Meet Suffolk artist Barrie Appleby, of Sudbury, who has brought iconic Beanie and Dandy cartoon characters Dennis the Menac, Roger the Dodger and Gnasher to life during his career
When Barrie Appleby’s children were small they were often not the only youngsters in the family home.
But daughter Carrie and son Jason were models of propriety compared to the tearaways who were part of their father’s life.
One in particular, with his shock of black hair, trademark stripey jumper, and genius for winding up any adult who crossed his path, was a very unsuitable role model.
But he and his chums were at least confined to Barrie’s studio where they ran riot across the drawing board.
Dennis the Menace, the Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx are just a few of the scamps whose comic adventures Barrie has drawn in a long career as a cartoonist.
It has included decades of work for D C Thompson, publishers of The Beano and The Dandy.
These days it’s his labrador Daisy who is sharing him... with an unruly canine whose antics would make any devoted family pet blush from nose to tail.
That’s because he is currently bringing to life the escapades of his favourite Beano character - Dennis’s equally-delinquent dog Gnasher, who now has his own strip in the comic.
The Beano characters loved by generations are in fact closer in age to Barrie - Dennis turns 70 this year - than to his children or five grandchildren.
He still adores the anarchic, slapstick humour of the comics he read avidly as a child.
Many other iconic characters appear on his long list of credits, including Bananaman, Budgie the Helicopter, and work for Marvel Comics. He also takes on private commissions.
Yorkshire-born Barrie grew up in the colliery village of Grimethorpe where his earliest artistic memory is from around the age of five.
“My mother showed me how to animate a stick figure by drawing it on the leaves of books - by flicking the pages you can make it walk.
“I drew a stick man sailor on the bottom of the right hand pages of one of my children’s books and animated it, and that fascinated me,” he said.
But he thinks he had probably drawn since he was able to use a pencil.
“I loved drawing trees and animals when I was quite tiny. I do remember if I drew an animal with hooves I had to put them in long grass because I had a problem doing their feet.”
Even as a child it was mostly cartoons although he does recall doing an oil painting for his grandparents when he was about 13.
“For some reason I was very interested in Canada, and the picture was a grizzly bear by a lake. When my father died, I discovered he still had the painting, and I have it now.”
Despite his love of art he was not wild about the subject at secondary school, preferring history which is his biggest hobby to this day.
“In art we would have to draw bowls of oranges and apples and that didn’t inspire me,” he said.
“But I was good enough to be able to take an exam to continue my education, and at 15 I went to Barnsley Art College.”
What he did next he finds hard to explain. “After two years we could apply to a higher college to do a BA. For some reason, before my final exams I dropped out.
“I left and ended up working in a glassworks, but still what I really wanted to do was draw cartoons.”
Then one day he came off the day shift with 10 minutes to spare before his bus home to Grimethorpe, and wandered into a shop where he spotted a Walt Disney comic he used to read as a child.
Lucky is a word he often uses when talking about his career - and finding the comic was probably the first random stroke of good fortune.
“I wrote to them and they gave me a job as an art assistant, so off I went to London.
“Artwork used to come in mostly from America, and I was having to cut it up and paste it on, and do artwork to fill in spaces. I was also doing drawings for the letters page.
“I was living in one room in Bayswater, but it was fun and I loved it.”
His next job was as a layout artist for IPC Magazines, while also doing freelance cartoon work which more than doubled his income.
But his eyes were fixed on the far side of the Atlantic. “I really wanted to go to America - even offered to join the US Army at one point - but Canada was having an immigration drive and would pay your fare.”
By this time he was married to his wife Eileen. But he left his job and headed - alone at first - for Toronto, arriving at the airport in midwinter with the city deep in snow.
“I’d just got married, and had no job,” he recalls. “I shared a room at first, then Eileen told me she was pregnant, and I had to get an apartment."
He had found work with a company that published picture books for children. “I had to get people to do the artwork but saved some stories for myself because I really needed to draw.”
Eileen, unable to get a job because of her pregnancy, would join him in the office at weekends and help out by filling in black areas in the drawings.
He was eventually promoted to art director, and says it happened after the managing director’s children raved over one of the stories he had illustrated.
Next he was headhunted by a textbook publishing company, again as art director. A successful career brought with it a luxury apartment and prosperous lifestyle.
But with two children, and daughter Carrie about to start school, he and Eileen had to decide where their future lay.
“Friends were buying houses instead of renting. And my job started to change to more admin and finance, which didn’t suit me because I’m a creative person. We had to make a decision.
“So once again we packed up, and came back to England.
"I knew if I didn’t do it then, it would be difficult to do. I got a mortgage and bought a house in Essex.”
He and two friends set up a studio and agency. One of them, who was from Scotland, had contacts with Dundee-based D C Thompson which led to “ghosting” work on the Dandy and Beano - drawing strips when the regular artist was on holiday.
“This was the days before email so we had to post it to them.
"We’d pencil it out, send it, they would go through and note any changes, post it back, and you would make the changes and send it back to them.”
By around 1980, when Barrie and his family moved to Suffolk, he and his colleagues were being allotted their own work.
For a while he commuted to their office in Fleet Street, but as technology improved, he worked more from home in Newton near Sudbury. In the early 1990s he became an independent freelance.
Stories for the comics are produced by a scriptwriter. Barrie gets the Beano scripts on a Monday, and his deadline is a week later.
Sometimes working out how to draw the story is challenging, needing ingenious devices like producing an aerial view of a whole street.
Most of comic’s cast live in Beanotown, go to the same school, and appear in each other’s strips, which means artists sometimes have to draw each other’s characters. Readers might not notice the difference, but the artists do.
Eileen still works alongside Barrie - scanning in artwork to send, keeping a chart of his upcoming work and deadlines, and cleaning off pencil marks on drawings.
Having a talented artist for a father was useful for their children’s fancy dress costumes - but didn’t always go to plan.
He recalls Jason entering a contest as the Knave of Hearts. Producing a sandwich board of two intricately designed playing cards took him a whole day.
Did he win? ‘”No, I was beaten by a robot... it’s all your fault!” announced the youngster, who went on to become a graphic designer.
Barrie enjoys doing private commissions. “These things are therapy to me with a chance to work in colour. When I do the cartoon strips I draw in black and white - the colour is added later.”
He not only draws weekly comic strips but also works on specials, annuals, and games.
Recently he was drawing Roger the Dodger with a storyline where Roger dresses up his dozing dad as a scarecrow to enter a competition.
“Some of them make me roar with laughter... it’s not a bad job, is it?” he says.
Barrie can be contacted via his website, www.barrieappleby.com.