Comics And The City
On the 16th September The University of Dundee hosted ‘Comics and the City’, an event celebrating the rich comics’ history of Dundee which aimed to address the roles the comics’ community and indeed the wider media had to play in the ongoing renovation of the city. The event was led by four speakers from various different backgrounds, Dr Chris Murray, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department of Dundee at the University who leads the Comics Studies courses in the School of Humanities, Phillip Vaughan, a lecturer at Duncan of and Jordanstone Art College who also teaches comics and runs the Animation Masters, John Gray of the Dundee Council Public Arts Department, and Professor Deborah Peel, a lecturer in Town Planning also at the University of Dundee. Each speaker provided their own thoughts and ideas on the impact of comics and why they continue to be such an important part of Dundee’s culture. The event was organised by Matthew Jarron who works within the University’s Museum Services and was designed to coincide with the art exhibition Jim Petrie: Minnie the Minx and More – which ran from 11th June to the 11th September 2015.
The talks began with Dr Chris Murray who noted the pivotal role Dundee has played in comics’ history, saying that the city is ‘the beating heart of British production and has been for a long time.’ Indeed the statues of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx in the city centre serve as a – constant reminder – of this history. Although Dundee is often regarded as a relatively small city he notes that many key figures worked in Dundee. In the 1930s DC Thomson were approached by Joe Shuster, a co-creator of Superman, who was looking for work prior to selling Superman to National Periodicals (later to become DC Comics). DC Thomson replied saying that they preferred to rather cultivate local talent. Dr Murray argued that this showed that DC Thomson had close connections with American publishers and comics creators, and pondered what would have happened if the ‘Man of Steel’ had become the ‘Man of Jute.’ He then went onto talk about brothers Bill and Jock McCaill, who worked with DC Thomsons in the 1920s and the comics’ studio they later set up in the heart of the city, coincidentally just next to where the statues are now a centrepiece. Dr Murray then returned to his discussion on the superhero noting that although DC Thomson rejected Superman they instead created their own superhero, The Amazing Mr X, which ran for 14 instalments in The Dandy from 1944. Dr Murray argued that although American superheroes began to be reprinted in Britain that Mr X was the first British Superhero and was ‘a much more down to earth character’ than his American counterparts. This is not to say that Britain took a separate route from the US, as discussed earlier there were many links between the two. Dr Murray went onto talk about Len Fullerton, another leading creator who worked in the American style on popular adventure comics such as ‘Argo under the Ocean’ and ‘Derickson Dene’ before his eventual retirement from comics to pursue a career in Nature artwork in Dundee.
Dr Murray concluded his talk by discussing present ventures within the Dundee Comics community and future aims for the industry and the role it may play in shaping Dundee, noting that much can be learned from the past, often forgotten history of Dundee and comics. He noted that in October 2015 the Dundee Comics Creative Space will open, and will act both as a designated area for comics’ creators to work and as a public space for the community to use, hopefully bringing comics to a wider audience. He then listed various other ongoing comics’ activities in Dundee such as Treehouse Comics Publishing, the comics’ creator Monty Nero widely known for his cult classic Death Sentence, John Ferguson’s Saltire and may other works created both in and out-with comics studies at the University. Dr Murray himself spoke of how Dundee’s rich comics’ history also contributed greatly to his own work and that his most recent comics project = tips its hat to many forgotten British comics’ characters. He has even created a superhero named Alpha, with art by Comics Studies graduate Norrie Millar, which pays homage to Fullerton’s character. Dr Murray ended his talk by stating that his hope is that learning more about the rich history of comics in Dundee will inspire a new generation to become involved in creating comics.
The second talk was given by Phillip Vaughan who began his talk by agreeing with Dr Murray that the University – works very closely with DC Thomson – and that even out with the comics company Dundee has been the place where many famous comics characters, including Judge Dredd, have been created. Vaughan continued to note that although Dundee has a very strong connection with comics it too is highly involved with other mediums such as film and gaming. He then questioned why this was – why is Dundee is a hotbed for these different mediums? He put the answer partly down to the creation of the ZX Spectrum at Timex, a computing system that fell into the hands of the youth, including Phillip, who were able to use the device to practice programming and quickly developed their skills. Even the relatively basic ZX Spectrum proved that the relationship between comics and gaming was closely interconnected. Vaughan reminisced on playing early superhero games on the computing system. Indeed many game companies were originally based in the city, he notes that the most famous example ‘Grand Theft Auto [is] probably the biggest game franchise in the world and was created in the technology park in Dundee.’ He returned to his point about the connection between comics and gaming saying that in the new digital age many companies are expanding their industries into new technology such as mobile gaming. For example DC Thomson’s has recently renovated its website including new online interactive games for its viewers to enjoy. Similarly Vaughan mentioned working on a Superman mobile game that went to #1 in the gaming charts. With the introduction of mobile applications gaming is becoming ‘much more immediate now.’ Vaughan continued by saying that there are lots of game studios in Dundee; many are small projects of two or three people that take on a very hands-on approach to their creations.
At the end of his talk Vaughan showed a showreel of work by his 2015 animation graduates that highlighted just how diverse and talented many of the students coming out of the course are. Many of these students also collaborate with those on the Comics’ Studies and most of the graduates shown on the video have ended up working in London. He finished by saying that the key to Dundee’s development is to keep these young creative minds in the city. The culture is changing and Vaughan stated that these smaller projects need to rise to the challenge against multinational corporations that have so far controlled the majority of these mixed mediums (ie. Lucasfilms/DC Comics/Marvel).
Vaughan concluded by focusing on what he believed the future held for the city saying that Dundee was in the heart of this new wave of change. With the rise of digital comics and more immediate forms of entertainment the key to these up and coming developments is to get engaged and involved in the creation of these tools. He ended on the remark that ‘we are in a great place at the moment. I don’t think there has been a better time to be involved in the media industry in Dundee.’
The next speaker, John Gray discussed the role Public Art has on the city and how comics played a significant role on past developments, and may well do in and future ones. Gray began his talk by discussing his arrival to Dundee in 1982, at the time he was part of a Public Art Program ‘Action Blackness’, a three year program intended to try and renovate the city centre to keep businesses within Dundee. Throughout the project Gray discussed meeting and talking with lots of people and what they thought of the city and what they wanted out of the project. Even in those early years many people had requested comic characters to be part of the renovation. At the time the program was unsure of the request, Gray noted that both he and his peers wanted to be taken seriously and they were hesitant to use comics within their project. Eventually, they trialled a statue of Alistair Smart’s Sharks Teeth that featured Oor Willie on its design, and it became very quickly popular, so it seemed there was room for more comics’ creations to be celebrated throughout the city. The High Street pedestrianisation was officially completed in 1993 with the city centre renovated to include new street icons, furnishings and the Dundee Dragon statue. Yet despite this, Gray noted that Dundee still had a serious image problem and its citizens were still buzzing for change. This raised the question of what more could be done to improve the city.
The council proceeded to go through a line of artists, originally wishing to create a monument in an allocated public space within the city square but were not enamoured by any of the designs and instead choose to leave the space empty for the public to use as they saw fit. Gray mentions Gordon Reid, the then City Centre Manager, who was very keen on doing something with the DC Thomson characters. Gray joked that if Reid had his way the comic characters would be everywhere in the city. Originally Tony Morrow (Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx’s statue designer) had an idea for a statue commemorating The Broons. It was to feature eleven of The Broons characters lined up at bus stops near the McManus Galleries. However, after discussion the project was deemed too big and too expensive to manage and was let go. In its place, Tony then suggested the idea of Desperate Dan and along the way Minnie the Minx was later added into the mix. The project got the go ahead it needed and Tony began work on the character design. However, nearing the end of its completion an engineer came to assess the model and said that it would need another form of support for it to be safe, thus the character of Dawg was also added to the striding figure of Dan.
The statues proved a fantastic success and received a grand opening in front of hundreds of people and various TV stations. DC Thomson commemorated the event by placing the event within the weekly feature of Desperate Dan’s comic in The Dandy. In addition to the Desperate Dan statue in the centre of the city, the Public Art department have more recently added a smaller Lemmings design on the Perth Road paying homage to the rich gaming history that the city also shares, and which Vaughan had previously addressed.
Gray concluded his talk with a tease to the council’s next project. He noted that it will again feature another of DC Thomson’s comics’ characters. (Watch this space, we may very well be gathering again soon to discuss this future comics’ project!)
The talks were rounded up by Professor Deborah Peel who discussed comics in relation to Town Planning. She began by describing the powerful impact DC Thomson has all over the UK, not just in Dundee, as she recalled reading both The Dandy and The Beano as a child growing up in Cornwall. Indeed she noted that Dundee has always had the creative ideas but finding the space and environment for these to work has long been the problem. When she arrived in Dundee in the 1990s, as John Gray previously mentioned, the city was in the middle of a renovation. However in the decade beforehand Dundee was very much a city in decline.
Peel continued by commenting that the transformation of a city has various phases and she laid out a three plan guide to how Dundee needs to be reimagined highlighting that regeneration, representation and future place-making are the keys to the success of the city’s reimaging. Peel commented that these types of transformations have a way of bringing people together saying that even in relation to the event hosted. Prior to it she stated she had never met her work colleagues (Dr Murray/ Phillip Vaughn) but acknowledged that the University is ‘incredibly interdisciplinary’ and offers great opportunities for different schools and subjects to connect.
Peel showed a quote given in The Guardian (22/6/2015) saying ‘Dundee; from black sheep of Scottish cities to a “living cultural experiment”’. The quote summarises the new atmosphere of the city, it feels very much that we are on the brink of a new age of exciting redevelopment. Indeed Peel noted that with the arrival of the ship The Discovery Dundee became, like the ship’s namesake, ‘the city of discovery’ but no longer are we as a city, just defined by one symbol. Instead, our more prosperous tagline now reads ‘one city, many discoveries’ as Dundee begins to acknowledge all it has to offer. The city’s comic legacy plays an important role in the re-imaging of Dundee. Already it has featured predominately in the various renovations of the city such as the city’s font, the various public statues and on public transportation.
Professor Peel finished with what is next for the city. She too showed a video clip, the content of which shows a study of people enjoying public spaces in what is known as ‘fun theory’. A train station renovated their stairs by turning them into a musical keyboard, this in turn made 66% more people take the stairs rather than use the escalator. Comics by nature are a playful media and her hopes are that Dundee is able to do similar experimental things with the new layout of the city so that it can become a playful and interactive area for both citizens and tourists to enjoy.
Q & A
The event ended with a section of questioning in which the audience raised their opinions on the talks discussed. The first question focused predominantly on Vaughan’s view of gaming and film, he was asked whether the next stop would be to bring these bigger projects to our doorstep?
Vaughan responded by noting that Dundee is currently in talks concerning the development of a film studio, as has been the subject of much discussion in the local press, but the city historically tends to be overlooked in favour of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The primary problem is money and where it comes from to fund the big ideas that many have for the city. He concluded by saying that many are behind the idea of a film studio, such as the University’s rector Brian Cox who is pushing for Dundee to be the location for the new planned area. Professor Peel added to the conversation saying that Dundee City Council is in the middle of its main issues report and that there is indeed lots of empty space available for use that could potentially be turned into the film studios. Vaughan concluded his response by saying that when visiting London the big companies there were surprised that Dundee did not have its own studio considering that many of the students now working for them originated in Dundee.
The next question asked was – how do you see the V & A impacting Dundee?
Dr Murray responded by saying that he hoped it would have a positive impact and that it would draw attention and tourists to the city. However he continues that although the museum is an interesting start it is not enough. He too says that on his travels to various international conventions many people ask him why Dundee does not have its own comic’s museum considering its rich comics history. This led onto the question of what goes next to the V&A, another project that may prove equally prosperous. Although this issue has still not been decided, it seems that many of the citizens are eager to have their say on the matter and want to use the space to promote independent companies while avoiding the problem of pushing local artists and projects out of this space due to rising costs.
The third question asked was ‘How difficult do you find it to convince Dundonians of this vision?’
The speaker noted that many of his friends on hearing of this extravagant redevelopment were at first very sceptical instead wishing for money to be pushed into jobs and education. However, it is clear to see as the changes take shape that more and more people are taking an interest in the project. Everyone agreed however that if the reshaping of the city was to be a success it would need the citizens to be equally engaged in the process. This seems to be the case though as the V&A from the onset has openly wished to engage with the local community. This is also true of the Comics Creative Space opening next month which promises to also have community values at the heart of its goals. If the community are given the opportunities to engage with city art and projects then they most certainly will (as seen for example in the past with the clothing of the Steeple penguin statues.)
The final question posed problem of tourism and asked ‘How does Dundee create a tourist package?’
Professor Peel noted that this must be done on both a strategic and practical level.
The event overall addressed just how proud a city Dundee is and how dearly many of its citizens hold our cultural history, in particular the strong links to comics. However, whilst celebrating the past the talk seemed to focus on the potential of future developments to effect change. Dundee is a city full of creative minds eager to showcase their talents; just as the face of the city changes so too must the people behind it. If we can find a way to hold on to the new, exciting talent coming through our universities and colleges then Dundee can build upon its past and become a credible force in the new age of technological advancement. Yet no matter how we look into the future, either with hope or apprehension, the local community will be able to proudly look upon the striding figure of Desperate Dan as he confidentially guides us into the future.