Deprived of the Dandy, I bought the Beano instead, and saw how unhinged and hyperactive it had become, a comic needing Ritalin. No character looked fully human – they were pop-eyed, wide-mouthed, single-toothed. Refined and subtle draughtsmanship had vanished. Plot lines were crude. Events happened violently and messily. Exclamatory noises were no strangers to my childhood Beanos and Dandys – "Oo-er!" from children, "Grr!" from dogs, maybe a "Sapristi!" from a passing onion seller – but the modern Beano specialises in the commotion of machinery and explosive disaster, and always in capitals: "VROOM!" and "VUM-VUM-VUM!" and "SPLOONGE!" There was even a "FARRT!!" and it was shocking to think that such a word could come out of DC Thomson's printing plant in Dundee.
The words "dandy" and "beano" are Victorianisms: the first for a peacock male or sparkling excellence ("fine and dandy"), and the second for a bean-feast or celebration, though it seems doubtful whether anyone at Thomson's considered meanings when the comics were launched, in 1937 and 1938 respectively. The Dandy's mascot was a hotel bellboy in a pillbox hat who stood grinning next to the masthead, when a more literal illustration of the title would have been a figure like the New Yorker's monocled Eustace Tilley. But this was not an objection that occurred to six-year-olds, for whom the contents of the world were a given; their having had, so far as we knew, no other shape or form than those we found them in.
When I first saw the Beano, it had Biffo the Bear on the cover. The Dandy had Korky the Cat. As a graduate of Chicks' Own, where the captions beneath every frame were ri-gor-ous-ly hy-phen-at-ed, I found nothing unusual in talking animals – the Rupert Bear annuals had nothing else – but the real joy of the Thomson duo were the strips that featured humans. Dudley D Watkins drew Desperate Dan in the Dandy and Lord Snooty in the Beano, and the enduring celebrity of these stand as testimony to his observant eye and witty draughtsmanship. Nearly 40 years ago, the writer George Rosie compared Desperate Dan to the works of Magritte and appeared in Pseuds Corner for it, and yet, as Rosie pointed out, what could be more surreal than a town, Cactusville, which combined hitching rails and wild west saloons with tramcars and pillar boxes, and where a cow pie with two horns poking through pastry could be bought from a corner shop that looked suspiciously like a Scottish bakery.
In the context of his employer's culture and traditions, none of this seemed too eccentric, even in the 1960s. With publications that catered to the sentimental, religious and conservative side of north Britain, the Thomson family became celebrated as the enemies of trade unions and anything that smacked of socialism, atheism and dissipation. Eleven million newspapers, comics and magazines poured every week from Thomson presses in Dundee, Glasgow and Manchester. In 1971, the Guinness Book of Records recognised that no newspaper had a greater penetration of its circulation area than the Thomson flagship, the Sunday Post, which was read by 79% of the Scottish population over 15. Comics, weeklies and women's magazines extended this influence south of the Tweed. "There can hardly be a home in Britain [where] at least one DC Thomson publication does not come over the doorstep every week," wrote Rosie. "Most of us, to some extent, are DC Thomson's bairns."
And so we were. As my birthdays advanced, I moved from the Beano to the Topper, then the Eagle and Rover. The Eagle has deservedly become a cult, but it was my only departure from the shelter of what the brilliant historian ES Turner called "the Dundee school" of children's periodicals. The senior ones included the Hotspur, the Wizard and Adventure as well the Rover, and appealed to boys. As Turner noted, the problem of sex in these titles was simply solved: "Girls did not exist." Now and then, "there might be a reference to some fellow's sister being rescued from a fire, but it could just as easily have been a tame goat or a sack of flour".
Dundee also arrived every week in the form of the Sunday Post, where Watkins drew Oor Wullie and The Broons, and less regularly as The Scots Magazine, My Weekly and the People's Friend ("the famous story paper for women") that a neighbour believed my mother might enjoy. They did no harm, but nobody in the family succumbed to their world view, and when, aged 17, I was offered a job by DC Thomson as a "trainee assistant sub-editor", there were political voices at home to deter me from the job, as well as the three diminishing adjectives before the word "editor". Nobody then, of course, could imagine a world without comics, any more than they could imagine Twitter, but comics were on the skids well before the digital age. By the early 1980s, Thomson's Rover, Wizard, Hotspur and Adventure had all gone – "too many words and not enough pictures", people said – to be joined in the next decade by the Topper and the Beezer.
DC Thomson survives, though at only a fraction of its former size. Its website gallantly describes the Sunday Post as a "thoroughly decent read", while writers who want to contribute stories to the People's Friend are advised that its readers "like realistic material, but not so realistic – with sex, violence, drugs, drink, etc – that they are frightened or saddened. They still believe in the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family." This is the remnant of what was once a powerful moral universe. When did it begin to shrink? Some people would put the date around 1955, when a new artist, Leo Baxendale, arrived at the Beano to create the strip that was eventually titled the Bash Street Kids. In its exaggerated violence and grotesquery, nobody had seen anything quite like it before. "Eeeeekkkk!" went the pop-eyed children, and "ggulllpp!" and "grrrrrrrrr". We were leaving Dudley D Watkins behind. Say goodbye to the polite tramcars of Cactusville. We were on the road to FARRT!!