A piece by Sean O’Neill in yesterday’s Times, the emphases are ours:
Softy Dennis no longer a menace
There was a time when the world, well Beanotown at least, was divided into two types of children: Menaces and Softies.
Dennis the Menace was the ultimate naughty schoolboy: dishevelled, disorderly and disobedient. Dressed in his iconic red-and-black striped jumper, equipped with peashooter and catapult, he terrified his neighbours, traumatised his parents and targeted his arch enemy Walter.
Studious and bespectacled, Walter Brown was the super Softy: he wore a bow tie, followed the rules, always did his homework and was easy prey for Dennis and Gnasher, the Menace’s pet Abyssinian wire-haired tripe hound.
Those days are now over. Dennis the Menace is no more. He has become just plain Dennis in the weekly Beano and its annual.
In the confessional tones normally deployed by big institutions admitting scandal and cover-up, DC Thomson, publisher of The Beano since 1938, said Dennis had “made mistakes in the past” but has now “moved away from his ‘menacing’ ways”.
The abandonment of menacing comes hand-in-hand with a new CBBC series, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed, which embraces difference and diversity. Where Dennis’s pals used to be scruffy boys in his own image, his new television pals include two cool girls: JJ, a rock drummer, and Rubi, who zips around in a wheelchair.
Beano bosses deny that these changes are a concession to political correctness and say that they are just part of the continued evolution of Dennis since his first appearance in the comic in 1951. It has been many years, for example, since a story ended with Dennis being slippered by his angry Dad.
Mike Stirling, head of Beano Studios Scotland, insisted that Dennis had not been a menace for years, although the strip was still branded “Dennis the Menace and Gnasher” in the 2017 Beano annual.
The comic, Mr Stirling said, was “reflective of the world we all live in today”. He added: “Today’s Dennis is a flawed hero, a ten-year-old boy who fears nothing and sometimes gets into trouble as a result.
“He makes mistakes just like any other person but his mistakes only make him more determined to succeed. He has moved away from his ‘menacing’ ways, but still dances to the beat of his own drum as a mischief-maker and is very much a leader amongst his pals.” Asked whether Dennis had bullied Walter and the Softies in years gone by, Mr Stirling said that Dennis had “made mistakes in the past” but “has been more of a rebellious hero for years”.
The tormenting of Walter, once regarded as humorous, has been phased out and the abandoning of the “M” word is part of that move away from endorsing bullying behaviour.
Neither is Walter a “softy” anymore. He has become a cunning schemer with designs on power “who thinks the adventures of childhood are highly overrated”.
Some young Dennis fans are concerned, however, that their anarchic hero has been tamed. They detect a difference in the comic strip Dennis and the new TV persona.
Danny O’Neill, 10, said that he was surprised to see Dennis eating vegetables, especially sprouts, in the new CBBC series. “Dennis is the main menace and he has been that ever since I started reading The Beano,” he said. “He should stay a menace.”
His sister, Lily, 7, wondered: “What will happen to Minnie the Minx?”
Patrick Walsh, 9, another Beano fan, said: “They should really put the Menace back in because otherwise Dennis could just seem like any other boy.”
Paul Gravett, a British comics historian, said it appeared that the publishers were trying to soften Dennis to fit in with his new BBC animated version, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed, which has also dropped the “Menace” tagline.
“The original Dennis the Menace is part of that British tradition of St Trinian’sand Just William — kids who are meant to be naughty — and I think that some people are going to feel disappointed at this change,” he said.
“If it all gets too PC it risks losing its anarchic appeal. Other comic characters can be changed and rebranded over the years, like Superman or Spider-Man, but can Dennis still be Dennis without ‘the Menace’?”
Editorials on gender-related matters in The Times are invariably feminist-inclined, and for all I know are written by a feminist with a face like a bag of spanners at the Fawcett Society. Their comments on the Dennis the Menace story:
O tempora! O mores! For more than six decades Dennis the Menace, the ageless shock-haired anti-hero of The Beano, terrorised his neighbours and disturbed the peace. Armed with catapult and peashooter, and enjoying the faithful support of Gnasher (a mutt of doubtful pedigree), Dennis unfailingly persecuted the bespectacled and bow-tied Softy Walter and exasperated his parents. The weekly denouement was inevitable, as Dennis’s father would raise his slipper and inflict stern punishment on the miscreant.
No longer. DC Thomson, publisher of The Beano since 1938, acknowledges that Dennis has in the past been wayward, but he is apparently now a reformed character. Although the chronicles of Dennis are still published, the bullying of Walter is no longer part of them. If you can credit it, Dennis has even extended his circle of friends to include two girls, one of whom is in a wheelchair.
Nostalgists will deride the apparent spread of political correctness even to children’s comics but there is nothing wrong in Dennis’s evolution. On the contrary, a kinder and gentler Dennis is an appropriate figure for the times. Every generation has its idiosyncrasies that successors will find hard to comprehend, and the publishers of comics and cartoons are right to reflect those changing tastes.
DC Thomson has taken such decisions before, with a mind to commerciality. In 1959 it replaced its ailing title The Hotspur with a comic-strip format and a stress on war stories. For another 20 years, boys’ comics under such titles as Lion and Eagle inculcated the notion of German perfidy, interspersed with a few stock phrases such as Achtung! and Gott im Himmel!, even though modern Germany had long since become democratic. If Dennis has now reformed to understand the sensitivities of his adversaries and reflect the values of tolerance, that is surely admirable.
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