I’ve been terribly sad to hear that British comics legend Leo Baxendale passed away recently, at the age of 86.
‘Legend’ is a word bandied about a bit too freely these days, but I think it is entirely apt here. Leo Baxendale was an incredible artist, who not only gave British comics a shot in the arm in the 1950s with his wild, anarchic style but who also created some of its most iconic and long-lasting characters, including (but by no means limited to) Little Plum, The 3 Bears, The Bash Street Kids, Grimly Feendish, Sweeny Toddler and Minnie the Minx. And above all that, he left a legacy in his distinctive style, a way of drawing comics that has influenced pretty much anyone working in the field today.
Baxendale began working with The Beano at the tender age of 22 in 1952, and along with Davey Law (Dennis the Menace) and Ken Reid (Roger the Dodger) set about turning the comic into the institution it became, selling two million copies a week at its peak. Baxendale’s mischievous kid characters resonated completely with children, and the funny, wild, detail-stuffed panels they inhabited proved to be their perfect playground. Before Baxendale, The Beano had become rather set in its ways, but with this injection of unbridled anarchy it finally found a distinctive voice, and it was one children adored.
It is no understatement to say that Baxendale had a huge impact on comics, and on the young creators who would go on to work in the industry. I myself was a huge fan of Tom Paterson growing up, pouring over his Calamity James and Sweeny Toddler pages as a child, but as my love of comics grew and I went back to find more of the early stuff, I found Baxendale’s work (for it was he who created Sweeny in the first place – Paterson took over in 1975, ghosting his style), and realised how much he had influenced Paterson – and thus by extension, me.
I remember getting hold of some of those early Bash Street Kids stories, with their panels heaving with throngs of legs and arms in perpetual motion, and being blown away by the work in them. And not only did the look fantastic, but they were funny as well – laugh out loud funny, even. Take the panel at the top of the page, for example. Fantastic composition married with a great, comic idea, stuffed to the gills with little jokes and sight gags. It’s a masterclass in comics – and that is only ONE panel out of the many thousands he has left behind. The experience of discovering such gems has stayed with me, and every time I find a strip I had not previously seen before, I am lost within its frames for hours, soaking everything in, chuckling away to myself.
Baxendale was more than The Beano, of course – he worked on The Beezer, helped set up Wham! and Smash! for Oldhams (a comic crammed full of his creations, including the sublimely twisted Grimly Feendish) and produced strips for Fleetway in the 70s. He left mainstream comics in 1975, disillusioned with the lack of creative control and the unfavourable terms with regards to rights, to later go into independent publishing, where titles such as the seminal Willy the Kid blossomed, all infused with that unmistakable Baxendale brilliance.
I find myself now in the very fortunate position of writing for some of Baxendale’s characters, having written for Little Plum, The Bash Street Kids, The Banana Bunch and, currently, Minnie the Minx herself. I am a mere custodian of his legacies, and I would literally not be doing what I’m doing were it not for Baxendale, so I owe him a great debt of thanks for laying the groundwork upon which those of us coming up after him lightly tread. Thank you for the legacy, Mr. Baxendale, and thank you for the laughs.
My thoughts go out to his friends and family. I hope the fact that he is being talked about in such high esteem by so many – both in and outside of the industry – is some small comfort for their loss. Rest in Peace, Mr. Baxendale – I’ll be sure to look after Minnie for you.