If kink is innate (I have doubts), it’s a newly-hatched chick — wide-eyed and directionless, ready to glom onto the nearby thing that looks and smells vaguely right. For me as a boy in the 1970s, that thing was The Beano, which dropped through the letter-box every week and was devoured. Even though Leo Baxendale had stopped writing and drawing for The Beano some years earlier, his presence still defined the comic. The characters he’d created had been passed on. His extraordinarily rich and surreal visual style was copied. And the narrative grammar he’d set had become the basic Beano template.
That template was made real by characters like Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids, who engaged in vivid psychodramas of gleeful mischief and ritualistic comeuppance. Occasionally they’d prevail against an oppressive world of mean teachers and exasperated dads, but the greater value of those victories was paid for by the whackings they were subjected to when things didn’t go according to plan. These were the stories that resonated in my tiny little mind — those frames at the end of the page when crook-handled canes were bent and huge carpet slippers were applied, and everything was reset for the following week.
Baxendale was brilliant at character. All of his child characters were utterly themselves. They had personality in spades, and, crucially, agency for days. They defined and shaped their own worlds, and the grown-ups could only try to keep up and win the odd battle. They were — and this is sort of the point — so much more adventurous, so much more fearless, so much cooler than I was. If they ended up getting a whacking, this only made them seem even braver and sturdier, because they perceived it as a temporary setback; a small defeat on the way to winning the war; an occupational hazard.
For a boy often weighed down by the endless micro-anxieties of a normal, real childhood, pre-disposed and conditioned to be well-behaved, rule-following, good, Baxendale’s characters were liberating, at least in theory. I couldn’t hope to be much like them, but I wanted to be — to be braver, more adventurous, naughtier, and have that be normal, expected. Each week, The Beano was a safe space to explore themes of power imbalance, naughtiness, and punishment. It spoke to a part of me that was pre-sexual, but that would sooner or later form the core of (what I think of as, for lack of a better word) my sexuality.
I think it’s fair to ask whether the comic tone with which corporal punishment of children was portrayed in The Beano served to normalise actual physical abuse — and I completely understand why the comic ditched its use as a narrative trope long ago — but I’m happy to defend its place in what was a fantasy world straight from Baxendale’s head, and which was, in its own way, both coherent and healthy. The imbalance of power between grown-ups and children which arose from authority was consistently undermined by the fact that the children were faster, cleverer, more resourceful. The power was always theirs. Nevertheless, their narratives of naughtiness required the balance, in the context of that fantasy world, of the slipper and cane. Baxendale’s child characters were elevated, their naughtiness licensed, by the fact that they were whacked. They led the dance, but the grown-ups were also dancing.
And let it be clear that Baxendale typically applied all of his visual skill to present those final-frame whackings with a frankness that I now can’t help but perceive as fetishy. The Bash Street Kids would be lined up and bent properly double, mortar-boarded headmaster swishing his cane behind; Minnie was typically draped across her dad’s knee for a slippering, radiating heat-lines or a worn patch on the seat of her short pants showing where the slipper had done its work. The reports of impact and howls of indignant protest are familiar to anyone who has tried to write their first clumsy spanking porn.
In the end, the fantasy worked for me. Baxendale’s world is a funny, happy, vibrant place, where children are powerful — and girls no less than boys. From my distance, I was able to begin to see a whole variety of aspects of power-play — primarily the liberation of an adventurous child, their horizons not remotely narrowed by the threat of an occasional whacking; but also their partner in the dance, who occasionally has to wield the cane or slipper.
Much later, when I began to explore the actual grown-up world of soi-disant Victorian erotica and high-church CP porn, I found a very different fantasy, in which women are mostly voiceless, and men of unscrupulous character leverage social power to their advantage, and was confused and repelled for a long time. I’ll take Leo Baxendale’s low-church world any day of the week.
The Guardian: Beano legend Leo Baxendale dies aged 86