Monday, October 12, 2009

Dudley Watkins Addendum (but added to the top, as it were).

The Dudley Watkins piece below is one that I have wanted to post for some time, and I wanted it to have a little extra because I really believe we are talking about an exceptional cartoonist, but I really didn't know what that "little extra" would be. Well, as luck would have it, two cartoonists who you will all be quite familiar with have given me permission to reproduce their posts on a simultaneous discussion we are having in another place on this piece on Dudley, and I couldn't be more pleased. I'm particularly delighted with Steve Bright's anecdote about Dudley's Crucifixion painting, the Dundee Courier's heading is hilarious.

Roger (Beau Peep, Andy Capp) Kettle

As I'm sure I've mentioned, Rod, I joined DCT just two weeks before Dudley Watkins died. As an 18 year-old junior, I was given the wonderful job of sorting through all the old Broons and Oor Wullie originals for dating and re-printing purposes. I shared this job with two other kids, Morris Heggie and Euan Kerr who, of course, went on to edit The Dandy and Beano respectively. The artwork in the flesh was staggering and some of the storylines unthinkable in this day and age. (Stopping for a smoke on the way to school and a black kid called Sambo moving into the street). I still feel privileged to have done that job.

Steve (Bananaman) Bright

As another DCT 'kid' of a slightly younger vintage than Messrs Kettle, Heggie and Kerr (the boys done well!), I joined the company several years after Dudley Watkins death, but of course, his legacy and influence on the comics I worked for was still very much alive and plain to see.

I'm particularly pleased to see you make the point about how much he improved over the years, and that not all great cartoonists are born. I can only think of a few who appear to have been the real deal from Day One (the third of Watkins successors on the Broons and Oor Wullie, Ken H. Harrison, being one of them - consistently brilliant throughout his career). Rather than the "solace" you write of, to be taken from those early Watkins years, I'd hope those of us who struggle with our own early years (I was certainly one) can take inspiration from DDW's work, although I agree that usurping the master at his peak would be nigh on impossible. Perhaps I lack that particular ambition, but I still delight in seeing the evolution of the greats (and Baxendale's growth was perhaps an even more marked contrast), and take inspiration from that. And hopefully I never stop learning and improving, but my target has always been to be half as good as those greats, and I've never looked to better any of them.

I turned down the opportunity to take on The Broons and Oor Wullie back in the 80s. At that time, they were being ghosted by Tom Lavery, a fine comic cartoonist, but struggling to fill the great man's shoes. He had a thankless task. I was very flattered to be asked, but scared stiff at the prospect. I'd have taken on Oor Wullie, but the Broons was way too daunting, with something like ten family members in most frames. But both came as a package deal, so I declined. I was right to do so - I'm not good enough to do it justice now, never mind back then, and the artists who eventually took it on (Pete Davidson, Ken Harrison, then Davidson again) were far better equipped to do the job than I ever will be.

Interesting to read about Watkins Biblical ambition. Only last year, a rather curious depiction of The Crucifixion, drawn by Watkins over 50 years ago, was discovered in a house in Fife where it had hung for decades, having been given to the house owner by Dudley Watkins as a personal gift in 1951. Unmistakeably in Watkins' style, it shows children in contemporary clothes and hairstyles of the 1950s, queueing up at the foot of the cross. It caused quite a stir in the press at the time, but DCT's own headline was typically understated.

The Dundee Courier website reported, "Unusual Work by Oor Wullie Artist".

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

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Matt and Sammy's Treehouse of Ergot and Horror

You'll know by now that I like anthologies. As I've said before, I grew up with them because UK comics were and still are, in the main, anthologies. So it will come as no surprise that I really like Bongo Entertainment, Inc's annual, The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror. But what might come as a surprise to you, with this edition #15, is just exactly who has edited, written, and drawn this collection. It would be fair to say, I think, that it is a stellar line-up of creators; and at least three of my favourite cartoonists are involved.

Guest edited by Sammy Harkham, the award-winning creator of the Kramers Ergot anthology, and featuring the work of a good few of that publications line-up, The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror #15 features comics by some of the brightest stars in the idie-comic universe. With an eyegasmic cover by Dan Zettwoch the comic opens up to reveal such a range of talent that it really does require two or three passes just to take in, on a superficial level, the delights on almost every page. The impressive collection consists of Cloud 13 by Tim Hensley, The Call of Vegulu, written by Matthew Thurber with art by Kevin Huizenga, Blurst Agin, by Jordan Crane, Mo' Bodies Moe Problems, written and coloured by Ted May with art by the collection's editor Sammy Harkam, The Gods Must Be Lazy, by Will Sweeney, C.H.U.M, by Jon Vermilyea, Boo-tleg by Ben Jones, Three Little Kids, by John Kerschbaum, Bad Millhouse, by Jeffrey Brown and The Slipsons, by C.F

Perhaps the best introduction to the cast of creators, though, comes from the pen of the Editor himself, and I'd like to see more anthologies add this sort of illustrated calling card to its pages.

As with any anthology I have my favourites and not every story works for me, but then that is the appeal and the attraction of anthologies, isn't it? There is something for everyone, and I have to say, this collection comes very close to being pretty much perfect; for me.

The Call of Veula, for instance, was always going to work for me because it's drawn by Glen Ganges creator, Kevin Huizenga, whom I rate very highly as an illustrator. I just love his work.

Almost every piece of this works, and the stories are all very good. It has clearly been a job that everyone involved enjoyed taking part in, and it really is very nice to see such a variety of drawing and colouring styles and methods under one cover.

One of my favourite stories from the collection is C.H.U.M by Jon Vermilyea. I like everything about this story, I like the story itself, the drawings and the colouring.

Another real favourite of mine from this collection is Jeffrey Brown's Bad Millhouse (nice detaills about creating the piece on Jeffrey Brown's blog). I just love the way the condition of the characters deteriorates, in a sort of nod to Juni Ito, but is also reflected in the darkening of the felt tip pens as they themselves begin to deteriorate. It is beautifully drawn.

The comic book itself is full of lovely touches that you don't pick up on at first, like Sammy Harkham's deserted couch with little bits of various Simpson's characters littered around the scene of the crime. It's a delight, a real Halloween treat. This is really worth buying.

Art, copyright 2009, Bongo Entertainment, Inc.