Dundee is known for the three J’s – Jam, Jute and Journalism, but I’ll make the case for a fourth: Joy.
From the 1940s until the 2000’s, the Dandy and Beano comics were must reads for British kids. The publisher DC Thomson backed them up with a host of more gender specific titles such as Bunty, Jackie, Commando and in Scotland, The Broons and Oor Wullie. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of these joyful and much beloved creations DC Thomson have given six Scottish artists access to their archive and commissioned them to produce artistic responses. There isn’t much joy in it.
Rabiya Choudhry’s interpretation of The Numskulls’ replaces the wee technicians that live inside a human head with members of her own family. Her usual colourful style is a good fit with the source material, despite the prominent appearance of the word ’suicide’. Japanese artist Hideyuki Katsumata has combined his early memories of Dennis the Menace with his love of punk music (the common factor is red and black striped jumpers). He paints over Dennis and Walter Softly, replacing their heads with weird monsters. Glasgow artist Rob Churm has selected the lesser known Jonah strip, written by Ken Reid, in which an incompetent sailor’s mishaps inevitably result in the sinking of his own ship. Churm draws parallels between the inevitable failures of this doomed character and its Reid’s worsening personal problems.
Craig Coulthard has created a series of drawings inspired by Commando, the weekly magazine dedicated to heroic war stories. Coulthard has taken gung-ho scenes from the comic and re-captioned them with text from what looks like MoD literature about post traumatic stress. The juxtaposition is clever and effective, and surprising to see considering its apparent criticism of Commando’s glorification of war. DC Thomson should either be praised for allowing it in the show, or they didn’t notice. Coulthard also commissioned Commando cover illustrator Ian Kennedy to make a new painting of an explosion. The process is captured in a fascinating video as the elderly Kennedy creates slowly, and with great care, an image of destruction. Coulthard’s is by far the strongest ‘response’ to the DCT archive. The others are embarrassingly weak.
You are invited to read Edinburgh artist Malcy Duff’s response – his own comic, Pineapple – while sitting on a white cube printed with the words ‘plastic bucket’, just like Oor Wullie himself might (if he’d been to art school). Duff’s comic devolves the Broon family into a bunch of inhuman abstractions then combines them somehow (and for no obvious reason) with the Dunmore Pineapple. It’s a confusing exercise and one that irritates rather than enlightens. Italian illustrator Sofia Sita has reworked 24 photographs submitted by DCA visitors, redrawing the sitters in primary colours and – inspired by The Broons (apparently) – posed them on identical sofas. Badly drawn, poorly printed and cheaply framed, Sita’s piece looks like a sixth form end of term show.
Although the children I saw in the DCA were enjoying the bright colours and the freedom to run around the vast (and shockingly wasted) exhibition floor, their parents seemed, like me, disappointed to see the icons of their childhoods psycho-analysed rather than celebrated. With nearly a century of archive material to choose from, this exhibition reflects very little of the colour and fun that made DC Thomson famous. The smattering of original artworks included in this exhibition are beautiful and highlight the skill and unpretentious wit of the original cartoonists. I would rather have seen more of the archive than these attempts to intellectualise a medium that is by definition absurd, funny and joy-full.
DC Thomson at Dundee Contemporary Arts runs from 3rd Dec 2016 – 19th Feb 2017