Beano artist Barrie: It’s fun to get up and think ‘Great! I’ve got to draw Gnasher!’
- Credit: Archant
The Beano's 80th birthday bash reminded us we've got an artist in our midst who's drawn for the comic's publisher for nigh on four decades. He explains why it's still a success
I'm truly honoured. Not only is it Barrie Appleby's 75th birthday, he's put Roger the Dodger on hold to talk to me. Mind you, Roger has been giving the Beano artist some uncommon hassle this morning.
In the story Barrie's illustrating, the Dodger has been overly-absorbed by a computer game. Dad's confiscated Roger's earphones and fallen asleep on the sofa with his arm over them. Roger has to lift up his dad's arm, sneak the earphones away and replace them with the also-napping cat… smoothly.
'It really requires two frames, but I've only got one to work with,' says Barrie, who managed to crack it after some head-scratching. 'It wasn't easy. I'm actually having to think about this one! It does me good to have to use my brain occasionally,' he chuckles.
Readers of the famous comic will be able to see how he did it when the strip appears towards the end of October.
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Drawing pages of the Beano is a childhood dream come true for Barrie, bringing the chance to spend working days with characters such as Dennis the Menace and Gnasher during his long association with Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson.
The grandfather of six has also drawn for Marvel Comics, the now-gone Dandy, and others – his CV including Scooby Doo, Banana Man, Tumble Tots and Budgie the Helicopter.
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The Yorkshireman grew up near Barnsley in a terraced house with outside loo. Dad worked down the pit. Comics and cartoons were a passion for the youngster. For years he enjoyed Mickey Mouse Weekly – sent by his godmother – before moving on to the Beano when he was about six. Once he'd read his copy, he'd do an exchange with a pal who got The Dandy.
While The Dandy bit the dust at the end of 2012, its DC Thomson stablemate is still buoyant. Weekly sales of 1.9m in the 1950s might have dropped closer to 37,500 or so, but it still appeals to 21st Century youngsters, has posted three successive yearly increases, and Barrie says those in charge are smart cookies.
'The Beano is part now of a conglomerate of various things: marketing, DVDs, animation on television…' The Beano Studios arm, for instance, was set up to create entertainment via TV, digital streams, theatrical projects and merchandise, and website Beano.com launched in 2016.
'The annuals I think are the biggest-selling children's books. They also produce winter specials, summer specials, Christmas specials. You can't just think of the Beano as an isolated comic.'
The weekly itself has improved greatly over the years, he feels. 'The characters are sharp, the colours good. It's a great comic and is still popular, given the situation we live in, when kids have so much more to spend their money on.'
'Maybe the reasons why I was attracted to the Beano are still the reasons. If you think what it was like to be a child… To me, and a lot of kids, the adult world is not threatening but it has power over you. You're told what to do, when to do it. In comics, there is this anarchy – not generally nasty – against the adult world.
'I think kids like this. They like to feel they are empowered and it's they who will eventually outsmart the teachers or parents or whoever. That's very appealing to kids, and this has always been paramount in the Beano, especially with the advent of The Bash Street Kids.'
Ah, yes. Plug, Danny, Fatty, Wilfrid, Smiffy and co. The chaotic gang of nine-year-olds in Class 2B, bane of long-suffering Teacher's life. That reminds me: He's been wearing a mortarboard long after they went out of academic fashion; but such anachronisms don't seem to deter the 21st Century child, do they?
'The Bash Street Kids are still dressed as kids dressed in the 1950s,' agrees Barrie. 'There have been certain updates, but apparently, when any changes have been tried, kids don't want them, and it doesn't seem to bother them.'
On the other hand, stories do reflect the dizzy march of technology – Roger using an advanced gaming machine, for instance: with a headset that means he can play with his pal down the street. 'You couldn't have a 'box' television or an old radio, so the technology has to be right, but children don't seem to mind (the old garb).'
What's the key to drawing the Beano?
'I always say it's a privilege to do this. What we're doing is entertaining children. That is a responsibility. So what I try to do is make things as funny as I can and to give as much action as I can – as well as telling the story.
'It's not always that easy – there are people talking – but the page has to look exciting and colourful. You can put in a bit of incidental humour that occurs to you as you're drawing. I'm looking at the piece I've been doing. Roger puts the cat under his dad's arm when he swipes the earphones, but prior to that I've got the cat on the couch, with dad, snoring his head off. It's just a little bit that adds to the atmosphere.
'The point about this business, for me, is that I enjoy it. It's something I did as a kid and now I'm working in the industry. It's fun to get up in the morning and think 'Great! I've got to draw Gnasher' (Dennis the Menace's canine sidekick) which is my favourite character – just such a funny dog.'
Shame Barrie had to miss the Beano's big birthday bash… Turns out his own dog, Daisy, a Fox Red Labrador given to him by son Jason and daughter Carrie for his 70th birthday, was pivotal.
'I'd been mourning the loss of my previous dog, so they thought I needed cheering up. She was a puppy then. My son sidled up to me at the party and said 'This one should see you out.' It nearly saw me off!'
About six weeks ago he had Daisy on a lead to cross a golf course. A rabbit shot out, the dog twisted and raced after her. Barrie landed on his face – his body arched and with one arm in the nettles.
'I tore the muscles in my side and back. I was hobbling around on crutches for about two weeks and so wasn't really up to going to Dundee. Had to sleep downstairs for a couple of weeks.'
But could he still draw? 'Strangely enough, it was more comfortable sitting at the drawing board – it's slightly higher – though I noticed I worked at a different angle. I'm now back walking the dog… but carefully.'
It wasn't Daisy's fault, he says. 'Dogs chase rabbits, and I was obviously daydreaming, and didn't have the wit to let go of the lead when she took off.'
How long does he think the printed Beano might go on? 'It's a very professional organisation. The comic? Who can tell? Eighty years… it's a long time. As I said before, it's a kind of kingpin of a whole variety of different things. As my dog is supposed to see me out, it will probably see me out!'
'I used to get more ink on me!'
While he does carry out private commissions and other artistic jobs, work from DC Thomson is Barrie's bread and butter.
He regularly draws three Beano pages a week, along with other Thomson illustrations for things such as annuals and specials. At times he can be flat out, toiling at night and weekends. Barrie (who by the way is the cartoonist for the Charlie's News Quips running in Saturdays' East Anglian Daily Times) says he can work fast, though – completing two pages a day if needs be.
DC Thomson is well-organised, he says. Scripts arrive by email and wife Eileen organises them chronologically. Barrie will draw the pictures larger than they'll appear in the finished product – a quarter or half as much again. It's easier to work in a larger space.
He first draws loose pencil pictures, with stick figures, to get an idea of the flow of the story and how the frames might look. Then he fully draws the strips using black lines.
Three things surprise me here. One: Barrie will include as much 'impact lettering' as possible, to add to the sense of rhythm and drama. (Words such as CRASH!) But he'll leave space for speech 'balloons', rather than drawing them. These are added in Scotland. (And yes, he admits that sometimes he hasn't left enough room, and has had to make adjustments.)
Two: He uses felt-tips for the 'proper' lines, rather than pen-and-ink of old. 'I used to get more ink on me than the job itself! For years I used to try to claim for clothes against my income tax.' Now the tools of his trade are high-quality black felt-tips.
'They wear out quickly – I'm always down the art shop, buying new ones – but there's less mess made of me!'
Three: Eileen scans his finished black-and-white artwork and sends it north of the border. Only then is it coloured in… by computer. The result is, he says, excellent: the colours and graduations bright, punchy and dynamic.
In the past, says Barrie, hand-colouring could gobble time. He often used to pay someone to do it for him.
Four: The artist is colour blind. Not that it appears a problem. 'I see primary colours but a lot of the subtle colours escape me.' A pub close to the family home near Sudbury (where they moved in 1980) has just been painted pale green. 'It's pink to me!'
Eleven Beano facts
1 'Beano' is a shortened version of 'Bean feast' – 'a rowdy jollification'
2 During the Second World War, paper shortages cut the comic to 12 pages every two weeks
3 Dennis the Menace's dog Gnasher is drawn using Dennis's hair and adding legs
4 After the Second World War, the Beano editor's name was found on a Nazi assassination list – for 'gross disrespect'!
5 For his first few appearances, Dennis didn't sport his red and black hooped jumper. His mum was still knitting it
6 For six weeks in 1986, Gnasher went missing. He returned with six puppies
7 Dennis was originally sketched on the back of a cigarette packet, in a pub
8 There are only 20 surviving known copies of the first edition of Beano
9 It takes about 25 people to make a Beano comic, including artists, writers, colourists and graphic designers
10 The Dennis & Gnasher Fan Club was launched in 1976 and exceeded 1.5m followers. They've included Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie, radio host Chris Evans and princes William and Harry
11 A copy of the comic is sold every 17 seconds, on average, in the UK