Like many people of his generation, Horace Panter grew up reading the Beano comic as a youngster. “There was always one in the house somewhere and I remember I’d get an annual at Christmas, and if it wasn’t the Beano it was a Dennis the Menace annual,” says the 64-year-old.
“I’m of that generation where the Bash Street Kids and Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx resonated with your childhood. It was the fact they were naughty but it was ok. You lived out that ‘gosh, I wish I could do that to the teacher’ through them and that wonderful thing of being chased down the street by somebody wielding a large slipper.”
It’s 80 years since the Beano and its now iconic collection of characters first hit the shelves and to mark the occasion Panter, who’s an artist but is probably best known as the bass player with ska band The Specials, has been commissioned by Beano Studios to create a series of new artworks to celebrate the anniversary. “I did a piece for the Doc Martens store in Camden last year and they saw it and liked it so they contacted me and I practically snapped their hand off,” says Panter.
Having been offered the job he had carte blanche to create what he wanted. “I was thinking about what I could do and by complete coincidence I’d recently bought one of Sir Peter Blake’s 75th anniversary pieces. I’m a big fan of his and started thinking about what I like and how I could incorporate that into these Beano works.
“I was sitting around one evening and I started thinking what would happen if Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx sat for Andy Warhol portraits? Then I thought what if Lichtenstein had read the Beano rather than the romance comics, or the war comics, that he used to inspire his art?
“Lichtenstein’s most famous painting is called Wow! and I thought ‘what if it became woosh, like Billy Whizz?’ And all of a sudden I thought I’d do Beano characters invading classic Pop Art pictures.”
It was a moment of inspiration and the result is a brilliant and irreverent collection of artworks that bring together famous comic book characters with some of the most famous paintings of the late 20th century. You have Dennis and Gnasher diving into David Hockney’s LA swimming pool; there’s Minnie the Minx treated like a Warholian starlet and Lord Snooty given the Roy Lichtenstein ‘Ben Day’ dots treatment.
Seventeen of these works are being shown in a new exhibition at According to McGee, a contemporary art gallery in the centre of York. It’s the first time the collection has been exhibited outside London and is a major coup for the gallery, run by husband and wife Greg and Ails McGee.
The majority of the paintings are silkscreens featuring Dennis and Minnie in various sizes, while others reference landmark works such as Richard Hamilton’s famous collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? which is one of the earliest examples of Pop Art.
“It was an absolute labour of love apart from all the dots on the Billy Whizz painting which I did all by hand, even though I had an A3 stencil,” explains Panter. “It evolved as I went along and it’s great because everyone who sees them smiles and that’s very pleasing. They’re irreverent and funny and that kind of rebellious cocking a snook at everything is all in the spirit of the Beano.”
Some music fans may not be aware that Panter, known in The Specials as Sir Horace Gentleman, was an artist before he was a musician.
His interest in art dates back to his childhood and the music of the 60s. “Music and art were very closely related. It was things like the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover and all the bright colours of music posters that got me into Pop Art. At school art classes were somewhere that I could be creative and define my own terms. I was really good at technical drawing but it was constricted whereas art had more freedom. Also, if you wanted to be a pop star in those days you went to art college. Well, it worked for me.”
It did indeed, for it was while studying for a degree in Fine Art at Coventry’s Lanchester Polytechnic in 1975 that Panter first met Jerry Dammers and together they went on to form The Specials.
Panter believes there’s a strong correlation between 60s Pop Art and the Punk scene that emerged the following decade. “Before Pop Art you had abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko and all these huge impenetrable paintings about doom, tragedy and ecstasy and then along came Andy Warhol with a soup can and changed everything.
“Just as you had Emerson, Lake and Palmer and then along came The Sex Pistols to blow everything out of the water. When punk rock came along it was like the Beano set to music – anti-heroes for the under 12s.”
Not that that Panter is impressed by all Pop Art. “When you get into high art and the Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons kind of territory that leaves me a bit cold to be honest. I might be shooting myself in the foot here but to me it’s not art, it’s a commodity. That’s why I really like the work of Sir Peter Blake because his stuff is available and has regular folk in mind, as opposed to hedge fund managers who need something to go on the wall of the dining room of their loft apartment in New York.”
Through his Beano creations Panter is paying homage to some of his art heroes. “People have said to me, ‘do you think you’ll get into trouble from David Hockney using that picture?’ And my reply is, ‘I hope so,’ because that’s the whole spirit of the Beano isn’t it…” he says.
“I’ve enjoyed doing it because I’ve learned an awful lot about my favourite artists by copying their work and I feel a lot closer to David Hockney and I have so much respect for Roy Lichtenstein after painting all those dots myself.”
Today with children seemingly permanently attached to their mobile phones it can feel as though the Beano’s become a relic of a bygone age.
However, it is still capable of making the news headlines. The McManus in Dundee is being renamed the McMenace Gallery as part of the Beano’s 80th anniversary celebrations, while last month Beano Studios issued a cease-and-desist letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming he had modelled himself on its character Walter the Softy. The Scottish-based comic accused the Tory MP of “masquerading” as Walter Brown, a foe of Dennis the Menace, causing much mirth.
Panter believes the Beano and its characters are still held in great affection by people of all ages. “I hope people come along and look at the paintings and say ‘oh yes, I get it’ and that they leave with a smile on their face.
“That would be job done as far as I’m concerned if that happens.”
Horace Panter & the Beano’s 80th Birthday Collection runs at According to McGee, Tower Street, York, from May 19 to June 9. Contact [email protected]