Thursday, October 08, 2009

Scotland's Greatest Cartoonist, Dudley D. Watkins

It is generally accepted that an Englishman born on February 27th 1907, in Manchester, England, Dudley D. Watkins, was Scotland's greatest cartoonist. Undoubtedly some of the people who say it is so simply pay lip-service to that notion because he remains to this day one of the few cartoonists people in Britain can actually name (even if they only say "the guy who did the Broons"), but to many comic fans and cartoonists alike, Watkins simply was the best. All over Great Britain and the Commonwealth, legions of fans collected every single full-page episode of The Broons and Oor Wullie from the weekly edition of The Sunday Post newspaper, a newspaper that regularly found its way all over the world as families oceans apsrt kept in touch with distant relatives. And every Christmas, The Broons and Oor Wullie Annuals were a standing dish here in the UK and overseas. Then of course there were those other fans who grew up with Dudley's work for The Beano and The Dandy, two comics that really only came into being because of the tremendous popularity of Dudley Watkins work.

For we cartoonists' who are not naturally gifted and have to work hard at our craft, there is some solace in looking at Dudley's very early work before the Broons and Oor Wullie. That's because if you began with no knowledge of his earlier work, and you just picked up a Broons or an Oor Wullie page from the 1940s or 1950s, and then traced it back to the first Broons comic of 1936, it can be very intimidating indeed. Although the Broons of 1933 is rougher than the Broons of 1943, it is still a very polished looking page for that era. There is no sign of the very rough artwork of say, the first Tintin story by Herge, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Indeed, if you start with the Broons alone, Dudley seems to have just sprung up as a fully-formed cartooning genius. Of course, that wasn't the case, and Dudley's earlier art work is a little rough around the edges, thankfully, although it is still intimidating in itself because it illustrates the rapid professional development of the man's penmanship.

Watkins's first published work appeared in Boots in-house magazine, The Beacon, while he was working for Boots Pure Drug company in the early 1920s. In 1925 the Watkins family moved to Scotland and Dudley attended classes at Glasgow School of Art. It was the school principal there who recommended the talented illustrator to the Scottish publishing powerhouse D.C. Thomson, and soon afterwards Watkins moved to the Thomson company's Dundee base. It was there that Dudley began what would become a life-long career in comics, as just one of a number of DC illustrators, churning out pages for Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and The Hotspur. To make ends meet, Watkins earned a little extra income teaching life drawing at Dundee Art School, but his talents did not go unnoticed for long, and a keen-eyed editor assigned him the drawing of two new comic strips, The Broons and Oor Wullie - both of which were launched in the 8 March 1936 edition of the weekly newspaper The Sunday Post.

On the 11th of February 1933 D.C Thomson's Rover Comic contained a free-gift, the Rover Midget, and the episode of PC99 in the Midget was not by PC99's usual cartoonists, Charles Gordon, it was drawn on this occasion by by Dudley Watkins 1933. It was Watkin's first full strip for DC Thomson.

Just three short years after his first full strip appeared, Watkins had begun work on what would become the most iconic cartoon characters in Scottish history. The Broons and Oor Wullie comic strips were tremendous hits with the Scottish public, and it was their success that encouraged Thomson to produce both The Dandy Comic (1937) and The Beano Comic (1938), both of which were built around the look and style of Watkins work. From The Beano #1, until his final comic for Beano # 1422, the creator of Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty and Biffo the Bear, served up a steady diet of comic masterpieces that impacted on almost every single child growing up in Britain, and even further afield. Such was his reputation that he was the only Thomson artist at the time who was allowed to sign his own work, a shy D.W on the adventures of Lord Snooty in the Beano #292, September 7th 1946, gave way to the more familiar and iconic signature Dudley D. Watkins in issue '293.

The cover artist for the Beano, with Biffo the Bear, Watkins was also to become the cover artist of Thomson's two new broadsheet titles, The Topper, with Mickey the Monkey and Ginger, for The Beezer, and in addition to this comic work. Watkins still managed to work on adaptations of classics and to work on a number of biblical works, David, The Road to Calvary, both of which appeared in the Sparky Annual in the 1960s, that were very dear to his heart. A committed Christian, Watkins drew artwork for mission calendars, and from the 1950s he produced the comic strips William the Warrior and Tony and Tina - The Twins, strips full of Scriptural quotations, for Young Warrior, a children's comic paper published by the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade.

From a cartoonist's perspective there is, perhaps, today at least, a crumb of comfort in looking at Wakins very early Broons pages, but it is just that, a crumb. Let me explain, you see, as cartoonists we tend to learn from other cartoonists and whilst we do want to learn from the greats, like Dudley Watkins, we really also want to one day usurp that surrogate-cartooning-parent, and so it is essential that we can hope, one distant day, to outdraw them. There is at least a hint that one could maybe someday draw as well as Dudley in the very early 1930s Broons, but I have to admit that by the Broons pages of the 1940s any such hope is soon dashed. Within a very short time, in relative cartooning terms, Dudley Watkins was regularly creating some of the most beautiful comics pages ever seen in the history of cartooning.

There were very, very, few cartoonists in the world producing work of the quality of Watkins's work. The Broons pages contained less panels than the more action-orientated Oor Wullie, so there was more of a canvas for Watkins to experiment on. His command of perspective and shifting points of view was almost peerless and I think, with the exception of a handful of European and American greats, like Winsor McCay, it would be difficult to think of a more talented and influential cartoonist. He truly was one of the all-time greats.

One dream Dudley Watkins did not managed to fulfill, was his dream of adapting the entire Bible into illustrated format. Oh that would have been something, wouldn't it? That would have been an awesome "graphic novel", a spectacular celebration of what a dedicated cartoonist could achieve. But it wasn't to be. On the morning of 20 August 1969, his wife found him, a half-finished Desperate Dan strip on his drawing table before him, Dudley D. Watkins had died of a heart attack, doing what he loved.

Artwork copyright D.C Thomson.

Some pics purloined from various sites. For more, and more detailed, information on the great Dudley D. Watkins, I suggest you try the following excellent sites:

That's Braw

Christian Comics International


Roger Kettle said...

Really enjoyed this, Rod. It was particularly nostalgic as I joined DCT as a bright-eyed kid just weeks before the great man's death.

--MC said...

Braw, as I've said elsewhere. I love the sheer detail of these things -- like the Smiths, the family that Ma Broon is always trying to impress (except that Granpaw always embarasses them) -- each of those Smiths is filled with so much character that you could feature each in his or her own strip. And this is just the ancillary characters!

Rod McKie said...

Hey Roger, I'm really glad you liked this. I've posted the CCGB forum post on an addendum. I really think it adds some valuable insight, thank you.

Rod McKie said...

Hey MC, thanks for looking in, love the blogs.

I like what you say, it's the off-stage action that Beckett talks about, what happens when people leave and enter rooms from somewhere else. Our imagination is working on more than just the illustrated scenario.

Excellent point.

noah said...

Yeah, the beauty lies in the fact he makes it look so deceptively easy, but just try drawing an Oor Wullie spoof, 20 action packed panels, full-figures with expressive faces and you soon realise just how amazing a feat even a page of that stuff is. Then consider he was hammering out, what 3-4 strip pages a week...!

My father has Robinson Crusoe and Kidnapped as adapted - Black Bob style - with illustrations by Watkins.