Dundee's Finest Export: DCA Thomson

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 29 Nov 2016

Christmas time for many brings with it an Oor Wullie or The Broons annual, comics that are recognisably more Scottish than a saltire soaked in Irn Bru. To celebrate their 80th birthdays, DCA Thomson tasks six artists to explore their archive

For his final show at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Exhibitions Curator Graham Domke conceived of the DCA Thomson exhibition as a paean to Dundee's comic heritage channeled through the warped minds of artists he had already worked with or had wanted to work with while at DCA.

Elaborating on his choice of artists, Domke explains, “Rabiya Choudhry, Rob Churm and Hideyuki Katsumata had all exhibited at DCA previously, and all six artists are playful and spirited  in their responses to comic characters they grew up with, who they were shaped by.” In terms of timing, the 80th anniversary of the beloved comic characters works perfectly as a final tribute to the city of Dundee. “DC Thomson is so evocative of what makes Dundee tick.” 

For painter Rabiya Choudhry, she knew straight away she’d work with The Numskulls. “[They] never really left me since I was a kid.  I’ve always thought about the Numskulls when I’ve made work... those wee voices in your head saying this is amazing or this is terrible. So they’re always characterised by these little people.”

Given freedom to take the DC Thomson materials and run with them, Choudhry’s made them into something more peanut-like, with possible references to people she knows. In another painting, the Numskulls are the vehicles for bringing in the band Suicide’s song Dream Baby. “I was always gonna have teeth that spelled ‘suicide’ [in this painting]”, says Choudhry. “It just seemed apt when I heard it in Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation documentary and he ended with that song – it just seemed perfect.”

Also exhibiting, Hideyuki Katsumata has early memories too of growing up in Japan with Dennis the Menace. “I had some pins and T-shirts when I was in my teens. They're my young memories of UK punk rock. Sometimes now I draw red and black border knits when I draw rock kids.” For the show, Katsumata will include DC Thomson cartoons that he has painted over, as well as his own new drawings.

When asked if there’s anything similar to DC Thomson in Japan, he starts “Maybe …” before deciding “No, DC Thomson is an original style. … Someday, I want to make a cartoon for DC Thomson.”

When Choudhry first visited the archives, she went along with co-exhibitors Rob Churm and Sofia Sita. “For me it was gonna be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was really a quite surreal experience. The archivist said he almost thought of it like The Numskulls and the art store was like the memory store. They really care about everything they've produced and they have examples of everything they’ve made.

“For me I feel really honoured to have seen it in a really natural state. You don’t know what you’re going to pick up. At one point I asked about some reels, and the guy gave me the box to go through, saying ‘That’s just an original artwork from the Bananaman cartoons.’ So I went through original hand painted stills from the Bananaman cartoons. They had a videotape in there that still had the plastic on it. It felt like a time capsule. There’s two bits and you go upstairs, and everything looks really glossy, and it looks really professional; then there’s the art store. That’s where the party is.

“I asked the archivist, 'Do you have all the toys you used to get?' and they did, it’s nuts. Honestly if feels like a dream come true.”

Archive Manager David Powell has been introducing each artist to the collections: “In some cases, their research has been almost forensic – looking in minute detail as to how pen lines were drawn, brush marks made and even the physical dimensions of the original art work. “

For Edinburgh-based cartoonist Malcy Duff, this was exactly the information he set out to find. “I went in with a very specific mission in mind, that being to see in the flesh some of the original pages that Dudley Watkins made in 1936. Seeing some of Watkins' painted works for Topper was very special.  They felt personal in a way that the Broons strips didn’t. That intricate detail and love in the paint work... hinting at the person behind the brush.” For the exhibition, Duff will be including The Pineapple Reading Area with his own drawn responses to cartoons from the archive.

He makes clear though, “The comics probably couldn’t be less like mine, so instead of looking for connections, I just plunged into differences, like walking into a stranger’s home and putting my head in their fridge.”

For Craig Coulthard, he saw a connection to his own work through a shared “attempt to communicate ideas through creative means.” Like the others, close looking at the marks and lines was important for him. “To be able to get a little closer to the actual creative process that went into the hand drawn comics was a real treat. To be able to sense the hand moving, to experience some of the work before the printing stage, really allowed me to feel a closeness with the artists.”

Coulthard has focused on the Commando comic. “I have made a series of drawings based on original panels... The drawings are split into two groups of eight, loosely termed 'explosions' and 'talking heads'. I have inserted new text into the drawings which deal with some of the realities of soldierly life.” He’s also commissioned the highly respected comic artist and Commando cover illustrator Ian Kennedy to make a new painting, and Coulthard will include a video of Kennedy making the work.

Further surprising and unexpected takes on the DC Thomson legacy have come out from the project, like Dundee-based artist Sofia Sita’s artwork The Dundonians. Inspired by The Broons, Sita thinks of every kind of family, and will include 25 digital illustrations of selfies taken by individuals, flatmates, colleagues and neighbours in front of her living room scene mural painted outside the gallery. “I really hope visitors will enjoy getting involved with my work and that they'll have fun and share memories and stories as a big family should do.”

Between the artists, there’s more excitement about the show than a Beano Fan Club meet. From Coulthard rooting through charity shops in West Germany, Katsumata with Dennis the Menace pins in Japan or Choudhry just recently finding out about a character Sparky through local car boot sale finds, DC Thomson’s still going strong. For Choudhry it’s been a constant teacher: “Whenever I thought about drawing as a kid, [it was through] a lot of the references in the cartoons. You know the way Billy Whizz used to draw speed… [and] I still think like that. I think in a really cartoon, Beano-like way. I think I am 60-70% Beano anyway.”

DCA Thomson runs from 2 Dec 2016 to 19 Feb 2017 http://dca.org.uk