On Friday 13th November 2015, a fourth cartoonist was inducted into our Hall of Fame. Here is a look at the life and astounding career of Dudley D Watkins.
When the Scottish Government introduced their Commemorative Plaque Scheme in 2013 the very first person they chose was Scotland’s greatest cartoonist, an Englishman named Dudley D Watkins.
Dudley Dexter Watkins was born in Prestwich just north of Manchester on February 27th, 1907. Three months later his family moved to Nottingham. His father, Will, was a lithographic print artist who noticed Dudley’s artistic talent early on and ensured that he received extra art classes at the Nottingham School of Art. By age 10 the local newspaper declared him a “schoolboy genius.” His first published work was for the Boots Pure Drug company staff magazine, The Beacon in the early 1920s.
In 1925, after only a year at Glasgow School of Art, the Principal recommended Watkins to the thriving publisher D.C. Thomson. He moved to Dundee and began providing illustrations for prose stories in Thomson’s “Big Five” boys weekly magazines Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, and later The Skipper and The Hotspur. He was initially offered a six-month employment but Watkins would work there for the rest of his life.
Writing for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1973, George Rosie, a scholar of D.C. Thomson, said
Old art department hands remember [Watkins] as a serious, rather intense man, a bit short on humour, but with a line in dapper suits and a penchant for bowler hats.
For several years he worked as an illustrator, teaching life drawing on the side at Dundee Art School, but in 1933 Watkins was tasked with drawing The Rover Midget Comic a free supplement given away with The Rover and the following year he drew The Skipper Midget Comic. His editors noticed his talent for cartooning and in 1935 Watkins’ first regular comic strip, ‘Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks’ appeared for nearly two years in the pages of Adventure. Percy was an inept magician whose tricks usually backfired on him.
Percy was followed by ‘Wandering Willie The Wily Explorer’ whose tough-guy nature would appear again in the character of Desperate Dan.
During this time, 8th March 1936 to be precise, Thomson launched the 8 page “Fun Section”, a comic supplement to the Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post. Working with writer/editor R. D. Low, Watkins created his most enduring characters in two strips, The Broons (The Browns) and Oor Wullie (Our Willy). Both were written with dialogue in a broad, Scots vernacular.
The Broons were allegedly based on R.D. Low’s own family, a working class clan of 11 members who all, except Grandpa, lived in a small Glasgow flat, reflecting the lives of many Scots at the time. The strips was drawn with wide panels to incorporate as much of the family as possible to maintain the feeling of living on top of one another but also of familiarity and warmth which Watkins’ work rarely lacked.
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Oor Wullie was a impish young scamp getting up to mischief around town and can be seen as a precursor to The Beano‘s Dennis the Menace. Wullie would often begin and end the strip sitting on a bucket in his yard, which reflected the era’s lack of luxuries for many. The strip was often drawn with many small panels to increase the speed and fun for younger readers.
Oor Wullie © DC Thomson & Co Ltd.
The huge popularity of these comics in the paper led D.C. Thomson to launch their first weekly comic publication for boys and girls, The Dandy, in December 1937. Watkins contributed two new comics strips, ‘Our Gang’, based on the short Hal Roach films later known as ‘The Little Rascals’, and a humble half page comic called ‘Desperate Dan’ who would soon become the comic’s mascot.
Desperate Dan was an impossibly strong, square jawed cowboy who lived with his mild mannered aunt Aggie in Cactusville, a weird hybrid of the Wild West and modern Britain at the time. Dan shaves with a blowtorch and enjoys eating massive cow pies complete with bull horns sticking out of the crust. He would often have adventures with his niece and nephew both of whom had Dan’s impressive jawline which was modelled after The Dandy‘s editor Albert Barnes. Unusually for the gag strip format, Dan’s adventures would often extended over many weeks. One story from 1948 featured many more of his relatives coming together to discover who received a rich uncle’s inheritance. 10 weeks later they discovered the promised millions were actually stamps worth a mere eighty cents.
The Dandy ran for an impressive 75 years, ceasing print production in 2012. Sadly it’s digital relaunch lasted only six months but Desperate Dan was featured right up until its demise. Dan’s mighty form is immortalised in bronze as a statue in Dundee city centre, he’s appeared on a 1st class stamp and The Kinks proclaimed themselves the “Desperate Dan Appreciation Society” in the song ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ (1968).
Back in July 1938, less than a year after The Dandy launched, D.C. Thomson released The Beano, now the world’s longest running weekly comic. From the very first issue Watkins drew the strip ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’ about a boy named Marmaduke, the young Earl of Bunkerton, or Lord Snooty to his friends. Those friends were The Trash Can Alley gang, a scruffy bunch of working class kids and a goat named Gertie. In 1942, Watkins drew himself into a Snooty strip as a local artist who tries to teach them how to draw. Gang rivalry ensues and Mr. Watkins ends up with a black eye.
Watkins was so important to D.C. Thomson’s success that during the second world war they convinced the authorities to excuse him from national service. During this time, Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and His Pals took on Hitler numerous times, always outwitting and humiliating the Führer in comedic, often surreal ways.
In a 2006 BBC documentary marking 70 years of Oor Wullie, it was claimed that Dudley D Watkins was on a list of enemies of the Third Reich and would be killed if the Nazis successfully invaded Britain.
Watkins also drew the gag strip ‘Biffo the Bear’ for The Beano and would go on to show his versatility with style and historical detail in many adventure strips such as ‘Jimmy and his Magic Patch’ which started in 1944. A patch on Jimmy Watson’s trousers was a scrap of a magic carpet and gave him the ability to travel through time and space helping historical and fictional characters often with the seemingly useless contents of his well stocked pockets. Jimmy had nearly 100 adventures in his 18 year run.
Jimmy and his Magic Patch © DC Thomson & Co Ltd.
In the late 1940s, Watkins also drew comic adaptations of classic novels for another D.C. Thomson magazine, Peoples’ Journal. Four of the serials, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Oliver Twist were reprinted in book form during the 50s and 60s. Many others like ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, ‘Allan Quartermain’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ were reprinted in colour on the back page of Topper.
When D.C. Thomson launched The Topper in 1953, it was Watkins who graced the front page with ‘Mickey the Monkey’. When The Beezer launched in 1956, again Watkins had the cover with ‘Ginger’, a slightly older version of Oor Wullie without the Scots vernacular.
Watkins was one of only two D. C. Thomson cartoonists of the time who were allowed to sign their work (the other being Allan Morley). The rumour is Watkins was courted by a rival publisher and one of his conditions for staying was that he could sign his work. Beginning in June 1946 the name Dudley D Watkins was boldly signed on all his strips.
Watkins was a devout Christian and met his wife at the Church of Christ in Dundee. Together they designed and built an impressive home in Broughty Ferry, which he named Winsterly. Watkins contributed, free of charge, comic strips for The Young Warrior, a religious magazine for children (published by Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ Publications.)
On the morning of 20 August 1969, Dudley D. Watkins died of a heart attack and was found by his wife at his drawing board half way through a page of Desperate Dan. He was 62. He died as he lived, doing what he loved, drawing comics.
For 44 years, Watkins worked relentlessly for D.C. Thomson, even taking work on holiday with him such was his workload. He co-created the most beloved comics in Scotland and his talent and success led to the creation of the world’s longest running children’s comics. 46 years later, his characters are still known and adored by young and old alike.
It is a testament to the quality and appeal of Watkins’ work that after his death D. C. Thomson continued to reprint Oor Wullie and The Broons strips in The Sunday Post for seven years before a replacement was found. Watkins’ Desperate Dan strips were reprinted in The Dandy for fourteen years.
It’s a tradition for many families in Scotland, the rest of the UK and the Commonwealth to receive either an Oor Wullie or The Broons annual at Christmas. They are usually published on alternate years but as next year is the 80th anniversary of these strips, this Christmas you can buy both.
Watkins’ black and white work may look safe and quaint to modern readers but a second look quickly reveals an absolute master of pacing, composition, expression and body language. His work is throughly charming and no matter how many panels or characters he’s drawing, his work always stands out as clean and appealing. He was a modest man with a natural talent who influenced almost everyone who came after him.
No list of cartooning greats, British or otherwise, would be complete without the name Dudley D Watkins.
The Broons and Oor Wullie: Family Fun Through the Years (2010)
The Broons and Oor Wullie: The Glory Years 1956-1969 (2009)
The Legend of Desperate Dan (1997)
The Legend of Lord Snooty and His Pals (1998)
Thank you to Michael Stirling, Duncan Laird and David Powell at DC Thompson for allowing us to use the copyrighted images above and for providing scans of Watkins’ original artwork straight from their archives for the BCA Ceremony presentation on 13th November 2015.