It’s with deep sorrow that I have to tell you that over the weekend we lost one of the great wizards of British comics, Leo Baxendale, the true Master of Bash Street. Friend and fellow cartoonist Jacky Fleming was kind enough to pass on the sad news from Leo’s daughter, which was preferable to finding out from a news bulletin later on (thanks, Jacky, I know it’s not easy to send a message like that, but it was appreciated hearing t from a friend rather than finding out from Twitter later on). Out of respect for the family we’ve held back on posting the sad news – today several Brit comics bloggers, ourselves, John Freeman on the fine Down the Tubes and the redoubtable Lew Stringer are all posting our thoughts at the same time as a mark of respect. A Lancashire lad, Leo was born in 1930, and following his service in the RAF he began his illustration career, which lead to work in the famous Beano comic and then on to an incredibly wide variety of publications and characters.
This ranged from the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx (he was very proud of this proto-feminist “stroppy woman”) through to Willy the Kid and I Love You Baby Basil! in the Guardian, and even in later years, unable to travel far due to health problems, Leo still enjoying plotting out exhibitions of his art, and in true perfectionist Baxendale style proceeded to work with precision on finding the correct printing method for creating prints of his works for exhibition that were as close as could be to the originals, without risking those precious originals (indeed John Freeman tells me the Lakes Comic Art Festival had only just arranged to have one of Leo’s print for exhibition there, nice to know so many comics lovers will get to see it come festival time), and being honoured by the British Comic Awards with their Hall of Fame award in 2013. Some of Leo’s creations worked so well they are still running today, such as the wonderful Bash Street Kids – my friend’s wee boys grew up reading that in recent years, which pleased me no end, seeing the latest generation still enjoying those characters Leo had invented decades before.
(Leo’s brilliantly inventive Bash Street Kids, who generations of British kids have grown up with in DC Thomson’s Beano comic; just look at the fantastic detail and rich visual comedy going on here, Brit comics of the period hadn’t seen anything quite like it, and they wouldn’t be the same again afterwards)
When we lose a much-loved creator we often talk about their great influence. In the case of Leo it’s all but impossible to overstate that influence – a whole host of some of our best known creators of the last few decades have all cited Leo as one of their inspirations. His fresh approach modernised the then somewhat creaky Beano, which was, as he once remarked, still being written and drawn as if it was the 1930s. Well it was the 50s, and Leo brought them a fresh, modern approach, often with some bravura showmanship in the highly detailed artwork, the interesting characters that the readers would fall for, and through all of that the trademark Baxendale humour that always made you feel that he had a gleeful gleam in his eye as he drew them.
And of course that strong distrust of authority figures was frequent in many of his works, from comics for younger readers through to his autobiographical works he published himself through his own Reaper Books imprint. Leo had a life-long distrust with what he termed “Almighty Power”, be it governments, corporations or any others who put rules and petty power-grabbing above the value of actual people, and this came out in much of his work, which, in my often stubborn and cantankerous mind, is a good quality to impart to readers, to think and question and not just accept, and Leo imparted that lesson with wonderfully inventive humour, perhaps the best way to make so serious a point. Leo warped many a young reader’s mind, in the best possible way, and did so with a smile.
(above, detail from The Loch Ness Dalek, taken from Leo’s Willy the Kid Book 1; below: Basil strip No 49 from the 14th of February 1991 edition of the Guardian – “Basil and Cynthia habitually threw off their clothes at moments of triumph” observed Leo; bottom: A Bolland-esque Dredd makes an appearance in this Basil strip No 85 from October 1991. I apologise for these images not being well-produced, these are from my own copy of Leo’s The Worst of Willy the Kid which he published himself and was kind enough to send me a copy. Alas it is far too large a book to fit on my scanner, so I had to resort to simply standing over the desk with my camera to try and get these. Not ideal, I know, but better than not having them to share)
A lot of later British comics – especially those 1970s and 80s ones – regularly showcased a similar disdain for Almighty Power and a certain anarchic sense of humour, and it’s not hard to see influences from Leo’s creations in those newer writers and artists who had grown up on Leo’s work. This influence spilled out well beyond comics – one of our finest animators, Nick Park, held Leo’s work as a huge formative influence. This absolutely delighted Leo, who had a great love of animation, and he once sent me a joyful email about getting to meet Nick at an exhibition Leo had of his work; from what I hear Leo was overjoyed to meet the creator of Wallace and Gromit, Park in his turn was wonderfully pleased to meet Leo and tell him how much his comics art had influenced his later animation work. It’s heartening to think there’s some Baxendale DNA in the evolution of Wallace and Gromit, what a wonderful legacy to pass on. Likewise Leo’s long fight with publishers to establish creator’s rights has been influential in the industry, and I imagine many writers and artists owe him a debt in that respect too, it helped changed the landscape in that regard.
On a more personal note I find I am still finding it difficult to process this news and, I must confess, finding that whatever I say here about Leo feels utterly inadequate to the man and to his place in our beloved British comics community and artform. To my lasting regret I never got to meet Leo in person, he wasn’t able to travel much in later years. But I had the great pleasure and honour of chatting with him regularly on email. We had bonded over a shared love of Sylvain Chomet’s animation after he was kind enough to email me following an article on Chomet I had posted (in true Baxendale exacting eye for detail fashion Leo had to correct one of my spelling mistakes in the piece!), and from there for several years we swapped emails talking about comics, films, animation and more, and taking potshots at the abusers of Almighty Power; it always made my day to receive a message from Leo. I am going to miss those chats. Only a few days ago I saw something that I thought would appeal to his sense of humour and thought I must drop him a line about this… And then think no, I can’t do that ever again, and it fills me with sadness, but at the same time I still find myself smiling that I was so fortunate to count Leo as a friend, and found myself smiling as I looked for some of his artwork to add here.
(back in 2013 Leo was marking the sixtieth anniversary of creating The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Mix and Little Plum in the Beano, and to show the admiration for Leo’s work and influence a number of contemporary creators kindly sketched their favourite Baxendale characters for us on the blog (see here). Above is one by Bryan Talbot, a long-time friend of Leo’s, below from the new generation of Brit comickers, Jamie Smart brings us Sweeney Toddler)
I know that sorrow I feel is only a fraction of what his family will be enduring just now, and our hearts go out to them at this awful time. It’s a wretched thing to lose a loved one, it cuts through every other aspect of our lives in a way nothing else can and cuts you to your very soul. Peggy, Leo’s beloved wife, told me that it was peaceful, and that Leo had the family around him, which is as much as any of us can really hope for. I think a large amount of readers and creators will pause in their thoughts at this news and consider their own memories, their own reading histories and how Leo’s work influenced them, inspired them, made them smile. Made them smile – now there’s a fine way to remember someone, “made them smile”. Thank you, Leo, for your wonderful creations, your inspirations, thank you also for your friendship, which meant much to me. You will be missed by so many of us, but your work is still there, and it will still make us smile.