In Review: David Sutherland – Comics Genius Exhibition and Talk

The University Of Dundee has presented some unique comics events and exhibitions over the last five or six years under the auspices of Dr Chris Murray of the School of Humanities and Mathew Jarron of the University’s Museum Services. At the request of the local community festival, West Fest 2012, this year they took on an exhibition of the work of, and a talk and Q&A session with, an artist who, despite working for decades on some of the best known British humour comic characters, is not that well known himself.

David Sutherland took on art duties for The Bash Street Kids in 1962 when their artistic creator, Leo Baxendale, left DC Thomson’s Beano to work on Odham’s Wham!, and fifty years later he is still drawing the same characters week in, week out for The Beano. In addition to Danny and his gang from Class IIb, he has also illustrated Beano cover stars Dennis The Menace and Biffo The Bear.

Located in Dundee University’s Tower Building, the Baxter Suite has recently become a dedicated exhibition space for the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS) based at the University. The exhibition consisted of around 20 pieces of original artwork, both colour and black and white, sourced from the DC Thomson archive mainly covering The Bash Street Kids and Dennis The Menace. The university has previously used the Lamb Gallery for these sort of exhibitions which is a much smaller space and, while the number of pages on display was similar to the number on display for, say, the Beano 70th Birthday exhibition in 2008, the large Baxter Suite did feel a little empty in comparison. However as people started to gather for the talk on the evening of 13 June 2012, the room began to fill-up.

Chris Murray introduced David Sutherland to the stage along with Beano editors Euan Kerr, Alan Digby and Iain McLoughlin and, as David took his pencils to the flip chart, Euan (above left) began to describe David’s life and career with David initially adding a few comments as he drew various “Bashers” and then longer recollections as he relaxed into the format of the evening.

David Sutherland was born in Invergordon, Ross-shire in 1933, and attended Glasgow School of Art. After National Service in Egypt, and working for an advertising agency in Glasgow, he began working for DC Thomson in 1959 illustrating adventure strips for The Beano including The Great Flood of London, Danny on a Dolphin and Billy the Cat. Since 1962 he has illustrated over 2000 Bash Street Kids strips in the weekly comic as well as in annuals and summer specials.

In 1969, after the death of Dudley D Watkins, he was asked by then Beano editor, Harry Cramond, to finish the page of Biffo The Bear page that Watkins had started. Initially reticent to complete the work begun by the man that he considered to be the best all round comic artist ever, David would go on to illustrate the Biffo strip for the next 25 years while, in 1970, he also took over the art chores on Dennis The Menace from Dennis’ artistic creator David Law when he took ill. Biffo was displaced from The Beano’s cover by Dennis in 1974 and David was the artist on the strip as Dennis became the comic’s most popular character with his run on the strip lasting 28 years until 1998.

With various DC Thomson editors, writers and artists in the audience, as well as the Beano editors on stage, there was no shortage of comments and other reminiscences from them as David paused to recall something from decades before beforehand or to finish off a particular character sketch. The university even had a video message from Aardman animator Nick Park expressing his love of and appreciation for David’s work. Indeed with his colleagues as well as his wife and one of his daughters in the audience, the friendly atmosphere seemed to help the reminiscences flow and we heard not just about his work for DC Thomson but also how his daughters had developed an eye for good artwork in The Beano, how his wife had to wash shirts with Indian ink on the sleeves, and how he had almost killed Beano editor Harry Cramond by throwing a flaming chip pan at him – not deliberately of course, as he was at pains to point out.

The evening ended with a selection of questions from the audience followed by a choice of wine and soft drinks as the attendees got the chance to examine the selection of artwork on display, chat to the participants and, for a lucky few, get quick sketches from David himself.

For someone who has probably never spoken about his career in front of an audience before, David Sutherland was a delight to listen to, sometimes thoughtful, often funny, always animated and it was a real treat to get the opportunity to watch him draw his familiar and beloved characters.

This was the second comic art exhibition in the University’s Baxter Suite, the first being the launch exhibition for UniVerse’s Anthology One publication, and it was the first comics event there open to the public. While there were a few minor technical hitches to amuse the audience, the evening worked well and its success can hopefully be used as a blueprint to entice other DC Thomson creators to talk about their careers in front of an audience there in the future.

The exhibition of David Sutherland’s artwork remains open in the Baxter Suite, room 1.36 of the Tower Building, until 15 August 2012 and is free. The corridor outside the Suite also has a selection of original comic artwork by other artists on display including pages from Dudley D Watkins, Roland Davies, Ken Reid, Elizabeth Stott, Gary Erskine, Henry Flint and Colin MacNeil.

There are more details of the David Sutherland: Comics Genius exhibition on the University of Dundee Museum Services website which includes the exhibitions reduced summer opening hours.

There are more details of the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies and comics studies in general at the University Of Dundee at the university’s website.

There are more details of West Fest on the West Fest 2012 website.

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