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It's laldie time!

Scotland and the Comic Books

It's a familiar story: the vast popularity of Walter Scott helped promulgate the visualisation of Scotland as Romantic landscape, wild seascape or urban or Gothic cityscape. This process was well underway in paintings of the nineteenth century and the images associated with the country entered popular consciousness often with little regard for the material conditions of the people living here. Yet the portrayal of familiar places is a crucial act of self-determination and affirmation. Every naming is an act that helps build self-confidence.

Scots Quair cover imageIn the twentieth century, in literature, there was a period that seemed to favour anonymity of location and abandonment of local languages. To succeed, to write well and be read internationally, one must use English and not refer to Scottish places. So some said. Despite the valiant work of Hugh MacDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and others, that ethos prevailed with some London publishers after the Second World War well into the 1980s. The more recent global readership for Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead demonstrates how things have changed, but of course, there's always more to do. Although there are some brilliant instances, the general ethos with screen media is conservative, relying on familiar formulae. Taggart prevails while the classic television versions of A Scots Quair, Andrina and The House with the Green Shutters are in TV oblivion or treasured on bootleg videos. Why can't they be properly available in boxed set DVDs, rather than yet another Jane Austen or Dickens Christmas special or endless American sitcoms? There would surely be a ready market for them in teaching.

Where does Scotland in the comic books fit in this story?

Let's take that question to include comic strips in newspapers and what are now called Graphic Novels – a rather posh and pretentious term but one that serves to remind us that we shouldn't be snooty about how effective comic books can be to help people to read. At some stages it doesn't matter what you're reading, so long as you're reading. And these days good reading itself might seem a threatened activity.

We could start with the zany genius of Bud Neill's Lobey Dosser, who sits on his two-legged horse El Fideldo on the south side of Woodlands Road in Glasgow, in a perennially startling statue – the only two-legged equestrian statue in the world. Lobey Dosser (angice: lobey as in lobby, close-mouth, entranceway to a block of flats; dosser as in homeless person, one who sleeps on park benches) was a diminutive Glasgow man of the rough diamond variety whose adventures were set in and around the town of Calton Creek, an amalgamation of Glasgow and Tombstone, Arizona. This was colonisation in reverse. Once upon a time in the west of Scotland, indeed. The strips were published in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in the late 1940s and 1950s, immediately after the Second World War and its legacy of American troops in and near Glasgow is evident in the character of the GI bride, with her baby, always looking for a lift from the centre of town to Partick. They were published in collected editions in the 1990s and were popular Christmas presents.

What Bud Neill was doing in these strips was extraordinarily sharp. Taking a vocabulary and set of locations from vastly different sources and mixing them up: Glasgow music-hall comedy, Hollywood western cowboy films, contemporary Glasgow and environs, and a cast of characters who never become so familiar that they can't do unexpected things.

Oor Wullie Annual 2009 cover imageAt the other end of the spectrum, we could consider Oor Wullie and The Broons, stalwarts of The Sunday Post, and complementary topographies: the first inhabited by a solitary youngster, a wee boy up to all sorts of affectionate mischief, the second by a family of astonishing variety. Admittedly, Paw and Granpaw are identical but for the elder's impressive beard, daughter Daphne is physically clearly her mother's daughter, and the twins are identical, but none of the others resemble each other at all: brothers Hen (long and skinny) and Joe (square-jawed and down-to-earth), scholarly school swot Horace, the fashion-conscious daughter Maggie, and the bairn, whose unruly mop of curly hair suggests both the child-filmstar Shirley Temple and the wayward genetic inheritance of Granpaw's beard.

The mythic figurations these two long-running comic strips embody are winning formulae: the lonely adventurer and the loosely assembled group. The child who sets out and the family to which we always return. Tarzan and the Wild Bunch. Variations within strict limits have helped Oor Wullie and The Broons to survive for generations and the D.C. Thomson publishing industry of which it is part remains an extensive empire, with publications appealing to people throughout the world. At the Modern Language Association convention in December 2008 in San Francisco, the poet Gerry Cambridge and I took a few hours off from reading our poems to our 12,000 or so scholarly colleagues and went for a drive to the John Muir woods. Buying our tickets for the bus, an Indian woman in front of us turned and asked, 'You are Scottish?' Affirmative. She beamed. 'Ah! Wonderful! Oor Wullie! The Broons!' And in New Zealand, I remember that Taggart's popularity was surpassed only by Braveheart. The question is, how do we represent ourselves internationally? These homegrown examples are one answer. Could we do better? [...]

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