Bill Ritchie, who spent 39 years as an artist with D. C. Thomson, died suddenly on Monday evening, 25 January, at his home in Friockheim, near Arbroath, Scotland, aged 78.
William Ritchie was born in Glasgow on 1 August 1931 and, as a teenager, was one of Scotland's top cycle speedway riders, riding with the Craigton, Glasgow and Scotland teams and competing in the Olympic Championship in 1948 (a 3-day event held at Crossmyloof in which he placed second overall) and the Scotland vs. England 'test' in 1949.
At the same time, he was studying at the Glasgow School of Art, although taught himself the art of cartooning by copying the work of popular Scottish cartoonists like Bud Neill and Jimmy Malcolm. It was Malcolm who suggested that he offer his work to Dundee-based D. C. Thomson.
Ritchie gave up cycling when he entered his National Service, spending most of his time as a Corporal in the Military Police in Korea. He was, however, still able to draw, and his first published cartoon appeared in The Weekly News. On his return, he moved to Dundee and pursued a career as a staff artist with Thomsons.
His first comic strip, "Clumsy Claude—The Blunder Boy", debuted in The Beano in January 1955, but it was with "Baby Crockett", a character derived from Davy Law's popular "Wee Fella" strip in The People's Journal, that Ritchie found his signature character. Named after the popular Davy Crockett, "the tiny mite who's dynamite" debuted in issue 34 (8 September 1956), was the bane of his family, especially his dad. Such was the popularity of the character that for 15 of his 37-year run, his weekly adventures ran simultaneously in Beezer/Beezer & Topper (1956-93) and Bimbo/Little Star (1961-76).
Ritchie was also responsible for a number of other hugely popular characters, including schoolgirl "Toots" (Bunty, 1956-86), schoolboy "Smiffy" (Beezer, 1967-88), and "Hairy Dan--Football Fan" (Beezer, 1972-81). Other strips from his prolific pen included "Pooch", "Pip the Penguin", "The Moonsters", "Barney Bulldog", "The Twitz of the Ritz", "Sweet Sue", "Hungry Hoss", "Pam" (and the spin-off "Scratcher"), "Kong" and "Gnatasha". Ritchie also drew strips and covers for Annuals and, in his early days, illustrations for Thomsons story papers.
"The simplicity of his line disguised the absolute craftsmanship and skilled composition of his pages," says Lew Stringer in a tribute to Ritchie. "There's no mistaking his style and it was always of the highest professional standard. Over the decades he must have entertained millions of children, and that's a proud achievement that I hope will bring some comfort for his family in this time of loss."
Although he retired after 39 years, Ritchie continued to work for Thomsons, his output even as a septuagenarian including regular cartoons in The Weekly News, and, as Willie Ritchie, illustrating two books written by Alison Mary Fitt.
Ritchie met his wife, Anne Wynd, in Dundee and they married in 1959. They had three children, Pete, Ian and Jacqueline, raised in the family home in Carnoustie, near Dundee. Ritchie and his wife moved the short distance north to Friockheim in 2001.
Reporting on the news on the Comics UK forum, Iain McLaughlin, sub-editor of The Beano, said: Bill's enormous catalogue of work will be well known to every British comics fan. For those of us who worked with Bill, he was one of the folk you always looked forward to seeing. You knew you'd have a good laugh and an interesting chat with Bill. His knowledge of comics and artists was extraordinary. And he was just a really nice guy, always gracious and helpful. A genuinely nice man who will be missed greatly by all of us who worked with him."
Obituaries: The Courier (28 January 2010), Daily Telegraph (24 February 2010).
Tributes: Lew Stringer (27 January 2010), Down the Tube (28 January 2010); Peter Gray (various).
Scottish Nursery Rhymes by Norah Montgomerie. Hogarth Press, 1946.
The Story of Clan MacWee by Alison Mary Fitt. GW Publishing, 2008.
The Story of Caln Mingin by Alison Mary Fitt. GW Publishing, 2008.
(* The (uncredited) photograph comes from the Courier, linked above; Baby Crockett and Smiffy are both © D. C. Thomson.)