Seventy years ago, on 17 March 1951, Dennis the Menace first strolled on to the pages of the Beano. The iconic red and black jumper of today was eschewed for a shirt and tie, and his faithful pooch Gnasher was nowhere to be seen, but – as he defied an order to “keep off the grass” – Dennis was as much of a menace then as he is today.
Dreamed up when the Beano editor, George Moonie, heard a music hall song called Dennis the Menace from Venice, Dennis was the first naughty kid character for the Beano, which was first published by DC Thomson in July 1938.
“Dennis came along after the austerity of the 1940s, after this belief that kids should be seen and not heard, and then all of a sudden you have this character through whom kids can live vicariously,” said Mike Stirling, editorial director of Beano Studios. “He started off as a half-page strip on page five, but he was so successful that by the end of the 1950s you had Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and Roger the Dodger as well, because the naughtiness was such a success. The kids aren’t fighting against each other, they’re fighting against the grownups. Kids were not just being seen, but being heard.”
Beano Studios is marking Dennis’s anniversary with a special birthday edition of the comic, guest edited by super-fan Joe Sugg. The YouTube celebrity has written multiple strips in the comic, including one that sees Dennis having a chuckle about Sugg fainting on an episode of the Great Celebrity Bake Off. Kew Gardens is also celebrating Dennis with a giant 3D Beano comic strip and an interactive trail called Dennis & Gnasher’s Big Bonanza, this Easter. And a dedicated Dennis tartan has been created by mill Prickly Thistle to mark the milestone.
By 1974, Dennis had replaced Biffo the Bear as Beano’s cover star, and – although he remains forever 10 years old – he is now the comic’s longest-running strip. The character’s appearance has changed over the years; his shirt and tie were replaced by his red and black jumper by April 1951, the colours chosen because those were the two strongest colours of ink available to printers in the 1950s.
Gnasher, Dennis’s Abyssinian wire-haired tripehound, didn’t appear until 1968, when he was found wandering the streets of Beanotown after Dennis’s dad had told him that “people always own dogs who look like themselves”. The artist who first drew Gnasher, Davey Law, was told to “take Dennis’s hair then give it a face and four legs”; it was artist David Sutherland who gave Gnasher “this wonderfully expressive, almost human face,” said Stirling.
Gnasher’s name was added to the strip’s title in 1970. Dennis’s pet pig Rasher debuted in 1979, while Dennis’s family has also grown with the addition of little sister Bea, who was born in issue 2931 in 1998.
Dennis has grown and shrunk in size over the years, and his mouth has moved from behind his nose to further down his face, but one of the greatest changes in the strip has been the evolution of his nemesis and neighbour Walter. Portrayed in the past as weak and effeminate, today Walter is “more than Dennis’s equal”, said Stirling.
“It looked like Dennis was bullying Walter, and bullying is a big problem, so we didn’t want to do anything that would ever suggest it’s something we’d want in Beanotown,” said Stirling. “So we made Walter physically Dennis’s equal, and sometimes he gets the upper hand.”
The Beano team consult a group of children from across the country, speaking to them each week about “what’s happening in the playground, what they’re watching on TV, what games they’re playing, and these help us inform the character,” says Stirling. “It makes sure our character is evolving, that Dennis is reflecting the life of a 10-year-old kid in the here and now.”
Today, Dennis’s fan club has more than a million members, including Star Wars actor Mark Hamill. Dennis’s story has also been adapted for the screen; the first Dennis and Gnasher animated series aired in 1996, while the CBBC series Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed! first aired in November 2017 and is in its second series.
Sugg, who grew up reading the Beano and would scour car boot sales with his cousin for boxes of old issues, calls Dennis “the perfect mix of cheeky and fun, the friend everyone wanted when they were growing up”.
“I got the comic every week and to this day I still get sent the Beano Annual from my dad as a Christmas present, even at the grand old age of 29,” he said. “I feel like the Beano is what taught me how to how to read, but also write, draw and get creative.”
This week’s issue of the Beano also includes a Menace family tree poster, which confirms that Dennis’s dad is the 1980s-era Dennis grownup, while his grandad is the original 1951 Dennis. Dennis’s surname, the Beano confirms, is Menace.
“I’m sure he’ll change again over the years,” said Stirling. “If kids are going around on hoverboards in 10 years’ time, Dennis will definitely have one. It’s really up to kids, and I think it’s always been that way, and that’s why we’re able to appeal to kids today as well as to their parents. He’s a great role model. That might sound counterintuitive because he’s naughty, but his mischief nowadays is a lot more driven by positive things, and just making sure kids are really listened to.”