David Sutherland obituary

Described by the comic’s current editor John Anderson as “the single most important illustrator in Beano history”, David Sutherland, who has died aged 89, was the artist behind some of Beanotown’s topmost tearaways, his brush responsible for 30 years of Dennis the Menace and more than 60 years of The Bash Street Kids. An unassuming and gentle man, Sutherland let anarchy reign in his artwork, with Dennis and his spiky hound Gnasher creating chaos for all around them.

However, it was the classmates of 2B that Sutherland first unleashed upon authority, personified by their teacher at Bash Street School. The Beano’s publisher, DC Thomson, knew that the wilder and more chaotic the characters, the more the readers loved them. The comic had let loose a legion of unruly heroes who brought pandemonium to parents, teachers and officials in ways their 1950s readers never could.

The bedlam brought about by Danny, Smiffy, Fatty, Plug, Toots and their chums began in 1954, when Leo Baxendale created When the Bell Rings, its name changing to The Bash Street Kids in 1956. Baxendale, burned out by overwork, departed in 1962 and went on to create his own comic at Odhams Press. Sutherland, whose cartoon work had the right look of unrestrained mayhem the strip required, was asked by the editor Harold Crammond to copy Baxendale’s style. His first Bash Street Kids strip, appearing on 4 August 1962, was also the first to be published across two colour pages. Sutherland went on to draw some 3,500 episodes, with the final one published last month.

Although he officially retired in 1998, David Sutherland continued to draw the Bash Street Kids strip for the Beano.
Although he officially retired in 1998, David Sutherland continued to draw the Bash Street Kids strip for the Beano, his final one published last month. Photograph: DC Thomson & Co/PA

A versatile artist, when Dudley D Watkins suffered a heart attack in 1969, it was to Sutherland that Crammond turned to complete Watkins’ partially pencilled final page of Biffo the Bear artwork, and the artist continued to draw Biffo for the next few years.

When ill-health forced Davey Law to stop drawing Dennis the Menace in 1972, Sutherland added a third major strip to his weekly output, adopting different styles for each of them. Dennis took pride of place on the cover of Beano in 1974 and made national news when Gnasher went missing in 1986. The Bash Street Kids also hit the headlines in 1994 when the publishers threatened to replace them, but backed down due to the public outcry.

To Sutherland also goes the credit for creating the Bash Street Pups (1966, later spun off to their own strip, Pup Parade), Cuthbert Cringeworthy (1972) and Olive the School Cook (1981).

Born in Invergordon, Scotland, the youngest of three, David was only two when his mother died and the family moved first to Stirling and then to Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, so their aunts could help raise the children. His father was a joiner who was later called up to serve in the war, during which David entertained himself drawing aeroplanes.

He was encouraged by an art teacher at school and, when he left at the age of 15, David applied to the advertising agency Rex Studios, where he filled in lettering, mixed paints and swept the floor. He attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, studying commercial art and life drawing three times a week.

By the age of 17, Sutherland was drawing promotional material for cinemas, redesigning a foyer or cinema front with images of Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell one week and a 16-ft high battle scene from a war movie the next. The studio had an exclusive contract to work on Disney movies, for which Sutherland was a natural. One day, he doodled a Disneyesque dog on the wall that was spotted by the cinema’s manager, who adopted it as a mascot – Davy’s Dug – to introduce coming attractions.

After two years’ national service in Egypt, Sutherland freelanced briefly before joining another studio that produced labels for whiskey bottles and fruit jars. In 1958 he married Margaret Robertson, and to make extra money to start buying a home, painted scenes for restaurants and chip shops around Glasgow.

Entering a competition in the Sunday Post, Sutherland won £10 and the attention of the comics editors at DC Thomson, who began offering him freelance work. With these earnings on top of his regular wage, Sutherland felt confident that he could put down the deposit on a house. When the managing editor, RD Low, heard of this, Low invited him to relocate to Dundee, which he did in 1960, with DC Thomson assisting with his house purchase.

Growing up, Sutherland was a fan of Paddy Brennan, Beano’s popular adventure artist, and it was his style that Sutherland adopted for his earliest work. His first published strip, Danny on a Dolphin, told the story of young Danny Weston and his family, whose idyllic life on a tropical island is destroyed in 1942 when Japanese soldiers sweep across the Pacific. Danny’s family, with the aid of a pack of friendly dolphins, help disrupt the efforts of the invaders and, in a later series, defeat pirates who are using a submarine to attack ships.

Other early adventure strips include The Great Flood of London, in which a passing comet heats up the Arctic ice-cap, causing it to flood much of Europe; The Cannonball Crackshots, a Napoleonic-era story of a team who manned a six-pound cannon; and Lester’s Little Circus, a travelling circus in the wild west. In 1963, Sutherland took over the artwork for General Jumbo, which revived the story of a young boy and his miniature mechanical army drawn by Brennan a decade earlier.

Another memorable Sutherland creation was Billy the Cat, about a young bespectacled schoolboy, William Grange, who secretly fights crime as an athletic, costumed hero.

He drew a number of other strips and spin-offs for Beano including Gnasher’s Tales, Rasher, Foo-Foo’s Fairy Story, Gnasher & Gnipper, The Germs, Fred’s Bed and, for The Dandy, Korky the Cat and Jak.

Although he officially retired in 1998, Sutherland continued to draw the Bash Street Kids strip. Even in his 80s he kept up his weekly schedule, using a tray as a drawing board and working on half a page at a time while sitting in his living room watching TV. His final strip carried the byline David Sutherland OBE, to mark his receipt of the award last month.

Margaret survives him, as do their two daughters, Lorraine and Fiona, and three grandchildren.

• David Sutherland, cartoonist, born 4 March 1933; died 19 January 2023