Friday, March 30, 2007

A non-cartoon related note: Edinburgh's Council Tax (a nice little earner)

This is the document (click for larger picture) that shows that my Council Tax bill has been too high since I moved here. It has now been lowered from band G to band F, backdated to the year 2000. Prior to this, I have now discovered that my old my flat was also incorrectly banded at band G, the same band as several Georgian houses in millionaire Heriot Row and the management flat at the Balmoral Hotel, and one band below The Edinburgh Club on Princes Street - but an obvious mistake, no doubt:>)

Now, I'd have to leave you to make the creative leap for yourself, but consider the following, several of my neighbours are still in the G band, whilst the rest of us (on this small exclusive estate) are now in band F, despite the fact that Edinburgh Council clearly now know that nobody here should be being charged that much. Over at nearby Fettes Rise, one poor punter is in band G, while all their neighbours are in band F, and in nearby Fettes village, a handful of people are blissfully unaware that they are paying more than their neighbours for the same services. This looks even more bizarre as a pattern when 1/2. 1/3, 1/5 and 1/6 are all paying band F, but the poor schlub in 1/4 is paying band G; which also means, by the way, that they are paying more for Water and Sewage than all their neighbours. The Council Tax rates for Ferry Road and Inverleith make for interesting reading too, as they range from A to G, which is one hell of a sweep, and deeply troubling.

Meanwhile, a man who recently bought a flat in Leith, where I was born, had his band reduced from; you guessed it G to F, and seems pretty pleased about that, and also seems blissfully unaware that using the correct criteria for rating Council Tax, how much the house in reasonable repair would have sold for in 1991, that in the early 1992 you couldn't give property in Leith away, so there's no way the flat he's in would have realised that price in 1991. In fact, according to research conducted on behalf of Bank of Scotland by NOP World in 2005, the average first time buyer in Scotland paid £40,918 for a property in 1993, and at that point in time, according to several articles in the Scotsman, Edinburgh ranked below several other Scottish cities in house price inflation.

Now, is it my imagination, or does the letter 'G' appear frequently in the preceding passages?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

HAW, HAW, Satire!

I can't understand why or when cartoonists decided that satire meant simply switching positions, but they did. You know, Price Charles in a room with a plant and the plant complains about him and stuff like that; it's very predictable - unless I do it that is, then it just looks all new and shiny, to me at least. So here is, literally, a satirical quickie.

As soon as I see the clip of the RAF guy on the news advocating that his troops grow beards to get respect in Afghanistan, I jot down a drawing, quickly, with a trusty felt-tip pen:

Now, I'm in a rush so I don't want a lot of palaver and I can't be arsed reaching for the lightbox so I quickly trace the thing on a new sheet of cheapo typing paper using a non-photo blue pencil, but I add a little more detail:

At this stage I would just ink it and scan it into the computer as the scanner can't see the blue lines unless I scan in colour, so no need to erase and risk fading the lines or tearing the paper.

As I said though, I'm in a rush so I scan in and change the drawing to 'gray scale' and darken the lines a little and then, again because I'm rushing, I draw with the mouse in Photoshop and put some basic lines in place - remember this is just a rough.

Now, I click a new 'Layer' and rename it and then I click 'multiply' and I can colour right up to and even under the black lines. My rough is almost ready to send by email:

Just as soon as I 'merge' this bad-boy (the colour layer) with the rest of the drawing. And there we go, took about 10 minutes in total, but the finished drawing will take longer, providing it gets the nod, of course. Meanwhile, I have my blue pencil sketch ready for possible changes, and inking, and suddenly I'm ahead of time, rather than behind.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Geoff Hassing's ideas factory

I was just talking to Geoff Hassing (you'll see some of Geoff's work alongside mine in National Lampoon's, Funniest Cartoons of the 21st Century) who was wondering if we all come up with gag ideas in different ways, and I think it's an interesting topic.

I mentioned the gag you can see below, which I think I can maybe only sell to one of my clients; maybe. Here's how it came about, I was working in the wee small hours writing gags and I had a DVD on in the background (bearing in mind I'd recently watched The Illusionist and The Prestige and had even flicked through an old Luther Arkwright comic) of a Phillip Pullman story called The Ruby in the Smoke; which starred Billie Piper of Doctor Who fame. Now 'Ruby' is a period piece, but with modern pacing - which is quite pleasing, and the other movies are also period pieces, and the comic is a sort of Prussian Empire sci-fi piece, like David Lynch's version of Dune, so I was always going to be influenced, to some degree, in that direction.

The UK cartoonist David Langdon, who himself could be called, albeit affectionately, a period piece - once referred to the process of thinking up cartoon punchlines as 'controlled mind-wandering'. I kind of like that, because you sort of do let your imagination run - but not riot.

You see, you have to target certain markets with your cartoons, that's just a realistic acceptance that this is a business, and whilst you want to be as creative and as funny as you can be, you do have to obey the constraints of the publication you are targeting. So for instance, you might be thinking about office furniture and a torture chamber, this train of thought could have been started by a news article, a line of movie dialogue, a cartoon you saw, a joke you heard, whatever, and you will combine these ideas in search of a gag. But you will limit the ideas you can wring out of this scenario depending on how which market it's going to. For instance, if it's going to the Saturday Evening Post, it'll be tamer than it would be if it were heading for the Wall Street Journal and that cartoon would be tamer, and less wild, than a cartoon heading for, say, Playboy.

Whilst controlling your ideas like this might seem a little restrictive, at first glance, it actually works to your benefit in the long run, because you can go on to develop the idea in stages. So instead of beginning with the most 'out-there' idea, and ending up with only one, perhaps difficult to sell, cartoon, you work your way up slowly, and with any luck create a number of good cartoons, suitable for a variety of markets, as you stretch the idea to its wildest conclusion. I suppose it's a sort of humour by degree.

Anyway, I roughed this cartoon out and it was one of a batch I drew up the following day; but I didn't send it because I didn't think it was that funny. However, Geoff likes it and I think I'm maybe coming round. I do think it'll be a good fit for one of my clients; so in that sense it is not a very good cartoon:

Friday, March 09, 2007


Okay, having got over the fact that even people who 'only draw for a living' can long to do something else, I have another tip for those of you who get bored cartooning; change pens.

I was almost single-handedly resposible for the influx of Faber Castell-Pitt brush pens into the UK (see the cartoon fiend blog) Before he died, my chum, the cartoonist Chris Paterson, used to send me the things from Florida because you just couldn't get them over here. Then cartoonist Tim Harries found a place in Walses that sold them and then I managed to find a couple of online sources, so I bought a hundred, and then a hundred more.

You don't need to be eagle-eyed to spot the difference between the cartoons I have drawn for Prospect Magazine over the years, and those I drew for Punch Magazine back in the 1980s. The lines on the newer cartoons are very, very, thick, and the Punch cartoon lines are spidery-thin. Most, if not all, of the Prospect drawings were drawn with a brush pen, but the early stuff was drawn using Indian ink and a dip pen with a Crowquill nib (those things stuck you in the thumb every time).

So, recently, I've been using a nib again and I'm quite liking the drawings I'm producing. Incidentally, like a lot of other people out there I can't see what I've drawn, properly, unless it's reflected back at me. I used a mirror to look at the things years ago, but seeing them on a programme like Photoshop, or on a web page works just as well now. Anyway, I've been drawing things like my comic strip, which has now been in development for about 15 years, with a dip pen using a variety of Manga nibs; Saji-pen, G-pen and Maru-pen, because I really wasn't happy with the way it looked using a brush pen.

I must say it has, metaphorically, put quite a spring in my step and I am already drawing cartoons that have to be over in the US this month, using my nibs. On the strip front, I'm really quite pleased with the way it's looking, and having finally managed to reach a compromise with myself about public/private art, I'm getting to the stage where I can say I'm happy with the whole thing. So much so that I'm even colouring it.

Not Proustian.

I gave up cartooning, about ten or fifteen years ago, and went into academia, principally to brush up on my writing skills - such as they are - but also because I felt a need for something else. In retrospect it was probably something as obvious and fundamental as a need to mix with people who weren't particularly interested in cartooning. No, that's not really true, I'm covering my backside there, but as this is just between us I can be completely honest; what I felt then was that cartooning was both pointless, and not a very sensible job for an adult. I felt I needed to do more, and that I needed to specialize in something to be able to do so. I chose Art and enrolled in what would become a lifelong learning programme.

I've been lucky, though, I think. I've been taught, through the Open University, by people like Tim Benton, Angus Calder, Arthur Marwick, Lizbeth Goodman, and many, many, others, and through them I've met poets like Jack Mapanje and Jackie Kay (who broke my clock), and some of the hardest working students, of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colours. When I went on to university for a second degree I was lucky to be there when Nicholas Royle was teaching English Lit, and Literary Criticism, and when John Burnside was there to sharpen up my challenged penmanship.

So, I suppose you're wondering out loud, what made you go back to cartooning? Well, I'm glad you asked because there are two answers to this; the first is because my son was going to Switzerland on a Rudolf Steiner School exchange and he wanted a new pair of enormous trainers for his size 12 feet, and I got back into it for extra lolly. The other reason is that I was inspired back by some of the brilliant work I discovered online, and in books. I mean, over all those years away I kept up with stuff, I bought Punch and Private Eye and the New Yorker and the like, but I never saw anything new or brilliant in the shrinking world of gag cartooning that lit my fuse. What I did discover and rediscover though was the work of Robert Crumb, and Charles Burns and Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes.

It was this new type of graphic novel, like Ghost World, or even the old type with comic collections like Bagge's Hate, a literate package of words and pictures that brought me back in. You see I'd been drawing and doing a tiny bit of writing but I wanted to do more, so I studied Art History and then I went on to study English Literature and I think that I had progressed so much as a reader, as a consumer of texts, that what I did had become very, very unchallenging to me, very disappointing, and I couldn't see any way to make it better. But here it was, this new thing, this old thing made new, repacked and remade; here was a symbiosis of art and text that was more than comics had so far been, it was, and I felt that with a growing string of letters after my name that I was now in a position to recognise it, literature that blurred the persistent boundary between low and high art. I had found cartooning I liked, that I could try to do, and that I had an understanding of and could put into words what I liked about it and why.

I suppose what I'm getting at is this. Just because you can draw cartoons doesn't mean you should. I drew cartoons as a job, as a way to make money, and it eventually became just what it sounds like, a daily chore, a grind. I didn't go away and have a Proustian or Joycean epiphany or anything like that, I just did what I hadn't done when I was younger; I learned about life and read a few books and introduced myself to more influences and quietly matured. When I finally sat down in front of a sheet of paper again I had grown up. That was something I couldn't do while I was younger.

So, and this is a purely personal list, here are some books you might want to look at if, like I did, you feel your pencil is beginning to droop (I've added some newer ones, of course):

Charles Burns: Skin Deep, Big Baby, Black Hole, et al.

Dan Clowes: Ghost World

Harvey Pekar: American Splendour, etc.

Peter Bagge: Buddy Bradley and Hate, and everything else

Art Speigelman: Maus

Robert Crumb (a safe introduction would be something with Bob and Harv's Comics (Robert Crumb's work on American Splendour) in it. But then everything, if you can get it.

Now obviously you can add Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi and Renee French and others to this list but these are the texts that sucked me back in and I'd certainly recommend them if you ever find yourself in the same place I did.