By Dudley D. Watkins, R.D. Low & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-818-1 (HB)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Traditional Entertainment from a Much-Missed Master… 10/10
Unlike any other artform, Comics is uniquely set up to create small gods. Initially low cost, mass-market and appearing with rapidity – sometimes for decades – the works of some creators are instantly recognisable and generally prolific, and come to define the medium for generations of enthralled recipients. They generally all defy exact duplication, despite being always heavily imitated by adoring adherents, since they possess some indefinable element that slavish imitation cannot capture: Osamu Tezuka, Hergé, Jack Kirby, Alex Raymond, Moebius, Steve Ditko and Charles Schulz are all instantly known. There are certainly a few others you’d like to add to that list.
My own candidate for ascension is Dudley Dexter Watkins…
A tireless and prolific illustrator equally adept at comedy and drama storytelling, his style – more than any other’s – shaped the look and form of Scottish publishing giant DC Thompson’s comics output.
Watkins (1907-1969) started life in Manchester and Nottingham as an artistic prodigy before entering Glasgow College of Art in 1924. Before too long he was advised to get a job at expanding, Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating prose 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 the only contender for both lead strips in a bold new project conceived by writer/editor Robert Duncan Low (1895-1980).
Low began at DC Thomson as a journalist, rising to Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and between 1921 and 1933 launched the company’s “Big Five” story papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.
In 1936, he created the landmark “Fun Section”: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for national newspaper The Sunday Post. This illustrated accessory – the prototype for every comic the company ever released – launched on 8thMarch and from the outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were the headliners.
Low’s shrewdest notion was to devise both strips as comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad unforgettable vernacular, supported by features such as Chic Gordon’s Auchentogle, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips. These pioneering comics then laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.
After some devious devising in December 1937 Low launched the first DC Thomson weekly all-picture strip comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic in 1939.
Low’s irresistible secret weapon in all of these ventures was Watkins. He drew the Fun Section signature strips The Broons and Oor Wullie from the outset and – without missing a beat – added Desperate Dan (in The Dandy) to his weekly workload in 1937. Seven months later, placidly outrageous social satire Lord Snooty became a big draw for freshly launched The Beano.
This stunning and luxurious hardback commemorative celebration was released to mark fifty years since his death and – despite dealing with a rather solemn topic – is exuberantly joyous in tracing the man’s astounding career and output. No one could read this stuff and not smile, if not actually collapse in gentle mirth…
Packed with brief commentary and visual extracts, the artist is revealed in excepts and complete episodes chronologically curated to maximise his artistic development. Beginning with The 1930s, a selection of strips starring Oor Wullie and The Broons (from The Fun Section) is followed by a vintage full-colour Beano Book cover, while a feature on Desperate Dan leads inevitably to a tranche of wild cowboy antics in the best Dundee tradition. The system then repeats for Lord Snooty – and his Pals – before forgotten almost-stars Wandering Willie the Wily Explorer and the aforementioned Percy Vere and his Trying Tricks share their brand of whimsy.
Up until now, the majority of strips have been monochrome, but the sequence starring Smarty Grandpa comes in the nostalgic two-colour style we all remember so fondly…
An introductory essay about The 1940s is followed by more of the same, but different, beginning with lost family favourite adventure series. Jimmy and His Magic Patch (latterly Jimmy’s Magic Patch) revealed the exploits of a wee nipper whose torn trousers were repaired with a piece of mystical cloth that could grant wishes and transport the wearer to other times and fantastic realms…
Here Watkins got to impress with authentic imagery of pirates and dinosaurs, while a two-tone tale from an annual took Jimmy to Sherwood Forest and a meeting with Robin Hood…
Watkins could seemingly handle anything, as seen by the selection of book covers that follow (The Story of Kidnapped, The Story of Treasure Island and The Story of Robinson Crusoe) and illustrated general knowledge pages Cast Away!, Wolves of the Spanish Main and Soldiers’ Uniforms & Arms 1742-1755 which precede complete Jacobite adventure strip Red Fergie’s “Army”.
Once upon a time, comics offered illustrated prose yarns too, and a literary legend was a fan favourite when Watkins did the pictures. ‘Gulliver – the Paraffin Oil Plot’ has stood well the test of time and neatly segues into a hefty section of strips starring the evergreen Lord Snooty and his Pals and Desperate Dan, before Biffo the Bear debuts in full colour – beginning with his premier on January 24th 1948 and including three more captivating outings. The decade then closes with another prose Gulliver treat in ‘Baron Bawler’s Blackout’…
A true golden age, The 1950s section opens with Oor Wullie derivative Ginger from The Beezer, another full-colour cover-star copiously represented and followed by fellow mischief-maker Mickey the Monkey in The Topper, after which Lord Snooty and his Pals get the text & picture treatment for an extended (Annual?) adventure and Desperate Dan and Biffo the Bear star in multi-hued shorts trips.
‘The Tricks of Tom Thumb’ is another classical adventure yarn setting the scene for a veritable flurry of strips starring Biffo and Dan to see the decade out.
The venerable Lord Snooty and his Pals open The 1960s, with Desperate Dan quickly following before more full-colourful Mickey and Ginger strips lead into what was probably the artist’s preferred material. Watkins was a committed man of faith, creating illustrated Bible tracts in his spare time, and always eager to (decorously) promote his beliefs.
Here – in full colour – are a brace of theological adventure strips beginning with ‘David’ and his notorious battle, followed by ‘The Road to Calvary’ which lead into a rousing clan romp in the prose-&-picture yarn of English-trouncing scots rebel Wild Young Dirky…
Ending the festival of fun, with a lump in the throat, is the Biffo strip that formed the cover of Beano #1423 (25th October 1969). Watkins had soldiered on in unassailable triumph for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in comics history, and died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. The page he was working on was completed by David Sutherland, who adds his own gracious homily to the piece.
For all those astonishingly productive years, Dudley D. Watkins had unflaggingly crafted a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons, as well as his periodical commitments, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company. DC Thomson reprinted old 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.
DCT’s publications have always played a big part in Britain’s Christmas festivities, so let’s revel in the Good Old Days of comics and look at what their publications have offered to celebrate the season via this lovingly curated tribute to Scotland’s greatest cartoon artisan…
© DCT Consumer Products (UK) Ltd. 2020.