When issue 1 of a new title called The Dandy Comic was launched in December 1937 by D.C. Thomson, children across the nation were introduced to the Cactusville desperado, Desperate Dan. Originally a two-line strip, within a year he had expanded to a full page. Early tales portrayed him as a genuine desperado, a heavyweight cowboy without respect for the law — and with superhuman strength, shown in the début strip by a horse being unable to carry him.
The character soon evolved, gradually gaining allies and family — Aunt Aggie, who cooks Dan's favourite food, cow pie; nephew Danny and niece Katie; as well as a mayor and sheriff. By the time war broke out in 1939, he had already become the lovable cowboy we know today. During the war, he would sometimes be seen fighting Nazis, sinking u-boats, and bringing down planes. One episode shows him joining the US Navy, pinning magnets to himself to attract mines, which blow up, leaving Dan unharmed!
During the 1950s his stories were often serialised, with storylines such as being on the run from the law because of mistaken identity, and having to wear disguises, or an alien invading Danny and Katie's school (which turned out to be a trick by the kids). Dudley Watkins drew the strip from 1937 until his death in 1969. After this, Charles Grigg drew him in annuals and summer specials, while reprints were used in the weekly Dandy. In 1983, Ken Harrison took over (Peter Davidson was in fact supposed to be Dan's new artist and drew the first two strips of his new run, but his other work with the publisher limited him to acting as a ghost artist for Harrison), as Dan expanded to two pages.
Whereas Watkins' version had always been in black and white, Harrison's would appear in the colour centre spread. Then in 1984, Dan finally replaced Korky the Cat on the Dandy's front cover, where he would remain until the end of the century. During this era, more new characters would début. Perhaps inspired by the success of Bananaman, Dangerous Dan McGrew and Cactusman would be recurring villains.
During the first half of the Nineties, David Parkins took over from Ken Harrison as the main artist, although Trevor Metcalfe drew a few strips during this time. Between 1994 and 1997, John Geering took over as artist from Ken Harrison (Who had briefly returned to draw a Desperate Dan serial) in an attempt to give the strip a more action-packed feel, but Harrison was restored to the artist's position in November 1997, starting with a story arc that saw Dan strike oil and temporarily leave the Dandy. He returned two weeks later, and while at the time there were some suggestions that this was part of an attempt to restore Korky the Cat to the comic's cover, it's now widely believed that there was never any serious intention to permanently get rid of Dan.
As the new millennium dawned, Dan gained a Native American girlfriend, Little Bear. For a brief period between 1999 and 2000, Dan was moved inside the comic with Cuddles and Dimples taking over the cover, but reader demand soon saw Dan reinstated. However, his story now shrank in size. Having been three pages long since the comic became full colour in September 1993, he was now back down to a single page. Changes were coming. Until now, Ken's style had been essentially an updated version of Dudley's, but when the Dandy got a modern glossy makeover in 2004, Dan got a makeover as well, now appearing in a less realistic, more cartoony style. The strip was also now back to two pages, now back inside as the new look comic no longer had a cover strip.
Besides the cosmetic changes, there were storyline changes too. Dangerous Dan and Cactusman had already disappeared, and now Danny, Katie, and Little Bear vanished too, without explanation. In their place, Dan got a new friend, an old-timer named Zeke. In 2007, the Dandy relaunched again, becoming Dandy Xtreme. This saw Harrison's run on Desperate Dan come to an end. For short period the now fortnightly comic featured vintage Dudley Watkins Desperate Dan strips from the 1940s. They were soon replaced by a radically different art style for the strip, courtesy of Jamie Smart. He drew the strip for five years, stopping upon the end of the print edition of the comic. A more retro version of Dan appeared for a while in the digital Dandy (artist unknown).