Thursday, 9 November 2017
WHAM! - THE FIRST AND THE LAST - AND LEO BAXENDALE'S PLACE IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS...
The late and legendary LEO BAXENDALE was once a figure who loomed large in British comics. Of course, in a sense, he still looms large, given that some of the characters he created or co-created back in the 1950s still appear in comics and Annuals today. They're 'ghosted' in an approximation of whatever style he was using at the time, but today's kids most likely wouldn't know his name from Adam. He left comics in the mid-'70s, unhappy that old strips he'd drawn were being reprinted without any financial remuneration to him, and as far as comic-strip content went, he faded from view after producing his three WILLY The KID hardbound books in the latter part of the '70s. True, he did have a strip in The GUARDIAN newspaper, but most children would've been unaware of it (not that it was aimed at them anyway).
Given the enormous enjoyment he gave many readers over the years, it may seem unfair to use the word 'failure' to describe any of Leo's projects after he left D.C. THOMSON, but when the actual achievements of these projects are measured against their original expectations, they fall quite a bit short. Take WHAM! (above) for example. Conceived as a sort of 'SUPER BEANO', it was intended to knock spots off DCT's star attraction and leave it writhing in the dust, but it didn't even land a glove. Lasting for 187 issues, it must've come as a bitter disappointment to Leo when the title was merged with POW! at the beginning of 1968, a scant three and a half years after its debut.
His next big original endeavour was the Willy The Kid books, which Leo (perhaps hyperbolically) claimed were going to be published every year forever! (Or at least as long as he could write and draw them.) After three books, publisher GERALD DUCKWORTH pulled the plug, and although the titanic trio of 'Annuals' are probably the finest examples of Leo's humour at its funniest, they failed to achieve the longevity (or the sales) that Leo had hoped for. That placed him in the almost unique position of continuing to be a prominent name amongst his peers even as his career (in the public eye at least) went into decline. However, I'm not suggesting that Leo himself was a failure; he continued to earn a living and provide for his family, but as far as ambitious, high-profile projects were concerned, his newer efforts never made quite the same impact that his earlier work had done.
Today, even his drawing style is not immediately recognised as his by the newer breed of reader, being more associated with 'imitators' like TOM PATERSON and others, who quickly stepped into the gap left by Leo when he departed comics in the mid-'70s. This was a repeat of what had occurred in the early '60s when Leo left DCT to go to ODHAMS. Other artists continued his strips in his style (or as close an approximation as they could get to it), and it's perhaps debatable whether readers of the time (apart from die-hard fans) even noticed his departure. When Leo passed away earlier this year, many former Beano readers (particularly of the Annuals) from the mid-'60s, '70s, and '80s who claimed to remember his work from their youth, were surprised to learn that it was the work of 'ghost' artists they recalled, not that of Leo himself.
It's a shame when you think about it. For a cartoonist who made such an impact on British comics in his heyday, the fact that the general public don't instantly recognise his name means that Leo is denied the fame and respect which is his due. Sure, older comic fans of a certain age know who he is, but we're a dying breed ourselves, and when we're gone our memories of the man may well go with us. Perhaps that's the way of things and 'creations' should always be bigger than their creators, but I can't help but wonder whether Leo ever regretted leaving the world of comics behind to follow new trails that, in light of their intended destinations, ultimately led to nowhere.
What do you think? While you ponder your response, enjoy these images from the first and last issues of Wham! (Incidentally, The TIDDLERS strip isn't drawn by Leo, and is included only because it's on the covers of the final ish of Bax's brainchild.)
Posted by Kid at Thursday, November 09, 2017