Every so often, the outrage machine is switched on and all cannons of social media start firing towards a target for befitting ‘PC’ Culture. Is Dennis the Menace the latest casualty to this nanny state? With the coming of a new (admittedly awfully cheap looking) CGI TV show, Dennis the Menace is set to become just Dennis, no longer the menace we know and love.
I grew up with Dennis the Menace from my mum – who, herself, grew up with it from my Grandad. He’s a bit of an institution in my family – I still have annuals dating back to 1952, wrapped in plastic and inside big crates, kept safe from prying eyes in the shed. I own over 120 Robert Harrop figurines of the Beano’s classic characters, letters from the editors of the time complimenting my young self’s eager pencil sketches. I even have some little lead figurines that look a bit like they were made in someone’s shed.
Oh yes, if there’s any nostalgia driven personality who should be peaked by Dennis the Menace losing his Menace moniker, it’s almost definitely our family.
I stopped reading the Beano and the Dandy regularly at age 16. It took me that long to let go of the comics that had been with me since I started reading, but I was all too aware that things had changed. Of course they had! Some joker had started as a new artist, the backgrounds were stiffer, the artwork more modern, sleek and cutesy. Even the paper was different from my very first issue in 1999.
But above all else, Dennis the Menace seemed heavily neutered, domesticated and uninteresting compared to the frankly ridiculous days of having his own car and fighting space aliens that had marked the new millennium when I had started reading. He even looked a bit ‘cuter’.
I sympathise with DC Thomson, I really do – constantly publishing a character for nearly seven decades means that you get pulled in every single direction; kids who need role models and incentive to actually read, young adults who are likely to be handing the mantle, older parents who read the comic in its ‘golden age’ and the grandparents who first saw Dennis climbing on trees while wearing a natty tie.
Beyond all this, Dennis has grown into a bit of an alternative icon too, getting adopted by fans of the Cure, The Sex Pistols, David Bowie at al – who all, at some point, had a pose with a Beano comic. I still see motorcyclists with Dennis mascots, Goths and Punks with Dennis patches, and Whitby Goth Weekend is no stranger to the odd Beano Appliqué in their audience every year.
The Beano’s own web media still shows a certain familiar flair.
The fact is, Dennis the Menace hasn’t embodied anarchy for years – but when he did, the story always had a different tone, and it’s one that I feel DC Thomson themselves have kind of missed the mark on; Dennis should misbehave, get punished, then go out and misbehave again. He never won – he just never let it get him down, either.
That was the idea of the Menace’s appeal – he basically went out and raised hell so I didn’t particularly have to. He wasn’t so much of a role model, either – he was more of an anti-hero who, by the end of it, got what he deserved.
By my time reading the comic, it was no longer with a slipper – but his antics were no longer breaking windows and beating softies, either – he’d be covering the town with paint bombs, before being caught and forced to clean every inch with a toothbrush. Or breaking a vase and having to put it back together bit-by-bit.
The fact Dennis lost made sense to most young heads; the fact he came out of it and carried on is what we found admirable, beyond his messy hair, big clompy boots and red and black jumper. By contrast, in the 1951/52 annual, he’s seem playing with fireworks. Can you see the contrast?
Unfortunately, it seems most comic strips and children’s properties are no longer willing to show the main character ‘losing’, and it seems the days of utter chaos of building your own jet powered car or fighting aliens are long gone – Dennis has been brought back to Earth, and realistically, he and his publishers can’t win or lose; something has to change – and unfortunately, the big bods at DC Thomson have gone for the easiest route of making a more believable, less devious and far more simplified ‘kid’ character. Horrid Henry’s franchise seems to have got the one up over them for a truly ‘naughty boy’ and has done far better with it – so with Dennis beaten at his own game, perhaps it does make sense to try something a touch more likeable.
Beyond all this, simply ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ is far easier to sell a television show internationally – and is easier to fit on Merchandise. Incidentally, this was what the last one a few years back was called too, which sparked a similar none-stop media frenzy.
I won’t defend the show itself. It looks dreadful.
If I was them, I’d have made him more over the top, more difficult to imitate – and above all else – more of a public menace, rather than a simpler, more clichéd character. Perhaps it’s time DC Thomson tried their hand at a nostalgia title; or go with the more sensible route of more adult T-shirts, patches, doc martens and ear studs.
Has Dennis the Menace changed? Oh yes, but it was long, long ago – Dennis, by necessity, is constantly evolving, has constantly changed and has done so gradually over his lifetime – it’s nothing new. The only constant is that famous striped top and black moppy hair. Over sixty years, something has to change and needs to give – in this case, it’s simply the acceptance of what has happened in the past decade. Dennis the Menace is no longer the same character he was in 1952, 1972, 1992, even 2002. He’s younger, more innocent, and less of a menace than ever before. But the same would apply for the majority of cartoon youngsters in his age bracket.
You’re far too late for an outrage train on this one; and spare a little thought for DC Thomson – who have six generations of Beano readers, all of whom invest in the Beano legacy – and only one that regularly buys an issue every week. It’s not an easy job. Do I agree with it? No, perhaps not – and it’s not what I’d do with the character. But then, I am currently a 24 year old cigar smoker who goes out to watch punk bands swear like sailors. I may not be the right person to take the mantle at the big red building in Dundee.
For some classic Beano cartoonery, I advise this. I had it on VHS as a youngster and still remember every line!
In the end, Dennis has changed, will change, and has done so many times in the past. It isn’t a mark of PC Culture; it’s a mark at trying to suit the latest generation – those who are most likely to give their pocket money for a magazine. Your Dennis – the one you knew – is more than well documented. There is no loss here, and there is no cause for outrage or concern. Relax, and put down the red top. Swap it for the Beano instead… (it’s no less fictionalised.)