Review by Frank Plowright
The first Willy the Kid book could be considered Leo Baxendale’s masterpiece, so almost any follow-up stood a fair chance of falling short, but the way in which this does is disappointing. It reads as if Baxendale burnt himself out with the superb manic energy of the opening six pages featuring ‘Willy’s Fun Fair’, and then had to finish much of the rest in a hurry. Only just over half the content is comic strips, and fifteen pages are Baxendale’s prose stories. These are accompanied by illustrations, but prose isn’t Baxendale’s strength. Any number of writers could have produced the standard jokes about an embarrassing grandfather, or Willy’s mean-spirited deconstruction of his baby brother’s favourite stories and toys. It’s key to note that in 1976 the jokes would have been considered in poor taste by the comic publishers Baxendale used to work for, so he was ahead of his time, but they haven’t aged well.
Glorious endpapers of Willy taking on a dragon open the book, and the creativity of the first strip is represented in the sample art of Willy and pals creating their funfair, a page a kid can still study and laugh at for hours. Note Baxendale featuring a couple of black children, which the British comics of the time didn’t. This entire strip is wonderful and up to the content of Book One. Not created with as much detail, but also funny, is Baxendale’s interpretation of The Twelve Days of Christmas, featuring a grumpy postman having to deliver each gift, drawn towering from his ever-expanding sack. The anarchic sense of humour is apparent in the nine ladies dancing being grannies, or the seven swans replaced by a giant octopus in a tank, accompanied by a note explaining the swans are boring.
While the art on the Willy strips is expressively loose, it’s the Spotty Dick strip that points the way to Baxendale’s later evolution, blobby ink characters beginning to lose their form, but with massive bulbous noses and tiny heads. That is apart from a few taken straight from Don Martin strips. Unfortunately the hilarious poor taste of the sample page isn’t matched over a rambling feature. Whether the board game it encompasses is welcome bonus or two pages saving Baxendale a lot of work is for the individual reader to decide.
In the second Willy strip Baxendale satirises the random conveniences of less imaginative features accompanying those he’d drawn in British children’s comics for years. No sooner has Willy wished he could travel back in time to see dinosaurs than the strangely sinister Professor Tom Anjerry, who happened to be passing, supplies his experimental time travel watch, which needs tested. A clever joke requiring the page to be held to the light, turns onto a couple of lively pages featuring cavorting dinosaurs, but after that inspiration evaporates.
Had this second Willy the Kid book been by any number of Baxendale’s impersonators and the first volume never seen, the comic content here would be considered innovative, and very funny, although there would surely still be reservations about the prose pieces. However, in the first book and for years before that Baxendale’s creativity had been set at a far higher level, and too few pages bear comparison to the best of it. There is a Book 3.