Obituary: Jim Watson, artist who drew unforgettable characters for classic British comics

Jim Watson, artist. Born: Cellardyke, Fife, 21 July, 1932. Died: Cellardyke, 6 December 2017, aged 85.
Jim WatsonJim Watson
Jim Watson

Jim Watson was a Scottish comic ­artist whose gritty style meant he was an ever-present in British war ­comics between the 1960s and the 1980s.

He worked for IPC in ­London and DC Thomson in Dundee, the two largest British ­comic ­publishers of their era, on titles which included Battle Picture Weekly, Warlord, ­Victor, ­Commando and the short-lived True War. At home illustrating stories based on land, sea or in the air, his interest in military subjects meant that he drew the machinery, kit and ­regalia in accurate detail.

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Where stories of war were his first love as an artist, ­however, they weren’t all he drew. Watson’s earliest work in the 1960s included the ­adaptations of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series Captain ­Scarlet and Thunderbirds, which appeared in TV Century 21, as well as Zero X, a tie-in novel about the futuristic ­aircraft which appeared in both of the above shows.

In 1978, he returned to science fiction with Colony Earth, his only appearance in seminal British sci-fi comic 2000AD, a short alien invasion tale ­featuring killer robots.

Although Watson isn’t to be confused with the humour writer of the same name who also worked for IPC at the time, Colony Earth was one of a few strips he did write himself. As well as 2000AD and Battle, his contributions to IPC’s classic comic roster included cameos in Tornado, the ­controversially ­violent Action, and short-lived but much-loved 1980s horror comic Scream!, for which he worked on Tales from the Grave.

More than just an aficionado of 20th century war history and paraphernalia, Watson was an artist who understood how to draw action. His explosions combusted from the page, his panels and character poses crackled with an urgent sense of tension and threat which kept the reader gripped, and the men he drew – they were always men, such was the nature of an industry which separated its readership by gender in those days – were tough and dedicated ­professionals on a mission.

Although he was as capable as any of getting the background details of World Wars One and Two right, in fact, it was in the faces of his characters that Watson’s work ­contained the strongest sense of his own style as an artist. From their intent eyes to hard jaws bearing teeth ­gritted for action, those ­faces were unmistakeable, and drew the reader into the lives of the humans behind the uniforms.

In the 1980s, the complexion of the British comics industry changed, and Watson found himself segueing from original strips in Battle to those the title carried based on the popular action figure line Action Force. As the decade progressed, he found himself drawing more and more ­period toy tie-ins for IPC, including MASK and Supernaturals, but by the end of the decade the industry had ­contracted to such a degree that the same opportunities were no longer there.

All but forced into retirement as he approached his 60s, Watson turned his attention to painting, a hobby he loved for its own sake, but which allowed him to sell commissioned pieces and through local galleries in the East Neuk of Fife.

His preferred subject was the harbour in Pittenween, including the fishing boats and lifeboats which worked in the Forth Estuary, although he also painted planes he’d seen at the nearby Leuchars Air Show for his grandson.

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James Watson was born in Cellardyke in 1932, the son of fisherman Alex Watson and housewife Elizabeth. An only child, he was a youthful ­comic fan, and showed a flair for the artistic from an early age. He attended Wade Academy in nearby Anstruther and then studied at Dundee Art College, taking his first job as a layout artist for an advertising agency in ­Newcastle, where his role was to help design newspaper and ­magazine adverts and product ­catalogues for shops.

At some point in the 1950s he also completed his National Service, although his family are unsure of the exact timeframe or details – all they know is that a ­problem with his elbow restricted his duties so he was posted locally, spending some time on Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Forth.

His 20s were the only real nomadic period of Watson’s life; as well as Dundee, Newcastle and his time on National Service, he briefly worked for an advertising agency in ­Glasgow. He also met Mary, a fellow ‘Dyker’ (Cellardyke local) at a town hall dance, and the couple married in 1958.

Throughout the 1960s Watson and his family lived in Edinburgh, where he ­worked at the ad agency Forth Studios on York Place while turning out pages of spec ­comic art in the evening and sending them off in hope of work.

His efforts weren’t just ­successful; by the time he started work on the big Gerry Anderson properties and had to go to London for meetings, he had been forced to give up the day job in order to follow his comics dream, working in his Edinburgh home studio before the family returned to the East Neuk for good at the turn of the 1970s.

His daughter Karen remembers that her father worked “twenty-four seven” on ­comics, although he wasn’t one to share the details of his job voluntarily. However, he did come back from London with Captain Scarlet dolls for reference which she and her brother played with, and two decades later her own son inherited the full range of Action Force and MASK toys which Watson was sent for the same purpose. His children and grandchildren fondly remember his imagination, and the way bedtime stories would spring from his mind with an extensive cast of characters.

Watson’s interests included golf, walking and gardening, and outside of his pleasure at creating alone in his studio, he liked to get ­outdoors. Diagnosed with vascular dementia three years before he died, he had to give up painting, although he still enjoyed classic war films. He passed away in the Windmill Nursing Home, Cellardyke, and is survived by his wife Mary, children Karen and Cameron, and four grandchildren.