To write about Leo Baxendale is to write about one of the most prolific, funny, subversive, and revolutionary comic artists in the UK. According to cartoonist Lew Stringer, “Leo is the most influential artist in British humour comics over the past 60 years. Even today, long after Leo retired from traditional children’s comics, his style is still evident in the pages of The Beano and other comics. His strips were certainly a big influence on my work and that of artists such as David Sutherland, Tom Paterson and Nigel Parkinson.” (Blimey!)
Several books could be written about his life and the impact that he has had on children and young artists throughout the decades. Alas! A simple blog post will not do him justice, but we are certainly going to try. Baxendale will be the first of our artist highlights for the Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum.
A Life in Comics is “A Very Funny Business“
Leo Baxendale was born in Whittle-le-Woods, a small village in Lancashire, England, on October 27, 1930. He studied at Preston Catholic College and already then he knew that he was destined to make his mark as an artist. His first job was to design paint labels for the Leyland Paint and Varnish Company, but he left this job when he had to serve his National Service days at the Royal Air Force. After leaving the RAF, he landed a job as an artist for the Lancashire Evening Post where he drew advertisements and sports cartoons. Sadly, the pay was not very good.
Then, in the Autumn of 1952, while Leo was sitting at home, his younger brother came in with a copy of The Beano. He ran through the pages expecting to find what he considered to be the same old stuff, but instead he was confronted with a new comic that seemed to capture the effervescence of a modern urban setting inhabited by a remarkable new character: David Law’s Dennis the Menace. This strip inspired him to put his portfolio together and send it to the editors of The Beano at D.C. Thomson. And behold! R.D. Low and George Moonie, managing editor and editor of The Beano respectively, came calling soon after. They wanted him to work for them as a freelance artist. He accepted, but his initial contributions were not as successful as he had hoped. He could not find the right fit for him drawing characters like Oscar Krank, Mad Inventor, Charlie Choo, the Chinese Detective with his sons Ah Choo and Choo Choo, or Jamie the Gamie.
Finally, in 1953, he took matters into his own hands and he created his first blockbuster: Little Plum Your Redskin Chum. Leo described him as “a Red Indian Dennis the Menace” (Baxendale 1978, 8). The strip was an instant success. Here we had the youngest, pluckiest brave Indian in the Smellyfoot tribe who was ready to battle rival tribes and grizzly bears. Baxendale’s bear characters became so popular later on that he was asked in 1959 to create a strip just for them and The Three Bears comic strip began starring Pa, Ma and Teddie in their everlasting quest to search for food. Afterwards, George Moonie came up with the idea to have a female version of Dennis the Menace that he called Minnie the Minx and he wanted Baxendale to create her. Leo accepted with great enthusiasm. He consistently received scripts from D.C. Thomson for his new characters and he consistently began to twist them to fit his own sense of humour-and he got away with it too! These characters became extremely popular with the public. As a matter of fact, Baxendale’s Minnie the Minx is the third longest-running Beano character with her strip still being published today. She even has her own statue in Dundee.
It was not long before Moonie requested a third feature from Baxendale, one that included “a bashing and thumping crowd of children pouring out of school. The format would be two or three small pictures leading up to a big crowded single picture a la Giles.” (Baxendale 1978, 9). George then suggested the title When the Bell Rings, which seemed to be appropriate, but it was soon to be changed to The Bash Street Kids in 1956. This strip was another immediate success after its publication in 1954. Leo Baxendale could do no wrong!
Unfortunately, his achievements came with a downside: more features meant more work that needed to be done by strict weekly deadlines. This did not sit well with Baxendale who wanted to take his time in creating every single strip. He felt that the increased high-speed production had a distorting and destructive effect on his work-something that he continued to complain about until he left D.C. Thomson in 1962. Still, the editor of The Beano thought that Leo’s humour was the selling point, more so than his drawings (Baxendale 1978, 13). He might not have been wrong! Even the adults of the time started noticing Baxendale’s strips in The Beano and fan mail began to arrive at the offices of D.C. Thomson describing his work as that of a “near-genius” (Baxendale 2003).
Baxendale’s tendency to fill out the pages with background actions and humorous details became one of his hallmarks and he put this style to good use with the creation of a weekly full-page single-picture feature built around a crowd of kids called The Banana Bunch. Iain Chisholm, editor of the Topper, had asked him to create this new strip for a new comic called The Beezer–although, apparently Baxendale thought that The Banana Bunch was going to appear in the Topper and only after he had finished the drawing did Chisholm sprang the news to him that it was for The Beezer (Baxendale 1978, 29). The Banana Bunch then debuted in this new tabloid (A3) publication, and it ran for 37 years. It was indisputably the most popular strip in the comic, but it was not the only feature created by Baxendale for this publication. At this time he also created a small experimental strip that looked like a narrow L-shaped strip running along one side of a page, and the bottom. Leo came up with The Gobbles, a family of loony vultures. Although he only drew them for some weeks, the strip ran from 1962 until 1964.
Starting in 1954 until 1962, the high demand for his comics caused him to start sending them late every week. According to Baxendale, this was a blessing in disguise in a way since his features did not go through the veto process at D.C. Thomson, something that gave him a greater measure of freedom that other artists of the publishing house did not have (Baxendale 1978, 33). Still, his drawing style kept changing radically from year to year due to pace and volume of the work. This had a detrimental effect on him. By 1962 he was not only drawing his regular comics (Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids, the Banana Bunch, and The Gobbles), but also the new Three Bears strip, the many annuals that had to be done with new artwork, and filling in for Dennis the Menace and Cap’n Hand, among other projects. In the end, all this work proved to be too much for Baxendale, who ended up dropping The Three Bears strip. D.C. Thomson went even further and gave Little Plum to another artist without consulting Leo first. This enraged Baxendale since Little Plum was his favourite strip and it was not long before Leo, on an impulse, quit his job at The Beano.
Leo continued to create work for The Beezer for the next two years, including the Beezer Book in 1963 . But after a change in the editorial board in this comic, Baxendale ended up leaving that job as well.
The winds of change came in 1964, when he decided to turn things around one more time by sending his portfolio to other British comics and book publishers. In the end, it was Odhams Press who swayed him by offering to create a comic built around him (Baxendale 1978, 80). This presented a wonderful opportunity. Baxendale had already dreamed of an ideal platform for artists were they would be able to run free and write their own characters while being credited for them. He brought together a team of artists, including former colleague from D.C. Thomson, Ken Reid, and began work in this new 24-page comic. But it first needed a title! Baxendale came up then with a single syllable title that would have greater impact than the two syllable titles that flooded the market like Film Fun, Comic Cuts, Beano, Dandy, Eagle, Topper, or Beezer, and that is how WHAM! came into being.
This new comic was “wilder, dafter and more unpredictable” than its rivals at The Beano or The Eagle (Stringer, 21 June 2014). WHAM! featured comic strips by Baxendale including old Beano re-makes like The Tiddlers (based on his Bash Street Kids), Bad Penny (Minnie the Minx), Barmy Army (Little Plum), and new original characters such as Eagle Eye, Junior Spy and Georgie’s Germs. The most famous one, Eagle Eye, followed a diminutive, trench-coat clad, secret agent as he uncovered villainy around the world. His adversary, Grimly Feendish and his minions, ended up having their own feature in SMASH! (WHAM!’s sister publication) in 1968. In these pages Baxendale was free to experiment with page layout and full colour, and he attempted to break the mold of older strips by the use of bizarre humour, outrageous puns, and surreal plots. His joyful creativity that resulted from these experiments are clear to see on the page. WHAM! lasted for four years, until 1968 when IPC merged the title first with the new POW! which later on was absorbed by SMASH! Nevertheless, the last two years went ahead without Baxendale who left WHAM! in 1966 and joined the rival Fleetway Publications.
Although reluctant to work for Fleetway at first, Leo created a great amount of strips for their range of titles (Buster, Valiant, Lion, etc.). The Pirates, The Nits of the Round Table, The Cave Kids, Mervyn’s Monsters, Big Chief Pow Wow, Lion Lot, Bluebottle and Basher, Sam’s Spook, Swots and Blots and Snooper were joined by more famous titles like Clever Dick, a young genius whose inventions usually backfired, or Sweeney Toddler, a two-year-old toddler from hell who broke havoc everywhere he went. He also created Nellyphant for Buster and Jet, a strip that followed a naughty she-elephant and her keeper.
As productive as his work for Fleetway had been, Baxendale still drew a large amount of work for Odhams in secret until 1969. He was unwilling to give up the lucrative Odhams market since their rates of pay were better than Fleetway’s. Most of the pages that he created for Odhams during this period were channeled via Mike Brown, a cartoon-film animator who also inked many of Leo’s drawings. It was then that he also enjoyed a shift in his style provided by this secrecy. In Leo’s own words:
“I was in a delightful situation.Working under my own name, a lot was expected of me. Publishers expected me to cram my drawings with funny detail. Working undercover, I was able to reduce the layouts to the simplest terms. Backgrounds were minimal or non-existent – just a horizon line. And there was no ancillary comic detail – just the characters acting out the story line against an empty backdrop. I drew them fast. But there was so little work in them that I was able to draw them very well. They sparkled.” (Baxendale 1978, 90-91).
In 1973 the British economy experienced a downturn, which affected the comic industry as well. There was, in general, less work to be had, and Baxendale took this time to review his career. By then he really wanted to spend more time on each strip to create higher quality work, and the bad economy actually helped him achieve this goal. Readers and editors loved the results of Leo’s work at this time. In 1975 he was approached by his editor, Bob Paynter, with news about a new comic that was going to be launched in Spring called Monster Fun. The editor told him that the middle pages were his to do as he pleased. Paynter only suggested a title: Bad Time Bed Time Book. Baxendale then took the opportunity to use these four middle pages as a test for a new direction in his humor and style that would be more in tune with the times and the children. The four center pages were smaller in size and they could be pulled out and folded over to make an eight page “book,” and each was meant to be a parody based on a classic novel or TV series. Every week the mini-book introduced a new world, a new cast of characters, and a new complete story. This was followed by some closing words from the “editor”, Leonard Rottingsocks, who encouraged little kids to write. One of the things that made these pages so special was that they were meant to be read under the bed clothes by little kids. This and their collectible nature made the Bad Time Bed Time Books extremely popular. Even today it is hard to find these books still attached to their Monster Fun comic at auctions or second hand bookstores. These books had a one year run and they were done by other artists when Baxendale left. Sadly, they disappeared once Monster Fun was absorbed into Buster.
In the 70s and 80s, Leo continued to explore new ways to address an ever-evolving comics audience by creating his own Willy the Kid, 1976-78, published by Duckworths, using the hardback annual format as a medium for this original material, and THRRP!, 1987, published by Knockabout, that was aimed at older readers, although it was still full of that childish gross out humour and juvenile invention that characterized his work. He also created in the 90s a comic strip for The Guardian called I Love You Baby Basil.
In 1973 many of Leo Baxendale’s old work and that of other artists were reprinted by IPC, a trend that continued throughout the 70s. IPC made many thousands of pounds by doing this, but there was no additional compensation for the people who created the artwork in the first place. Baxendale’s former publishers at D.C. Thomson were also “reaping a fat weekly income by using the features I created-Minnie, Plum, Bash Street and the rest-then years after I had left the firm, again without a penny coming to me” (Baxendale 1978, 102-103). This situation infuriated Baxendale who in 1977 decided that after writing and drawing over 5000 pages (with roughly 50000 pictures in total) at the first opportunity he had he was going to leave the world of comics (Baxendale 1978, 103). In fact, the Bad Time Bed Time Books became his farewell to traditional children’s comics. Nevertheless, before he moved on, there was a case that needed to be solved first according to him: the copyrights to his creations. In the words of Leo Baxendale,
“People always ask if I felt an emotional attachment to my Beano characters, if I felt bad when they were taken over by other artists. In fact, this never occurred to me. Apart from anything else, I realised that I had created structures of comedy that would last for decades, so I had always expected other artists to take them over. The bad bit – the part where I was naive – was with the copyright. It turned out that I had lost control, and I was going to lose out financially.
That was why I started a high court case against Thomson in 1980, which ended with a settlement in 1987. Oddly, the court case became addictive, in a very similar way to drawing for the comics – when I was drawing for the Beano, when it was time to go to bed, I could hardly bear to wait till morning to carry on with the drawing.” (Baxendale 30 July, 2003)
After the settlement, Leo Baxendale was recognized as the creator of The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, The Three Bears, and The Banana Bunch. He was also given 30 of his original artwork back along with monetary compensation. With this money, Leo went on to set up his own publishing house called Reaper Books where he printed books like The Beano Room and Other Places, The Worst of Willy the Kid and The Hobgoblin Wars: Dispatches from the Front.
In 2003 Leo Baxendale was the recipient of the Cartoon Art Trust Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2013 he received the honour of being inducted into the British Comics Awards Hall of Fame.
Baxendale, Leo. A Very Funny Business: 40 Years Of Comics. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1978.
Baxendale, Leo . “Bash Street, The Beano and Me“ The Guardian. 30 July 2003. (Retrieved 28 January 2016).
Cadwell, Adam. “Hall of Fame: Leo Baxendale”. British Comic Awards. 29 November 2013. (Retrieved 28 January 2016).
Heggie, Morris and Christopher Riches. The History of the Beano. Dundee, Scotland: D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd., 2008. (p. 316).
Stringer, Lew. “WHAM’s 50th Wham-iversary.” Blimey! 21 June 2014 (Retrieved 2 February 2016).
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