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How Dennis the Menace has delighted millions of fans for 70 years – including Luke Skywalker

Dennis the Menace marks his 70th anniversary on March 17.
Dennis the Menace marks his 70th anniversary on March 17.

Happy birthday to the oldest 10-year-old in the world… Dennis the Menace turns 70 today.

It was on March 17 1951 the loveable prankster-extraordinaire first appeared in the Beano.

“It’s a great achievement, because although it’s his 70th anniversary, every year on the 17th of March, he’s 10-years-old again,” said Mike Stirling, head of Beano Studios Scotland.

“The thing we love about him is that even though he first appeared in 1951, he’s just grown in popularity over the years. He is just as popular nowadays as he was to kids back then.”

Dennis’s first appearance was in a black and white strip on just a half page.

Beano 452 featuring the first Dennis the Menace cartoon.

“That’s where any new characters were introduced, as a test to see what the reaction was like,” said Mike.

Fortunately, Dennis was an instant hit with young Beano readers, who found a scamp they could identify with and have done over the past seven decades.

Kids took over the comic

Mike said introducing Dennis the Menace was quite a radical move at a time when comics were mostly adventure stories where the main characters were grown-ups.

“This idea of a wee boy becoming one of the stars of the comic, was massive,” he said.

“But there was market research that had the editors saying kids wanted to see characters that reflect themselves more.

Dennis made the jump to colour… and his black-and-red jumper, in 1951.

“But not only was it a kid character, it was a kid character who was getting one up on adults.

“Dennis became massively popular right away. It was because of Dennis we had his cousin, Minnie, then the Bash Street Kids and Roger the Dodger all appearing in the next five years.

“That was when the kids took over the comic and that’s the secret behind us continuing. All we have had to do over the years to keep the comic relevant and updated is just make the kid characters reflect the kids in the here-and-now and the type of things they are into, the things they do and the mischief they get up to.”

Dennis, in his trademark black and red striped jumper, with faithful hound Gnasher at his side, has been a cultural phenomenon and counts some stellar names among his fans.

A classic Dennis adventure from 1961.

Kurt Cobain wore that distinctive Dennis the Menace jumper, as did the punk movement, Eric Clapton is reading a copy of the comic on the cover of his album Blues Breakers, David Bowie included Beano on his list of 100 favourite reads and Ian Rankin credits Dennis with encouraging him into reading.

“We did a bit of research and there are 27 million people alive today who have been regular readers of the Beano at some point in their lives, so a lot of people who have become famous have obviously had that influence,” said Mike.

Luke Skywalker was a Dennis fan

Dennis even has one fan who is out of this world, or rather in a galaxy far, far away – Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill.

“Mark first discovered the Beano when he was filming the first Star Wars movie, then he became a member of the fan club when he was filming the second when his little boy Nathan was born, so they joined at the same time,” said Mike.

To take out his membership, the acclaimed actor rang the Beano offices, calling the one phone line all the staff used, and asked to speak to Euan Kerr, the editor.

The forever 10-year-old in 1971.

“Euan, still to this day, maintains he has never seen Star Wars and didn’t have a clue who he was, even though it was Mark Hamill asking if he could join the fan club,” said Mike.

“Euan said: ‘Of course you can, just send a postal order to…’ and gave him the DC Thomson address in Dundee. Mark duly did it and sent two postal orders, one for his son Nathan.

“But everyone’s jaw just dropped that he had asked Luke Skywalker to send two postal orders for 37 and a half pence to Dundee.”

Walter is an iconic character in Dennis’s adventures.

Over the years, Dennis has kept up with the times and his appearance changed, subtly, with a succession of artists across the decades starting with David Law through the 50s and 60s.

Sense of mischief stayed the same

“But his personality, his sense of mischief and sense of humour have stayed exactly the same,” said Mike.

Dennis and Gnasher helped The Beano celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1988.

There have been a few milestones for Beanotown’s most famous residents, but Mike reckons the biggest “gamechanger” came in 1968.

“That was when he discovered this stray Abyssinian wire-haired tripe hound called Gnasher,” said Mike.

The idea for Gnasher came from scriptwriter Ian “Smokie” Gray, who said Dennis’s pet should look him and the direction he gave to artist David Law was to just take Dennis’s hair and add a mouth, eyes and legs.

“The first Gnasher is literally that, this mad scribble” said Mike. “It seems commonplace now but it invented by the Beano about owners looking like their pets.”

And Gnasher gave rise to a cultural phenomenon in 1986 when he went missing for six weeks.

A new millennium dawns… and Dennis is still going strong.

“There was a national campaign to find him,” said Mike.

“It was on TV, football scoreboards had messages about it, radio DJs were talking about it.”

It turned out that in his time away, Gnasher had fallen in love and become a dad to six pups – one of which, Gnipper, who still lives with Dennis’s gran.

Make someone laugh for Dennis’s birthday

As well as having big name fans, some big names have appeared alongside Dennis in the pages of The Beano, too, as guest editors.

“David Walliams has been our guest editor, Harry Hill has been our guest editor,” said Mike.

And another guest editor is in charge of The Beano out today on Dennis’s 70th birthday, TV star and fellow prankster, Joe Sugg. The special edition also features a pull-out Menace Family Tree poster, tracing Dennis’s heritage.

“The Menace family have always been in Beanotown and the Dennis who was there in 1951 is the Dennis of today’s grandad, the Dennis of the 80s – that I loved so much – that’s the Dennis of today’s dad, who is 40 today.”

Dennis gets a sister, Bea, in 1998

But Mike says there is one special way everyone can celebrate Dennis’s special day.

“I think – and he thinks – everyone has got a little Dennis inside themselves. So he’s encouraging everyone on his birthday this year to play a wee prank, tell a wee joke, but most of all just make someone laugh.”

And his message to Dennis himself…

“Have a great day, but please don’t prank me and keep us all laughing for the next 70 years at least.”