Art review: DCA Thomson

Letting a group of contemporary artists loose on the archives of DC Thomson allows us to take a fresh look at the likes of Dennis the Menace and the Broons

Do the DCA Thomson by Hideyuki Katsumata PIC: Ruth Clark
Do the DCA Thomson by Hideyuki Katsumata PIC: Ruth Clark

DCA Thomson ***

Dundee Contemporary Arts

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With which Broon do you most closely identify? I was, I should confess, routinely known as The Bairn in my household until at least my 18th birthday. Were you a Menace? Or did you lie in bed at night crying in the certain knowledge that you were Walter the Softy? Have you ever, in seriousness or jest, uttered any of the following words or phrases: “Jings,” “Crivens” or “Help Ma Boab”?

The visuals, verbals and values of the DC Thomson print empire once so penetrated a certain kind of Scottish home that the historian Tom Nairn famously paraphrased Diderot to suggest that Scotland would be only reborn “the day the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post”.

That in December 2016, the First Minister of a majority SNP administration should choose the Sunday Post’s poster boy Oor Wullie for her official Christmas card is a delicious irony that Nairn could not have predicted, but may of course still prove his point. It could point to her supreme pragmatism. Or perhaps her optimism: if you look closely at that card, Sturgeon is sneaking up on the boy on the upturned bucket.

But it may simply mark the fact that Wullie, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016, has long transcended politics and passed into legend. Scotland’s second Peter Pan, as a boy who has never grown up, may hope to live as long as his predecessor.

To mark those eight decades since Oor Wullie and The Broons first graced the pages of the Sunday Post, Dundee Contemporary Arts has let DC Thomson’s comic characters on the loose, and DC Thomson has let contemporary artists loose in its precious archive including not just newspaper characters but it’s phenomenally successful comics and books.

It’s a brave proposition, not least because the exhibition, entitled DCA Thomson, though it contains some truly fascinating archive material, is not a couthy hagiography of Scotland’s first family, nor an uncomplicated tribute to the masterful achievements of DC Thomson’s greatest artists.

Take Rabiya Choudhry, for example, the talented Edinburgh painter who confesses to being “67-70 per cent Beano at heart”. Her two paintings in the show quote Malcolm’s Judge’s Numskulls. The strip was first birthed in the Beezer back in 1962, and its central character must live with a whole range of tiny technicians running physical operations from inside his head. The blockbuster Pixar movie Inside Out, as everyone pointed out at the time, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Numskulls. A fact which the Beano was gracious enough to shrug off and sly enough to pastiche in a strip in the summer of 2015 in which the boy, Edd, goes to see the Hollywood movie.

In Choudhry’s hands, though, the Numskulls become the vehicle for more challenging psychedelic and emotional experiences. Her brightly coloured paintings Dream Baby Dream and Houses for the Holy quote the bands Suicide and Led Zeppelin, and the Numskulls’ traditional division into various physical departments becomes something more sinister, fractured and multiple. This is the mind as a divided self, rather than a working machine with expert departments tended by sensible, if miniscule, Scottish engineers.

Or take Rob Churm, a brilliant artist and musician whose work in the Glasgow music scene as artist and promoter places him firmly on the side of the alternative. His drawings and graphics have graced Glasgow’s subculture for years as well as making it into more formal galleries. Churm shows work from his own comic, The Exhaustion Hook, and a new suite of drawings inspired by the troubled, influential comic artist Ken Reid whose Jonah exemplified the Beano of the sixties.

The great trickster tradition of Dennis the Menace is held high by Hideyuki Katsumata, the Japanese artist whose street art and manga murals were shown in DCA in 2015. Katsumata has been a member of the Dennis the Menace fan club since he was 20, emulating the punk movement’s adoption of Dennis’s red and black striped jumper in skinny mohair for counter-cultural kudos. Katsumata’s works on paper draw on his own Manga characters, laying their faces and features directly over existing Beano pages. His exuberant mural makes classic comic characters seems vibrant and strange and part of a much wider tradition.

But the bravest commission of the show is undoubtedly that of Craig Coulthard. The Commando comic is one of Thomson’s most visually complete products. Its legendary cover artist, Ian Kennedy, is an unsurpassed master of the action comic style. If you need a plane plummeting to its doom or a search light strafing a night sky, then Kennedy, who was born in 1932 and also drew Judge Dredd for 2000 AD, is your man. ECA graduate Coulthard is an artist who, as the son of an airman based at Leuchars, has been long attracted to the complexities of services life.

The young man cleverly lets Kennedy’s skill take precedence. Amongst the archive materials in the exhibition are several Kennedy covers and Coulthard has contributed a video in which the older artist shows with astonishing ease and precision how to paint explosions. But’s in a series of drawings using two typical Commando tropes, “heads” and “explosions,” that Coulthard’s tribute comes alive. He sets the imagery of the first type against the famous words of Stefan Westman, the First World War corporal whose BBC interview in the 1960s described the true, debasing horror of hand to hand combat. In the second the dynamism of Commando’s visual style is set against army guidance on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a surprising twist for what might have been a stylish but saccharine show. Jings! Perhaps Scotland has, after all, been reborn.

*Until 19 February