By R.D. Low & Dudley D. Watkins (DC Thomson)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: How the Holidays Must Be Celebrated… 10/10
The Broons is one of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared continuously in Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post since their debut in the March 8th 1936 edition: the same issue which launched mischievous, equally evergreen wee laddie Oor Wullie.
Both the boldly boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging working class family were co-created by journalist, writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with DC Thomson’s greatest artist Dudley D. Watkins and, once strips began to be collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals, those yuletide tomes alternated stars and years right up to the present day.
Low (1895-1980) began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.
In 1936 his next brilliant idea was the Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post. The illustrated accessory launched on 8th March and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were unchallenged stars…
Low’s shrewdest notion was to devise both strips as comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad unforgettable vernacular where, supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.
After some devious devising in December 1937 Low launched the first DC Thomson weekly comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic in 1939.
War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed the strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture paper releases. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Wullie in the logo and masthead but not included in the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano…
Low’s greatest asset was prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose wholesomely realistic style, more than any other artist’s, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s.
Watkins (1907-1969) had started life in Manchester and Nottingham as a genuine artistic prodigy before entering Glasgow College of Art in 1924. It wasn’t long before he was advised to get a job at burgeoning, Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating boys’ stories led to comic strip specials and some original cartoon creations.
Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks and Wandering Willie, The Wily Explorer made him a dead cert for both lead strips in the Sunday Post’s proposed Fun Section and, without missing a beat, Watkins later added The Dandy’s Desperate Dan to his weekly workload in 1937, eventually including The Beano’s placidly and seditiously outrageous Lord Snooty seven months later.
Watkins soldiered on in unassailable triumph for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969.
For all those astonishingly productive years he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.
DC Thomson’s chiefs preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes of both strips in the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon, whilst The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.
An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with Oor Wullie (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946) and for millions of readers a year cannot truly end without them.
So What’s the Set Up?: the multigenerational Broon family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial everytown of Auchentogle (or sometimes Auchenshoogle), based in large part on the working class Glasgow district of Auchenshuggle. As such it’s an ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing.
As is always the case, the adamant, unswerving cornerstone of any family feature is long-suffering, understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap know-it-all Paw, and a battalion of stay-at-home kids comprising hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane” plus the wee toddling lassie referred to only as “The Bairn”.
Not officially in residence but always hanging around is gruffly patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage and constantly tries to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?
Offering regular breaks from the inner city turmoil and a chance to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But ‘n’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) to fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl and farm-grown…
As previously stated, Oor Wullie also debuted on March 8th 1936 with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.
The basic set-up is sublimely simple and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, good-hearted scruff with a talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when appropriate…
Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with time on his hands and can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.
His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and his pals Fat Bob, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a sign of the changing times however in this book he’s sometimes seen in the company of fetching schoolgirl Elizabeth…
An enchanting compilation in monochrome with some colour, The Fabulous Fifties was released in 1998 as part of a concerted drive to keep that early material available to fans: a lavish sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors and something no baby-boomer should be without as our upcoming Christmasses become less and less likely or lively!) offering a tantalising selection of Sunday pages from 1950-1959, covering every aspect of that halcyon era’s rapidly changing technological and sociological existence, and all still deliciously funny even now…
The jolly procession of Celtic comedy commences with atmospheric photo-and news headline feature ‘New Years Day 1950 – and All Year Through’ and bookends every following year with a similar capsule feature of the unfolding decade often accompanied by a full colour Watkins cover or title page from a fifties Annual.
The endless escapades of the strip stars comprise the usual subject-matter: galling goofs, family frolics, sly pranks and cruel comeuppances: whilst the regular menu of gloriously slapstick shenanigans including plumbing pitfalls, decorating disasters, fireplace fiascos, food foolishness, dating dilemmas, appliance atrocities, fashion freak-outs, bothered Bobbies, excessive exercise exploits, chore-dodging and childish pranks by young and old alike, all seen through the lens of a comfortably traditional world inexorably altering as fashionable technology slowly creeps into the lives of everyone, welcoming or otherwise…
Jings! The fuss when a television is obtained for the Coronation or as the advent of Hire Purchase enables a wave of unwanted home appliances to appear…
Uncontested and always welcome are wry and crafty comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, torn clothes, recycled comics, visiting circuses, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social gaffes: stories intended to take our collective mind off troubles abroad, and for every thwarted romance of poor Daphne and Maggie, embarrassing fiasco focussed on Paw’s cussedness or recalcitrance , there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns.
With snobs to deflate, bullies to crush, duels to fight, chips to scoff, games to win and rowdy animals (from cats to cows) to escape, the timeless affable humour and gently self-deprecating, inclusive frolics make these superbly crafted strips an endlessly entertaining superbly nostalgic, unmissable treat.
So why not slip back to a time of soapbox carts, catapults, scrumping, home perm kits, teachers who used rulers for smacking not measuring, best china, full employment, sub-four minute miles, neighbours you knew by first names and trousers that fell apart or blew away?
You can even get in on the end of rationing and birth of family viewing, package holidays, airbeds, long trousers for schoolboys, hire cars, caravans, Op Art and the decline of gas lampposts, indoor wall posters, Daylight Saving Time, Duffel Coats, Sputniks and Rock ‘n’ Roll…
There are even occasional crossovers to admire with Wullie and Granpaw Broon striving to outdo each other in the “adorable horrors” stakes…
Packed with all-ages fun, rambunctious slapstick hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these unchanging examples of happy certainty and convivial celebration of a mythic lost life and time are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy holiday without that, can you?
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 1998.