My God, Dudley D. Watkins was a genius.
It’s not a word I use lightly. While there are a lot of comics creators out there with staggering levels of talent whose work can make you see the world in a whole new way, they’re not all geniuses as such.
But every line that Watkins drew, every word of dialogue he wrote, belied some sort of possibly divine gift for making comics come alive. (Maybe that gift was divine. Dude was super-Christian, after all.)
Watkins was a powerhouse of British comics; he created/co-created many of the UK’s best-known comics characters, including the spherical outlaw Desperate Dan, the defiantly Scottish Oor Wullie and the Broons, and – my personal favorite – Lord Snooty.
Lord Snooty and His Pals were a bunch of kids who ran around having hilarious misadventures in the weekly children’s comic The Beano. The shtick was that Lord Snooty was rich while his friends were working-class, which could have just mean raggedy children running around a mansion/Lord Snooty ditching his top hat for an afternoon. And yet it was so much more.
Every week, in every strip, Watkins packed in as much off-the-wall-ness and verve and insouciance and chaos as he possibly could, because why not? Perhaps he was working from the assumption that kids are freaking weird (I refer you to my Comics and Games Club diary) and therefore deserve a bit of unapologetically strange mass media just for themselves. The grownups wouldn’t get it.
I mean, even though this is a strip ostensibly about class difference = comedy, a strip from 1949 deals with Lord Snooty’s shadow deciding to stage a mutiny and Lord Snooty’s efforts to get it back through witchcraft, via the spellbook that his friends just happen to have with them that day. In an older strip, Lord Snooty and the gang discover that their friend the Professor has developed a formula to make moths huge and sentient. As the moths clean the Professor’s house (because of course that’s what you do with giant moths), one of them laments, “I never thought I’d be reduced to this!”
And since Lord Snooty was a weekly strip, these incidents – and many more like them – pass without comment. Giant moths and runaway shadows? Just another day for Lord Snooty and his pals. The extraordinary is ordinary, because in their world anything can happen. It’s how kids see the world, and Watkins managed to capture that every week.
Honorable mention, too, to Lord Snooty’s friends Snitchy and Snatchy, the twins in long johns who consistently steal the show. They’re the youngest of the group but by far the wittiest, and are proof of Watkins’ great skill in balancing adult-level cleverness with the exuberance of childhood.
Getting into children’s heads and connecting on their level without ever compromising on quality: that’s what so many kids’ comics strive for, and Lord Snooty accomplished it with joy and panache.
If you want to pick up Lord Snooty’s adventures, your best bet is the collection The Legend of Lord Snooty and his Pals, which compiles selected strips up to the 1960s. Although it’s out of print, you can find it on eBay, Biblio for quite a reasonable price.