We are proud to celebrate the career and the many creative accomplishments of Leo Baxendale, the 2nd inductee to the British Comic Awards Hall of Fame.
Leo Baxendale is 83 years old and has a lifetime of original, anarchic, hilarious and revolutionary comics behind him. Yet if you wanted to read them you’d have to dig through yellowed stacks of children’s comics from decades gone by and employ some detective work but what you may find is pure comic treasure.
Leo Baxendale was born in October 1930 in the small village of Whittle-le-Woods near Chorley in Lancashire. He attended school at Preston Catholic College and after leaving served in the Royal Air Force. On his return from the RAF, Baxendale found work as an artist for the Lancashire Evening Post drawing adverts and cartoons.
Soon after, Baxendale received a lightning bolt of inspiration in the form of a singular comic strip in the children’s comic The Beano.
“By 1952,” Baxendale writes “The Beano was still very 1930. Lord Snooty was still clearly based on an amalgam of Little Lord Fauntleroy and low-budget comedy films. That was all right for 1930, but in the 1950s people wanted something new. The only exception to the rule in The Beano was David Law’s Dennis the Menace. I was captivated.” 
“Here was a remarkable new character in a modern urban setting. The Dennis page seemed to crackle with life. I thought ‘I could do something like this’, and promptly started sorting out samples of my cartoon work to send off to The Beano.” 
The next year in 1953 Baxendale began work at The Beano for Dundee based publishers D.C. Thomson & Co. and it wasn’t long until his fresh, modern style created it’s first hit with Little Plum – Your Redskin Chum the youngest, pluckiest brave in the Smellyfoot tribe who would battle rival tribes and grizzly bears. Baxendale’s bear characters became so popular he was asked in 1959 to create a strip just for them and The Three Bears began starring Pa, Ma and Teddie in their everlasting search for food.
Also in 1953, Baxendale’s first year at the comic, the editor George Mooney was looking for a female equivalent of Dennis the Menace. The Beano already had David Law’s Beryl the Peril, a tall, clumsy girl who enjoyed mischief, so in December of that year Baxendale unleashed Minnie the Minx, an impish, hyperactive, often violent Tom-Boy. Baxendale describes her as “a kind of Amazonian warrior.”  She was an instant hit.
Minnie is the third longest-running Beano character and has a statue in Dundee.
In 1954 Baxendale began work on When the Bell Rings about an army of unruly school children and their hapless teacher. It wasn’t until late 1956 when it gained it’s more familiar title of The Bash Street Kids and it’s characters became more prominent. Danny, Sidney, Herbert, Wilfrid, Smiffy, Toots, Fatty and Plug were a huge success. It was this larger and unique cast that allowed Baxendale to fill pages with background action and humorous details which became a hallmark of his energetic style.
Older readers began to notice that something new and exciting was happening the pages of The Beano. Baxendale recalls:
“At one point, the Beano editor showed me a letter from an adult reader saying that the artist doing the Bash Street Kids was a near-genius. I think he expected me to be pleased. But I was annoyed, actually, by the word “near”. I was very full of myself then. Now I’m only three-quarters full of myself.”
The Bash Street Kids has appeared in every issue of The Beano since 1956 and this year a city street in Dundee was renamed Bash Street.
Comics were growing in popularity and in 1956 Baxendale aided D.C. Thompson on the launch of The Beezer a tabloid-sized comic. When Baxendale started in at The Beano in 1953 it was selling 400,000 copies. By 1958, it was selling 2 million a week. 2 million comics. A week.
In 1962, after nearly 10 years at The Beano and aged 32, the weekly deadlines began to take their toll. On top of creating story ideas with fellow Beano writers, Baxendale was drawing full page complete stories for 4 different strips on top of work for The Beezer and the annuals. Baxendale says “In 1962 I just blew up like an old boiler, and walked out.” 
Two years later in 1964, Baxendale began work with the London publishers Odhams Press on their new comic Wham!. To Baxendale, Wham! was an ideal platform where the artists could run free, write their own characters and be credited for their work. All The Beano strips at the time were anonymous. Some of Baxendale’s most artistically accomplished work was created for the pages of Wham! and it’s sister comic Smash! launched in 1966.
Eagle Eye, Junior Spy followed the diminutive, trench coat clad, secret agent as he uncovered villainy around the world. Baxendale was free to experiment with page layout and full colour, and the joyful creativity that resulted are clear to see on the page.
The most popular villain from Eagle Eye was Grimly Feendish, think Uncle Fester with plans of world domination and a snazzy red scarf. Grimly aka The Rottenest Crook in the World gained his own strip in the pages of Smash! and it’s macabre cast of monstrous minions was a playground for Baxendale’s unique wit and visual creativity.
Other strips were thinly veiled copies of his Beano creations, Bad Penny was Minnie the Minx and The Tiddlers were basically The Bash Street Kids. Even in these strips, Baxendale had more time to work on the art and he included more naturalistic backgrounds, influenced by the newspaper cartoonist Carl Giles.
Wham! No.77, 4th December 1965. Baxendale loved to hide hidden details in his strips. See if you can spot the Dalek in this strip.
In late 1966, Baxendale jumped ship and left Odhams to join rival Fleetway Publications, drawing strips like Clever Dick and Sweeny Toddler for their range of titles. However, Baxendale still drew a large amount of work for Odhams in secret until 1969 and enjoyed a shift in his style:
“I was in a delightful situation.Working under my own name, a lot was expected of me. Publishers expected me to cram my drawings with funny detail. Working undercover, I was able to reduce the layouts to the simplest terms. Backgrounds were minimal or non-existent – just a horizon line. And there was no ancillary comic detail – just the characters acting out the story line against an empty backdrop. I drew them fast. But there was so little work in them that I was able to draw them very well. They sparkled.” 
Baxendale left the world of traditional comics in 1975 and went on to create Willy the Kid (1966-68, Duckworths) using the hardback annual format as a medium for original material and THRRP! (1987, Knockabout) aimed at older readers but still full of childish gross out humour and juvenile invention.
For most of the eighties, Baxendale was involved in a court case with D.C. Thomson & Co. over the copyright of his characters. It was settled out of court and while he never regained copyright he was legally identified as their creator and received 30 pages of his original artwork. Baxendale estimates that in 22 years of drawing comics, he had produced between five-and-a-half and six thousand pages. “Of these,” he says, “I now had thirty.” 
With the money from the settlement Baxendale set up Reaper Books and self published collections of Willy The Kid and his Guardian comic strip I Love You Baby Basil! which ran from 1990-91.
The Beano is 75 years old this year and while it’s heyday may be long gone within it’s pages Baxendale’s characters are still entertaining children week after week. His influence on generations of children and young artists is incalculable. His joyous, inventive style with it’s crowded scenes, visual puns, hidden details, goofy expressions and genius slapstick have been emulated and adopted by cartoonists again and again. Baxendale’s body of work from his famous Beano characters, to his lesser known but equally brilliant creations are an integral and inseparable part of the history of British children’s comics.
The fact that D.C. Thompson has not published complete, archive collections of the work of early Beano artists like Baxendale, David Law and Ken Reid, to give them the credit they deserve after so many years, is astounding. We may be experiencing an exciting new era of British comics right now, but we mustn’t forget those who came before us, those who inspired us, and those who inspired those who inspired us.
Leo Baxendale is a creator of irrepressible talent and we are proud and thrilled to officially welcome him into the British Comic Awards Hall of Fame.
- Baxendale, Leo – A Very Funny Business: 40 Years Of Comics, Duckworth, 1978 p6. ISBN-13: 978-0715613115
- Baxendale, Leo – A Very Funny Business: 40 Years Of Comics, Duckworth, 1978 p90-91. ISBN-13: 978-0715613115
- Baxendale, Leo – Hobgoblin Wars, Reaper Books, 2009 p17-18. ISBN-13: 978-0956527202
Many of the images in this post were found on Lew Stringer’s incredible blog, BLIMEY! which is well worth a look.