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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Leo Baxendale: A Tribute

LEO BAXENDALE (1930 – 2017)
Steve Winders pays tribute to one of Britain’s greatest comic cartoonists.

In The World Encyclopaedia of Comics, Denis Gifford described Leo Baxendale as “the most influential and most imitated comics artist of modern times.” His subversive humour and drawing style have been much imitated. When he worked for Odhams Press on their Wham! and Smash! titles in the 1960s his style dominated most of the humorous strips, leading many to believe he had produced them all single handed. In fact Odhams employed several artists whose styles closely imitated Leo’s, who was their inspiration. At the same time, his former employers D.C. Thomson, who did not want to cancel or alter the successful creations he had left behind, also employed artists who would maintain his style. But his work also inspired others. The celebrated comics writer Alan Moore claimed that it is thanks to Leo Baxendale’s anarchic strips in the Beano which they read as children, that so many British writers have imbued a subversive element in the American comics they now write for.

I almost knew Leo Baxendale. His parents and younger siblings lived in the road where I was brought up in Preston and I knew them well, but when I moved there as a toddler Leo had already gone to Dundee to work on the Beano and Dandy. He attended the same Grammar school as I did, twenty three years before me, but as an adult in the 1970s I knew one of his old teachers who had subsequently become Head of another school. He remembered Leo as a student with a talent for drawing, but had no idea that he had become a famous cartoonist!

Leo created Little Plum, The Bash Street Kids, The Three Bears and Minnie the Minx for The Beano. He also worked on the Dandy and the Beezer for D.C. Thomson, during his decade in Dundee, from 1952 till 1963 before disillusionment led him to seek work elsewhere. In 1964, he launched Wham! for Odhams, creating most of the characters who appeared in the comic. These included Eagle Eye Junior Spy, Georgie’s Germs and General Nitt and His Barmy Army. I was in my last year at Primary School when Wham! appeared and while my classmates always got excited at the launch of a new comic, Wham! caused particular excitement because Leo’s family were well known members of the parish and the Lancashire Evening Post, where he had worked before going to Dundee produced a feature on his new comic. Our teacher even discussed it with us in class. She knew of his fame!

At this time Leo began to produce a regular weekly newsletter The Strategic Commentary. Written by Terence Heelas, it endeavoured to prove through ‘cold military logic’ that America could not win the war in Vietnam. His first subscriber was the American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky.

Two years after Wham! a companion comic Smash! appeared and Leo created several memorable strips for its launch. The memorable villain ‘Grimly Feendish’ from his Eagle Eye Junior Spy strip got his own page in Smash! Other creations included Bad Penny, The Man From BUNGLE, a spoof of The Man From UNCLE, which was popular on television at the time and The Swots and the Blots. In 1966 at the end of his initial two year contract with Odhams, Leo tried to interest them in a monthly ‘supercomic’ but when they passed over the idea he suggested it to other publishers, leading to a fall out with them. He started to produce work for Fleetway, including Mervyn’s Monsters for Buster and Bluebottle and Basher for Valiant, while still producing work ‘undercover’ for Odhams. In 1969, Fleetway and Odhams were merged under the I.P.C. banner and Leo was asked to take over Bad Penny and The Swots and the Blots in a relaunched Smash! The Swots survived the merger of Smash! with Valiant in 1971 and ran successfully until 1974.

His final major work for I.P.C. was The Bad Time Bedtime Books for Monster Fun in 1975. These were eight page mini comics, inspired by famous stories. The extended stories gave him the idea to produce a whole children’s comic annual and this led to the creation of Willy the Kid and his friends and ridiculous pets. He produced three Willy the Kid books between 1976 and 78 and these were published by Duckworths who also published his 1978 autobiography A Very Funny Business

In 1987 he produced an adult comic book THRRP! which was published by Knockabout Comics. For much of the 1980s Leo was involved in a legal battle with D.C. Thomson over the rights to his creations for their publications which was eventually settled out of court. As a consequence his creatorship of many characters was formally acknowledged and he was given thirty pieces of his original artwork which he was able to display in exhibitions. Major exhibitions of his work have toured the country. He has also exhibited in Angouleme in France and Treviso in Italy (both hosts of major International Comics Festivals).

With the money he received from the settlement with D.C. Thomson he started his own publishing company ‘Reaper Books’ and produced high quality collections of his Willy the Kid and I Love You Baby Basil cartoons. Baby Basil was created for the Guardian newspaper and ran from 1990–93. He has also published his own reflections in The Encroachment (1988), On Comedy; The Beano and Ideology (1989), Pictures in the Mind (1998), The Beano Room (2005) and Hobgoblin Wars (2009).

In 2013 he became the second inductee into the British Comics Awards Hall of Fame. His contribution to the world of comics is immense. He will be greatly missed.

1 comment:

Gillian Surgey said...

Thank you for such a lively and enlightening potted biography. When we heard the news of Leo Baxendale's death on the radio news my husband and I had a jolly little time reminiscing about our favourites amongst LBs creations. I will forward this to our sons, who were both
avid Beano readers.