The Publishers Inc team had a chat with Kirsten Murray, commissioning editor for comics at DC Thomson about being a geek, the future of classic comics like Oor Wullie and The Broons, and the importance of supporting new creative talent. Kirsten studied Comics at the University of Dundee and worked as an assistant editor at Titan comics – working on various properties like Doctor Who – before moving to DC Thomson.
A giant of the UK comics industry, DC Thomson’s beloved characters have a longevity that goes way beyond anything else with Oor Wullie and The Broons recently celebrating 80 years since their first appearance in the Sunday Post.
As much as I hate the word, I’ve always been a massive “geek”, so the only answer I can really give is purely for my personal love of the medium. Like most Scottish youngsters, I was familiar with The Broons and Oor Wullie from a young age from reading (and colouring in) my Dad’s annuals every Christmas. As a kid, I quickly became a dedicated member of The Beano Club, where I stayed right into my early teens. I was also lucky to be growing up at a time when the likes of Pokémon and the Spider-Man and Batman animated series were always on the TV, which I adored, and as I got older the massive superhero blockbusters furthered my interest in the source material. I’ve been an avid reader of a huge variety of comics, manga, and graphic novels ever since I picked up a Wolverine comic after the cinematic release of X-Men 2 in 2003. It was in my final year of my Undergraduate degree that I set my sights on becoming the female J. Jonah Jameson of the comics’ world. I adore the medium, and really appreciate the hard work and skill that goes into every issue of a series. Comics really have the power to express ideas and opinions in ways that other media outlets may be restricted, and can span every genre, create fully realised characters, and create new, fantastical worlds. There really is a comic out there for everyone.
How would you assess the health of the Scottish comics industry and what would you like to see happen to encourage its growth?
I think the comics industry in Scotland is certainly growing. From a fandom perspective, the interest is absolutely there. The successes of Scottish Comic Conventions shows this, such as the overwhelming turn out at Aberdeen’s inaugural Granite City Comic Con last year and the steady growth of masses which visit MCM Comic Con in Glasgow annually. Even independently run conventions are growing: the Big Glasgow Comic Page’s (BGCP) Marts were launched a couple of years ago with a few stalls set up in pubs around Glasgow city centre. They’ve now branched out to host conventions around the Greater Glasgow area in much larger venues, and are drawing in thousands of visitors per show. As a result of the rise of these marts, Scotland’s independent publishers are beginning to thrive. Although still relatively few and far between, more independent comic shops are beginning to pop up, showing there’s a demand for comics and the memorabilia that goes with it. This can also be seen by the rapid expansion of comic and graphic novel departments in libraries and bookstores.
Scotland has spawned a huge wealth of comics’ talent, who have worked for the biggest industries in the game, created some of the most influential characters, made their mark on some of the most notorious comic franchises, and have inspired massive Hollywood blockbusters. Scottish creative talent seems to go from strength to strength every year, partly due to the dramatic growth in interest to support independent works, and partly due to the increased exposure at comic cons. I would love for Scotland’s industry to thrive, and I believe this can happen by continuing to support independent publishers and projects, as well as upcoming creators. The popularity of creator owned comics (outside of the capes market) is huge, and there’s definitely potential for Scottish publishers to produce exciting and innovative stories with beautiful and unique art which would really capture reader’s imaginations. Opening more opportunities could encourage Scottish creators to stay in Scottish industry, rather than branching out to the bigger American or European companies. The demand for comics in Scotland is evidently there, and we undoubtedly have the talent – we just need to encourage the creators to stay.
The fact that comic readers are far less marginalised today as they once were is certainly helping the industry to thrive. I think Scotland and the UK fall dramatically behind Europe, Japan, and the USA in accepting the legitimacy of comics as an art form. There’s a lot of prejudice around comics in the UK. It’s no longer embarrassing to read a comic or graphic novel in a café or on a train, which is fantastic, but there’s still a long way to go.
What are the challenges involved in bringing traditional, beloved characters to new audiences? Will we see The Broons and Oor Wullie embracing digital as a means of reaching new readers?
Introducing traditional, beloved characters to new audiences certainly poses challenges, particularly with The Broons and Oor Wullie as they have been published weekly for the past 80 years, and have a very loyal fan base. It’s about finding the balance between the old and the new: remaining true to the traditional values which readers know and love, and make the characters so unique; and keeping the strips as up-to-date as possible so new readers aren’t alienated. The great thing about being new to The Broons and Oor Wullie is there’s something instantly familiar by being set in tight-knit family groups or friend settings – it’s kind of like being welcomed into a cosy living room for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Although our biggest challenge is reaching out past the weekly Sunday Post audience and annual collectors, it’s surprising just how many people of all ages around the globe are familiar with the characters. I believe the 80th Anniversary celebrations will dramatically increase interest too, but furthering their outreach is definitely a top priority for us.
Digital presence is certainly important in this day and age when we’re all connected to electronic devices. It’s almost a necessity to be part of the digital universe now, particularly where information is instantly available at our fingertips. The ability to read full comics or browse websites on your tablet or phone on the bus to work really opens the door to new audiences. Digital comic sales have been shown to consequently increase floppy sales too, so it certainly makes sense to investigate this further. As for The Broons and Oor Wullie, we’re testing the digital waters with frequent social media posts, which is great for seeing what our readers are interested in and what they’d like to see more of. Social media is a really great tool that you can have a lot of fun with. I’m looking forward to seeing how the relationship between digital technology and comics progresses in the years to come.
What do DC Thomson look for in terms of the comic creators you bring in new projects, do you consider it important to support upcoming writers and artists?
It’s hugely important to support upcoming writers and artists, as they’re the future of the industry. Creativity is a wonderful thing, and I truly believe it’s important to nourish and encourage creative talent. It’s becoming an increasingly competitive industry, and without the support, it’s easy to give up. As editors, we have a lot of responsibility in aiding budding creators and guiding them in the right direction, while helping them hone their individual style.
For the traditional projects at DC Thomson, such as The Broons and Oor Wullie, I mainly look for the artist’s ability to recreate Dudley D Watkins’ instantly recognisable style. Because the strips have been on the go for so long, it’s difficult to drastically change the characters. Each artist certainly brings their own flare to the work, but a dramatic overhaul probably wouldn’t go down too well with our regular readers: Oor Wullie won’t be ditching dungarees anytime soon. For both writer and artist, they really need to understand the characters. They’re so full of personality that it’s crucial the creative team can capture their individual traits. As for any new projects, fresh ideas and style are a must!
What do you think is unique about the kind of comics produced in Scotland, particularly compared to North American comics?
This is a tricky one, because the Scottish market is hugely varied. I think in Scotland there is a great emphasis on fun, particularly where DC Thomson is concerned. The Beano is a globally recognised publication, which has been at the forefront of creating laughter for the young and young-at-heart for decades. The characters have universal appeal, and have really embedded themselves in Scotland’s national identity. This is particularly true for The Broons and Oor Wullie, who still unabashedly champion Scot’s language and traditional Scottish values.
We’re definitely less worried about superhero tales in Scotland, and when we are, we’re generally taking the mickey. However, with the growth of creator-owned focused publishers in North America, the global market is unbelievably diverse with superhero books increasingly fighting for the top spot in US markets. American comic writer, Kelly Sue-Deconnick recently remarked that claiming “you don’t like comics will make as little sense as saying you don’t like novels”, and she is totally correct. As comics and graphic novels have become more acceptable, the demand for different genres has sky-rocketed, thrusting them into the mainstream alongside the superheroes many so readily associate with the medium. But that’s the beauty of comics: there really are no boundaries.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Scotland has the potential to become a rising titan in the comics industry which North America dominates. Hopefully it will continue to go from strength to strength. After all, comics love to champion the underdog!