David Barnett talks to the head of Beano Studios Mike Stirling about reaching a new generation
Celebrating its 80th anniversary next year, the quintessentially British comic brand The Beano is expanding into digital platforms and TV at an unprecedented rate… but has pledged that the weekly physical product will remain core to its business.
The Beano is the UK’s longest-running comic, having launched on 30 July 1938, and it’s the home of long-standing classic strips including, of course, Dennis The Menace, The Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger, Minnie The Minx and Bananaman.
Ahead of the anniversary, Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson has been busy launching a raft of new media projects… which might conceivably raise fears for the print title from those who remember The Beano’s equally venerable stable-mate The Dandy.
The Dandy and its cast of characters – including Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan – stopped publication in 2012 and went online-only in a notso-successful experiment. But DC Thomson has learned from that and The Beano is in a much stronger position.
When The Dandy ceased print publication it was selling 8,000 copies a week. According to the last-released circulation figures for The Beano, which cover the whole of 2016, the comic was selling almost 35,000 copies a week – a 3.2 per cent increase year-on-year and the second consecutive annual jump in circulation.
Not only does The Beano have a newly launched website, beano.com, alongside a free tablet/smartphone app – both of which provide daily updated material and exclusive, interactive content – the new initiative Beano Studios has been launched to globally push the Beano brand, with its first major project being a top-grade CGI animated series starring the much-loved flagship characters, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, which is due to debut later this year on the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC.
So is the writing on the wall for the print comic? Absolutely not, says Mike Stirling, head of Beano Studios. “Everything we are doing is hugely exciting but it is all designed to complement the comic, not replace it,” says Stirling. “Our sales have been increasing and we see ourselves as custodians of a trusted comic that’s engaged generations of readers. What we are doing is growing our audience, and engaging with the next generation of readers.”
DC Thomson and the Beano brand in particular has a solid outreach programme that works with schools and regularly invites groups of children into their Dundee offices (they’ve just moved back into their refurbished Meadowside building, the original home of the company, after a six-year sojourn at different premises). This not only helps to promote The Beano, but allows the editorial team to keep their ear to the ground with what’s exciting kids today.
Unlike other long-running comic brands such as, say, 2000AD in the UK and Marvel and DC
A TOP-GRADE CGI ANIMATED SERIES IS DUE TO DEBUT LATER THIS YEAR ON THE CBBC CHANNEL
globally, the bulk of The Beano’s readers aren’t made up of ‘legacy’ readers who have continued to read the comic into adulthood.
The Beano is aimed at six- to 12-year-olds and the success of the comic over eight decades has relied on the comic constantly engaging new groups of young readers every couple of years. They walk a tightrope of maintaining the idea of The Beano as a trusted brand which appeals to parents and teachers, while still offering enough mischief and rebellion to give its young readers proper ownership of the comic.
That said, after 80 years The Beano holds a huge place in the British public’s collective psyche. “There’s obviously a lot of nostalgia,” says Stirling. “We see that in the high sales of our Christmas annuals; they’re often bought as novelty gifts for grown-ups.
“Adults like to see children reading The Beano because they have such fond memories of it themselves,” Stirling continues, “and sometimes those adults pass their old comics or the annuals on to younger members of the family, and they never fail to enjoy them.” But tastes and methods of consumption change, and comics have never had more competition for the time and attention of children, which is why The Beano is now expanding its online and media offerings.
“Kids today are a lot more sophisticated,” says Stirling, “and we have to reflect that.” And while the days of Dennis the Menace getting a solid slippering from an angry dad at the end of an adventure are long gone, the strips still strike a balance between morality and fun.
Stirling says, “Children can live out their own misadventures vicariously through the characters, but they also see that there are boundaries to behaviour… just not a slipper these days! By the same token, characters like Dennis also show the sort of silly behaviour that parents and adults can do, which kids like.
“The Beano is often a child’s first step into reading comics, and later they’ll move on to other things like, for example, 2000AD. What we’re doing now is growing audiences and making the comic itself stronger, and that’s good for us and good for comics in general.”