The Broons and Oor Wullie: Classic Strips from the 70s


By Tom Lavery, Morris Heggie, Leslie Stannage & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-494-7

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared almost continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner-city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins; a man who would become DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips began being collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

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.

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 1936 and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its unchallenged stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad vernacular. Ably 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.

In December 1937 Low launched the DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this burgeoning strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers appeared. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead, but not included amongst the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Throughout this innovative period Low’s greatest advantage was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s. Watkins soldiered on in unassailable homely magnificence 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, on top of his many assignments in DCT’s comics 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 the strips in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon. 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 the first Oor Wullie book a year later (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946). To this day, for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: The gregarious Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial metropolis of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); a scenario based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow.

As such it’s always been a character-rich environment and 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.

And naturally, such a region is the perfect sounding board to portray all kinds of social, cultural and economic changes that come with every passing year…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the Broon family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids.

These always-underfoot worthies comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, classically gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane”, plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only and always as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence but always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage; constantly attempting to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and many chances to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But an’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) where they fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936, with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The basic set-up is sublimely simply and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, scruff with a weakness for mischief, 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 who 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 an array of pals including Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later volumes such as this, he’s occasionally caught in the company of fetching schoolgirls like Elizabeth and Primrose

A compilation in monochrome with some full-colour pages, Classic Strips from the 70s was released in 2012 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans new or old: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) but deviated somewhat from the norm in that rather than re-presenting exemplar strips from the decade, the book follows a rare experiment in continuity storytelling…

When, in 1976, the strip returned to new material following the Watkins reprint run, artist Tom Lavery (you might remember his run on The Numskulls) was given the daunting task of following the master on both The Broons and Oor Wullie.

He soldiered on until 1982, followed by John Polland, Bob Nixon, Ken H. Harrison and, currently, Peter Davidson. Sadly, the authors of the features are far harder to pin down now.

Although the Oor Wullie strips remained consistently episodic and broadly comedic affairs, a long-running plotline was introduced to the Broons with the debut of rugged, affable Dave McKay in 1977.

As the weeks went by, and despite a mixed bag of reactions from the clan and readership, Maggie Broon’s new boyfriend and his flash car became a fixture. An engagement was announced, a house was bought, unsuspected and potentially fractious connections to the prospective In-Laws were revealed and overcome before, in 1979, the countdown to a wedding began…

It was never to be. For reasons still undisclosed (both writer and artist were no longer around to ask at the time this book was released) Dave vanished between instalments and was never seen again.

Life slowly – but not too slowly – returned to what passes for normal in Glebe Street but thanks to writer editor Morris Heggie and illustrator Leslie Stannage, the 4-page ‘Wedding of the Year’ and ‘The Cooperative Ha’’ offers a Sliding Doors-style possible ending here. Ahh, closure…

The dramady is accompanied throughout by clever sidebar features including faux love letters and mementoes in a brace of ‘Be My Valentine!’ spreads; ‘And the Gifts Were Returned’ letters from Maggie; gag pages disclosing ‘The Funny Side of Auld Romantics’ and ‘Oor Wullie’s Wedding Invitation’ plus newspaper photo sections on other infamous weddings of the era and more…

The last half of the book returns to funny business as usual, with Daphne, Maggie, Hen and Joe back on the hunt for fresh romantic partners, while the rest of the family resume acting like the assorted brats they eternally are: squabbling, showing off, snaffling food and enduring embarrassing domestic, fashion and sporting culture shocks…

Following joke ensemble ‘The Funny Side of Seventies Romance’ the Broons are back about their business – referencing trending topics such as the movie Grease and timeless themes such as birthday blues, leaving the remainder of this titanic tome to an examination of being young in the seventies courtesy of Oor Wullie…

The nostalgic wonderment begins with a full-colour photomontage of the decade’s comics covers and a frankly disturbing fashion parade of the wee lad, Primrose, Fat Bob and Soapy Joe in the era’s more outrageous apparel. Then it’s back to basics with waggish behaviours: dodging school, playing pranks, avoiding haircuts, going on holiday, snaffling contraband grub, finagling snacks and trying loads of get-rich-quick schemes.

Careers attempted include artist, Red Indian (70s, remember? Different tastes, OK?), paperboy, sound recorder and much more…

Supplementing these strips are features such as a colour retrospective of Oor Wullie Annuals, photo-features ‘Faces of the 70s’, pop quiz ‘20 Scots Smashers! From the 70s’ and soccer celebration ‘Fitba Crazy!’ as well as a brace of vintage Funland Puzzle Pages.

Unchanged and always welcome are wry and weighted comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, Christmas revels, torn clothes, recycled comics, breakings into one’s own home, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social scandals: stories always designed to take our collective mind off troubles abroad and at home, and for every thwarted romance or embarrassing fiasco, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns and their should-know-better elders…

You’ll almost certainly being buying this oversized hardback tome second-hand, so if possible ensure that the tipped in premiums are present. These include a CD of 20 traditional wedding tunes played by a Pipe Band and Maggie Broon’s Wedding Planner pack…

Overflowing with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy summer holiday without them, can you?
The Broons and Oor Wullie ®© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2012.