In Leo's eyes a comic wasn't :
"like television or anything like that. It's a world of intimate delights. It's held in the hand. I was always aware of that, that what I was doing would be held in the hand of one child."

Minnie the Minx, his greatest single creation, made her appearance just before Christmas in 1953 : "I'd decided she would be an Amazonian warrior, street-fighting woman. I didn't give Minnie any particular super-human strength. She was a robust 12 year old girl. What I gave Minnie was intensity of will and that carried her through everything" and that "everything" involved waging war against gangs of boys, head masters, careers officers and policemen who all conspired to keep her down. Leo broke the norms of the time when very often he gave her the 'last word', something 1950s kids were strictly forbidden to do. "I didn't want Minnie punished for what she did, because I thought what she did was exemplary."

His original Minnie was aged 6 or 7, with a big open, blacked in 'O' of a mouth because she did a lot of shouting, but Leo found that what he had in mind for her persona wouldn't work until he upped her age to 12 and in doing this he got rid of the mouth. Dad was more problematic in that George Moonie, the Editor, wanted him to be middle class, whereas, Leo wanted to give him cross-class appeal. He solved the problem by changing his dress in different stories with perhaps a suit in one, open neck shirt in another. Leo said :
"Far and away the most Minnie sets I did was the close focus struggle with her Father and I had to make Minnie's Dad tall and robust and strong to be a fit foe for Minnie."

The Bash Street Kids emerged from a meeting George, travelling down from Dundee, had with Leo in Preston. Right from the start Leo was clear in his mind that : "Dennis was a Scottish production - he was allowed to be bad, but he always had to be punished at the end. That never crossed my mind. When I drew The Bash Street Kids, they weren’t punished most of the time and everyone else got marmalised!" In fact, using peashooters, catapults and every schoolboy trick they could think of, waged constant war against authority.

Leo had been originally inspired by a Giles cartoon a year before with a horde of children pummeling and thumping as they left school which had inspired him to produce a pencil sketch of rampaging children pouring out of school, but he recalled that he :
"actually thought up the ideas for the first set walking down Fishergate (in Preston) and by the end of the street I'd got the whole thing right in my brain, got home and started drawing at once." Initially, the strip involved the whole school but he thought : "No, I'll get rid of the whole school and I'll come into close focus on one class and less than a class, this group of named characters, so I can bring them closer and closer to the readers."

Leo recalled : " The addition of the new feature gave me an assured minimum weekly income of £10, a sufficient economic base. For comparison my Father;s wage at this time was £13, gained by relentless working of double overtime."

Leo's readers became familiar with each of his comic creations and knew in turn :
'Erbert, : real name, Herbert Henry Hoover, a short-sighted boy, who struggled to see even with his spectacles
Toots Pye : Sidney's twin sister, only girl in Class 2B, a tomboy, but more feminine than Minnie the Minx and acted as second-in-command, taking charge in Danny's absence.
Fatty : formerly Frederick Brown, a large, round boy who was always eating.
Spotty : real name was James Cameron, a short boy who wore a blue collared jersey and an extremely long, striped tie who Teacher saw as the mouthiest of the kids.
Wilfred Wimble : smallest and quietest of the Bash Street Kids, had social anxiety.
Danny : full name was Daniel Deathshed Morgan, depicted in a skull and crossbones jumper and a floppy red school cap became the leader early in the strip, after he gave each kid a wine gum.
Plug : real name was Percival Proudfoot Plugsley, a lanky, gangling character with a large overbite, two buck teeth and a wide nose who was often ready to defend those he feels have been unjustly treated.

"In Bash Street I portrayed Teacher as ineffectual. He could never master the Kids. Yet in cartoon terms he had to be a strong character, a strong presence on the page and I made him very tall, very bony, very thin, I gave him weight and I had archaic symbols, like the mortar board and his black trousers and I surrounded him by little artefacts that would bring attention to him." In addition, Teacher was "permanently between a rock and a hard place : the Headmaster on the one hand and Bash Street Kids on the other. That's what it comes down to. The Bash Street Teacher was stuck."

The more subversive, sub-cultural side of Leo emerged when he hinted at Teacher's unorthodox married life. It was a side to his work that DC Thomson were not keen on him to develop. "There's teacher's wife in the window, holding up his lunch, bangers and mash, of course. Now she looks exactly like teacher. She's got Teacher's moustache and that raises the question : Was teacher married to his sister ?"

Leo was clear in his own mind about the philosophy with which he underpinned the Kids : 'With Bash Street, I was very conscious of creating a world of uncertainty from two sources - the modern concept of cause and effect, and the medieval concept of things coming from a blue sky. The characters would set disasters in train unknowingly, and the constant factor was that they never twigged why; despite going in with such high hopes, they always blundered into disaster.'

At this time he was still working in the front bedroom of his Mum and Dad's semi in Preston, but so instantly successful were his new characters, that George persuaded him to move up to Dundee where Leo described the idiosyncratic methods used in the Office which he visited a couple of times each week : "We'd play Keepie-up. You'd make a ball from left-over lumps of the Dundee Courier, sew in a piece of tweed, then nut it, knee it, elbow it and kick it around the place. As the ball was flying. so were the ideas for next week's issue."

Surprisingly he confessed that : "I never drew to please children. If an idea made me laugh out loud I'd take the drawing to the Beano subs. If they laughed too, I knew it worked." Alternatively : "Somebody - it could have been George - would have a spark and we’d pass it round each other. The chief sub would scribble and hand it to me and I’d take it home and draw it. Later on, it became more formal, and the subs would provide me with the scripts of ‘flashes’; I found it didn’t matter to me whether I’d got the idea or somebody else had.” He was conscious that he wasn't 'John Milton pondering for months, you’ve got to be fast, that week, that day, so you make quick decisions." 

Within five years of Leo joining the team, sales figures soared from less than half a million to an annual two million, but along with the added success of drawing the "selling pages," came added pressure and at one stage, he was drawing, every week of the year, a full page of Minnie, Bash Street, Little Plum and the Three Bears, as well as working for The Beezer and on annuals. He recalled : " I was in my twenties, strong and with a robust mind, but with 52 Beanos a year, it was still a strain." In a way he was emulating Loyola's injunction :
"To give and not to count the cost
To fight, and not to heed the wounds,
To toil, and not to seek for rest."

He reflected : "The stressing thing was the sleeplessness – in the end I couldn’t sleep: I’d be working through the night, and that affected the drawing. It’s very distressing to see a drawing from 1957 and think : 'It’s lovely; did I do that?' And then look at another and think, 'Ouch!' It was good enough to print, of course, but I can tell the difference and that matters to me.”
In 1962, after a bout of pneumonia he reached the end of his tether : “I just blew up like an old boiler and walked out.” 

He went to work for Odhams Press and by 1964 had recovered sufficiently to create a new comic, 'Wham!', featuring 'General Nitt and his Barmy Army' and 'Eagle Eye, Junior Spy' and when Odhams launched a companion comic, 'Smash!', in February 1966, he created several more characters, among them 'Grimly Feendish' based on Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories and 'Bad Penny', a young female delinquent reminiscent of Minnie the Minx. He said Grimly :
was "supernatural being and he was a wonderful character to draw. I mean, I don't believe in any kind of supernatural beings but they make wonderful comic characters." Leo was, no doubt, flattered that he was to inspire the punk band, The Damned's, 1985 release.

Leo revealed the lesser known political side of his character when he published the 'Strategic Commentary' from 1965-67, a two-page activist newsletter in which, he : 'Sought to demonstrate, on grounds of cold military logic, that America could not win the war in Vietnam and should therefore withdraw.' He typed it up and arranged the printing himself and roped in his wife and four of his five kids, the fifth being too young, to do the envelope-stuffing and mailings, one of which went to Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and anti-war activist.

He was by this time suffering from repetitive strain syndrome and recalled : ' I had begun to wear drawing glasses, while holding a magnifying glass in my non-drawing hand and from the beginning of 1969 onwards, the knuckles of my drawing hand had begun to swell after some hours of work. I’d found, while drawing, that I could ignore the pain that was companion to the swelling, but that a point came when my drawing hand seized up, and I’d had to stop for a while.' Once again he found the pressure of work relentless and recalled wistfully about his time at Odhams :

"I didn't stay all that long. Ironic isn't it : out of the frying pan, into the fire." 

"It was around 1974 when I realised that the industry was going to fail." In his opinion this was due to the fact that : comics had failed to take advantage of new technologies; there was too much pressure on a small number of artists and the failure of them to gain the copyright to their work meant they "had no control over their own lives or characters" and "In the end, that destroyed their intensity." For Leo, the 1980s were dominated by his seven-year legal action against Thomson for the copyright of his work which he eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

In 1987 he took exception to the part of BBC TV 'Arena' documentary when Beano Editor, George Moonie was questioned about his disapproval of Leo's depictment of naughty kids and said : "There is a punishment. There is a moral. They don't get away with and if they do something really naughty, there must be a punishment and kids really appreciate that" and the programme reinforced his point with Leo's frame of a mass whacking at Bash Street. Leo was aggrieved that the programme gave a false of his work and insisted that punishment and reward were central to his work and trawled through the back copies of the Beano at the British Library to prove that of his 424 weekly Bash Street set, only 72 pictured 'whacks.'

by the 1970s with the comic industry in what seemed to be terminal decline he branched out into books with his series of 'Willie the Kid' and before he retired as a cartoonist to concentrate on his publishing he produced  'I Love You Baby Basil' from 1990 - 91 for the Guardian. He knew that he could only 'keep it going for a short span of time before my drawing hand seized up completely, or my eyesight worsened.'

Leo had a life-long distrust of government and corporations which he termed 'Almighty Power' and which put rules and power-grabbing above people : 'I do not believe that it is possible to carry through a lifelong struggle against almighty power by intellect alone : I believe it is necessary to walk through the valley of fire, in my own case, as it turned out, repeatedly' and 'Given the time and place in history that I was born into, Almighty Power appears in the shape of the two one-eyed brothers of Capitalism and Patriarchy. As I am a Puny Being in a world of thirsty deserts & hungry vultures, knives and forks always at the ready, it might seem to be a ridiculous endeavour; but that has never stopped me.'

Leo, always critical of life in 21st century Britain, said "I'm forever looking at the system I live in and probing at it and poking and see what happens." In 2012, at the age of 82, he offered a critique of contemporary British society, in the Telegraph, in which Little Plum surfaced again for the last time : 'When I read about today's knife culture and youth violence and politicians talking of a "broken society", it makes me think of Little Plum, the Red Indian I created in 1953. He was a puny being, trapped in a world of thirsty deserts and hungry vultures circling with knives and forks at the ready. For today's puny beings, born into the desperate now, it will take more than a comic strip to stop the ground shifting. Yet I can take comfort from the generations that read from the Beano and learnt from its pages, that while we live in a world of uncertainty and ugliness, we can still, like Plug, be radiant beings - and find, as he did, the wit and spirit to survive.'

Leo knew that, by virtue of the fact that comics because they were cheap were more accessible than books and once the child had paid their tuppence for the Beano : "The individual copy became the child's property. It could come back to it again and again in the privacy of its own bedroom and that's where it could spend the time going back, again and again, looking, searching for little gags it had missed the first time and savouring the faces."

Leo said :
'As an artist, I have had a lifelong companion, Comedy, to walk beside me and nudge my elbow to point out the dangers of the straight and narrow.'

and :
 ‘Once the imagination of a child is set alight, it takes persistent dousing with cold water to put out the fire.’

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