First we had Superman turning 80 in 2018, then Batman’s own 80th last year, and now we have another mighty titan of print celebrating another big birthday with Bananaman turning 40 today.
Created by David Donaldson, writer/artist Steve Bright (who was only 20 at the time!) and artist John Geering and published by DC Thompson – the owners of The Beano – Bananaman first appeared as a one-page comic strip on the back page of Nutty #1 on the 16th February 1980, and soon grew to become one fo the more popular characters in this short-lived weekly comic dominated the front covers where he would rule supreme for the rest of Nutty’s run, until it merged with The Dandy 1985. Bananaman was too popular to simply roll up into mothballs and be forgotten about, and so he was one of the few characters from Nutty to survive. And, after The Dandy’s demise, in 2010, he moved over to The Beano with issue #3618 (dated 14 January 2012) where he’s had a home ever since.
Spoofing the conventions of the superhero genre, Bananaman’s alter ego – like that of Shazam’s – was school boy Eric Wimp, who could transform, after scoffing down a banana, into the adult muscleman with powers akin to Superman’s, but with more banana prop gags. His powers including flying and superhuman strength (often quoted as “twenty men… twenty big men”) and he was an immediate success with young readers, including me! For many kids in the early 80s, Bananaman would have been their very first experience of superheroes. A very American invention but given our typical British irreverent comedic make-over. His popularity would only seem to grow throughout the 80s too.
He even shared an origin very similar to that of Kal-El, but he was rocketed to Earth from the moon – a crescent-shaped moon – from which he gained his powers. He even had his now Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, but made up of a giant banana.
Or at least, that was his original origin! In 1991 has origin was changed. Eric was now a normal human baby, but one who accidentally ate a banana afield with, effectively, a super solider serum, which transformed him into the hero me and so many other kids grew up with.
Unlike other heroes, however, when Banamana gained a sidekick it was a crow, simply called Crow, along with a rogues gallery of daft sounding super villains such as Doctor Gloom, Bubble Gum Bert and Appleman; Bananaman’s arch-nemesis. The last said about Chief O’Grady, a stereotypical Irish cop who would be seen with Native American head dress on to heavy-handedly play up on his status as Chief and probably based on Batman 66’s very own walking stereotype, Chief O’Hara. There were enough repeated of Batman 66 in throughout the 80s on kids’ TV that many readers would have got the connection. Bananaman truly was a well research satire on the far more serious capes and cowls of the Colonies.
Only 3 years later, he even got his own cartoon series in 1983 on British television. A beloved gem from an era of Saturday morning cartoons that were more likely to be no more than a vividly colourful prolonged advertisement for toys, Bananaman was a breath of fresh air. What’s more, the whole series was voiced by a trio of British comedians called The Goodies (Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor), whom every kid of the 70’s had adored for their anarchic children’s TV programme as much beloved by kids as it was by adults.
That same anarchic humour became a staple of the Bananaman cartoon, which ran from 1983 to 1986. Interestingly, up until the debut of the cartoon, Eric Wimp had been depicted with a skinhead; hardly the most appropriate haircut for a kid back in the 80s, and so he was given a luxurious full head of hair for his TV appearance.
Over the years that has even been talk of a West End musical and even a film, but neither projects have ever come to fruition. For now.
We were fortunate enough to talk to several of The Beano’s current contributors to ask them what their own memories of the UK’s very own ‘Big Blue Boy Scout’, starting with Laura Howell, the comic’s first ever female cartoonist and illustrator:
I do remember reading and enjoying Banaman in Nutty (although it must have been further along in its run, probably in the mid-80s when I was about 9 or 10). But truthfully my main memory of him from childhood was watching the cartoon series, since I was (and am) an absolute animation nut. I was very confused as to why Eric in the comic had a different hairstyle to Eric in the TV show! Even today I prefer my superheroes to be goofy rather than dark and brooding (sorry Batman), and it’s almost certainly Bananaman that established that preference all those years ago.
UK comic book aficionado, historian and illustrator, Lew Stringer, who was just cutting his teeth in UK comics back in the early 80s, had this to add:
I was older than the target audience when Bananaman first appeared in Nutty No.1 in 1980 but I was impressed by the character from the start, especially as it was drawn by the brilliant John Geering. Clearly most of the other readers enjoyed it too, as Bananaman was soon promoted to the front cover and later had his own annuals and summer special. Did you know that he had a cousin called Bananagirl? She appeared in the Super School strip I did for The Beano in 2008.
I would also highly recommend a trip over to Lew Stringer’s blog, here, to read up more on Bananaman and UK comics’ history. It’s a true treasure trove of reviews, find memories and informative articles, including the most recent entry ‘Remembering Bananagirl‘, a forgotten member of the Bananaman family.
We also caught up with writer and The Beano contributor, Danny Pearson who has had his own brush with Bananaman and had this to say about one of the UK’s most iconic comic book creations:
‘This is 29, Acacia Road. And this is Eric, the schoolboy who leads an amazing double life. For when Eric eats a banana, an amazing transformation occurs. Eric is Bananaman. Ever alert for the call to action.’
Those are the famous first lines from the opening credits of the 80s cartoon series. That’s when I first met Eric the Wimp and the man with the muscles of 20 men, but the brains of 20 mussels, Bananaman. I later discovered comics and eventually stumbled across the nana brain again – we were a Beano house, so I didn’t get to see him in comics till later in life. I have always had a soft spot for this very British superhero. Never did I think that many years later I would get to work with the Man of Peel.
My favourite script I wrote was when I attempted to answer one of the comic universes most enduring question. One that fans have debated for decades: who is faster, Bananaman or Billy Whizz?
Wayne Thompson is also an absolute joy to work with. I love the little background details and ‘Easter eggs’ he constantly works into the final images.
Bananaman has found his Fortress of Solitude within the pages of the Beano and the strips ooze with eccentric British humour. Long may that continue. Here’s to another 40 years of the hearo we all need right now.
Happy Birthday Mr B!
Furthermore, for a real insight into the story behind the legend that is Bananaman, do check out co-creator Steve Bright’s memories of that time over on downthetubes.net, in which Bright reminisces on the day chief sub editor of The Beano, Dave Donaldson, handed the young writer/artist a note, “‘on which he’d doodled three sequential sketches of… (1) a small boy on his way to school, (2), who was from the Moon, which was really the biggest banana in the sky, and (3) when he eats a banana, he becomes… and that was it.” A great bit of comic book history.
Bananaman – first series (1983)
If you live in the UK, you can do no better than to pick up a copy of this week’s The Beano that celebrated his birthday (although, I wish you the best of luck as it was already sold out in my local newsagents). But, to mark this auspicious occasion, why not kick back on this Sunday afternoon and enjoy the full first series of Bananaman, above? You don’t know what you’re missing.
Happy Birthday Man of Peel! I’ll raise a banana-flavored milkshake in your honour.