Cripes, youngsters, what wizard fun

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sixty years ago, tucked in a comic called `Wizard' was an eight- page pull-out. It was the first edition of `Dandy'. Denis Gifford bought the first one - he was nine at the time - and has amassed the biggest private collection of comics in the country. Here he celebrates many happy years of Bash!, Crash!! and Aarrgh!!!

"Please," begged the headline on the front of Wizard, " hand this comic to the youngsters!"

Important social history, this: it proved that Scottish publisher D. C. Thomson knew all about the age gap which separated the 11-plus readers of his Wizard and the other titles, such as Hotspur and Rover with the kids aged six or so who spent their Saturday pennies on the comics. "Tuppenny Bloods", as parents of the period called them, were story-papers. Comics were full of pictures. It is a distinction that no longer exists except among old-time collectors of juvenile japery. Dandy, or The Dandy Comic as it was entitled back in 1937, was D. C. Thomson's first-ever comic, at least as far as us Sassenachs go. We failed to receive the benefit of their experimental Fun Section, an eight-page giveaway which started in Thomson's Sunday Post with impenetrable characters like Oor Wullie (trans: Our Willie), The Broons (trans: The Browns), and Auchtenbogle (trans: Auchtenbogle) 18 months or more before Dandy Number One was printed in English.

It hit the news-stands on 4 December 1937. Well, not quite. It is a rule of publishing that every weekly is dated for the Saturday following publication. Dandy is, or was, issued on a Friday; therefore its true birthday is 3 December, 1937. I should know; I bought it. I walked slowly home from Salmon's the Sidenham stationers reading: "The Great New Fun Paper" or "The Brilliant Coloured Comic" according to which advert you had read, while at the same time trying out my Grand Free Express Whistler, a tin flute affair described as "eight different engine whistles in one".

Although Dandy was aimed at "youngsters", as they called us kids, it is obvious that the editor, his staff, his writers and artists were all boys. In its 28 packed pages, containing no fewer than 17 strips, only two featured females - though the later arrival of Beryl the Peril more than compensated. One played second fiddle to an infant, "Sammy and his Sister", the other was a certain star in her own right. She had the right to stick her boney nose into whatever seemed to be going on beyond her ken. Keyhole Kate, of course.

This gym-slipped schoolgirl was the first Thomson child to receive a weekly whack from Uncle's well-wielded walking-stick, the start of a long, long tradition that only in recent times has received the attention of the PC people. Bespectacled Kate spanned some 18 peepful years before being yanked back from retirement for further snoopings. At least the knee holes in her black stockings had been darned.

"Keyhole Kate's a little sneak, See her on this page each week!" That was the comical couplet that kicked Kate off to a sneaky start, to be followed by "He's the toughest of the tough - Watch our Danny do his stuff!"

That, of course, was Desperate Dan, who has just fooled much of the press with his pretend plans for retirement. When Dan began he was truly desperate, a squat, ugly, barrel-chested, unshaven owl-hoot, the terror of Bad Man's Gulch. Later he was tamed by the arrival of dear old Aunt Aggie, who fed him home-made cow pies with the horns in and the tails out. Cactusville became his, in the mild, if not wild, West, a unique township complete with Dundee lamp posts and tram lines. Wallowing through that first Dandy, the surprise is the comical creativeness of it all compared with this week's Gold Jubilee special. Today's Dandy is packed to the page-count with pictures, all of them funny but almost all of them starring some semi-delinquent child or other. "We like to represent our readership," says Morris Heggie, the present editor.

One of the differences between now and then is the way the young heroes are portrayed and the way they behave towards their elders. Then, they were cheekier and more disrespectful, but always got a ticking off, or even a whacking. Young people now can get away with anything.

I do miss some of the early characters. Where is Barney Boko, the tramp with the six foot nose? Where is Jimmy and his Grockle - "the queerest beast to walk on land, Jimmy's Grockle beats the band!"

Where is Hungry Horace, who over-indulged his mania for munchery for a run of 860 weeks? And what about Freddie the Fearless Fly? Dan apart, one other original character has spanned our 60 years, and that is Korky the Cat. Not quite the street moggy snatching a fishmonger's cod as he was in the beginning, and no longer the full-colour front-page hero.

This rambling recollection is not all drawn from memory. It's from a read-through of a facsimile reprint which was put out about 20 years ago. To buy that real bygone Number One I would need about pounds 4,000. Not a bad advance on the original tuppence - two old pennies that was. I make that around 400,000 per cent profit - not bad if you've got a copy.

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