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.
In 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.
At 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?
The Broons prompted a homegrown and happily scabrous response in Alan Grant’s The Greens, a vividly colourful strip with identifiably Broons-like characters taken to science-fiction extremes of caricature. In one episode (in issue number 6, 2002, of the magazine Northern Lightz), while Granpaw’s aged debilities make particularly pungent expression from his nether regions, the twins, playing with the gas pipes, bring about an explosion that triggers a nuclear catastrophe at Faslane, leaving a disconsolate God to shake his head in disbelief and mutter, ‘Sixty-five billion years that took me …’.
Northern Lightz (advertised on its front cover as being aimed at people aged 18 and over, an ‘Adult Comic Book’) was generally pro-law reform regarding cannabis, but whatever one’s judgement about drugs and the law there is undoubtedly a very simple aesthetic and cultural pleasure to be had from the cover of issue no. 4 (2001), modelled on the famous cover image of the Belgian Hergé’s Tin Tin adventure of The Black Island (1938). The cover of the Tin Tin story has the intrepid boy journalist in kilt and tam o’ shanter toorie, standing in a small boat with his back to us, steering, hand on the stick of the outboard motor. Tin Tin’s face is averted – he’s staring at the castle on the black island on the horizon, where he’s heading, while his wee dog Snowy stands in the bow of the boat, ears blown back by the wind, face turned to the viewer with a look of trepidation and an expression that says, ‘What sort of mess is he getting me into this time?’ By contrast, the Northern Lightz cover has four red-faced kilted ruffians in lurid kilts and toories, smoking appropriate substances, drinking from bottles of whisky and cans of beer (discarded empties tossed in the waves), all facing out towards the viewer, rowing towards the dark castle on its island on the horizon in a small boat marked ‘Property of Clan MacBam’. The childish humour seems an aptly irreverent counterpoint to the pieties and stereotypes implicitly endorsed by Hergé.
A more extended development that deserves closer study is Alan Grant’s series centred on the character of Archibald ‘Middenface’ McNulty, who featured in the 2000 AD comic series Strontium Dog and had a long-running series in the Judge Dredd Megazine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Set in 22nd century Scotland, after radioactive fallout has created an underclass of mutant anarchists, Middenface is at the centre of various battles against the establishment, fanatics of various kinds and authority figures, so the action format takes us to various different recognisable locations in Scotland (including Harthill Service Station), and makes reference to numerous texts from popular culture and contemporary politics. The villains are led by the genocidal Sir William ‘Stinking Billy’ Cumberland who eventually blows up the Scottish Parliament Building (which is still being paid for).
As satire on current Scottish politics, the series was rambling but keen-edged and no targets were taboo. As satire on representations of Scotland in popular media, the humour was a welcome avalanche of uninhibited riot: for example, the story entitled Brigadoom took the Hollywood musical Brigadoon and transformed its misty romantic village into a dystopia inhabited by the legendary Sawney Bean and his band of cannibals, who habitually and unexpectedly break into song.
The prospect of an engaged political satire in a self-consciously absurd science fiction format, uninhibited about violence and outrageous narrative leaps but cleverly engaged by contemporary political and public personalities and healthily disdainful of the clichéd representations of Scotland in popular and mass media is engaging and more could be done with it. As a means of drawing attention to and exercising the skills of storytelling, visual depiction, engaging with political figures and major issues of the day, it’s probably true to say that more use could be made of the graphic art medium than has been attempted.
There are other versions of Scotland in more familiar comic book series. Batman has visited Scotland a number of times. His character as a solitary figure whose dedication to crime-fighting was initiated by the murder of his parents suggests his resemblance to what Oor Wullie might be if he grew up looking for justice after The Broons had been murdered. The most memorable visit was in Batman: Scottish Connection (1998), written and drawn by two Scots, Alan Grant and Frank Quitely. Bruce Wayne attends an ancestral family reunion at Edinburgh Castle and announces that some of his ancestors were indeed Scottish – perhaps also echoing the notion that his creator Bob Kane gave him the name Bruce because of the stories of courage and dedication he had imbibed as a boy, told to him about Robert the Bruce. The story includes a major exposition of the Highland Clearances and opens up questions about fanatic nationalism, national superiorism and inferiorism, as well as the values of self-determination and the moral commitment to protect the innocent.
Another internationally famous superhero, Spider-Man, visited Scotland in the story Spirits of the Earth (1990), which explicitly juxtaposes the New York idiom with the terrain of Neil Gunn and Celtic Scotland. Normally, Spider-Man inhabits a world of skyscrapers and yellow cabs, but is here set loose in a landscape of heather tussocks, castles, small houses and crofts. The original idea of Spider-Man exploited the image of a teenage hero with unknown and unpractised abilities and the wish to do good, fumbling his way through college, contending with bullies and girlfriends while also battling supervillains. By the time of the Scottish story, he’s a married man, but his ineptitude is still as much to the fore as his Bruce-like determination.
Such recognizable foibles and vulnerabilities do not confine Nick Fury – Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., whose encounters with Scotland include one adventure in the Orkney islands (‘Greetings from Scotland’, 1990) and a supremely flamboyant extravaganza entitled ‘Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill’ (1968) which manages to combine plotlines evoking both Sherlock Holmes’s Hound of the Baskervilles, the Loch Ness monster and a Nazi U-Boat.
The supreme text of Scottish-American hybridity in comic book form, however, is The Bogie Man by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Robin Smith (1989-90, with sequelae 1992 and 1993). The title character is Francis Forbes Clunie, inmate of an asylum near Glasgow, from which he escapes in the mistaken belief that he is, in fact, the incarnations of all the main characters played by Humphrey Bogart in the classic noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. This allows plots to unfold in which Clunie is only partly self-consciously involved but which he manages somehow to – more or less – resolve. Individual titles in the series (based on Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and other classic noir writers) included ‘To Huv and Huvnae’ and Chinatoon. Something similar to Bud Neill’s reconfigurations in Lobey Dosser was happening with this appropriation of the American idiom and genre to a crazily unpredictable but recognizable Glasgow and west of Scotland setting. Locations and language were instantly familiar, from the Victorian cemetery the Glasgow Necropolis to one villain’s roaring battle-cry, ‘It’s laldie time!’
More generically specific was the crime novelist Denise Mina’s contribution to the Hellblazer series (‘Empathy is the Enemy’, 2006 and ‘The Right Red Hand’, 2007). The predominant tone here is constantly dark and wry, with the main character, John Constantine, following a trail of dead bodies deeper into a world of zombie indifference to the normal pleasures of human life. Murder and bloodshed are frequent. Yet the haunting power of the representation of a familiar story from 6th century Iona, about Saint Columba and the burying-alive of the monk Brother Oran, comes directly from literary and religious sources and animates the graphic version vividly. On being disinterred and revived, Brother Oran cries that he has seen Heaven and Hell and ‘It is not how you think it is …’ John Constantine travels to contemporary Glasgow, where the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the University provide suitably Gothic locations and backdrops. The point is that the specific Scottish locations are appropriate to the story and enhance the visual impact of the comic book genre, effectively helping the essential balance between words and pictures by which graphic novels, comic books and newspaper strips all must be sustained. Ian Rankin is currently at work in the genre. Clearly, much more might be done.
There remains marvellous potential for contemporary writers and artists to engage with comic book forms – not to mention what might be done in art and literature classes in schools! Moreover, the potential for more traditional forms of Scottish literature to be adapted as comic books remains massively underexploited. The success of recent editions of Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (both in versions in English, Scots and Gaelic), only suggests the enormous potential that remains. The old ‘Classics Illustrated’ series included memorable, though usually over-wordy, versions of some great works of Scottish literature. Marvel Comics have relaunched a Classics series with new versions of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Now here’s the question.
Who would deny that Walter Scott is currently in eclipse as enjoyable reading material for many? Would there not be room in our expanding library for the Comic Book collected works? Imagine a writer who knew Scott deeply and familiarly, Scott’s intricacies of plotting, character and history. Imagine an artist who understood the visual significance of the landscapes and cityscapes Scott describes so vividly. Imagine the work that balanced words and pictures sufficiently well to catch the narrative bounce, pace and punch, the depth of implication, and cut the digressions (save them for the reading of the novels themselves). And then let’s see the whole series, from Waverley to Count Robert of Paris …
And might that not be just a beginning?
References & Further Information
Many of the topics in this essay are more fully explored in Alan Riach’s book, Representing Scotland in Literature, Popular Culture and Iconography: The Masks of the Modern Nation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), especially chapter 8, ‘Nobody’s Children: Orphans and their Ancestors in Popular Scottish Fiction after 1945’ and chapter 9, ‘It Happened Fast and it was Dark: Cinema, Theatre and Television, Comic Books’.