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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Leo Baxendale 1930 - 2017

On Monday, myself and others in the comics industry were given the very sad news that the great Leo Baxendale had passed away on Sunday 23rd April, at the age of 86. His family asked us to hold back on mentioning it on social media until the rest of Leo's relatives had been informed, so naturally we respected their wishes. We now have permission to post our tributes and several will be appearing online from today.

An absolute giant in the world of British comics, Leo Baxendale created such enduring characters as Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, and The Bash Street Kids for The Beano in the 1950s and memorable strips such as Eagle Eye, Junior Spy, Bad PennyGrimly Feendish, Clever Dick, and Sweeny Toddler for various other comics in the 1960s/70s. 
It all began in the early 1950s. Filled with enthusiasm when he saw Davy Law's first energetic Dennis the Menace strips in The Beano, Leo submitted work to the editor, which led to him creating Little Plum, When The Bell Rings (later known as The Bash Street Kids) and Minnie the Minx. The characters struck a chord with the readers and the impact and influence of Leo's style on British humour comics from the 1950s onwards was immeasurable. Along with Davy Law (Dennis the Menace) and Ken Reid (Roger the Dodger), Leo revitalised The Beano and his art style became the one that other artists were encouraged to emulate. He also drew for The Beezer at that time, creating marvellous full page illustrations for The Banana Bunch

In an interview for Cotswold Life in 2010, Leo said:
"When I was creating my characters for The Beano, I made them part of an uncertain world, and there were two strands to this world. One was the medieval concept of disasters happening out of a blue sky for no reason whatever. And the second one was the more modern idea of cause-and-effect. Very often, the ambitions that made my characters set events in train led to disaster; but the thing was, they were absolutely unaware of this so they made the same errors again and again."
The Beano, 1958.

Banana Bunch in The Beezer.
Leo's work revolutionised British comics. Even though he left The Beano in 1962, and quit mainstream comics altogether in 1975 to pursue independent publishing, other artists were still required to follow his style, particularly on The Beano. The Bash Street Kids still bears Leo's influence to this day, even though the current artist, David Sutherland, has been drawing it for over 50 years.
The Beano. 1960.
I still clearly remember the day I first saw a Leo Baxendale strip. I was six years old and shopping in town with my mum. I was allowed to choose a comic myself from a newsagent's counter, and picked up Wham! No.77 (dated 4th December 1965). I'd never seen this bright, dynamic comic before. Leo's Tiddlers cover strip immediately grabbed my attention and I remember, even now, walking around the nearby department stall, totally engrossed in that cover strip. Most comics were fun but this was funny. From that day onwards, Leo Baxendale became my favourite humour artist. I started having Wham! regularly and began creating my own comics not too long after that, thanks directly to how much Leo's work engaged me.

Wham!, published by Odhams, had been created in 1964 specifically to woo Leo over from The Beano to originate strips for a rival comic. It didn't exactly turn out to be the "Super Beano" that Leo had hoped for but Wham! still had a modern and anarchic vitality to its strips (many created by Leo) that excited its readership and is still remembered with fondness today. The editors allowed artists to sign their work if they wished to, (a rarity back then) so it was evident which pages Leo had drawn. The same applied to Smash!, a companion comic that began in 1966. Leo's Bad Penny and Grimly Feendish strips were a joy to read.

First Grimly Feendish strip from SMASH! No.1, 1966.
Leo didn't stay with Odhams for too long, and began freelancing for the Fleetway comics instead in 1966, with others taking over his Odhams strips, drawing in his style. I wasn't aware of his Fleetway work until years later, but he was producing some cracking stuff such as The Pirates for Buster
Buster, 1967.
When Fleetway / Odhams evolved into IPC Magazines, Leo took over The Swots and the Blots strip in Smash! in 1969, providing wild and genuinely funny stories. He also originated Clever Dick for Buster, and other strips such as the Badtime Bedtime Story Books (pull outs) in Monster Fun Comic

Smash! 1969.
Eventually, Leo quit mainstream comics in the mid seventies, frustrated by the practices of UK publishers (such as the reprinting of old pages without payment, and his lack of creative control). Ahead of his time, he set to work on producing hardback comic albums featuring his new creation Willy the Kid, published by Duckworth. A bold move, considering Willy was a completely untested character. Books in strip format featuring one character were a common format in Europe but not so much in the UK then as they are now.

It was also around this time that Leo's autobiography A Very Funny Business was published, which was a fantastic revelation about the inner workings of life for a freelancer in the British comics industry. A real eye-opener for those of us who were looking for a career in comics.
In the 1980s, Leo engaged in a long legal battle with D.C. Thomson over ownership of his characters. He was the first UK comics artist to stand up to a publisher over creator's rights in this way. The case was settled out of court. 

In 1987, Knockabout Books published Thrrp! a bizarre, brand new work by Leo for adults. 
Later, he created Baby Basil for a strip in The Guardian and began to self publish books under his Reaper Books imprint. These included a hardback called I Love You Baby Basil (collecting his 1990-91 strips rom The Guardian), and the softback Down the Plughole in 1995.

I only met Leo once, at a small informal event in Preston in 1993 celebrating the 40th anniversary of his Beano creations. A small group of us went out for dinner later and Leo was excellent company. We exchanged letters for a while but dropped out of touch over the years. I'm very pleased that I did get a chance to meet my hero though and I valued his encouragement.

It's been very saddening writing this tribute. I knew Leo as an acquaintance but not as a close friend, but his work was such a massive influence on me and brought me so much joy as a kid. It's a cliché to say that comics would have been poorer without him but they genuinely would. Leo's artwork impacted on the look of British humour comics from the early 1960s onwards, establishing a style that so many artists emulated. Leo demonstrably helped modernise the industry in the 1950s when the Roy Wilson style of artwork was falling out of favour, and its arguable that the traditional humour weekly wouldn't have survived for so long as it did without his significant input. 
Eagle Eye, Wham!, 1964.
My sincere condolences to Leo's family and friends for their loss, and I hope that the knowledge of the happiness his work brought to so many of us will bring them some comfort at this sad time.
Beezer Book, published 1963.

1976 interview by Denis Gifford for Ally Sloper comic.

More tributes to Leo Baxendale...

from Joe Gordon:

from John Freeman:

from Nigel Parkinson:


John Freeman said...

Lovely tribute, Lew - thank you.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks, John. I think we'll be seeing a lot of tributes and fond thoughts of Leo today.

Brad Brooks said...

Thanks for this Lew. It's an excellent tribute to the man and his work. You, John, Joe and Nigel have come up trumps for him today.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks, Brad. A memorial I wish I'd have never had cause to write, but it had to be done. John and Joe have done smashing tributes and Joe's is particularly moving.

The Captain said...

Lovely words. As a child of the seventies he'd already quit mainstream comics by the time I discovered his work but his influence was still strong and it didn't take long for me to come across him. He was inspirational and entertaining. I owe him loads for the pleasure and entertainment as well as being the reason I continued as an amateur cartoonist all these years. RIP.

Lew Stringer said...

I was relatively late discovering Leo's work too, not seeing any until 1965. I only have a few 1950s Beanos (they're far too expensive to buy now) so there's still many pages I've never seen.

Nakered said...

(another) artist, gone to the great, big easel in the sky.
Genius is a word that gets bandied around too easily, but in this instance, it's quite fitting.
Thanks Leo!

Lew Stringer said...

Very true. If any humourist deserves the title 'legend' it's Leo.

paul Mcscotty said...

Whilst it is always sad when someone passes there are only a handful of personalities whose passing makes the world seem just a little bit less “wonderful” than it was, for me that includes people like David Bowie and Leo Baxendale – Simply put Leos work made me (and 100s of thousands of others) happy ,even if they didn’t actually know his name and not many people can lay claim to that. A wonderful life well lived, I hope he knew how well respected and loved he was out with his family and friends. A truly lovely tribute Lew, well done you done the man justice. )

Carey said...

I think I was just too young to experience Leo Baxendale's work first hand to have it as a direct influence on me, although I was very much influenced by those influenced by him. But I did find and read his "A Very Funny Business" from my local library when I would have been around ten, and it was the first time I'd seen anyone discuss the actual process of making comics, and being introduced to the idea of actual people being responsible for their creation.

For this alone he was a huge influence, and I would probably never have had the career working in comics and character licensing without him (I've even worked on a Beano style guide in my day!)

Many thanks for your fitting tribute. And RIP Leo Baxendale.

Robert Hagan said...

Thank you for a wonderful tribute, Lew.

John Parker said...

An excellent post, Lew. Thanks very much. He was a mainstay of my comic-reading during the 60s, that's for sure!

Søren Kjellberg said...

So sorry to read this, a big blow, a great loss. Baxwndale was a kind of hero to me, the original madman, who created the zaniest comics I have ever seen. It's a great injustice that so little of his stuff has been reprinted, his legacy all tied up in legal wrangling. I spoke to the editor of The Beano a few years ago, nothing doing. RIP Leo Baxendale, a true master of comics.

Martin Baxendale said...

Hope it's okay to post this here. Something I bashed out this morning in response to various media requests. Martin Baxendale, Leo's oldest son:

As a cartoonist myself, I have to say that Leo was an impossible act to follow. His drawings were always both very, very funny and sublimely well drawn - Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling to my greetings card and gift book scribbles. He cast a long shadow which will be greatly missed now it's gone.

The humour in Leo's work for children's comics and his later newspaper cartoons and books was always anarchic, anti the established order and pro fairness and justice in a generally unfair and unjust world, championing the underdog against the forces of oppression; a reflection of his strongly held left-wing, progressive political views.

In his comics pages he saw the child characters he created (most famously The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum) as the underdogs long controlled and oppressed by the adult world around them and he gave them a voice and actions with which to fight back in hilariously anarchic fashion, allowed them to step into the limelight and control their own destinies. Children of the time responded to that, writing fan letters of glee and appreciation that truly delighted him. The fan letters also came from grown up children, reading his pages with as much enjoyment as their offspring.

He crammed his drawings with masses of tiny comic details that the readers could pour over and come back to time and time again. He believed that children had "super-powerful eyeballs" with which they looked for that kind of tiny comic detail to become absorbed in, and he always wanted to give them more and more, pages that they could become lost in as they studied the detail. He never wanted to disappoint his fans.

In recent years it wasn't the cancer that he fought for so long that really got him down, so much as the constant march ever more to the right in British politics - a depressing political march away from the principles of fairness, justice and standing up for the underdog that underpinned his life and his cartoons, towards a world built around fear, hatred and division. To the end he believed, despite all the evidence, that he could beat his illness and I'm sure he also believed that the forces of progressive politics could also still win, no matter how long a shadow their opponents might cast.

I will always be grateful that Leo taught me how to draw well enough to make a living from it. I’m equally grateful that his strongly progressive political views and activism rubbed off on me and my brothers and sisters (I vividly remember as a small child being taken on wet and cold CND marches as well as on exciting visits to the Beano offices in Dundee) and so helped to shape the adults we became, and it’s good to know that he also touched and in some small way perhaps influenced the lives of so many others of our generation brought up on his comic pages.

Manic Man said...

Can't really add much
nicely written tribute, at least we can say 86 was a good age.

C_Oliver said...

40 years on, and I can still recall Willy the Kid's anarchic, near-Pythonesque humour. Not many cartoonists would've had the idea (or nerve) to draw King Kong and Nazi generals peering out from suburban windows, but Baxendale did!

Lew Stringer said...

Martin, it's an honour to have you contribute a comment. Thank you for such a fascinating insight into your dad's work and his life. I think many of us can relate to Leo's concerns about the way society is leaning ever further to the right. This isn't the way we expected the world to turn out, back in the 1960s. Your father was a great man, in his work and his beliefs. My condolences again for your loss.

Thanks to everyone else too who has posted comments today. This one post has received a phenomenal number of views (over 21,000 at the last stats) so I'm glad to have been able to share some of Leo's work to a wider audience, albeit in sad circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Very sad news indeed, Lew.

Reading through your excellent tribute brought back many a lost, happy memory.

Leo Baxendale was truly a real comic book legend, and I hope that whoever owns the rights realise's that, and his many works get the lavish reproductions they surely deserve.

Thank you for brightening up my - and countless other's - childhoods immeasurably with your incredible talent, Mr Baxendale.


qamar said...

So sad to hear. I will take time to read your tribute tonight Lew.

As others, I also grew up on Leo's work. An amazing talent who many tried to imitate. Also nice to read Martin's post. My prayers goes to him and his family for what must be a very difficult time.

Unknown said...

Lew - A thoughtful tribute to Leo Baxendale who's work brought color and joy to part of my boyhood and love of comics.

Very well done and prayers with Martin and the rest of his family

paddykool said...

A beautiful and thoughtful tribute, Lew. He was the reason that the Beano was childhood magic for me and then when Wham exploded, he was the one who made it sing off the stands in comparison to every other comic in those times. RIP indeed. Leo was a giant.

Unknown said...

I got hold of the Willy the Kid books in the early 1980s as an impressionable young boy and the pointed, macabre, surreal, and utterly beautifully presented comic strips still influence the humour that runs through my soul - thankfully Viz and your work Lew has kept that humour alive. A sad moment for British Comics.

An utter genius, and a great tribute Lew.

Peter Gray said...

Leo Baxendale my favourite comic artist. The crowd scenes are my favourite of his the Banana Bunch are the best. I think if the Bash street kids were drawn in the Beezer he would of done big poster pages for them also..the size of the paper made a big difference.

My thoughts and prayers are with you Martin and your family at this time.

John Pitt said...

Lovely tribute, Lew. I heard the news yesterday on the radio and I knew that you would do him proud.
The only consolation is he did make it to a good old age, and deservedly so.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks, John. He'll never be equalled. Not only do I admire him for his brilliant creations but also because, at a time when he was pretty much at the top of his profession, he turned his back on mainstream comics and did his own thing. It would have been very easy for him to carry on freelancing for IPC but Leo took charge of his own destiny and moved onto creator-owned projects and self publishing. A pioneer!

John Pitt said...

Lew, even though he was one of my top four (equally!) humour artists, whose work I love, reading Martin's comments on here has made me love and repect him as a man even more, as he shared my own political values. I knew nothing of his private life, I am happy to learn this about Leo, the man, a good man!

Lew Stringer said...

John, for more insights I recommend Leo's biography 'A Very Funny Business' and his books 'The Encroachment' and 'On Comedy: The Beano and Ideology'.

Anonymous said...

Can I add my admiration of Leo Baxendale's political values - it beggars belief that we are heading towards a Tory landslide after seven years of extreme austerity, public services cut to the marrow, the NHS in the worst crisis in its' history and schools in such financial straits that parents have to help pay for books. But of course Brexit will solve everything and Theresa May is the the modern Moses who will lead the gullible and deluded Tory masses to the Brexit promised land of milk and honey. I'll just say this to the moronic Labour voters who are planning to vote Tory: If you invite a pack of jackals into your house then don't be surprised when they eat your children.

Lew Stringer said...

I agree with you there, Colin. The right-wing press are calling the shots and far too many people are falling for the demonisation of immigrants, the poor, and the disabled. Recent times have seen a sickening upsurge in callousness that a lot of people seem to be welcoming!

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