Today is the seventieth birthday of D. C. Thomson's The Beano Comic. Dated July 30, 1938, the first issue was actually released a few days before, on Tuesday, July 26th, but the tradition for British comics is to date them for the week-ending, in this case, the following Saturday.
The Beano Comic of today is a world away from the paper that debuted in 1938. The original 28 pages were a mixture of adventure and cartoon strips plus a healthy dose of text stories. This was an innovative format, unlike any of the rival papers published by Amalgamated Press. Thomsons had produced The Dandy Comic some thirty-five weeks earlier, which could be said to be the first 'modern' comic. Text stories aside, the Dandy and Beano aren't so different in format from their modern counterparts, approximately 8½ x 12 inches, colour covers and a free gift to give the new title a good send-off.
The Beano featured a free Whoopee Mask, now a much-prized treasure for collectors. The first issue sells for thousands of pounds—a copy with the free gift sold for £6,200 in February 1999, although the current record price is over £7,500.
Most of us—and I include myself—have only ever seen the cover of this piece of history, which got me thinking... what do we know about the man who drew that first strip that graced the first page of the very first Beano...
Like The Dandy Comic, launched shortly before Christmas in 1937, The Beano featured an anthropomorphic animal on its cover, although unlike The Dandy's 'Korky the Cat', Big Eggo was able to talk from the first panel (Korky would eventually find his voice). The gangling ostrich has lost his egg, finds one which could be his but which turns out to belong to an alligator, as Eggo discovers when it hatches.
The artist was Reg Carter, whose work in comics was studied by the late Bill Lofts, who said of Carter: "His tow most distinctive characteristics were his rather wooden-looking figures, more often than not wearing cloth caps (the forerunners of Andy Capp, perhaps?), with large rings around the eyes that gave them a cods-eye appearance. Strangely enough, his comic animals always seemed to have more life in them—probably why his 'Big Eggo' was accepted, and no doubt devised, to lead off page one of The Beano at the start of this famous comic's long run."
Reginald Arthur Lay Carter was born in Southwold, Blything, East Suffolk, on December 6, 1886, the son of Francis Wilby Carter (1856- ), a successful decorator, who had married Barbara Lay in 1883. Reginald was their second son.
In his teens, Reg Carter was already to be found drawing for several glossy and humourous magazines and, in 1914, contributed to the London Fun and Laughter Show, a curious event about which nobody seems to know anything. He also drew golfing sketches and picture postcard paintings of the Southwold Railway.
Shortly after the end of the Great War, Carter made his way into comics and, with issue 13 of Kinema Comic, began producing the full page 'Artful Antics of Babe Hardy'—as Oliver Hardy (pre-Laurel) was known. "It is interesting to note," says Bill Lofts, "that the large, burly figure of Babe Hardy, with bowler hat and moustache, usually in the form of a bullying foreman, featured a great deal in Carter's comic strips in forthcoming years."
His next strip—for Merry & Bright in 1921—featured Ernie Mayne, the music hall comedian. A year later, Carter created his first original character, 'Priceless Percy', in Sports Fun. Carter then followed Harold Mansfield, a former A.P. editor who left under something of a cloud, to a new venture called Monster Comic, where he created 'Wireless Willie and Broadcast Bertie', thought to be the first characters in comic strip form connected with that new discovery, the radio (a theme he returned to in 1931 when he produced 'Raymond Radio and Walter Wavelength' for Sparkler).
Denis Gifford noted that Carter seemed to specialise in alliterative characters in various walks of everyday employment: 'Ferdinand the Fire Fighter', 'Bill Bonzo the Billiard Marker', 'Happy Harold the Van Boy', 'Gussy the Gas Meter Manipulator' to name but a few.
Mansfield's operation was eventually bought out by his former employers, the Amalgamated Press, in 1928 and Carter's output began to tail off, although to young fans of cheap comics, he must have seemed one of the most prolific artists around as Mansfield sold the plates to his early titles to C. A. Ransom, who published dozens of reprints (Merry Moments, The Tip Top Comic, The Up-to-Date Comic, The Sunny Comic, etc.) derived from Mansfield's Monster Comic and Golden Penny Comic.
Carter found work with Frolix, the short-lived photogravure comic for nursery children and then with H. Louis Diamond, drawing for Sparkler, and thence back to the A.P. and Bo-Peep.
Carter found regular work on the early issues of Mickey Mouse Weekly, where he drew 'Troubles of Father', 'Bob the Bugler', 'Sea Shanties' and 'Circus Capers'. It was not to last: Carter's work looked rather old-fashioned compared to the lively style that Walt Disney was inspiring in other strips and Carter's next appearance was with another new paper, The Beano.
He kept up a steady supply of strips for The Beano for its first decade. 'Big Eggo' ran for 358 episodes, although later strips, reduced to a few panels, were drawn by George Drysdale. Carter switched to new characters 'Freddy Flipperfeet' (1947-48) and 'Peter Penguin' (1948-49). The latter strip came to an end in issue 361 (14 May 1949), a few weeks after the death of its creator. Reg Carter died on April 24, 1949, aged 62, leaving a small fortune although, as Bill Lofts pointed out, it is doubtful that this was gained purely from his artwork. Most editors recalled seeing his work, often when they were rejecting it as sub-standard, although none recalled ever meeting Carter himself.
(* Illustrations © D. C. Thomson Ltd. The first issue of The Beano was cheekily revisited in the Beano's 60th anniversary issue in 1998 when Eggo received a nasty gnip from Gnasher. I'm a little short of illustrations thanks to most of my reference books being locked away in storage, so I may revisit this column at some point and add a few.)