Monday, 25 January 2010

An Apology.

I have been behaving like a gormless oaf. Since I started this blog I have neglected to acknowledge any comments made after a post. This sort of behaviour may seem arrogant and aloof, but it was brought about through pure ignorance on my part. I am determined to be a better blogger in future and I proffer my apologies to those who took the time and effort to comment.
In addition, may I offer my belated thanks to those of you who decided to become followers of this blogsite. Ta very muchly one and all.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Heroes (1) Ronald Searle

"Oh we could be heroes just for one page."
(David Bowie - apart from the very last word.)

I was first introduced to Ronald Searle (that's him in the picture above, politely raising his titfer.) around 1967 or 1968 through an intermediary named Nigel Molesworth. I would have been around nine or ten at the time. Of course, I didn't, nor ever did, meet him in the flesh, but at that point in my life his cartoons made a searing impression upon me (with the very able assistance of the late Geoffrey Willans). There was I, a working class kid (we still had these terms in those days) reading about public schoolboys and absolutely lapping it up. The book was How to be Topp and my edition (which I still have) was published by Puffin Books. I bought it in the only bookshop Stevenage had in those days, (apart from W.H. Smith) S.P.C.K..

I was the son of Irish immigrants and I think the best way to describe my parents would be as working class aspirants. My dad regarded all comics as 'rubbish' but he didn't prevent me from buying and reading them. He did draw the line at Civil War bubble gum cards; once he caught sight of some of those and what they were depicting, they were banned outright. Nevertheless, every now and again my dad would go foraging in a second-hand bookshop (this must have been Moore's in Hitchin) and return with a hardbacked children's classic (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table etc. I still have the latter. Can you see a book-hoarding pattern emerging here?). These I received with thanks, but I was also allowed to choose and buy my own paperbacks if I had sufficient funds. Pocket money was an irregular income for me, so my choices were very carefully made. How to be Topp must have been a bit of a worry for my parents, for (as any fule kno) Molesworth's spelling is utterly atrocious. But, the drawings, ah the drawings.
The cartoons in How to be Topp are quite spiky and angular in comparison to the drawing above and deceptively simple looking. Lines sometimes crossed over where lines shouldn't. Noses were either drawn with a set-square and protractor or were just a series of loops. They were wonderful.
Shortly after this I discovered The Penguin Ronald Searle at a friend's house. It belonged to my friend's parents and they looked on with interested indulgence as I pored over it. There was a delicious drawing of someone or something putting out a pair of feet, rather than shoes, in a hotel corridor for the night. The macabre has always appealed to me, but at this point in my life I was completely unaware of what Searle had been through.

In February 1942 Sapper Searle of the Royal Engineers picked up an abandoned October 1941 copy of Lilliput magazine in a street in Singapore. Opening it he discovered that they had published his first schoolgirl cartoon; Owing to the international situation the match with St Trinian's has been postponed. Twenty four hours later the British surrendered to the advancing Japanese forces and Ronald Searle was marched off to Changi prison camp. Incredibly, throughout the horrors he endured for the next four years, Searle continued drawing cartoons and recorded camp life (and unpredictable death) in secret: hiding his drawings under the mattresses of cholera victims which the camp guards were reluctant to search.
When the war was over Searle visited the editorial offices of Lilliput and submitted two more St. Trinian's cartoons which had been drawn during his imprisonment. Darker in tone, one depicted a schoolteacher hanging from a tree.
It must have been at this point that he met in the flesh his future wife, Kaye Webb (Kaye Webb had a huge influence on my life in 1967, but that's a different story altogether). She went on to edit a children's magazine called The Young Elizabethan, the title reflecting the coronation of the new Queen. I have a copy of this magazine from the early fifties (but not immediately to hand) and it is littered with spot cartoons by Searle along with a piece by one N. Molesworth, the curse of St. Custard's.
The pieces written by Geoffrey Willans were collected and published as Whizz for Attoms, Down With Skool! and Back in the Jug agane all of which are illustrated by Searle.
The fifties also saw the release of the St. Trinian's films, the first of which, The Belles of St. Trinian's, in 1954 provided cameo parts for Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb. One hour twenty three minutes and thirty three seconds into the film you can see Ronald Searle looking dapper in an overcoat to the left of the screen. I'm pretty sure, but I can't be certain, that Kaye Webb is the parent who is horrified, quite horrified after what she has witnessed. Their daughter, Kate also appears in one of the films, but I don't know which one.
But Searle, to me, is not just St. Trinian's, not when he produces little gems like the following:

As far as atmosphere goes, it is a wonderful piece - seedy proprietor with monsters not withstanding - but take a look at the grill at pavement level! A lovely touch of added gothic.
I have to digress a little here (how can you digress from a meandering mass of waffle?) but it touches upon Searle and what sparked my initial interest.
The Eagle comic's glory days preceded my birth and by the time I obtained my own personal copy (purely to get a Morse Code signaller free gift) Frank Hampson's duties on Dan Dare had pretty much finished. But I was aware of the huge influence The Eagle had on other British comics. Most ostensibly on Odhams' Wham! and the creation of Danny Dare by Leo Baxendale. The post-war, brightly coloured photogravure adventures of the pilot of the future really captured the imagination of British schoolboys. This could more probably be qualified as capturing the imaginations of middle-class British schoolboys as the comic was at the pricier end of the market. But its impact should not be dismissed, because it also impinged upon messieurs Willans and Searle. The visuals that grabbed my attention in How to be Topp (published in 1954) were directly derived from The Eagle.

Searle has also taken Dan Dare's enemy, the Mekon, and transmogrified him into Sigismund Arbothnot, the Mad Maths Master. To me, at the time, this was essentially a comic within a book, an amazing concept. If further proof were needed of The Eagle's influence on Searle, look no further than Whizz for Attoms (published in 1956), which contains the beautiful drawing of a St. Custard's attendee in the post-puff sickness of trying pipe tobacco. The ensuing line is: You hav caught me, sir, like a treen in a disabled space ship. The prosecution rests, m'lud.
Another intriguing aspect of How to be Topp is that, scattered throughout its pages is an unfurling little drama starring two sinister protagonists named Gabbitas and Thring. At the time I had no idea who Gabbitas and Thring were. I only knew that, through the nib of Ronald Searle, they led young men off to a fate worse than death. They are, of course, a very respectable, very establishment education consultancy that was started by Mr. Gabbitas in the nineteenth century. We have now exhausted my complete pool of knowledge about Gabbitas Thring.

Since the sixties I have collected a small number of Searle books. Some I have hunted down, some were gifts from loved ones who knew of my interest in him. But, there is a gap in my life. Gap? A gaping hole, a chasm that will never be filled. A void that has ever tormented my soul. In the mid-seventies Searle designed the characters for an animated film, Dick Deadeye. I have (or had. I can't lay my hands on it) the hardback book, most of which seems untouched by Searle himself. But, I have never seen the film. It was based on Gilbert and Sullivan songs and seems to have sunk without trace. At the time of its release Stevenage was without a cinema, so I never got to see it. I can't find it on DVD. I'm - I'm never going to see it, am I (sob!)?
He is still working today as far as I know, producing drawings for Le Monde which is fair enough since he lives in France. He was also highly influential on the amazing Mad artist, Mort Drucker and you can often see Searle-like characters in the background of his film parodies.
There you go. A highly personal take on a master, to whom I raise a glass of wine in my right hand. My left hand, in the meantime, clutches my copies of Winespeak and Something in the Cellar...

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Working Environment - The Nuts and Bolts (and wood screws) of Creating a Cartoon.

Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chain-stores.
(Marx - except for the last bit.)

I have to offer up a caveat straight away. This is the way I work and much of it is dictated by circumstance. My tools will seem archaic to most, if not all, present day cartoonists, but so what? I enjoy what I do, the way I do it.
All my initial drawings are done on common and garden photocopying paper. Sometimes I use the traditional wooden HB pencil; sometimes I use what used to be called a clutch pencil, but it's probably called something else now (Sebastian, perhaps?).
My working area may be the kitchen table or the sofa in the sitting room. It all depends on how annoying the television is. The preferred area is actually the kitchen, but this may present its own problems. It is not a permanent working area, so stuff has to be cleared away or risk being contaminated by gravy or ketchup. Actually, gaining access to the table itself is fraught with difficulties. As I type this piece of deathless prose, the table is surrounded by several pairs of female boots. There are two female overcoats hanging off the back of two of the chairs and the table top is strewn with a hat, handbags, two recipes, an empty Ferrero Rocher box and a pair of ear-muffs, none of which belong to me. I will confess to the book and newspaper, though.
As you may gather, I am the sole, surviving male in a strongly matriarchal household. My son made good his escape a few years ago. Do I envy him? Not really. Do I miss him? Of course.
As I work on my pencils at the table, I put the i-pod on shuffle and play it through the kitchen stereo. Shuffle often throws up strange juxtapositions, musically speaking, and (Morning Thought Mode) do you know, that's rather how a cartoonist thinks?
I have opined elsewhere (The public forum on the Cartoonist's Club of Great Britain site) that cartoonists are like Metaphysical poets in that they yoke together two disparate thoughts in order to express a universal truth (to paraphrase Dr. Johnson very, very loosely). It could also be argued that cartoonists are, and have been, proto-Post Modernists, again by taking two different ideas and expressing the result as a third entity in its own right; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. As I say, it could be argued thus, but I'm not bloody doing it.
Having arrived at a pencilled drawing on photocopy paper that approximates fairly closely to my satisfaction, what do I do next? Next, I haul out the monstrosity under my bed that is my light-box a.k.a. Wifesbane. It is a piece of home-made equipment that my poor wife hates. She regards it, for the the most part, as a thoroughly useless artifact, the main purpose of which is to enable her to stub her toe upon it. I have had the odd occasion to agree with her and I have the bruises to prove it. I built it based on instructions in The Cartoonist's Workbook by Robin Hall (A & C Black, London, 1995), page 60. If you build it in accordance to Mr. Hall's proportions and materials, it would more than likely turn out to be a beautifully crafted piece of furniture. Mine is A2 sized and made out of white laminated chipboard, except for the base. My base was cannibalised from an old head-board and consequently weighs the same as a baby Indian Elephant. The finished result would have Chippendale drooling, wide-eyed and babbling in the corner of some forgotten cell in a place of incarceration somewhere. But it works, dammit!
My finished drawings are made on the said light-box on Daler Rowney cartridge paper, but just recently I played around with some Winsor and Newton Bristol Board. This is just about twice as thick as cartridge paper and smoother and it is lovely stuff to draw on. It gives my drawings a slicker feel to them. I likes it I does, but it is quite expensive, so I use it very sparingly.
I use what used to be called a dip and scratch pen and Indian ink. The pen-holder is a beautifully varnished wooden body that is a joy to hold. The nib looks like brass and is quite stiff, but it is pliable enough to give me a varied line when I draw. Using a magnifying glass I can make out the nib maker as Leonardt and beneath that the letters IIIEF appear. I have absolutely no idea what that could possibly mean, I only draw with it.
Well, that's it for today. You may wake up now. In future posts I intend to focus on some of my cartoon influences.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Madness in my Method - Creating Cartoons

I thought I would take you through the creative (ha!) process for one of my more recent cartoons. This was an entry to the aforementioned Cartoonist's Club of Great Britain's Caption Competition. The weekly competition is absolutely perfect for an upstart crow like me. It allows me to think about cartoons. It allows me to experiment with ideas and it means that I'm competing with some of the best cartoonists in Britain. That being so, when I get awarded the odd point now and again, my pride-o-meter goes whizzing off the scale. The tick of approval from a professional means a hell of a lot to me.
Enny-whey, one particular week the caption was "It's not as easy as it looks." Which, in some weeks, encapsulates my thoughts on cartooning exactly. Sometimes I jot down several ideas in very rough formation; almost stick-figures, just to nail an idea, but this particular week an idea sprang, almost unbidden, into my mind. What was the worst thing you could possibly mess up in front of a crowd, prompting the instigator to utter the caption? Why, a public be-heading of course!
Look, this is just the way I think. I don't actually enact any of these thoughts.
I have a problem with my cartoons. I often think the finished, inked result is too stiff in comparison to the pencilled roughs. To my eye the roughs often have a vivacity and zip, for all their faults, that is often lacking in the final drawing, but I'll let you be the judge of that. This is the first rough I drew.

Initially I had the axe sticking into the victim's back, then I placed it into his head. Either way, to have the victim running about on the execution platform, screaming, was far too macabre to be funny. Even I have some sense of propriety. But I was pleased with the actual drawing of the victim - who may or may not be Charles I - , because it had a lovely sense of animation about it. A lot of my cartoons are very static.

So, this was my next effort. My thought process went as follows: Manic, screaming victim = unfunny cartoon. What about a fairly pissed-off looking victim? I thought the end result looked funnier, but at the cost of returning to my usual static figures. Yin, Yang. Swings and roundabouts and so on and so forth. The pissed-off looking maybe-King tickled my fancy.

I had a fairly good idea about seventeenth century attire. I've seen copies of Van Dyke's portraits and once there was a television series of The Children of the New Forest. What I'm saying is: I'm not a complete ignoramus, okay? Nevertheless, I didn't feel I had quite nailed it in the costume department, so it was off to messieurs Goo and Gle, image department, to get some semblance of verisimilitude. To my utter disbelief and astonishment, the entire population of England didn't stride around in riding boots (it would seem). So, perhaps I'm a bit more of an ignoramus than I thought I was. I find that as I get older I tend to cringe a lot more than I used to. This meticulous research led to rough number three.
Okay, so I gained some snazzy looking footwear, but I lost the crowd. I can't quite remember my reasoning for doing this. I suspect I thought that they cluttered up the drawing too much and took the emphasis away from the axe. Perhaps I just couldn't fit them all in. My drawings tend to be quite large. All these roughs were drawn on A4 sized typing/photocopying paper, as are the finished items. Thinking about it, I should have included the crowd. It was a public execution, when all is said and done.

The finished result is below.

Now, then. There are quite a few elements in the finished drawing with which I'm not entirely happy. I think the grey wash is too wishy-washy and the hands are far too naff for my liking. The executioner's expression is a bit nowhere too. But, there is a fair bit that pleases me. I think that, in general, I have the important expressions (annoyance and disdain) caught exactly as I wanted them, but all in all, still a fair bit of work to do. My intention is to re-draw this particular cartoon and add a different caption. Once I've done that I shall try to market it. I don't think it's fair to try and pass off somebody else's efforts (the caption) as my own

There you go. A bit of a lengthy entry today. I hope you enjoyed the walk. At least it didn't rain.