Dudley Dexter Watkins was born in Manchester, England on 27 February 1907. His first illustrated work was published in the 1920s when working for the famous British chemists, Boots, in their in-house magazine, the Beacon. He then came to the attention of famous Scottish publishers DC Thomson who offered him some illustration work on their magazines. In 1925, Watkins moved to Dundee, where DC Thomson were based, a move that proved to be his making. Initially, Watkins worked on boys' papers produced by the company, adding occasional illustrations to the prose strips within, but his skill as a cartoonist was soon noted, and he began working on comic strips from 1933, when he was given the task of producing the Rover Midget Comic, a free giveaway for the Rover boys' adventure paper. Its success saw Watkins asked to produce the Skipper Midget Comic soon after, and then an ongoing "filler strip", Percy Vere and his Trying Tricks, in Adventure.
In 1935 DC Thomson's managing editor, RD Low, decided to produce an eight page comic aimed at younger readers for the weekly newspaper published by the company, the Sunday Post. The first edition of this "Fun Section" appeared in the Sunday Post on 8 March 1936 and featured stories drawn by Watkins that still appear in the newspaper to this very day - Oor Wullie and The Broons.
The Broons were allegedly based on RD Low's own family and contained an extraordinary range of characters, all of whom (bar grandpa) seemed to live in a small Glasgow flat, reflecting the working class lives of many Scots at the time. There was Pa and Ma Broon and their huge brood of children - Hen, Joe, Maggie and Daphne (the adult children), Horace, the twins and the bairn (the younger children) - as well as the aforementioned Grandpa.
Oor Wullie could be seen as a precursor of famous British strips such as Dennis the Menace, being about a young rascal and his adventures around town (or 'toon'). Wullie, as you can see from the illustration, often began and ended the strip by sitting in his yard on his beloved bucket, once again reflecting the austerity of the times.
Despite the fact that Watkins was English, both strips were presented with characters who talked in broad Scottish accents, introducing idiosyncratic phrases like 'Jings!' and 'Help ma boab!' to a wider audience. To a non-Scottish newcomer it may take a while to get used to the cadences of the strips, but it's worth the effort.
Although Watkins drew both strips, his style was slightly different for each. Typically Oor Wullie had five rows of panels, whilst The Broons had four, Oor Wullie was perhaps aimed at a younger audience and often contained four or five (or more) minute panels per row. The Broons often contained seven panels in a strip - three rows of two panels, with the bottom row being one large panel - the punchline, so to speak. These panels reflected Watkins' desire to have as many of the family involved, doing different things in each panel.
Whilst these strips were, and remain, incredibly popular, Watkins' finest hour was yet to come.
The Dandy and the Beano
Following on from the success of Oor Wullie and the Broons, DC Thomson decided to publish a comic aimed at boys and girls in 1937, featuring stories like those in the Sunday Post. On 4 December 1937, the first issue of the Dandy hit the stands. Whilst Korky the Cat was the cover star, inside the paper, Dudley D Watkins drew the strip that was to become the most iconic character of the comic - Desperate Dan.
Desperate Dan was a cowboy who lived in Cactusville, a weird amalgamation of the Wild West and modern Britain. Dan was presented as an incredible strong man, perhaps not the brightest of individuals, who was unfazed by most situations. His favourite meal was cow pie that he often devoured by the dozen, such was his appetite. Although he appeared a fiercesome character, at least initially, this was tempered somewhat by the fact that he lived with his mild mannered aunt Aggie and often had adventures with his nephew Danny and niece Katey, both of whom had the extraordinary Dan jawline.
Whilst Dan still appears in the Dandy today (now renamed Dandy Extreme), he is a very different character to that which Watkins drew. Despite drawing a comic aimed at the under 10s, Dan was allowed to carry guns and smoke pipes, things not allowed in today's comics. On the other hand, a lot of the early Desperate Dan stories contained some quite offensive racial stereotypes that are probably best forgotten about.
Having three iconic strips under his belt was not enough for Watkins. When the most famous of all British comics, the Beano, first appeared on 26 July 1938, Watkins drew a strip called 'Lord Snooty', about a young lad called Marmaduke, Earl of Bunkerton. Despite being brought up in a castle, Snooty (the nickname reflecting his status) preferred to spend time with his working class friends, the Trash Can Alley gang.