Thursday, June 14, 2012

David Sutherland: Comics Genius, Dundee University, 13th June

Another occasion deserving acknowledgement, to say the least, but I bet you’ve never heard the name. Those most strongly associated with long running Beano cartoon strips The Bash Street Kids and Dennis the Menace, naturally enough, are their creators, Leo Baxendale and David Law, but this year is the 50th anniversary of David Sutherland taking over the reins of Bash Street from a disenchanted Baxendale. He’s been drawing it ever since, and appeared at a Q & A yesterday evening at Dundee University, which has run several D. C. Thomson anniversary-related exhibitions over the last few years (there is even a comics department). Sutherland no longer draws the weekly Dennis the Menace strip, but it was his between 1970 and 1998, and as the event programme notes, ‘Sutherland’s Dennis remains the iconic version’. Certainly for people round about my age, who read The Beano in the ’80s, this is true. Working out who drew what in The Beano was difficult, though, as artists never signed their work, and you had to cross-reference it with signed IPC comic strips to learn which style belonged to, say, Tom Patterson, or Robert Nixon. Sutherland never crossed that divide, and remained anonymous. But his art was The Beano, to a large extent: it was the standard from which others deviated. Not exactly flamboyant, but full of warmth and unexpected detail. His composition of Bash Street Kids scenes is less anarchic than Leo Baxendale’s; they are remarkable for their order and elegance rather than their chaos. Which is a strange compliment to pay a strip about a class of uncontrollable children, but it works: they are built to last.

The idea was that David would draw various Bash Street Kids on a flip chart facing the audience (which meant he had his back to us quite a lot), and that three colleagues would ask him questions about his life and career as he did so. The drawing would distract him from being too embarrassed by the occasion. He was very quietly spoken, but not averse to telling an anecdote or two once the session began, and the audience hung on every word. He asked his wife to cover her ears, and spoke about the time he’d been confronted with a chip pan fire in the kitchen: ‘If I’d remembered what you’re supposed to do, and covered it with a dish cloth, it would have been fine,’ he said, ruefully. Instead he ended up making the fire worse, and in desperation threw the pan out of the back door towards the vegetable patch – but somehow it hit another observer square in the back, and he watched him pelt across the garden as his own forearm was ‘hanging like a glove’. Of more relevance, perhaps (‘Get back to the comics’, requested his wife) was his account of an early job designing themed décor for the foyer of a cinema, in the days before this was franchised, monetised and whatever else. He would cover great panels with jungle foliage, or other backgrounds relating to the film that was showing, and assemble them in situ, creating something like a stage set. Later he described appearing on the TV show Challenge Anneka, and decorating a bus with Beano characters on a similar scale. They offered to put him up at a hotel afterwards, but he wanted to get home, and drove straight back to Dundee, presumably not a short trip.

One of his original characters, I learned with delight, was Olive, the dinner lady from The Bash Street Kids – and she had been based on a tea lady at D. C. Thomson, whose tea was not up to much, and whom Sutherland teased mercilessly on this account (fair enough), before exposing her ineptitude to the nation in the comic (um…). Her only revenge, he said, was to sometimes ‘forget’ to bring any sugar with his tea, ‘so she got her own back’. That’s a good illustration of his modesty, I think: he doesn’t seem aware of his own importance, or if he is, he doesn’t care for it – something else in which he is the anti-Baxendale (not that I’d disparage Baxendale for his self-importance, it was quite justified). He didn’t talk very much about him, but he did speak movingly in appreciation of Dudley D. Watkins, whom he described as an all-rounder in much the same way that others speak of him – both seem to have had the capacity to move easily between a more realistic style of art for adventure stories, and the funny strips for which they are better known. He even mentioned being presented with the strip Watkins was working on when he died, and having to complete the last page drawn by his hero. ‘I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to do – but otherwise there would have been a blank page, it was a very tight schedule.’ Unbelievably matter-of-fact.

It began to seem as though this gentle, retiring man would be able to regale us, with prompting, well on into the evening, having completed only one page of the flip chart in an hour because of all the pesky questions. This page, which he coloured with pastels, contained the shorter Kids – Wilfred and Spotty at the top, and ’Erbert, the short sighted one, lower down looking at a thistle in a pot. ‘Sorry I’m late, Teech’, ran his speech balloon. But the interview section of proceedings drew to a close with the screening – after several attempts at getting sound through speakers, and subsequently under a mild patina of feedback – of a special message recorded by Nick Park, who was glowing in his praise, and hoped David wouldn’t be too overwhelmed by the collection of his work at the accompanying exhibition. Then there were audience questions, including ‘Will you sign my annual?’ from one boy, and ‘What will you do when you’re not allowed to call Fatty Fatty anymore?’ – this speculation on political correctness gone mad being met with a sneak preview of the plot of the strip he’s been drawing this week, in which Fatty takes diet pills, and ends up so thin no-one recognises him, though they’re suspicious of all the things he knows about Bash Street. Then he lets on, but the pills make him so flatulent the kids all throw their sweets at him, and Teech contributes his sandwiches, until finally he’s as fat as ever. Ready for next week, as always.

Oh, and Plug is his favourite Bash Street Kid, and he hates drawing bicycles.


The exhibition of David Sutherland’s drawings will be on until 15th August.

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