Unless you’re in the know, chances are the name Leo Baxendale means nothing to you. However, if you’re over at least 30, you’ll be more than familiar with the characters this unsung National Treasure gave us – The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, and Grimly Feendish, to name a few. It’s been announced that Baxendale has died at the age of 86 and – subsequent innovators such as Alan Moore and the ‘2000AD’ generation aside – it’s hard to think of anyone who revolutionised British comics more than this remarkably gifted draughtsman from Preston.
Beginning before the Second World War, both The Dandy and The Beano were firmly part of the British cultural furniture by the time Baxendale became a regular contributor to the latter in 1952. The introduction of Dennis the Menace the year before had given Britain’s schoolboys a new anti-hero that enabled them to live out their revenge fantasies on authority figures such as parents and teachers by proxy. Tapping into this new spirit of cartoon anarchy that served to inject some much-needed colour into monochrome Austerity Britain for anyone under the age of around 13, Baxendale added to the list of naughty schoolboys with an entire class of them, The Bash Street Kids.
With Desperate Dan the cowboy star of The Dandy, Baxendale decided to showcase the other side for The Beano by creating Red Indian character Little Plum as well as The Three Bears. Both strips ran for over thirty years, long after their creator had left the comic, whereas The Bash Street Kids continue to run riot in their preserved 50s playground to this very day, as does the other character whose creation he will forever be associated with, Minnie the Minx.
Clearly a female equivalent of Dennis the Menace, Baxendale’s tomboy (first appearing in 1953) even wore the same red-and-black hooped jersey Dennis had virtually trademarked. However, whilst her male counterpart can be placed in a long tradition of unruly little boys such as William Brown (AKA ‘Just William’), there were few precedents in either literature or comics for Minnie. Yes, there were the wild pupils of St Trinian’s, though they were posh girls at a boarding school; Minnie was a working-class heroine when the idea of a girl from ‘the lower orders’ being as mischievous and badly-behaved as a boy was very much frowned upon. She instantly provided female readers with their own role model that parents were destined to disapprove of; the fact she also happened to be ginger gave hope to redheads everywhere. Like Dennis, her wicked deeds may have ended with the obligatory slipper on the backside, but readers at the time were aware that’s how all wicked deeds concluded, so her ultimate failure didn’t matter; what mattered was that she had the guts to have a go.
Dundee-based DC Thomson, publishers of The Dandy and The Beano as well as a host of other popular titles, were notoriously reluctant to give credit to the artists illuminating the pages of their publications; the serf-like approach they had to the men whose creations and artwork sold millions of copies (in 1950, the weekly circulation of The Beano alone was estimated at 1,974,072) irked Baxendale and he left the company after a decade in 1962, moving to DC Thomson rivals Odhams Press. Whilst there, he helped create Wham!, a gloriously insane comic that allowed his vivid imagination to run riot and one that introduced one of his most memorable creations, Grimly Feendish.
If you’ve ever seen the animated movie ‘Despicable Me’, the influence of Feendish is unmistakable. A fat bald villain clad in black, Feendish’s army for achieving world domination included bats, spiders and various fictitious creatures that made him a cult horror figure so potent to 60s children that when some of them grew up and formed The Damned, they even wrote a hit single about him. Unfortunately, the high production cost of Wham! and its sister titles pushed Odhams into financial difficulties and the company was absorbed into IPC, whose titles showcased most of Baxendale’s new work in the 70s as well as introducing that decade’s comic readership (myself included) to the likes of Grimly Feendish.
Still smarting from his treatment by DC Thomson and the fact that the strips he created remained amongst the most popular in the company’s comic stable, Baxendale took the company to court in the 80s in order to gain the rights to his creations. This legal battle spanned seven years, eventually settled out of court with an arrangement that apparently suited both parties. The fact that Baxendale was prepared to take on the authority of Thomson seemed to echo the attitude of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids towards their own authority figures, perhaps showing there was more than a touch of the creations in the creator.
Whereas the 1960s may have opened the door to irreverence that in turn heralded the death of deference, without the foundations laid in the previous decade we wouldn’t have had ‘Beyond the Fringe’ or John Lennon asking the people in the expensive seats at the Royal Variety Performance to rattle their jewellery. Whilst the likes of Spike Milligan and The Goons are rightly recognised as hugely significant pioneers in helping to manufacture this atmosphere, credit is also due to the men whose madcap characters enlivened the comics read by kids who went on to play their own part in the 60s cultural revolution.
Leo Baxendale stands at the head of these neglected innovators; that it’s still possible to follow the adventures of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in the twenty-first century is testament to their enduring appeal and to the man who made them. RIP.
© The Editor