How Desperate Dan became a man of letters

Desperate Dan visits the National Library of Scotland in a special adventure to celebrate The Dandy's 75th anniversary
Desperate Dan visits the National Library of Scotland in a special adventure to celebrate The Dandy's 75th anniversary
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OVER the years it has honoured a host of literary giants from Robert Burns to Hugh MacDiarmid and Muriel Spark.

But now the National Library of Scotland (NLS) has revealed plans to pay homage to the ultimate publishing heavyweight: Desperate Dan. The country’s largest repository of book, maps and journals will celebrate The Dandy’s 75th anniversary by hosting an exhibition dedicated to the cow pie-guzzling cowboy and his anarchic comic companions.

The display will feature original drawings and storyboards from the Dundee-based title, which first arrived in newsagents back in 1937.

Andrew Martin, the NLS’s curator of modern Scottish collections, insisted that Britain’s longest-running comic had earned its place alongside more highbrow literary creations. He said: “This is perhaps not the sort of thing that people might have expected from the NLS.

“People often think of comics as ephemeral and throw- away and that they have no lasting purpose. But they are an important record of what real people were up to in Scotland and beyond over the past 75 years. As such, the history of The Dandy is a fascinating part of our social history as well as being a great Scottish publishing story.”

From its earliest edition to the present day the weekly 
title has been synonymous with its most famous character, who will play an appropriately oversized role in the Edinburgh-based exhibition.

Martin said: “When you say The Dandy people think of Desperate Dan.

“He is still immediately identifiable even though he has been around for a very long time and has changed slightly over the years.”

The mightiest resident of Cactusville was created by legendary editor Albert Barnes, who oversaw the comic from 1937 to 1980, and advised artist Dudley D Watkins: “He is to be the roughest, toughest cowboy. He has to be the strongest man in the world: a man who can chew iron and spit rust.”

Dan’s trademark stubbly profile was based on Barnes himself who boasted a “chin like a chest of drawers”.

While no Wild West sheriff could get the better of the lantern-jawed lummox he was eventually tamed by the forces of political correctness.

Growing concerns from adults led to the strongman suffering the indignity of being forced to go on a diet, giving up smoking, losing his “cruel” spurs and having his trusty six-shooter replaced with a water pistol.

The real-life rise of BSE, or mad cow disease, even led to cow pie, a gargantuan delicacy which featured horns and a tail protruding through the pastry, being briefly removed from the comic in the 1990s.

But the exhibition’s curator pointed out that Dan’s appeal, and that of fellow Dandy icons like Korky the Cat and Bananaman, have continued to endure through the decades.

He said: “The Dandy has changed to reflect the changing times.

“The illustrations do change and the characters come in and out, but, in an ever changing world, they’ve been able to hang on to the best bits since 1937. I think its longevity is down to its strong characters as well as its cheeky, irreverent quality. It is an important part of the collective memory in Scotland.”

Sales of the comic, which once soared to two million, have slumped to fewer than 7,000 and The Dandy will go on sale for the final time next month before reappearing in digital form.

Martin is convinced the last printed edition will not mark the end of The Dandy’s story.

He said: “Desperate Dan and the others may be vanishing off the paper in that format, but they will continue. It will be very interesting to see how they develop online. The world is completely different from how it was in 1937 and in its heyday when it was selling vast numbers of copies.”

He also insisted that interest in the title was not limited to Scotland, stating: “I’m very glad The Dandy came out of Dundee but its impact was far wider and it was read and enjoyed around the world.

“It was an incredible achievement and it’s right that we recognise it. The staff at the National Library will all be delighted to have Desperate Dan in the building.”

For former Dandy editor Morris Heggie, who has helped to prepare the exhibition, the comic’s 75th birthday will be a bittersweet one.

The publishing veteran, who steered the title between 1986 and 2007, said: “At my age of course I’m sad.

“I grew up with comics and love the paper. I can think back of growing up in a little village just outside Stirling where comics were enthusiastically read and traded on wet Sunday mornings.

“However, The Dandy has run its course in paper form and we will do something with it that will reflect the digital age in which we now live.”

Before his death in 1982 the comic’s founding editor summed up the philosophy which he believed would ensure its enduring popularity.

Barnes said: “There is never any real violence, only the cartoon kind to be found in Tom And Jerry where the victim always springs back unharmed.

“It gives children a chance to cock a harmless snook at authority and sublimate their desires to kick against the traces. Sex, religion and politics are, of course, out altogether.”

A special Desperate Dan comic strip, which is set in the Edinburgh library and features a host of classic characters including Beryl the Peril, Keyhole Kate, Hungry Horace and Black Bob the Dandy Wonder Dog, has been commissioned to celebrate the confirmation of the public display.

The Art and History of The Dandy will run at the NLS on George IV Bridge from 21 November until 3 February.