Review - Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules Is Curated To Chaotic Perfection

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, Somerset House ★★★★★

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 32 months ago

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Last Updated 25 October 2021

Review - Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules Is Curated To Chaotic Perfection Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, Somerset House 5
Hundreds of characters from the Beano crowd together
Beano: Art of Breaking the Rules is must-see history of the world's greatest comic. Click/tap to enlarge.

"Come on, you can't read every single one!"

It's reassuring to see a boy have to almost physically drag his younger brother away from the hundreds of comic strips on show at Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules.

In the mid 1990s, I used to devour my fresh copy of the Beano in the back of the car coming back from the weekly Sainsbury's shop, sucking my free Swizzels Matlow lollipop and giggling at Calamity James, Les Pretend and other Beanotown misfits.

But times have moved on, and I was worried the Beano might've fallen out of favour. I needn't have agonised.

The first Beano - with a strip featuring Big Eggo the ostrich
The first issue of the Beano featured 'Big Eggo' - and a portrayal that isn't deemed acceptable today

Curated to chaotic perfection by artist and lifelong Beano fan Andy Holden, Somerset House's show yanks you into the vibrant pages of the 83-years-young Scottish comic (including massive cutouts of heroes like Minnie the Minx, and a Bash Street Kids classroom, where you sit at desks and scour original layouts).

The Beano has always tapped into the British psyche; rationing came into effect soon after the comic's release in 1939, lasting 13 years — that's why characters often wind up scoffing impossibly large feasts of sausage and mash, cakes and sweets in the final frame. It's aspirational stuff.

A cartoon girl with red hair in a wheelchair
Rubi is one the comic's newer additions. © Beano

Conversely, errant kids had to see how misbehaviour had consequences; count the ways in which Dennis the Menace and Roger the Dodger ended up getting whacked with a slipper for their crimes (not such a hilarious resolution as it seemed in the 1960s).

Throughout the exhibition, scenarios and portrayals unacceptable in 2021 are dealt with tactfully. We also see how the comic has adapted to mend it ways (Bash Street Kid 'Fatty', for instance, is now 'Freddy'); and include characters like the gadget-loving Rubi von Screwtop. Rebellious and offensive needn't go hand-in-hand.

Still, the Beano was always way ahead of its time; look at Pansy Potter, a girl with spiked hair and rippling muscles who cocked a snook at the way girls 'should act', and maybe inspired female punk legends like Poly Styrene and Honey Bane.

Dennis the Menace and Gnasher dive into an LA pool
Horace Panter's take on David Hockey's iconic A Bigger Splash © Beano/Horace Panter

To this end, the show is scattered with contemporary artworks from the likes of Gilbert and George and Heather Phillipson, in a bid to prove how the Beano directly or indirectly informed them. Some are strikingly crowbarred in, but others — like Horace Panter's reworking of a Hockney classic with Dennis the Menace and his loyal Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, Gnasher — are a pure joy.

There is a conspicuous lack of Viz material; but maybe we can forgive that, given its NSFW nature.

In 1939, a year after the Beano launched, comic-reading kids in America got Superman — a ripped, moralistic All-American, who didn't see the funny side of wearing his underpants outside his trousers. Open up the Beano and you get Bananaman — a vain clot who wears fruit on his bonce and would be baffled by the simplest DC Comics story. The key to the Beano's success is it never took itself too seriously. And if that's not for you, I blow a big fat raspberry in your direction.

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, Somerset House, £16 adult, £12.50 kids and concessions, until 6 March 2022