Several generations of British children, and those in the British diaspora, especially the Commonwealth countries - would have at least some passing knowledge of comic papers like "The Dandy", "The Beano", "Whizzer", "Chips", "Beezer" and so forth - many of which were owned by the D. C. Thompson comics empire. But youth fads being what they are, the increasing price of newsprint and so forth meant that the once-weekly ritual of British children racing down to the newsagent with a few pence and walking away with the latest misadventures of characters such as Korky the Cat, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and so forth are now literally history.
Given shipping prices, the comics thmselves never made it much across the ponds - you could sporadically get them in Australia and Canada and some specialty magazine places in the States, but at prices that put them out of reach to children.
In response in the 2000s the Beano, the Dandy and so forth attempted to move to a monthly magazine format, and then threw up its hands and ceased print publication entirely and has some kind of iPad subscription presence, but it isn't what it was.
But what still exists is the Christmas annual, which comes out at a time when price be damned, it's Christmas, and a one-time purchase can justify a mass printing. My mother always made sure my older brother got the Beano and Dandy ones. We have a collection of Giles cartoon annuals my grandmother gave my grandfather as gifts and so forth. It was a Christmas tradition, even though they were often marked up heavily in the trans-Atlantic crossing. Even if the kids never got the chance to buy the comics with their pocket money, the annuals were a link to UKian culture, as sure a part of family bonding as gathering every available clan member around a dry turkey and soggy roast potatoes, accompanied by the Queen's Speech.
So i was delighted to find the 2016 annual on this side of the Atlantic yesterday, and purchased it as a gift for my younger brother. And of course, I read it first.
What I found was intriguing.
I dug out my mother's copy of the 1976 Beano Annual for comparison.
The 1976 had big illustrations, big type, and was full of stories for children. They were straightforward and full of the same kind of Brit-dad jokes that enchanted generations of British kids, before as I said, the kids became more interested in watching Iron Man 2. The modern book was slimmer, slightly smaller, and the type was smaller. But not only that, there were references to "fart powder" (which wouldn't have flown in 1976), the slipperings and canings that were a common feature of the strips were gone (corporal punishment having been phased out of homes and schools) and there were many inside, referential or otherwise "hipster reference" jokes therein. Dennis' Dad went from being a balding man with a frankly Hitlerian moustache and a cardigan, to being an older version of Dennis with the same full head of spiky hair, only wearing a football shirt and jeans as opposed to a Freddy Kruger sweater and shorts like the son. The divide between father and son - which, prior was aging paterfamilias and single-digit aged tearaway - has been reduced to an early 30something dealing with a just shy of tween. The family tension portrayed went from perspective of small child dodging the smarting slipper of a grumpy old man, to a Millennial parent not sure how to deal with his energetic hyperactive son.
There was a very sad gag about Dennis the Menace going swimming and finding pirate gold, and coming under the same curse as Pirates of the Carribbean. So he brings the zombie pirates home to show them the movie, as they don't understand his references. Only that he couldn't find Pirates of the Carribbean so was showing them Iron Man instead. And that's where they were, sitting on the couch, watching DVDs, as the parents shake their heads sadly at this state of affairs. Shall we engage in some zany japes or some capers? "Have you got Iron Man 2?"
And it was at this point that I realized I wasn't reading a book for someone who was 7-13. I was reading a book for someone who remembered being 7-13, bought it out of some nostalgic impulse, and was being treated to the same kind of "pantomime inside joke" that keeps mums and dads happy and in their seats whilst taking children to the panto. And therein lay a fascinating and rather sad revelation: it's only living on as an imitation of its former self, something now designed for those people who bought it out of habit, out of long decades' habit of making sure the Beano Annual was under the tree alongside any of a number of other gifts. But just as how the footballs and toy trains of generations past have gone the way of Playstation 4s and iPads, so too has the annual - which is now more for the mum and dad of the house to take a sneaky sly read of whilst the children are sleeping.