SCMP Saturday, December 9, 2000

How the Beano can beat a good book


As Christmas rapidly approaches, I know that one of the gifts my nine-year-old son will be hoping to find under the tree will be the Beano Annual. I also know that after the initial excitement of opening his other presents, he will probably settle down to enjoy his Beano.
A few decades ago, I had exactly the same hopes and behaved in the same way. The Beano, along with the Dandy, are the two most popular comics in Britain and are celebrating their 60th anniversaries this year. Comics such as the Beano and the Dandy, have been part of the popular culture of childhood for generations, and Japanese cartoons such as Doraemon may enjoy similar endurance.
My own favourite comic strip from the Beano has always been the Bash Street Kids. This involves a class of wild school children with nicknames such as Plug, Toots, Spotty, and Smiffy who take great delight in tormenting their long-suffering teacher with their anarchic behaviour.
My son and I have just had a great time rereading one of their classic comic strips about the teacher's attempts to stage a Christmas nativity play. Any teacher would instantly recognise and empathise with the ill-fated attempts to get the children to learn their lines and stage the play without disaster. Any child would gain inspiration from the opportunities to drive their teacher to despair.
Humour comes in wave after wave of catastrophes from rehearsal to the performance. Against all odds, the play is perceived as a success until the headmaster tries to take all the credit. Fortunately he gets his comeuppance in the best slapstick fashion in the form of a custard pie in the face. On this rare occasion, both the teacher and the kids come out on top.
Some parents and educators wonder whether it is such a good idea for their children to read comics instead of "proper" books, and there are indeed justifiable concerns about the representations of sex and violence in a number of more recent comics targeted at children. However, there are many comics that do not fall into this category. Rather, comics such as The Beano and The Dandy represent a special and sophisticated genre of children's literature.
Reading a comic involves the child in active reading in a number of ways rarely found in typical picture story books. The meaning within a comic strip story tends to be multi-layered. The process of constructing meaning from it can involve the reader in a complex act of simultaneously interpreting the sequence and meaning of pictures, captions, dialogues, onomatopoeic 'sound effects', and a variety of sizes and types of print.
Besides this, there are a great many pleasures to be gained from reading a good comic. The humour in the form of jokes, puns and subtle references to topical events is an important part of the attraction. In addition, the illustrations bring to life the various disasters, adventures and tricks that befall the characters and help the reader to 'fill in the gaps' between captions and other print.
Popular comics are able to connect with young children and can succeed in engaging them as active readers like no other form of text. Perhaps it is the inherent richness of the genre that keeps children reading them over and over again. For many young children, comics will be their most pleasurable reading activity, and an important part of their childhood.
Tony Mahon is a senior lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.