Monday, 24 May 2010

Childhood Nightmares: Caption Competition No. 43

Well, well, well. And how many points did I garner this week? Let me see. Errrrmm.
Zilchola. Nuffinkini. Sweat Farnni Adamski.
A fellow competitor had a very similar idea to mine and came third with 23 points. You can see all the entries here. The difference? His was funny, mine was just horrible. Although, I was rather pleased with the monster's face - a very strong Baxendale influence there. The arms are all over the place (ho! ho!) and vary in size. Ohhh! There are just so many things wrong with this drawing. Nothing much else to say, really. There's always next week.
Anyway, I'm off to slam every door in the house.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Heroes (2) Leo Baxendale

Let me take you back to my childhood... childhood... childhood... childhood... childhood...
(Sound FX) Gently ascending chords played on a harp.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. I want to concentrate for a little while on June 1964, when I was seven years old. I wouldn't be eight until December. Up until the April of this year we had a choice of two channels on the telly; BBC and ITV and all in black and white. In April BBC2 started broadcasting and BBC became BBC1. Still with me? Everything was still being broadcast in black and white but we now had a choice of three channels, one of which was impossible to watch unless you had a switch on the side of your telly that allowed you watch UHF broadcasts on 625 lines (BBC1 and ITV broadcasted on 405 line VHF at this point). So, what is the point of all this background information? I want you to be aware of the impact on a receptive mind one single television programme could have at that time. In the here and now, a television programme has to shout very loudly indeed in order to make any sort of impression against the hub-bub of twenty four hour, multi-channel broadcasting. Curiously the programme that impressed me in those tri-channel, black and white days, is impressing a modern audience too: Dr. Who.
The Daleks crashed into my consciousness in December 1963 and if they paralysed or exterminated you, the visual world turned upside down: black became white, white became black. The Daleks had an eerie grace as they glided across metal floors. Their voices were totally unearthly, metallic croaks which no child could imitate for any great length of time in the playground. I was besotted. I drew Daleks and Thals in blue biro on lined, newsprint grade notepaper, cut them out and made stands for them and displayed them on the television set (they kept flopping over because they weren't backed with card and didn't have any support, but I was very pleased with my exhibit). It was a scary programme for children and I was hooked.
Seven months later (June 1964, remember?) another event took place which would fill my spongiform (but in a good way) brain. Odhams published a comic called Wham! and introduced me to the art and wit of Leo Baxendale. I had already unwittingly come into contact with Leo Baxendale's surreal world in The Beano and The Beezer before I set my little peepers on Wham!, but all the work in The Beano were by anonymous beings and I'll touch on this fact later.
Baxendale (as any fule kno) is the creator of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in The Beano. My comic reading at that age was a bit erratic and mainly depended on whether my mum and dad could afford to buy me a comic that week. When I could, I would opt for The Topper, The Beezer, The Dandy or The Beano (all published by D. C. Thomson), or else TV Comic (published by Polystyle). There were other comics too, of course, lots and lots of them and, rather like television today, a comic in those days had to be a little bit special in order to stand out from the others, which is exactly what Wham! did. This brilliant panel is one of the reasons why. This was thrilling and scary stuff for a seven-year-old boy. This particular frame is taken from Eagle-Eye Junior Spy which tuned into a mass of popular cultural trends and would continue to do so throughout its run. Eagle-Eye was a schoolboy spy, reflecting the fact that the James Bond franchise was starting its ascendancy: From Russia With Love had been released the previous year and Goldfinger was just around the corner; as was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., another slick, super-spy fantasy partly created by Ian Fleming.
Grimly Feendish, Eagle-Eye's arch-enemy, inhabited a world of half seen horrors with octopoidal tentacles snaking out of roadside gratings and strange, three-eyed things grinned with dagger-teeth at you out from the dark. Best of all these thrills and horrors came at you in floods of brilliant colour. One of Baxendale's most nightmarish creations was a horrible entity called a Mouff. It bounced along on one foot and swallowed people whole. Let me assure you, I was VERY reluctant to turn off the Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound Nightlight after clocking that particular monstrosity. No doubt a Freudian psycho-analyst would put this horror of the Mouff down to a vagina-dentata fear deeply buried in the Id (at the age of seven? I do not think so), nevertheless it was a scary creature to have depicted in a children's comic. I should point out here that these images were printed in a comic that also published Ken Reid's Frankie Stein - more stuff of nightmares! Small wonder, then, that I turned out like I have. I refer the reader to the various postings on this site of cartoons, the theme of which are almost all based on monsters, either human or inhuman, as an illustration of my own worrying psyche.

Wham! was printed through a process called photogravure as opposed to the more usual, cheaper newsprint of other comics. This was reflected in the comic's price, which was roughly twice as expensive as the D.C. Thomson output, but the colour quality matched that of The Eagle and TV Comic. Not every page was in colour, just the outer cover and the centre spread, but they really made a strong impact. In addition to these riches, Baxendale would often add little clockwork Daleks in his pieces. He had, naturally, won my heart and soul.

So, how the hell did I know who this genius was? I knew through the simple fact that, in Wham!, he signed his work. His fellow artist, Ken Reid, was also allowed to sign his work. This simple act was almost unheard of at the time. I think I'm right in saying that the only exceptions to this comic artists' anonyminity were Dudley D. Watkins (Lord Snooty, Desperate Dan) and, much earlier, Alan Morley (Hungry Horace, Keyhole Kate), both being staff artists for D.C. Thomson and the latter artist was only allowed to sign his initials. Baxendale had never been allowed to sign his work in The Beano and when he did, it was removed before it went to print. His Beano work was said to have directly increased the sales and success of that comic.
Although I was a Beano reader before Wham! came out, I could not have been aware of LeoBaxendale as an individual artist. I have vague memories of a Bash Street Masthead which depicted an adult hand wielding something that looked like a split-ended wooden plank with the kids racing away en masse. It was something called a tawse, was made of leather and seemed to be used exclusively in Scotland. Spare the rod, eh?

There were other visually thrilling and conceptually exciting features drawn by Baxendale in Wham! (General Nitt and his Barmy Army, Georgie's Germs), but I want to move on a bit.

I'm a bit fuzzy on publishing facts, but basically Odhams became part of IPC which owned Fleetway that used to be part of the Amalgamated Press. I think that's right, but I'm always open to correction (oo-er, Matron!) and as a result Leo Baxendale became anonymous again, but his style was immediately identifiable, so as a child I could recognise who drew The Pirates in Buster and the Lion Gang in Lion, or The Champ in Whizzer and Chips.
Then I stopped reading comics, left school and started working in the big, scary world. I worked for a stint in the mid seventies in an engineering firm where I read in an newspaper about a new sort of comic-book by Leo Baxendale. I never saw it in the shops, so I didn't really pursue it. Then later, when I was working in an hospital, a young Doctor waxed lyrical about Leo Baxendale and Willy the Kid and the new Willy the Kid book. This would have been Book 3. I had missed the boat again. Until, quite soon after, I stumbled accross Willy the Kid Book three in a sale at my local book shop. I had no idea how it got into the sale, because I never saw it displayed on the book shelves. I bought it and was immediately smitten with Mr. Baxendale all over again. Years went by and I acquired Books 1 and 2. Here is part of a sequence from Book 1 that had me howling with laughter. It is a bit of incremental ridiculousness that builds up, layer by layer into utter madness. The Willy the Kid books are much treasured possessions, but they are not the only ones.
Over the years, and especially for landmark birthdays, my wife has bought signed Baxendale prints and autobiographies (there are two - A Very Funny Business and Pictures in the Mind). The prints are framed and hang in the hallway. I have a very understanding wife (or should that be long-suffering?).
Every now and again I have sent off little missives to The Guardian letters page relating to Leo Baxendale (if you do a search for Brendan McGuire at The Guardian's web-site you'll find them), usually berating The Guardian for not mentioning him despite the fact that he used to draw a daily strip for them (I Love You Baby Basil). My goodness, if you rile me I'll immediately fire off a letter to The Guardian, so take that as a warning.
The idolatrous climax of this obssession came on 11th November 2003. The Cartoon Art Trust hosted a touring exhibition of Baxendale's art to celebrate fifty years of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids. I wrote off for a ticket for the private view night and went along. After poring over the art-work and shyly looking accross at the great man himself, Leo's wife approached me and asked me if I would like to meet Leo.
"Ooh, yes please!"
When I introduced myself, he said, "Are you the Brendan McGuire who writes those indignant letters to the Guardian?"

HE KNEW WHO I WAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He then went on to talk about cycles in children's entertainment. When he started off, his work and the work of others like Ken Reid and David Law were a reaction against the use of magic as a subject in children's comics. And now, with Harry Potter, magic had come back into vogue. I can only imagine that he thought he had been lumbered with the village idiot as I stood there grinning and nodding in agreement.
At that point he was led away by Steve Bell (yes, the Steve Bell) to address the assembled audience.
Leo Baxendale can come accross as a little fierce and scary in his autobiographies. That evening I met a softly-spoken, gently self-deprecating, warm and gentle man. Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes, because they will always disappoint, was plain wrong in this instance. That evening was a thrill from beginning to end for me. AND Steve Bell drew a penguin for me.

I just want to finish this piece with another little bit of Baxendale daftness. It is from a book titled THRRP! (pronounced - blowing a raspberry) which is best described as a celebration of rudeness. This particular panel is part of Leo's take on the Hare and the Tortoise and probably the least rude image I could use on a public domain. It is the penultimate panel of the story and I present it here purely as a study in silliness.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Caption competition No. 42. My Cartoon.

Here is this week's macabre effort. Nine points! And two people gave me their top marks, putting me into fifth place. This is really buoying up my self confidence and the people concerned have earned themselves permanent golden places in my heart.

Shall I let you into a little secret? It's only mildly shocking really, I suppose, but I didn't really enjoy drawing this cartoon. I worried about this one for ages before commiting it to ink. The pencils had a female victim being just that, a victim and I found that personally disturbing. Is it right to make light of events that still shock today? So, I decided that this particular lass was going to fight back with the option of flipping Jack over on to his back, hence the foot in Jack's gut - his forward momentum should have him sailing far over her head.

I also tried to direct the viewer's eye to the cigarette and away from the potential murder, hence the position of the knife and finger. It was my attempt to dissipate the inherrent horror. I worry far too much, don't I?

So, why did I draw it then? When I saw the caption my initial thoughts ran to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, naturally. Surely everybody has the Romantic poets as a default thought mechanism, don't they? No? Ah.
Here is the pencil rough to sort of nail the idea. Okay, it wasn't really going anywhere, but the germ of an idea was there. Then I made the fatal error of discussing my intended cartoon with a work-mate. He pointed out that, to date, most of my cartoons were quite dark in tone. And like down from a dandelion, I went fluttering down that dark place and drew Jack the Ripper.
Sometimes I frighten myself.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Ronald Searle: Graphic Master at the Cartoon Museum

Where do I start? After champing at the bit since it opened, today I attended the Ronald Searle exhibition at the Cartoon Museum. I urge you, if at all possible, to attend this event - for it is an event - at this little gem of a venue (we shall return to this mineralogical analogy later). Go on, get yourself down there. After all, it's only a short(ish) stroll (okay, brisk march) down from Euston station and just tucked below the British Museum. Full location details may be found at If you do make the effort to go, and I sincerely hope you do, make sure that you give yourself plenty of time. The Cartoon Museum is not really that much bigger than a decent sized semi-detached house, but contained within it are unbelievably huge quantities of treasure. I spent well over two hours looking at the Searle exhibits alone and then had to rush around the permanent items upstairs. One of the volunteer curators told me that an attendee had told him that the museum was a jewel-box - small, compact and choc-full of gems. He also said that any other gallery would devote huge halls to a fraction of the Cartoon Museum's contents and I totally agree with him.
The Searle exhibition really is something special. Spanning almost seventy years of imaginative productivity, it begins with his earliest published work, includes his cholera-protected Changi and moves through...
Look, it just cannot be summarised in one sentence. Searle's output is so varied and wide-ranging it just has to be seen to be believed. The emphasis in the exhibition is Searle's reportage for magazines all over the world. It also includes a delightful extended narrative wherein Peter Mayle receives his just come-uppance for popularising Provence.
I was surprised to see how faded some of the work had become, giving a Nineteenth Century feel to some of the drawings, but not the content. This is explained by the fact that for a long period, Searle used a wood-stain instead of ink for his drawings as it was cheaper. The real shock for me, albeit an extremely pleasant one, was Searle's use of colour. Nobody comments on this, but for me it was a revelation. The vibrancy of some of the pieces are stunning - he is a true master.
It has to be said that some of Searle's work can be rather sombre for some tastes, but it is always engaging or thought-provoking. Best of all, as I moved through the exhibition, I continually encountered wholly unexpected pockets of delight. These pockets were the sound of people laughing. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Searle can be very funny and how many museums not only court laughter, but actively encourages it? Laughter is infectious and I heard a lot of it today. Brilliant!
And that was just the main section of the Searle exhibition, there were two addenda included on the ground floor which I could, but won't go on about (although I easily could, as they are equally important). This exhibition is huge.
See it, savour it and treasure it and then reflect on this fact: The majority of Searle's work, when he shuffles off this mortal coil, will not be housed in the country of his birth, but abroad, where his talent is truly appreciated.
Bladdy forrinahs! They come over 'ere, nick our artists and, um, other xenophobic nonsenses.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Captionless Caption Competition No. 40 Cartoon Thing Etc.

Well, Ladies and Laddies, Gels and Guys, I am absolutely cock-a-hoop and as pleased as Mr. Punch this week. Thirteen (13, count 'em - THIRTEEN) points for yours truly this week. That's the most I have ever had. I also came fifth which is not a disreputable position I think you'll agree. For those of you scratching your heads, the theme sans caption this week was "Superglue". And yes, once again Universal Pictures dictated my thought processes. I have no understanding of why black and white monster fillums of the 1930s, which I may only have seen once, should have such a stranglehold over my imagination, but - well, thirteen points.
Without wishing to look like I'm blowing my own trumpet, I am very proud of this week's effort (pass me that bugle, would you?). I've tightened up my drawing technique, the feet are starting to come good (I'll have to keep an eye on those mitts, though), the shading isn't so scrappy as it has been in the past and - um - that's it really. Best of all, and this outshines all the foregoing, I know for a fact that it made somebody laugh out loud (a 'belly laugh' was the actual term used). THAT outweighs everything else.