Here Comes A’body

Visitors flocking to the sleek new V&A in Dundee who opt to explore the city further may, depending on the childhood they had, be bemused by the statues in the city centre. A stout cowboy, striding along the Nethergate and hauling a recalcitrant bulldog, is about to be ambushed by a catapult-wielding adolescent girl. A few streets away, and therefore needing further exploration to find, a schoolboy sits on a wall near the city’s High School, an upturned bucket by his side.

Desperate Dan, figurehead of The Dandy, and Minnie the Minx of The Beano are probably better-known to the wider UK audience than Oor Wullie, the boy with the bucket. All are products of DC Thomson publishers, whose impressive red sandstone building dominates the city centre skyline as their comics once dominated the kids’ market. Home of the obstinately old-fashioned People’s Friend (your granny reads it) and Scots Magazine, Thomson also publish The Courier, one of the biggest-selling local newspapers in Britain1.

While The Dandy went digital-only a few years ago, The Beano is still published, selling just shy of 40,000 copies every week: half of what it sold in 2006, but an improvement on the early years of this decade, no doubt aided by various TV incarnations of Dennis the Menace. Oor Wullie and his stablemates The Broons, although they appear in The Sunday Post each week2, are generally associated with Christmas, when the annuals still appear under the tree of thousands of kids across Scotland and beyond.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Caledonian cultural artefact, Oor Wullie (“our William”) is a black & white comic strip, of roughly 20 panels across 5 rows. Wullie is a cheeky and imaginative ten-year-old boy who always wears dungarees and boots, and sports spiky blonde hair. Each strip starts with him sitting on his trademark bucket, excited at the onset of the school holidays (or conversely, miserable about their end), looking forward to snowy weather, or simply coming up with a ploy for his own amusement or financial gain3.

wullie2

The final panel usually shows him either well satisfied with the day’s adventure, or else bitterly regretting it’s failure. In the 20th century, it was typical to see him sitting with cushions on his bucket to protect his backside, which had been liberally skelped by his father’s slipper for some misdemeanour. The corporal punishment, as in Dennis the Menace, has long been phased out.

His constant companions are Fat Boab, Soapy Souter and Wee Eck. Typically for kids, although the best of friends (for over 80 years), they fall out regularly. Wullie also has a mouse – Jeemy – and more recently a West Highland Terrier, Harry. His parents (Ma and Pa) and local policeman PC Murdoch are the only other longstanding figures, though recurring character Primrose Paterson (a smart girl whose romantic overtures to Wullie may well just be a calculated wind-up) has in recent years become a regular, in order to deliver some overdue gender balance. Periodically, members of The Broons may also feature (and vice-versa).

The characters speak in (a sentimental and – certainly in older strips – inauthentic version of) Scots, though middle- and upper-class characters – and, interestingly, Primrose – tend to speak with Received Pronunciation, thus placing Wullie in a traditional Scottish working class. The location of Wullie’s home town (only in recent years named Auchenshoogle) is never specified: the geography is wonderfully flexible; lochs and braes are within easy reach. As a Fifer, I always had him pegged as coming from the east coast (mindful of the strip’s Dundee origins). But nothing really ties him to any locality: he’s just universally (or generically) Scottish.

The strips have no title, only a couthy rhyming couplet at the top. Each adventure is self-contained; there are no two-parters or story arcs. Everything is reset at the first panel. The Broons follows similar rules, and that strip’s conservatism is obvious in its plots: any attempt by a family member to better themselves will end in shame and/or disaster. That’s one of the strip’s two storylines, of which there have been eight decades of variations on a theme. The other, brilliantly spoofed by Viz’s note-perfect The McBroons, is where a family member is overheard, and the entire clan rushes to prevent shame and/or disaster, only for it to transpire that they’d been misheard in the first place.

In Oor Wullie, for me, the formal conservatism is part of the attraction. Yes, he breaks the fourth wall at least twice in each strip, but there is no attempt, ever, to change the structure. I’m reminded, oddly, of Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s comment on Kraftwerk, a major influence on him: “they were so stiff they were funky”. Oor Wullie is so structurally consistent it’s hypnotic. Although his asides to readers, and the meta- and inter-textual references (see below) are oh-so-postmodern, critical theory was probably not in the mind of his legendary creator, cartoonist Dudley D Watkins. We should see such traits instead as an example of parallel evolution.

Celebrities have occasionally turned up: Ewan Macgregor on a motorbike, and in a unique instance of colour (the blue of the saltire plays a role in the story), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in a 2015 strip. These imply that Wullie is known about, that his fame is implicit in his escapades, which adds a metatextual level that it would be interesting to play with5. One strip even has him hide a severe haircut under a wig which had been used as a prop in a play about his own adventures. I had visions of him eternally frozen at ten years old, with his family and friends in some kind of bubble, sealed off from time while the rest of Auchenshoogle moves on around them. Think Peter Pan meets the Truman Show, and the whole thing becomes infinitely sadder.

Though token mentions are made of phones and devices and other 21st century paraphernalia, the relationships and activities are far closer to the 1950s, yet were probably as much of a fantasy then as now: how many kids in urban Scotland spend as much time as Wullie and his pals do outside, or have that level of recognition among the locals?

As I mentioned above he was created and drawn for thirty years by Dudley D Watkins, a one-man comic factory within DC Thomson. Upon his death (at his desk) in 1969, the publishers rotated his old strips for a full seven years before engaging a new artist. Several (Ken H Harrison, Tom Morton, Peter Davidson) have had a spell in the role, and for all the consistency the different eras are recognisable. There was a particularly poor period (I forget under whose stewardship, and don’t have a representative annual to hand) in which the panel count was almost half what it was under Watkins, the scripts basic and the artwork uninspired: Wullie had a round face and huge chin, and the pencilling line was finer than normal; the strip lost its essential roughness.

In 2004 Wullie was voted “Scotland’s favourite son”, ahead of Sean Connery himshelf. What does this scamp tell us about how we see ourselves? Wullie is no hero: no Dan Dare or even Roy of the Rovers, though he’s handy with a football. Indeed he’s (to use a west coast word) gallus, in the way we once liked our footballers. He’s not a troublemaker in the mold of Dennis or Minnie. Anne Hoyer, in Cultural Specifics of a Scottish Comic, sees him as an exemplar of the “Improvising Scot”: a cultural stereotype whose resourcefulness “in direct contrast to England’s wealth” is a response to “the scarcity of Scottish resources”. For far too long, Scots’ self-perception was entirely negative: we were whatever we judged the English not to be. That attitude, thanks in part to devolution, is on the wane. Oor Wullie though, is not, and as long as he reflects back to us an idea of who we think we are, we’ll always find him on his bucket, ready for whatever the day throws at him.

 

 

1 For a company whose conservatism is practically a founding principle, perhaps recognising that Dundee was one of only four council areas in Scotland to record a majority vote for independence in 2014, The Courier tries very hard to be neutral on the issue, unlike most of the Scottish media.

2 “Couthy, conservative, and sentimental” in Iain Macwhirter’s description. Tom Nairn memorably declared that “Scotland will never be free until the last kirk minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”

3 Wullie is neither avaricious nor aspirational: enough cash to keep him in fish suppers and sweets is all he asks.

4 It’ll never happen. I seem to recall the annual Macallan/Scotsman short story competition having a winner in the late 90s which DC Thomson took extreme offence at, and it was never published. Featured a thinly-disguised Wullie in later life having gone off the rails. Trainspotting-style. The internet is silent on this. Does anyone else remember?

 

Sources:

  • Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn (Editors), McFarland
  • Oor Wullie (various editions), DC Thomson

All images absolutely and completely copyright DC Thomson, make no mistake.

Advertisements

Other people’s nostalgia

If I could visit any place and time in history, among my choices would be Paris around 1960. It was a time of great societal tension, with events in colonial Algeria at the forefront of events. But it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the nouveau roman and jazz music, and it was a golden era for cycle racing.

I have a copy of Pilote magazine from April 1961, and a copy of Look-In from June 1981. 20 years and La Manche separate these publications, and while there are similarities, the differences are interesting.

The two magazines are not, it becomes clear, doing exactly the same thing, so this cannot be a direct comparison. Look-In was marketed specifically as the “Junior TV Times“, and to that end its features, weekly TV listings and (often superb) comic strips are ITV-centric, though with strong features on pop music and topical sporting events it was more than just a listings magazine. But as the product of a commercial broadcaster, at root it’s selling things.

Pilote is a more educational publication, a mash-up of Look-In‘s strips and World of Knowledge or Look and Learn‘s historical and scientific features, and is therefore far more Reithian (or whatever the French equivalent is) in it’s outlook. It reflects the post-war optimism: many of the features are on expanding horizons (the space race1, futuristic car designs, the spread of the American railroad in the 1860s). There’s a two-page illustrated retelling of the death of Charles the Bold (Charles le Téméraire), and a colour spread across the centre pages detailing the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918. Outside the femmes fatale or damsels in distress of the comic strips, I’m not sure there are any females, though.

IMG_4487

The adverts are by and large for edifying things such as Caran d’Ache pencils2; stamps; a map of Europe with stick-on flags; cameras and watches. There’s a puzzle page with chess problems and spot-the-difference. But to leaven this somewhat worthy mixture there are comics, as only continental Europe can do them.

For, if Pilote is known outwith the Francophone world, it’s as the birthplace of Asterix the Gaul. I love Asterix: I did when I was a kid, and now my son reads the books I enjoy them all over again, getting so many jokes and references that went over my 10-year-old head. They’re funny and clever and beautifully drawn.

IMG_4486
Not Asterix

Alas, the creative team of Goscinny and Uderzo were between adventures in my copy. Their other contribution – Jehan Soupolet (also known as Jehan Pistolet) a pirate story whose Uderzo artwork is far sparser and rougher than his lovingly detailed work for Asterix – is some consolation, but evidently behind the scenes they were working on Asterix and the Goths, serialisation of which would begin the following month. Goscinny also illustrates Tanguy et Laverdure, an (I assume) exciting air force pilot adventure series.

img_4485.jpg

Away from comic strips, Goscinny’s droll Petit Nicolas stories (with thumbnails by Sempé), whose translations into English I enjoyed as a child, is one of the serialised stories along with “Alamo”, a cowboy tale: cowboys were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s, in France no less than the Anglophone world. But that was before we realised that the Indians were not, perhaps, the baddies after all…

img_4484.jpg

Asterix wasn’t the reason I bought this issue, though: the cover star Rik Van Looy was.

Who? Why?

Another love of mine is the cycling culture of Belgium. Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) is obsessed with bikes and bike racing. The greatest cyclist ever is a Belgian, Eddy Merckx3. But before Merckx, one of the sport’s biggest stars was another Belgian, Van Looy: “The Emperor of Herentals”. I saw this copy on ebay and wanted to a taste of the contemporary coverage of Van Looy’s career; a period artefact.

Van Looy, a stocky sprinter who therefore lacked the physiology that would allow him to compete with the best in the high mountains, never won the Tour de France but, crucially, is still the only man to have won every major one-day “classic” race. He was world champion three times, and the Pilote cover shows him resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. It was the photo that attracted me: the faded colour and the texture of the image so evocative of the early 1960s.

The photo is slightly misleading, though: I expected a major interview with the Emperor, but instead there’s a report on his recent Paris-Roubaix victory and a quick recap of his career. With a reference which dates the magazine perfectly, Van Looy is described as “the H-bomb of cycling”. The sport was a big draw in France at the time4, and at least two other Pilote covers from 1961 show famous cyclists, so his appearance on the cover was clearly a big draw. Presciently, another Belgian is the other feature on the sports page, where a long international career is (correctly) predicted for the 17-year-old footballer Paul Van Himst, who would play for the Red Devils until 1974.

There are no doubt dozens of references that fly over my head because of cultural differences (and my limited French). I’m sure Pilote triggers all sorts of nostalgic memories in a certain demographic of French baby-boomers, in the way Look-In does for me, as I’ve mentioned before. Nostalgia is fed by the recovered memory of ephemera such as these magazines.

This particular copy of Look-In is from June 1981. Technological advances are no doubt partly responsible for the greater use of colour and higher production values than Pilote (though the paper Look-In is printed on is flimsier).

Despite this, the headline sounds a weary note – “James Bond is back – again!” – as if pitying poor old Roger Moore having to creak his eyebrow into gear once more in For Your Eyes Only. The promised “colour feature” amounts to an extended promo piece, with some photos and a list of all the previous Bond films to date. A cut-out-and-blu-tac-to-your-wall (and I did) “Collect-a-Page” later in the issue has Moore as its focus, and I remember being stunned at the time to learn that he was 52.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of comic strips. First up is The Elvis Story, mercifully only a page long and while beautifully illustrated, as I mentioned here, quite how much the King would resonate with a readership keen for Toyah, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet is unclear. Worzel Gummidge’s hapless adventures get a two-page b&w spread, as does the period drama Smuggler, in which buckles are swashed and swash is buckled.

CHiPS and (my favourite) Buck Rogers both get the colour treatment. Surely IPC or whoever owns the rights could release a compendium of these strips: the old Daily Express James Bond, Modesty Blaise, etc. have all been compiled, and The Beatles Story from Look-In was itself smartly repackaged recently (see link above). Some of the strips lasted only a few months and so probably don’t merit a stand-alone volume each, but a Look-In comic compilation would certainly sell to a certain demographic (me).

IMG_4488

There are competitions – conspicuous by their absence from Pilote, and no doubt reflecting the commercial background of Look-In – and reader celebrity photos, fan club information, factoids and quizzes. There’s even a recipe for scones. The feel is a snappier publication geared to shorter attention spans than Pilote. Pilote‘s age target was 10-15, and I suspect Look-In‘s was slightly younger (I was 7 in 1981 but I suspect it was aimed at 9-13 or so).

As for sport, Wimbledon gets the 4-page centre feature, with a hero/villain piece about John McEnroe and a brief history of the tournament. I remember a copy which previewed the Milk Race, which would have been my first exposure to cycle racing. It would have appeared as a one-off, as neither editors nor readers would likely have had the knowledge of the sport that a continental reader would have possessed.

IMG_4489

The closest to Europe Look-In comes is in a feature about – and two-page strip featuring – those little blue Belgians, the Smurfs, though any hint of their Euro-ness is absent. And I think that’s the interesting thing about the difference between these publications. Look-In, for all the fond recollections I have of it, is a strikingly parochial magazine; entirely anglocentric, yes, and as an ITV publication it doesn’t even mention TV coverage of Wimbledon (which would, of course, have been on BBC). Look-In contains no news – even in a safe, kid-friendly form – other than whatever is current in pop and TV. Pilote, by comparison, is a publication that looks beyond the hexagon of France to other countries and, indeed, space (a realm which, after the end of the Apollo program, was largely left to space opera rather than as a destination for mankind’s future).

I admitted earlier that I’m comparing apples et des oranges, and I know I’m stretching a point, but it’s telling that French kids (albeit of an earlier generation – what Pilote was like in 1981 I don’t know) were absorbing developments from across the world, while in the ever-insular UK we were – pardon the pun – just being fed Bucks Fizz.

 

1 Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight took place the week before and features as news on page 2.

2 Amusingly, the advert for this shows a cross-hatched map of Europe which misses the UK entirely.

3 Merckx has a cameo in Asterix in Belgium, though it was 20 years before I realised: my interest in Asterix probably waned a little before I discovered the Tour de France.

4 Despite the popularity of the Tour, it’s decades since the sport in general was held in such high regard in France.