Happy Birthday Dennis?A column article, Fool Britannia by: Regie Rigby
Last weekend I was in London, accompanying four of the lads from my Rocket Club* to the Big Bang Science Fair. It was a huge, and from our point of view highly successful event, since all four of the lads managed to win themselves an i-pod nano from the General Dynamics stand and as a group we won a certificate of merit and a small cash prize which will help fund our activities for a bit. There were any number of major science and engineering companies in attendance – Airbus, Lockheed Markin, BAe Systems, Rolls Royce and the world’s finest satellite manufacturers EADS Astrium to name but a few. There were also any number of organisations whose basic aim is to recruit students into the fields of science and engineering, and encourage the brightest and the best to pursue subjects which will prepare them for a scientific career. In the very best sense of the term, there were a hell of a lot of geeks in the room. Why am I telling you this? Well, there were a lot of geeks in the room, and a lot of people who wanted to catch their attention and convey a lot of information to them. Yet search as I might, there was only one stand using comics to push their message. One. Well, one and a half, since Airbus were giving away a rather nice hardback book celebrating the history of Bristol Aviation** which had a couple of comics strip in it. But the only group using comics to actually try to talk to the kids was The WISE campaign***, who were giving away a rather natty little comic called Postcards From the Future. In this little mini-comic (they called it a graphic novel, but at sixteen pages I reckon that’s a bit of a high claim) Maya, our heroine is transported from a boring science lesson to view a variety of alternate futures in which she meets inspirational female scientists and engineers and learns that the only thing that can stop her is herself. It’s rather a fun little read actually – slightly preachy perhaps, but competently written and well drawn. I enjoyed it, although being neither young nor female I’m somewhat outside the target audience. So, why was nobody else trying to reach the kids through this glorious medium of ours? I mean sure, the big, well funded stands from the major companies were literally bristling with flashing lights, computer touch screens, flashing lights and things that went “ping”****, and very popular they were too. But even the multinationals like General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin weren’t in a position to let kids take the whizzy computer screens away with them. In the end, no matter how “interactive” the stands were, at the end of the day all the kids were left with was a memory and, perhaps a sticker or a bookmark. I seem to remember all manner of comics being thrust at me when I attended such events as a kid. These days it seems that their use simply doesn’t occur to people, and I really do wonder why this is. Sadly, I can only think of one reason – the very highly paid marketing types who plan all this stuff just don’t believe that kids will react well to comics any more, and that therefore they’re just not worth bothering with. And of course, the problem is that, for the pre and early teen audience, that is probably true – a depressing fact that is in some part explained by a news item from this past week. You see, here in the UK at least***** the papers have been full of the fact that Dennis the Menace has turned sixty. Now, if you’re American, you may now be thinking of a well scrubbed little blonde urchin who occasionally is mildly mischevious. That’s the wrong boy. The British Dennis****** is a scruffy little bastard in a black and red striped jumper, accompanied everywhere by an equally scruffy (and barely controlled) little mongrel dog called Gnasher.******* Our Dennis is a psychotic bully who spends most of his time making the lives of his parents, neighbours and teachers a living hell with a never ending stream of cruel and often violent pranks. He is also relentless in his persecution of the effete “Walter the Softie”, who would be Dennis’s arch nemesis if he weren’t so pathetic and, well, soft. As a kid I delighted in antics of this “Bad Boy” who began his campaign of terror in the pages of the weekly The Beano back in March 1951. Since it’s a ling time since I was ten years old, I haven’t been a regular reader for many, many years, but given that this eternally eight year old boy is now entitled to a pensioner’s bus pass I figured I’d take a look and see how he was getting along. Oh dear. What have they done to him?! I don’t know who that kid with the black frizzy hair is, but he certainly isn’t the Dennis I remember. His antics these days are anodyne to the point of silliness – the edge of cruelty that once characterised his old behaviour is gone, these days he seems to be, god forbid, wacky, and not dangerous. I’m beginning to understand why he’s not so popular with kids anymore – I used to love him because he was an anti-hero. Now, he’s just, well, a kid in a sweater. Looking back, I can see how it happened. The extreme behaviour that Dennis used to exhibit was always met by equally extreme punishment. At the end of every story Dennis would invariably be caught and given the dreaded slipper – his dad actually had a “gun rack” of different slippers designed to enable beatings of variable severity. If Dennis was really bad, then his granny would be called upon to bring the “great elephant hide” slipper. In 1951 of course, the idea that parents would use such controlled violence to chastise their children was totally uncontroversial. Corporal punishment was used routinely in schools in the guise of the cane, the belt or, in Scotland, the Birch. (American readers, just imagine the “Switch” which so terrorised Tom Sawyer.) By the time I was reading the Beano in the late seventies and early eighties such punishments were hardly ever used in schools, and by the time they were completely banned in 1986******** the culture had shifted to the point where it largely disapproved of smacking in the home too – let alone hitting kids with slippers. (Although smacking by parents remains legal in the UK, it’s hard to find parents who admit to doing it, and almost impossible to find parents who will openly state they think that it’s a good thing to do.) This shift in cultural attitudes (from “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to “Call social services, that parent has just given their child a dirty look!”) led to an unease at the way Dennis was treated by his parents, which led eventually to the disappearance of the slipper from the pages of The Beano. This in turn, led to a sort of reverse arms race. Because extreme punishments could no longer be delivered, then Dennis’s behaviour slowly became less extreme too. Don’t get me wrong here. I am in no way in favour of using violence against children. As a teacher, if I were allowed to administer physical punishment to my students I absolutely wouldn’t – I don’t even like raising my voice, to raise my hands against the kids would be an absolute admission that I’d lost control and the day that happens will be the day I leave the job. The thing of it is though, Dennis the Menace isn’t real. His world isn’t the real world., and I have far too much respect for kids to accept that they can’t tell fantasy from reality. This is why I also don’t buy the argument that Dennis needed to change because he was a bad example to his readers. It has been claimed that his treatment of Walter the Softie was bullying (which is, frankly undeniable) and that because Dennis was the “hero” his stories amounted to a glorification of bullying. I don’t buy it. I doubt it’s going to come as a massive shock to anyone that I was bullied at primary school. Two boys in particular made my life a living hell for a period of a couple of years. I have no truck with bullies, and I’d accept that as a kid I had a lot more in common with Walter than with his tormentor. Dennis was a fantasy figure, and escape, and, as he received his regular slippering at the end of each story, proof that there really was the sort of visceral justice that I craved in the world. The violence and cruelty were so over the top they were on the same level as Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote or Sylvester and Tweetie. There was no prospect that I might imitate any of the behaviour exhibited by Dennis and his pals. Besides, if that’s the concern, shouldn’t we be more worried about the fact that now they don’t read comics anymore kids are spending their time decapitating each other in online games? (For the record, I’m not worried about that either, for the same reason). Parents seem unconcerned by the kind of games their kids play*********, so was there really such a popular demand for the watering down of The Beano’s cast of characters? If there was, why are comics victim to such parental censorship pressures, while other media such as games and films (I teach eleven year old lids who list the SAW series as their favourite movies – if they can cope with that I doubt they’d be traumatised by the great elephant hide slipper…) have apparently escaped? I wonder how much of it is the continued association of comics with picture books and other educational matter for very young children. Perhaps the public are happier to allow children to see adult themed films and games, but not to see “kids comics” address similar themes. It’s a topic that will, I think, be worthy of further investigation… *The Danum Aeronautics and Rocketry Team, known to its mates as D.A.R.T. Yes, it took me ages to come up with a name that gave us a decent acronym – as to why and English Teacher runs the rocket club, well, let’s not go there… **One of the aviation companies that was absorbed into British Aerospace and then into the Airbus Consortium. ***Women Into Science and Engineering. ****Most notably General Dynamics, who had a Tank simulator and BAe who could let you pilot a virtual Typhoon fighter jet and interact with a virtual robot, but they weren’t the only video games by a long chalk. *****Actually, almost certainly just here in the UK – Dennis is a very British icon. I doubt he translates well abroad. ******From what I understand, both characters were created more or less at the same time, but totally independently. I suspect that the name has such a ring to it it was bound to crop up more than once. *******Occasionally a pet pig called – in a masterpiece of bad taste – “Rasher” also turns up. ********And I’m frankly astonished it was that late… *********Rather self evidently so – kids have more money to spend than my generation did, but a forty quid a pop for the top of the line games, there’s no way kids can afford them if they’re not subsidised by their parents.