When is a children’s comic subversive?

DennisThe Beano, the UK’s longest-running children’s comic, is often celebrated as ‘subversive’. But what does such a claim really mean?

A couple of blog posts ago, I briefly raised the question of how far popular children’s books might be seen as subversive. The Molesworth books, I suggested, undermine the adult-centric values of traditional school stories. To a large extent, they take the child’s point of view. They mock and challenge adult authority; and they also question the sentimental idealization of childhood. Yet there are limits to this subversion, perhaps particularly where it feeds into a more general cynicism.

This issue was brought into focus for me by visiting an exhibition entitled Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules at London’s Somerset House. (As I write, the exhibition is about to close, although it may still be possible to obtain the exhibition comic, which summarises some of the key themes and reproduces a good deal of the Beano stories and images.) As the title suggests, the exhibition celebrated various forms of rule-breaking, not only to do with the content of the comic, but also its artistic form.

Somerset HouseSubversion has been a running theme in academic studies of children’s literature, which has preoccupied writers from Alison Lurie (Not in Front of the Grown Ups) to Kim Reynolds (Radical Children’s Literature), and many others. Books like Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, as well as feminist fairy tales such as Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, have frequently been described in such terms. Julia Mickenberg’s excellent historical study Learning from the Left looks at how children’s writers, illustrators and publishers sought to promote radical political messages, especially in the US during the period of the Cold War.

However, there are various kinds of subversion or radicalism that are at stake here, and it’s important to distinguish between them. Arguably, children’s literature has always been a vehicle for ideologies of many kinds, as well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) adults compete to ‘do children good’ in their own terms, which may be moral, religious or political. What mainly interests me here, however, is how popular texts for children – like the Molesworth books or the Beano – might be seen to challenge or subvert relations of power between children and adults. Some even suggest that it is the disreputable status of such texts that allows space for a kind of subversion, which would not be permitted in more high-status texts. But what kind of ‘subversion’ is this? What, ultimately, is being ‘subverted’, and for whom? And (most problematically) what effect might this have?

0_Beano-celebrates-4000th-issueThe Beano was first published in 1938. It sold over a million copies a week at the height of its popularity. Although the readership began to decline in the 1970s, it has continued to appear weekly, and in 2019 celebrated its 4000th issue. I wouldn’t say I was an avid Beano reader myself, but the comic has been part of childhood for several generations of British adults. As such, it is inevitably surrounded by the aura of nostalgia and sentimentality that infuses so much of our contemporary discussion of children’s culture, and which continues to be exceptionally lucrative. It’s notable that the Beano fan club was recently revived by the publisher, D.C. Thomson, and a growing range of collectable merchandise is now available – and (judging from the prices) a good deal of this does appear to be directed at the adult market.

The Somerset House exhibition is certainly informed by this nostalgia, but it also attempts to make a broader case for the subversiveness of the Beano. Some of its efforts in this respect are, to say the least, somewhat awkward. The exhibition combines material from the comic’s 80-year history (including lots of original artwork) with the work of contemporary British artists, especially those with credentials from identity politics: the Beano somehow becomes aligned with a history of feminist, anti-racist, LGBT+ contemporary art. Some of these newly commissioned works use Beano or comic-type imagery, but many of them don’t, and in many cases the connections are fairly tangential. It is certainly good for these artists to get commissions if they need them, but in my view the broader argument being made in this respect is pretty unconvincing.

In fact, the representational politics of the Beano pose some challenges, both for the exhibition and for the comic itself. The exhibition attempts to reclaim some older characters as forerunners of more recent radical movements – Minnie the Minx is touted as an early example of riot grrrl feminism, and compared with Kathleen Hanna and Sarah Lucas in a way that seems frankly contrived. On the other hand, it is also bound to acknowledge that some elements do offend against current political sensitivities: it notes that the character Plum, for example, traded on offensive stereotypes of native Americans, but tries to reassure us that these stereotypes are ‘of their time’.

CharactersInterestingly, there have been several attempts in recent years to modernise the comic in a more politically correct direction. There are now more strong female characters, as well as curious attempts at ethnic diversity (Betty and her Yeti, the Chandras, Rubi). Established characters have also been renamed in line with contemporary sensitivities: Fatty in the Bash Street Kids is now called Freddie, while Spotty has become Scotty. Trigger warnings surely cannot be far away, as has been the case with some of the older Disney animations.

The broader argument that particularly interests me, however, is the claim that the Beano’s emphasis on children’s ‘bad’ behaviour is in some way subversive – and that children are somehow natural anarchists. So, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and the Bash Street Kids are defined as rebellious mavericks who flout adult authority. They are often stronger and smarter than the adults, and they frequently disrupt the social order. They are ‘lords of misrule’, who follow their own playful instincts and imperatives and wreak havoc in the process.

However, when you read the examples that are presented in the exhibition, it’s obvious that such stories almost always end with the child rebels being brought back to heel by adults. Roger’s dodges invariably fail; Dennis always ends up being slippered by his father or outwitted by the studious and obedient Walter; and Minnie’s minxiness has to be restrained by her parents. Only the Bash Street Kids seem to win out (notably against the authority of their cane-wielding teacher), though even they are frequently disciplined.

The anarchic instincts and tactics of these characters are not exactly ‘radical’, and they often prove counter-productive. Roger is driven simply by the desire to take short cuts and avoid hard work, but he often ends up having to do more work anyway. Dennis and Minnie are essentially fantasists: they are not really seeking to undermine adults, but rather to follow their own imaginative but impractical schemes. (There are parallels here with Richmal Crompton’s character William Brown, whom I’ve written about elsewhere.) Minnie is not driven by the desire to overthrow the patriarchy, or even domesticity. The upper-class child Lord Snooty seeks to affiliate with his working-class friends from the local neighbourhood, but the class system remains in place, as do the walls of his castle. A more recent creation, Bananaman, parodies the law-enforcing vigilantism of traditional comic book superheroes, yet his actions inadvertently end up achieving similar results.

Bash StreetThese children are naughty, but they are naughty as individuals, as occasional eccentrics with particular character traits, not as a group or a class (although again the Bash Street Kids could be seen as an exception, albeit a collection of grotesques). They are mischievous, but essentially well-meaning: they are not deliberately resistant, let alone positively evil. And their return to adult control is entirely inevitable.

Of course, one might claim that these endings (the final frame or frames of the cartoon), in which the rules of order are reinstated, are not as significant as the displays of rule-breaking and anarchy that precede them. In terms of Good Old Narrative Theory, it’s the disequilibrium that propels the narrative: this is what counts, not the new equilibrium that’s reasserted at the end. You could argue that the reinstatement of adult authority at the end is merely a necessary convention, even a knowing joke, rather than an indication of these being ‘cautionary tales’. But this brings me to my question: when is a children’s comic subversive? And how would we know?

As the title of the Somerset House exhibition implies, comedy can depend upon broader forms of disruption – not only of authority, but also of the conventions of art, of logic and of language, and even of physics. The Beano plays endlessly with all these things. Yet arguably, this playfulness is only funny when viewed from a perspective where we know how things ‘really’ are and how they must remain. Without a strong sense of the rules, such rule-breaking is fairly meaningless, and probably quite unfunny.

beanocomicmetafrontpageTo go to another Good Old Literary Theory, it could be argued that the comedy here is ‘carnivalesque’. Some advocates of comics argue that they offer a safe space to explore the limits of order, to imagine a world where rules can be broken, where alternative identities can be temporarily explored without sanction. But the point here is precisely that this is a temporary moment, and one that is clearly marked as escape, or as fantasy. And in the very short, self-contained narratives of children’s comics, any such escape is brief and always predictably brought back under control. So how far might this be seen as subversive? Or is the carnival merely a kind of safety valve, a sanctioned opportunity to let off steam, that allows the world to carry on as usual for the other 364 days of the year?

Thinking about this took me way back to Martin Barker’s book from the late 1980s, Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. It’s a book that has been somewhat neglected in Media Studies, probably because of its central focus. But it’s one that deserves to be more widely known, even today, not least for its very rigorous and challenging criticisms of lazy ideas about ‘media influence’. (There’s a useful recent interview/article about this here.)

In common with many media scholars, Barker argues against the standard line of ‘media effects’ – the idea that representations of ‘bad’ behaviour, in this instance in comics, will incite readers to imitate such behaviour in real life. Yet in the process, he also seriously questions some of the underlying assumptions on which these arguments are based – with some especially incisive demolition jobs on concepts like ‘identification’ and ‘stereotyping’ that are still prevalent in popular debates today.

BarkerBarker doesn’t spend long on the Beano, but he does seem to endorse the argument about its subversiveness. The Beano, he says, challenges ‘the hidden curriculum of adult power’, and ‘conspires with its readers’ in doing so. Dennis the Menace, for example, may be defeated and punished, yet nevertheless he still comes out victorious: through his anarchic adventures, he subverts adult ‘logic’, the system of social relations that justifies adult regulation and oppression of children. In the language of literary theory, the text may offer a closed meaning, enforced by the ending; but this doesn’t mean that readers will interpret it in this closed way.

Ultimately, this leaves us with some empirical questions about audiences. We obviously cannot and should not read off conclusions about the political effects or influence of any text based solely on the analysis of the text itself. This is a truism of academic Media Studies, yet it’s largely ignored in popular debates about media. We go on pointing to selected aspects of a media text, asserting that they are bound to influence audiences in particular ways – mostly negative rather than positive, it should be said. And in doing so, we frequently make assumptions about audiences that float free of any evidence at all. This is perhaps particularly apparent in debates about media for children.

Of course, children’s comics are produced by adults, however ‘child-like’ such adults might claim to be. As the Somerset House exhibition shows, the market specifically for children’s comics began to develop when they were separated off from the ‘funnies’ in adult newspapers in the 1930s (superhero comics are perhaps more of a hybrid in this respect). Children’s comics tell children (and adults) particular stories about childhood (and about adulthood); and many of these stories are ultimately about keeping children in their allotted place. In this context, it’s perhaps a mistake to expect anything approaching ‘subversion’. Much of the apparent subversion of such comics – and, I would add, of children’s books – isn’t much more than cute. It reflects adults’ sentimental and patronising investment in ideas about the naturally spontaneous, wilder instincts of children. This isn’t by any means insignificant, but we should beware of making inflated claims about it.