RD Low
the man who created The Broons and Oor Wullie


RD Low

RD (Robert Duncan) Low was born in Dundee on 25 August 1895. The son of Alexander Low, a jute mill mechanic who's middle name happened to be Brown, and Maggie Wilson Low (nee Duncan).

He grew up in Dundee and worked as a journalist for the Dundee publisher DC Thomson. He quickly worked his way up to become a managing editor and he was head of the children's publications department during a time of huge success for DC Thomson. He was a driving and creative force who masterminded many of britains most popular and best loved story papers and comics including the longest running comic publication in the world, The Dandy and the second longest running, The Beano.

On 29 August 1921 RD Low turned 26. Within a week he was a married man and within another two weeks he would oversee the launch of a boy's story paper that would begin DC Thomson's domination of children's paper publications for years to come.

Adventure was launched on 21 September 1921. It was such an immediate success that it led to a series of new boy's story paper releases to cash in on the wave of popularity. Over the next few years DC Thomson went on to release another four boy's story papers, all under the direction of RD Low. Collectively these papers became known as 'The Big Five'. Adventure, The Rover (4 March 1922), The Wizard (23 September 1923), The Skipper (6 September 1930) and The Hotspur (2 September 1933).

Adventure - Issue 1 - 21 September 1921
The Rover - Issue 1 - 4 March 1922
The Wizard - Issue 1 - 23 September 1923
The Skipper - Issue 1 - 6 September 1930
The Hotspur - Issue 1 - 2 September 1933



During the 1920's and 1930's when The Big Five story papers were at their peaks, the comic kings were the Amalgamated Press who had been producing children's comics from the early 1900's and were enjoying a comic boom in the post first world war years with comics such as Bubbles, Tiny Tots, Tiger Tim's Tales and Tiger Tim's Weekly (Tiger Tim being drawn by another great and influential comic artist, Herbert Foxwell).

Having won the market for boy's story papers RD Low was keen to move into the relatively new market for children's comic papers - something lighter, funnier and easier to read than the story papers - that would appeal to a new children's market. Following an american trend*, he set about creating a comic supplement for the popular sunday newspaper, The Sunday Post. It is impossible now to say if his primary intention was to increase sales of The Sunday Post or to test the market for a DC Thomson comic paper.


*Note: for historical interest, the following paragraphs are taken from the superb book,
'COMICS An Illustrated History' by Alan and Laurel Clark:-
"(American) newspapers proliferated and circulations grew. A number of daily papers started to publish an extra edition on Sundays. This trend was started by Joseph Pulitzer (who later lent his name to the famous journalism awards) and the challenge was taken up by his chief rival, William Randolph Hearst (recognized as the model for egocentric newspaper tycoon of Oscar Welles' film Citizen Kane). The battle between these two giants of the popular press had profound implications for the comic strip.

Pulitzer's New York World was the first to have a Sunday supplement, and it included cartoons. Hearst went one better when he launched his own supplement to the Sunday New York Journal, the American Humorist, on 18 October 1896. As well as cartoons, it also featured strips.

Pulitzer was well aware that strips helped to increase the number of papers sold. So was Hearst, but he also had a personal affinity for comics, an appreciation formed when young. It gave him an edge in the use of this important circulation weapon. For many years the two newspaper barons vied to give their readers the best comic strips."

Historically, it is also worth noting that closer to home printers working for the publisher John Leng and Co of Dundee (later absorbed by DC Thomson, 1926) had developed a printing process called zincography that permitted good quality reproductions of illustrations and cartoon strips. This led to the occasional publication of pioneering cartoon strips in their Scottish newspaper The People's Journal in the 1870's predating by some years the San Francisco Examiner's "Little Bears and Little Tigers" which is usually considered the earliest example of the form.



RD Low was in charge when Dudley Watkins joined the staff art team in 1925. At first Watkins was just another hand at the drawing board turning out work to order but it soon became clear he was something special. He was fast and reliable and his paintings in particular were able to perfectly convey the danger, tension, action and humour in the stories at the heart of the boy's story papers.

Being aware of Dudley Watkin's talent and ability to communicate humour through his artwork, he worked closely with Watkins when, in 1935, he began work on the new comic supplement.

He was keen to have the comic characters close to lifelike and encouraged Dudley to model the characters on real people. Over the years there has been speculation on who these real people might be with DC Thomson's Glasgow office editor Archie (A.C.) Brown being identified as a possible Paw Broon although subsequent information now makes this highly unlikely. It is now known that RD Low built some, if not all, of the famous Broons and Oor Wullie characters on his own circle of friends and family and he encouraged Watkins to do likewise.

Bearing in mind RD's father had the middle name Brown (RD's grandmother's family name), it is easy to believe the Browns, or Broons, where his own real or imaginary family. It has credibly been suggested that Maw and Paw Broon were in fact based on RD Low's own parents, who happened to live on the upper floor of a communal stair, and where reportedly of very similar appearance. Maggie Broon was said to based on R.D. Low's own sister (his mother's name was Maggie) and his son Ron Low (Ronald Waterson Low) was certainly the model for Oor Wullie. More than that, young Ron Low had a best friend named Ian 'Soupy' Soutar. Ron also had a small terrier dog who was the image of a dog regularly seen in Dudley Watkins' paintings and illustrations for the 1930's boy's story papers. Ron's sister Marion is known to be the original Bunty from the DC Thomson publication of the same name.

 
Ron Low - tent and dog
Ron Low and Ian ' Soapy' Soutar
Ron Low was the real life inspiration and model for Oor Wullie. The Low family have kindly
donated some information and photographs that can be accessed by clicking here

On Sunday 8 March 1936 the first 8 page Fun Section was included in The Sunday Post. After several years of publishing boy's adventure story papers, this was DC Thomson's first attempt at a proper comic and The Broons and Oor Wullie were the core comic sets. They appeared along with puzzles, cartoons, another scottish comic set 'Auchentogle' drawn by Chic Gordon and reprints of comic sets by Allan Morley (Allan Morley sets appeared in the Fun Section for years including; 'Nero and Zero' and ‘Nosey Parker’).

The Sunday Post Fun Section proved popular from the outset and as well as launching the long running comic careers of The Broons and Oor Wullie, the success of the Fun Section indicated to DC Thomson that a weekly comic paper could be a viable venture.


The following year, as managing editor of children's publications, RD Low appointed Albert Barnes (who had previously been the chief sub-editor of Wizard and Rover) as editor of a new weekly comic

The Dandy Comic was created and issue number one was dated 4 December 1937. It has gone on to become the longest running and most successful comic in the world. The first issue had 28 pages and Korky The Cat by Jimmy Crighton was the cover star. There are only around ten complete copies of Dandy Comic No.1 known to exist but The Dandy Comic No.2 (dated 11 December 1938) is even rarer with only two copies known to exist.

In September 2004, an anonymous buyer from Essex paid £20,350 for a Dandy Comic issue No.1 complete with it's original free gift 'The Express Whistler' and an original 4 page advertising flyer (that had been included in the previous weeks Skipper and Hotspur) making it the most valuable british comic on record. A rarer Dandy Comic No.2 complete with it's original free gift 'Jumping Frog' and original 4 page advertising flyer sold for £3,768.

The Dandy Comic was brasher and funnier than the Amalgamated Press comics and was another success for DC Thomson and RD Low. This success led to the creation of another classic........The Beano Comic.


RD Low appointed editor, George Mooney, to produce this new comic and The Beano Comic was launched with issue number one dated 30 July 1938. Another hugely successful, influential and long running comic being the second longest running comic in the world.

As with The Dandy Comic early copies are very rare with only 13 copies of the Beano Comic No.1 known to survive. In March 2004 the same buyer who bought the record breaking Dandy noted above paid £12,100 for a Beano Comic No.1 complete with it's free gift, a 'Whoopee Mask' (a black cloth Zorro styled mask).

All this comic success led to the introduction of a third DC Thomson comic. Aimed at a slightly younger audience, 'The Magic Comic' was launched on 22 July 1939.

Unfortunately on 1 September 1939 Germany declared war on Poland leading directly to allies Britain and France declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and the start of the second world war. The war had a serious effect on British publishing with paper and ink-dye shortages. The Dandy Comic and The Beano Comic reduced their page counts to 16 (from 28 originally) and went to fornightly publication. The Magic Comic fared worse and the paper folded (so to speak) in January 1941 after only 80 issues. DC Thomson would not release another new comic until The Topper appeared in February 1953.

Around 8 copies of The Magic Comic are known to have survived but, probably because of their short existance, they are not as well remembered or sought after as the Dandy or Beano. In March 2005 a Magic Comic No.1 sold for £1925.

The Dandy Comic - Issue 1 - 4 December 1937
The Beano - Issue 1 - 30 July 1938
The Magic Comic - Issue 1 - 22 July 1939

I'm afraid that after the pre-war glory days of RD Low and DC Thomson there is little or no information available about the career of RD Low. I do know he continued to work for DC Thomson in Dundee and kept a controlling interest in The Broons and Oor Wullie for many years.

RD Low passed away on 13 December 1980.

 

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