Dundee Comics

by Terry Stewart

The Scottish city of Dundee is famous for many things, from its football teams, its achievement of becoming the UNESCO City of Culture in 2014, to its dormant volcanic plug which nestles beneath Dundee Law. However, there is far more to Dundee than just these few well-known accolades. As far back as the 13th century, the iconic Lord Protector of Scotland and scourge of Edward I, William Wallace actually attended school in Dundee. And he is just one of many famous faces that are connected to these sunny (for Scotland anyway!) North-Eastern shores.

William Wallace
In fact, Dundee has produced a wealth of internationally famous characters such as the iconic wrestler ‘Bill Dundee’ (William Bill Cruickshanks), chemist Francis Robert Jupp, politician George Galloway and even the well known actor Brian Cox. As well as its people, Dundee also has an internationally recognized and thriving industry whose foundations go far back into Dundee’s history. In the 19th and 20th centuries Dundee was one of the richest cities in Scotland, due in large part to its thriving textile and engineering industries.

Cox's Stack
Cox’s Stack, a chimney from the former Camperdown Works jute mill
Dundee was once nicknamed ‘Juteopolis’ because Dundonian businesses owned the majority of the jute mills in India in the 19th century and the city’s textile industry employed over 40,000 people. ‘Juteopolis’ is one of the three famous Js that Dundee was renowned for at the time: ‘Jute, Jam and Journalism’, and the industrial focus on these three disparate industries remained throughout the Victorian era. The second ‘J’, of course, refers to the cities propensity for jam! There is a legend that it was a Dundonian woman, by the name of Janet Keillor, who actually invented marmalade in the 18th century. Whether she invented the now ubiquitous condiment is not known for certain, however what is known is that her son founded the famous Keillor jam factory in Dundee. This made jam another major industry within the city. Finally, the 3rd and arguably most important ‘J’ is journalism. Whereas jute and jam are no longer such powerhouses of Dundonian industry, Dundee remains world-renowned for its contribution to journalism and literature and within this arena, Dundee is most respected for its comics.

There is one individual who undoubtedly supersedes all other famous Dundonians in terms of his legacy, and that is R D Low. Low was born on 25th August 1895 and died as an octogenarian on 13th December 1980. Born the son of a jute mill mechanic, the family therefore covered two of the three famous Dundonian Js in their business endeavours! Low began his career as a journalist at DC Thomson Co. It was here that he created ‘story papers’ for children and teenagers; the Adventure in 1921, the Rover in 1922, the Wizard in 1923, the Skipper in 1930 and the Hotspur in 1933. These were hugely popular, perhaps providing entertaining escapism to the troubling political climate of the 1930s and the escalating tensions in Europe at the time.

Following the success of the story papers, Low flexed his creative muscles once again, this time with the help of artist Dudley Watkins. It was these two comic geniuses who first created ‘Oor Wullie’ and ‘The Broons’, which became staple reading material in all Scottish homes! Written in the Scottish tongue they became hugely popular, even being made into annuals. I myself grew up reading these hilarious and charming comics. So popular, in fact, that these two literary masterpieces have been published in every Sunday Post newspaper since 1936. And it is said that the character of ‘Oor Wullie’ was actually based on Low’s own, slightly mischievous, son Ron.

Desperate Dan, Dundee
Statue of Desperate Dan in Dundee city centre

Low did not stop there however, as editor of DC Thomson, Low launched the world’s longest running comics; The Dandy in 1937 and then The Beano in 1938. The entertaining host of characters within these comics is almost without equal: from Desperate Dan with his giant cow pies to Dennis the Menace and his sling-shot, these characters have earned a real place in the hearts of the nation, although you would be forgiven for being unaware that these two internationally renowned and beloved comics hailed from a small Scottish city, possibly assuming instead the grander origins of Edinburgh or London. But it was Dundee that gave these masterpieces to the world. For those that live and come from Dundee, it is an immense source of pride. There are statues of the inimitable Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx in the city center, and there is even the iconic ‘Bash Street’ in Dundee itself. Low later added the character of ‘Rodger the Dodger’ whom he co-created with Ken Reid, to the Beano in 1953. The most famous character remains Denis the Menace, who even made it to Hollywood! A film based on the renowned comic was released in 1993 starring Walter Matthau and Mason Gamble.

Dundee Harbour 19thCDundee Harbour, 19th century

The publisher DC Thomson has been in Dundee since the mid-19th century and is now Dundee’s largest employer. The Thomas family firm was previously established in shipping, but during the mid-19th century began to take an interest in publishing. In 1886 William Thomson bought the Dundee Courier, and so began the family’s journey into journalism. The firm is still run by descendants of William Thomson today. In 1905, under William’s son, David Couper, the company merged with the other major publishing house in Dundee at the time, which was run by Sir John Leng. The initials of William Tomson’s son David Couper were incorporated into the company’s title, and it has been DC Thomson Co. ever since.

Dundee has become so synonymous with comics that you can even undertake a Master’s Degree in Comics and Graphic Novels at Dundee University, voted Scottish University of the year 2017, and it is the only University to offer such a course. There are also undergraduate modules in comics that you can undertake as part of a wider undergraduate degree. Dundee hosts a ‘comic day’ as part of a larger literary festival and celebration. There are also those who have been greatly inspired by the works of DC Thomson, such as Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot and Frank Quitley, whereas those such as Pat Mills, John Wagner and Grant Morrison actually started their careers at DC Thomson. The impact that DC Thomson has had, not only on Dundee, but on the world of comics and graphic novels is undeniable, and who would have thought that the cheeky characters of the 1930s would have made it into international fame in the 1990s and beyond!

By Ms. Terry Stewart, Freelance Writer. Banner image credit: douglasmack / Shutterstock.com

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