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Millar Watt creator of cartoon strip POP

John Millar Watt, creator of POP. 

The Studio, Dedham, Essex. 1927

Watt POP cartoons
Millar Watt Cartoons

The regular cast of POP.  1931

Millar Watt was the originator of the long-running comic strip POP (1921-1971), esteemed even today by students and aficionados of cartoon art.  The strip featured a resolutely British “everyman” character, POP and a cast of supporting actors, in a little theatre of life that was published each day in the British national tabloid the Daily Sketch (1909-1971).  From a springboard of its immediate and sustained popularity, the strip reached worldwide distribution within a decade.

In its run of half a century or so, POP remained one of the first and most long-lived of British cartoon exports into the more established cartoon market of the United States.  Millar created a veritable theatre production on his drawing board, where adherence to character portrayal, stage setting and metre challenged readers to get everything out of the drawing that Millar put in.

Millar Watt Cartoonist

POP soon built a fan-base with attendant sales of the newspaper that delighted the top-brass of the ‘Sketch, making its rivals envious.  Not long after moving into the house that he built overlooking Dedham Vale in Essex,  Millar and his wife Amy were surprised by a visit from a reporter of the Daily Mirror.  The latter had been sent in the owner’s Rolls Royce to find Millar - who reportedly “lived somewhere in Constable Country” - with the sole purpose of persuading him not to draw POP any longer, or at least to draw POP for the 'Mirror.  Such were the shenanigans of newspaper barons even then.

Millar Watt Cartoons

POP’s near daily exploits featured the light and shade of human existence, marital ups and downs, idiosyncratic friends and neighbours and unruly children.   Millar did not have to look far for inspiration.  His ability to make the action flow across the design space and the intrinsic quality of his draughtsmanship set POP apart.  The genial outline of POP himself, his basic goodness and occasional eccentricities, seemed to align with the peculiarly British fondness for absurdity and fair play.

From this initial success, the POP strip was syndicated across the Commonwealth (and around the world by dint of that), creating a further cast of dads who found themselves rechristened “Pop" in company with this quintessentially British ‘paterfamilias’.  The character of POP and the strip evolved physically in this first decade, shedding word balloons and superfluous lines.   POP’s moustache was done away with, items of his wardrobe, a few inches from his legs.  Eventually even his mouth vanished, only to reappear to express extreme emotion.

POP entered his second decade of popularity with a tauter belly, a genial “everyman” persona, a family and a daily dose of happenstance that often bore more than a nod to his creator’s own.

Millar’s design of a strip of narrowly separated squares was unwavering.  The only variation in this template was the number of squares; four generally, for a few years three, and on one occasion he came up with a design over just two squares.   This template formed a theatrical stage across which the action played and humour was suspended until the optimum moment. 

POP Late from the Club


Effectively this use of both positive and negative space became a template for the adventure comic book industry proliferating from the early 1930s.   In this respect, Millar's use and development of the medium for his cartoon character's little theatre of life seems entirely natural.  These days one is accustomed to the visual iconography of squares suspended in white space as a universal short form for just about any denomination of presentation, from animated sequences and movie storyboards to boardroom flip-charts and digital flow-charting.  

During WWII, Millar went into the Army as Millar himself went into the Home Guard, spending hours on watch over the cliffs of St Ives.  He wanted to stop drawing POP but was persuaded to carry on to help bolster national morale; King George VI and Churchill were reputedly fans of the strip.

Some years after war ended, Millar’s decision to leave POP behind became final.  As the paper did not wish to lose it’s popular entertainment, another artist was found to continue drawing the strip until the newspaper’s demise in the early 1970s. 

Millar Watt Cartoonist

POP’s daily challenge of dealing with the vicissitudes of life from his (vertically and horizontally-challenged) standpoint, struck a sympathetic chord with the national psyche, particularly between the wars.  Millar recalls being inspired by Chaplin’s Little Man of the silent movie era; POP was little, but he could pack a punch when put-upon. 

Millar Watt Cartoons


In drawing the strip where POP loses his spats to wartime moths, Millar was likely aware of the difficulty the be-spatted and tailcoated POP faced in transitioning from the inter-war to post-war era.  

Millar Watt Cartoons

Although the strip (now drawn by a Daily Sketch staff artist, Gordon Hogg), continued its run and POP annuals were as popular as ever, the strip did not survive the subsumption of the ‘paper into its more Conservative sister, the Daily Mail.

Millar made original artworks available to Hogg and they shared a good friendship over the years. Many of his original jokes resurfaced as Hogg reset POP into post-modern environments, including furniture, attitudes and wardrobe. 

In this revival of an original joke by Millar (top) whose POP has not set aside his spats even momentarily at the beach.  Gordon Hogg’s redraw (below) rings the changes by casting POP into Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops.

A few national exhibitions have featured cartoon art as recognition of the genre has increased throughout the 20th century.  Cartoon Art has been celebrated more assiduously in Europe however Britain’s own Museum of Cartoon Art in London was formed in the early 1990s.  Students can now expect to produce digital artworks instead of the old way, on a drawing board, although it seems there is nothing like a drawing;  the communicative power of a single line of ink, flowing from the nib of a artist’s pen cannot be understated, as it is a wonder of impulse that no digital stylus or graphic plate can reproduce anywhere near as effectively.

Many who have delved a little deeper into the work of this generation of solidly schooled artists and designers have cited Millar Watt's contribution to cartoon art and commercial illustration as one of unsung genius.

The Daily Sketch | Millar Watt Cartoons

However, Millar's success in preserving anonymity led to his being largely forgotten by the industry as the originator of POP.  A major retrospective of cartoon art at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1970-1, Drawn and Quartered. The world of the British newspaper cartoon, 1720-1970 which continued as a travelling exhibition, featured POP as one of the "milestones" of comic art.  But it failed to discover that its originator was still alive and working in Suffolk.  A similar lack of recollection and recognition led to many of Millar's works including POP,  being freely used without licence, royalties or even credit, during his lifetime.  

Despite the daily obligation of drawing POP, Millar kept active in the other two genres of his career as a youth; illustration and design.  In the post-WWII years, demands for his work in these quarters increased so much that Millar took on an agent and moved back to London from Cornwall.  This aspect of his work, which kept him busy well into retirement, is featured here.

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