I DON'T care if The Dandy dies.
There, I've said it. I thought it best to get straight to the point in case you, like me, are fed up of reading articles by men of a certain age waxing nostalgic about one of the world's oldest printed comics which, after 75 years, is due to be axed by publisher DC Thomson.
If you have purposefully avoided spending the last few days "Liking" The Dandy on Facebook or have stoically refused to tweet that "something must be done to save this great national institution", then you have come to the right place.
Now, just in case you do love the publication that brought us Desperate Dan, and are choking on your cow pie in disgust, let's get a few things straight, pardners. First, you need to get real. Sure, maybe you are feeling sad that some part of childhood – perhaps not even your own, more likely your parents' or grandparents' – is being brutally erased by this announcement. Well, nostalgia is all fine and indeed dandy, but it evidently doesn't sell comics.
Honestly, when was the last time you bought The Dandy? It can't have been recently, if the figures are anything to go by. In the 1950s the comic was a world-famous phenomenon that sold two million copies a week. Today it sells around 8000 a fortnight. There are local parish newsletters with greater circulation.
Perhaps, however, you are one of the loyal few who do still buy The Dandy. I salute your devotion. But before you send Bully Beef round to rough me up, let's get another thing straight. The Dandy is not, in fact, going to die. It is going to go digital. In December, as the publisher has been at pains to make clear, the 75th anniversary will be marked by the comic being relaunched in a solely online format.
So Dan will not, after all, be given his P45 and made to sign on at the job centre as a "gun for hire". And Korky the Cat, who admittedly hasn't been around much recently, may yet prove to have nine lives. Mind you, it is not entirely clear whether newer, more "up-to-date" characters such as Harry Hill, Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell – introduced during the last relaunch as Dandy Xtreme in 2010 – will make the jump.
But it is surely telling that not even Cowell, whose Desperate Dan-like superhuman abilities hurled television's traditional Saturday night light entertainment into the 21st century, could reverse the decline of the traditional comic So, online only it will be from now on, and if that is what the public wants – good.
I know what you're thinking: he just doesn't get it. The Dandy belongs in print and on the newsagent's shelf, not in some intangible region of cyberspace. But I do get it. Really. In fact, the purist impulse exhibited by so many Dandy fans last week is for me one of the most fascinating aspects of this story. The purist demands that, in a digitised age in which culture appears to be increasingly insubstantial and ephemeral, we must make a stand for traditional art forms that are "real" and "solid", "substantial" and "enduring".
This purist impulse is perhaps a mainly male phenomenon. It is one of the reasons why so many of us boys are obsessed with maintaining obsolete technologies like vinyl LPs and classic cars which are, by any objective and usually female assessment, pretty hopeless in comparison with their more advanced successors.
But in the case of comics I think it runs deeper than man's inner geek. The outcry over the "death" of The Dandy exhibits a deep cultural anxiety. It goes something like this: if we allow everything from comics and pop music to photographs and PhDs to exist in a solely computerised format, then what happens if one day, some Corporal Clott is left in charge of the digital archive and erases everything at the click of a mouse?
It is a serious point. If our cultural artefacts are not stored physically, there is a fear that they might magnetically decay into nothingness in as-yet unforeseen ways. And if without printed records all is lost, then we might one day be as incomprehensible to our descendants as the Picts are to us. In short, it would mean cultural annihilation. Comics are that serious.
But get this. While researching this article I went to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh to see if I could get my hands on an early copy of The Dandy. Strange, I thought, as I looked through the catalogue: they don't seem to have any. So I asked about this and was told that, back in 1937 when The Dandy first appeared, the policy of such stately institutions seems to have been that comics were childish fripperies that did not merit being archived.
The adventures of Beryl the Peril, then, were undeserving of a place in the nation's annals alongside the letters of Field Marshal Haig. Indeed, judging by the catalogue, Scotland's National Library does not appear to hold any copies of The Dandy prior to 1972. It does hold copies of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books from the early 1950s, which perhaps confirms two things: books, then as now, are seen by adults as a more "worthwhile" form of children's literature than comics; secondly, Dan, Korky and Beryl were rebels in their day in contrast to the prim goody-goodies of Blyton's fiction, and as such were eschewed by the establishment.
So during the very era when The Dandy was most in tune with its young readers' minds, an era when the printed word remained pre-eminent, our comic-book heritage was overlooked by the powers-that-be. Luckily, because the people took The Dandy to heart in such huge numbers there are still some original early copies kicking about. These change hands at auctions for several thousand pounds apiece, so probably won't be lost to posterity.
More significantly, we can take comfort from the irony that today's online cultural environment – when virtually all forms of expression are valued and can be cheaply scanned and archived using digital means – is actually far kinder to traditional comics than their golden age in print ever was. (And incidentally, our National Library is now a leading light when it comes to broad-based cultural archiving and exhibiting. Plus it does actually have a pretty comprehensive range of Dandy anthologies covering the first 50 years.)
At this point I should put all my cards on the table. In spite of my apparent heartlessness, three aspects of The Dandy's fate are close to my heart – the written word; childhood; and the cultural treasures of the past. I write history books, mainly for young readers. I often work with illustrators and artists to give my stories a comic-book feel. I also do a lot of literacy work in schools, where I can observe the reading habits of youngsters up close.
To an extent, The Dandy and its like – The Beano, The Topper and The Beezer – have influenced me and my work, albeit through a strange kind of filter. As a kid I wasn't massively into old-school comics. They were, in truth, many decades past their prime. I'm talking about the tail-end of the 1980s when I was in my last year or two of primary school and apparently of prime Dandy-reading age. I can recall having a sense even then that these traditional comics, with their quaint ideas about what us children got up to and what we dreamed of doing, were massively out of step.
The likes of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and George Lucas's Star Wars said so much more, which might seem strange coming from someone who was born and raised in the Outer Hebrides, but there it is. I loved the boys' own adventure Commando comics, too – still going strong in print and online. And then there was Garfield. The lazy cat's home-spun philosophy and sophisticated relationship with his grown-up owner Jon seemed to give kids of my generation a sly, knowing insight into the adult world which the Dandy could never match because it simply wasn't designed that way. Then there were the newer girl comics which, though I did not like to admit it, I also read with great curiosity.
Of course, I used to read The Dandy on occasion, usually in its annual form. I must admit its beautifully rendered tales of "Black Bob, the brave Scottish collie" had a whimsical charm. But these were not remotely as entertaining as Bob's doppelganger – "Black Bag, the faithful Border bin liner", Viz magazine's wicked parody of the original's gentle, strait-laced adventure storylines.
Bob the collie was born in 1944, when talking animals such as Lassie were all the rage and adult storytellers created light adventures to shepherd the minds of the young away from the shadows of war. They seemed to be driven by a desire to shield children from the sense that the world was changing, and not necessarily for the better. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the world certainly had changed and so had children's tastes. Hence my early encounter with Viz.
You might wonder how a 10-year-old got their hands on such corrupting material. Well, I had two elder siblings at university. 'Nuff said. My younger sister and I sneaked a peek at Johnny Fartpants whenever we could. This reminds me of a key failing of The Dandy as I recall it: the funny bits weren't actually very funny.
If only it had been able to entertain youngsters in the past couple of decades the way Viz has tickled students, it might have been a very different story. In fact, it appears The Dandy did try to respond to the Viz effect by introducing more toilet humour and fart gags. But like other attempts at moving with the times, this appears to have, as it were, backfired.
Across the world, since the 1970s, traditional comics have fought a long rearguard action against newer forms of narrative entertainment that have joined television in the battle for youngsters' attention – cassette tapes and CDs, computer games, DVDs and ever-more sophisticated types of literature. In fact, by the turn of the millennium, long before the internet had made an impact among pre-teens, The Dandy's circulation had already plummeted to 150,000. All things considered, then, it is remarkable The Dandy has survived this long when so many other legendary comics – including the Eagle for boys and Jackie for girls – have gone to the great news-stand in the sky.
It is surely no accident that when The Dandy was born in the 1930s, it succeeded not just because it was very good at what it did, but also because comics virtually had the field to themselves. Kids were not yet adequately catered for by radio or cinema and probably the only person in Scotland with a reliable TV was its inventor, John Logie Baird. Meanwhile, the young had instead to turn to the printed page or stories at their granny's knee.
Fast forward to today and the childhood of my daughter, niece and nephew, whose ages range from three to 10. Leaving aside the ever-encroaching internet, the range of magazines on offer is bewildering. The other day I rummaged in the depths of three news-stands – in a supermarket, a post office and a traditional newsagent – to try to make more sense of it. There's the likes of Peppa Pig and CBeebies for the wee ones, then the glittery Disney Princess and action-packed Ben 10 for when they are a bit older and become alarmingly gendered.
Tweenagers get things like the gossipy Girl Talk and a revitalised Match Of The Day – after which there seems to be a sudden jump into the shallower waters of adult comics like Heat and Top Gear. This, according to industry analysis, is because teenagers read adult magazines and publishers have long since given up trying to pretend they don't.
Intriguingly, DC Thomson is behind a number of the newer titles, such as the TV-oriented Nickelodeon Magazine and Jacqueline Wilson. But I didn't spot The Dandy anywhere on those shelves. Do I care? Well, no, I still don't. Times change. Plus the annual is still going to be printed, so there really isn't much reason to get too upset.
Of course, cynics argue that headlines about The Dandy going out of print are merely a cunning PR stunt to publicise the new digital incarnation, or even to get people buying the comic again, so it will eventually be saved at the 11th hour. Well, perhaps. Either way, the printed Dandy will likely never regain its former stature. Instead, there's a brave new online world to look forward to. So come December I'll be making sure my daughter and I look up Desperate Dan to see if his creators have managed to make him as vital now as he was 75 years ago. Do I care if they succeed? Darn tootin' I do.
Scottish Tales Of Adventure: World War II by Allan Burnett is published by Birlinn (£4.99)
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