When British comic legend Leo Baxendale sadly passed away last month at the age of 86, he left behind a rich legacy of truly brilliant characters. The “enfant terrible” Sweeney Toddler, the affable archvillain Grimly Feendish, the blundering Three Bears–each of these left their mark on generations of comic-readers in the United Kingdom. But out of all the characters drawn by Baxendale, perhaps his best-loved is a naughty little girl with a nasty set of knuckles …
Leo Baxendale recounted how he first became inspired to enter the comics world in his 1978 autobiography A Very Funny Business. A short while before turning twenty-two in 1952, Baxendale happened across a new strip in a copy of the Beano owned by one of his younger brothers. At the time he felt that characters in British comics seemed “to live permanently in the past”, but this strip bucked that trend.
The strip was called Dennis the Menace. No relation to the American cartoon of the same name, it was drawn by Davey Law in a loose, brash style. The setting was a modern, urban Britain, and it seemed new and innovative in a medium that kept one foot in Victorian traditions.
“I could do something like this”, thought Baxendale.
And so Baxendale joined Beano publisher D. C. Thomson, where he spent the early days of his career struggling with uninspired and now-forgotten characters as Oscar Krank and Charlie Choo. He could see the limitations of these strips, and yearned to create a Dennis the Menace of his own. He simply needed to come up with a twist on the concept, something that would differentiate his character from Law’s.
While casting about for inspiration he happened upon an image from the Disney cartoon Little Hiawatha. This gave him the idea of creating a Native American Dennis the Menace–that is, a Dennis the Menace who lived in a tipi and said “um” a lot, oppressively stereotypical behaviour forming the dominant image of Native Americans in pop culture at the time. The Beano accepted his pitch and dubbed the character Little Plum. Other members of the Beano team provided Plum’s stories, but Baxendale had room to express his own sense of humour; he also moved away from imitating Law’s cartoons and developed a more personal style. In the process, Little Plum ended up with a rather different personality to his model: Dennis the Menace was motivated by malice, but Plum was–beneath his Tonto drag–something of a wide-boy, always looking for a new way to earn a few bob and unafraid to thumb his nose at the authorities.
Hot on the tail of this success, Beano editor George Moonie approached Baxendale with a suggestion for a new strip. Once again, the main character would be a twist on Dennis the Menace. But instead of a Native American Dennis, the latest Beano star would be a female Dennis.
While Baxendale consciously designed Minnie the Minx (as she became known) to resemble her male counterpart, right down to the trademark striped sweater, he wanted more than gender to distinguish the two characters. “Instead of treating Minnie as a female Dennis,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I created a character who was an Amazonian warrior”:
Although, like Dennis, Minnie was a plague visited on her parents and other adults, I made her specialise in beating up boys–especially crowds of boys. I devised large crowd scenes, with Minnie destroying dozens of boys at a time with her ‘double whammy’ punches. […] Minnie would deliver a circular punch which would clobber two (or three) boys on its way round.
She would simultaneously be using her teeth to bite another lad’s nose, using one foot to stamp on the hoof of yet another unfortunate, and she would employ her remaining foot to boot another victim up the bum. Minnie even built terrible war engines with fearsome spikes for pulverising little boys.
Making her debut in 1953, Minnie the Minx was not the first of the Beano‘s boisterous schoolgirls. She was predated by Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, a character introduced in 1938 and drawn by Hugh McNeill. Indeed, upon entering the field Baxendale was told by his new employer to study old Pansy strips as a learning aid. But he felt they were lacking something: “They were very well drawn,” he later wrote, “but seemed to be the embodiment of the ‘old-fashioned’ flavour of comics.”
Baxendale identifies the Minnie strips as the point at which he began to branch out from merely following the scripts given to him by D. C. Thomson, using them merely as a starting point for stories that were increasingly his own work. The comic’s editor realised that Baxendale, and Minnie, offered something new–not only in terms of art, but also in dialogue:
One day, just after I had moved to Dundee, George Moonie said to me ‘This is the kind of thing we like.’ I walked over to George’s desk and looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a brilliant bit of drawing. To my surprise George was pointing at a speech balloon in one of my Minnie the Minx sets.
Baxendale realised that Moonie was referring to Minnie’s colloquial dialogue, which was influenced by the quick-fire banter in Tony Hancock’s radio comedy and stood in stark contrast to British comic conventions. “It always seemed odd to me that the children’s comics’ speech balloons had been worded in such a stilted way,” mused Baxendale, “as if they had been written by Daleks.”
Comical crowd scenes, such as Minnie’s chaotic fights, were already an established Baxendale forte. Recognising this, Moonie approached him with an idea for a new strip called When the Bell Rings, which would be built around a large-sized final panel showing a gaggle of unruly schoolkids getting into mischief. The idea came from an unpublished cartoon drawn by Baxendale in his pre-Little Plum days, itself inspired by the intricate work of Daily Express cartoonist Carl Giles.
In drawing the first When the Bell Rings strip, Baxendale came up with a new set of characters on the spot. The two most prominent were a boy with a skull-and-crossbones sweater and a battered cap, and a girl with an impish grin and scraggly hair, the name “TOOTS” written across her top. At this point, Toots was the only character to be named in the strip.
Over time, When the Bell Rings evolved into the more character-driven The Bash Street Kids. Toots remained, but she was now the only girl in the class and the multiple anonymous schoolgirls who appeared in the first strip did not make the final cut.
This is fairly typical for Baxendale’s work as a whole, as his characters are overwhelmingly male. While working on the Odhams comic Smash! he did come up with another female lead, named Bad Penny, but she was little more than a thinly-veiled clone of Minnie the Minx–a character Baxendale could no longer draw, having left D. C. Thomson and the Beano behind. In his group-based strips girls and boys treated each other as equals, but girls remained a minority.
But while she may have been an aberration in his work, Minnie the Minx remains amongst Baxendale’s most enduring creation. Only The Bash Street Kids rival her in longevity. Her strip continues in the Beano to this day, drawn by multiple artists since Baxendale left in 1963. She is even honoured by her own statue in Dundee.
Leo Baxendale created an entire rabble of iconic characters and Minnie remains perhaps the most iconic of the lot.