Saturday, July 21, 2007

Literally Hundreds of People have asked me...

Yeah, those of you who are familiar with this blog know that means 'one' person happened to ask, in passing, but you must admit that sounds hopeless as a header, so anyway, literally hundreds of people have emailed me, phoned me and stopped me in the street, and in the local, to ask me 'what is it with these pencil drawings, guv'nor?'.

Okay, let me explain. I have decided that I only want to work for a very few publications. These publications are renowned for the cartoons they publish, and I don't intend to send them just any cartoons. I am making the cartoons I send to them, especially for them, and these cartoons are, well, they are bespoke, in that they are created with that publication in mind, and if that publication wants the cartoon, but with changes, to either the drawing or the punchline or both, then I'll make the changes.

There was a time when a lot of publications worked this way, where a pencil drawing would be okayed before it is 'finished' in ink or paint, or crayon or charcoal, or all of these mediums or even published in the original pencil, as was the case with Pont's 'Britsh Character' cartoons many, many, moons ago. To me, it brings the craft element back to cartooning, allowing us to specialize, and removes us from the stock-cartoon and clip art arena that gives a lot of publications a generic look and feel.

I have to say, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only that but I enjoy being able to get stuck into a drawing again. My erasers are filthy, as are my fingers, and my neat collection of long pointed pencils is turning into a collection of weary stumps. I love it.

Where Did the Funny Go?

"If it's such a good aphrodisiac, how come there are only forty nine of us?"

You know, a bunch of us were admiring the work of some cartoonists recently; including a bunch of whom worked for the original Punch, the Williams brothers, Mike and Pete, Albert Rusling, John Donegan, and Bill Stott, at The Cartoon Gallery Ltd, which is owned by Albert, and his wife, Margaret. It was another Punch old boy, Peter Dredge, who pointed out it's a crying shame that there is no publication nowadays that can do justice to Albert's big cartoons, in the UK, and that is true on two counts; there is no canvas here for these big half-page and full-page cartoons, and no forum here for the surreal humour behind them.

You know, a lot of publications here in the UK use cartoons that just are not funny. Of course this has always been the case and I remember being well paid by Accountancy Magazine in the 1980s for really unfunny cartoons, that were published because they had a tenuous link to Accountancy. I think the same is true for many publications that have one purpose, theme, agenda, or a particular target audience in mind, as long as the cartoon mentions that subject, it jumps ahead of anything that is unrelated to the subject, even if that unrelated cartoon is funnier.

Some publications these days though, seem bewildered when it comes to humour, and have started to publish anything that is vaguely contemporaneous but not funny, rather than a cartoon that is funny, but not contemporaneous. The problem with this approach is that cartoons are very much a stream of consciousness production. They come from a place that is difficult to access and often come as waking dreams or even as actual dreams that the cartoonists jots down and then draws. These sparks of inspiration can be incredibly surreal and genuinely laugh out loud funny; in a way that a cartoon concocted around an event, and made to a deadline, in a controlled fashion, just cannot be.

This surreal aspect is, I think, what lifts a cartoon out of the ordinary and makes it art. Making a cartoon around Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown, or George Bush, or petrol costs, or inflation, or low-slung jeans, falls short because it needs to be contextualized to make any sense and to be remotely funny. It's humour, if it has any, is fleeting. The surreal cartoon, on the other hand, can be timeless.

To my mind that is why the best cartoons in the world are being published in the US and the claim that one British Magazine makes, occasionally, to publish 'the funniest cartoons in the World' is the most laughable thing in the entire publication - not including how little they actually pay for the cartoons.

My worry is that the paucity of markets here and their reliance on these cartoons, which must be contemporary, but not necessarily funny, will lead to a de-skilling of the cartoonists that are left here (and there are not that many still in the business). They will be encouraged to think only within the box and to curtail their imaginations. One day, our cartoons here will be the equivalent of Reality TV.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Haunting Story of Pascal

Late last year I stumbled across Insekt, by Sascha Hommer, on the Serializer site. I was enraptured by the strange and haunting story of little Pascal and I made a mental note to say something about it, and then tucked it away in the dark, dim, cobwebby recesses of my tiny brain. Anyway, I was digging through 'My Documents and' there it was (along with some other comics that I promised myself I'd blog about) - so here it is. I can't recommend it highly enough.

I'm almost certain that what jogged my memory was seeing it on sale somewhere online, so I'll hunt it down. The digital pages are all very well, if you're like me, you'll want to check it out first and then buy the book (got to to touch).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Delight that is Dexter

I know it's wrong, because it is the worst kind of stereotyping, but we do 'create' the author of any text in our head as we consume the text. A cartoon is a text, like any other, and when we read a cartoon we create an author for ourselves who is not the empirical author, but the person we think would be the perfect author of the cartoon. In this way, people imagine the cartoonist behind The Adams Family, Charles Addams, to look as creepy as his creations and maybe even to have a Lurch-like voice.

Okay, so maybe Charles Addams could look a little as we imagined, bad analogy. Anyway, what I tend to do is completely stereotype people by what they read, or don't read (I apply the literary theory of unwitting testimony to people as though they are texts), what they watch or don't watch, and what they find funny or don't find funny. I think this form of prejudice is fairly universal and that came home to me when Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer stereotyped his girlfriend, Allison Portchnik (who, incidentally was played by Carol Kane who played Granny in The Addams Family Reunion, phew, la-di-da), within seconds of meeting her. And speaking of Annie Hall and Woody Allen, that's another litmus test.

So, I read The Guardian, and I hate it. I read The New Yorker, and it irritates me. I read Playboy, for the cartoons and the articles. I like graphic novels, literary criticism, fiction, and comics. I like some comic strips, including Tintin and I'm a fan of Line-Clear cartoons, Manga, and Anime. I watch Ugly Betty, CSI, Six Feet Under, King of the Hill, Newsnight Review, Desperate Housewives, etc. I have French movies like Diva and Death in a French Garden in my collection of DVDs, along with Dutch and German films and none of these are dubbed. I have all Woody Allen and the Coen brothers movies. I think I'm a real clever clogs. But here is the really disturbing thing, I look at a funny cartoon, or better yet a funny and clever cartoon, and I picture, well, I think I always picture me. My ideal cartoonist, much like the one in the Hap Kliban cartoon with groupies and things, appears to be myself. Even when the cartoon is drawn by a woman, she is a sort of mirror-image of me, in my mind at least.

So, the latest thing all the 'me's'' (this could be mes' - which looks odd) out there have to like to be in my me club of ideal 'me's', is Dexter. Dexter has finally aired here, in the UK, on FX, and it is a delight. It is in its second week and no doubt just like Sex in the City, Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives (all of which we love) it will be hated, until it is hugely popular, by the stupid British TV critics.

Dexter is the perfect ant-hero, a serial killer who takes out bad guys, and works as a sort of CSI. Like Rumpole of the Bailey, Dexter is an expert in matters of the blood, but then Rumpole never kept his own slide collection of trophy samples at home.

Now, I have to confess to whizzing ahead and watching the entire first series, and it is a complete delight from beginning to end - a hugely guilty, visceral, pleasure, Dexter is television at its best. The show is a Showtime original starring Michael C. Hall (from Six Feet Under) as Dexter Morgan, who works as a forensics analyst specializing in bloodstain pattern analysis for the Miami Police Department, and who is also a serial killer.

Much like I can be hooked on a comic by the covers, like Dave McKean's covers for Neil Gaimen's The Sandman, I was instantly hooked on Dexter right from the opening credits. There is a poetic beauty to the opening credits of Dexter, where the simple innocuous tasks of shaving, cooking bacon and eggs and dressing are given an air of menace because we know what Dexter is capable of, it is like a Dance Macabre and symbolizes the tension that runs throughout the show as Dexter assumes his many masks of normality. I could not, not watch.

Dexter is based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, which all of you 'me's' now have to read to stay in my club, and I was delighted to hear that the second season of Dexter is set to premiere in the US on September 30th this year - not that there could ever have been any doubt that another season would be shot.

If you don't like Dexter, along with everything else that makes you me; then you are out of the ideal me club.

Tobias Tak's The House of Pamplemousse

Illustrator Tobias Tak’s stories are fabulous, in fact I'd use the term 'fantastic', in the true literary sense because if ever there was an illustrator who could do justice to a work like E.T.A Hoffmann's Der Sandman, it is surely he. Tobias's work is nothing less than spellbinding, but even those of you familiar with Gardenia and Klazeena goes Polka Dotty or Upside Down, will be blown away anew by The House of Pamplemousse:

Monday, July 16, 2007

Rod's usual styles of drawing...

'Rod's usual styles of drawing', my chum, cartoonist Dan Collins, said that when he was talking about the National Lampoon book of cartoons, that we both had work in. I never really thought about it before, but I suppose it's true, I have and have had a variety of different styles, but it's only apparent when a bunch of cartoons, and not those from the same batch (a batch of cartoons would be the 10 or 12 one is sending to a particular publication so they would all, presumably look similar) appear alongside one another in a publication. In this case the cartoons were themed, so they came from different periods and got shoved into the same batch, so that's something of an excuse. But is he right? Do I tend to draw each cartoon slightly differently?

Here's a range of the things, some quite recent, some older:

From Punch, around 1984

From WSJ around 2005 or 2006

From The Sun (USA) 2004 or 2005

From The Harvard Business Review, 2005 or 2006

Current pencil cartoons, 2007

And finally, and trust me there were plenty more, a cartoon illustrating a debate about Parliamentary Reform in the UK, from Prospect, November 2005 , I think, and I think they all pretty much prove Dan's point.

"Listen up. Guy's had this terrific idea for Parliamentary Reform."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Yeahah! imanga!

I just posted something on my imanga blog. Took some time didn't it? It's a little bit about MPD Psycho (多重人格探偵サイコ - Tajuu Jinkaku Tantei Saiko - Multiple Personality Detective Psycho) :

I'm not going to update the imanga blog like crazy. It's meant to be very self-indulgant, filled with Manga and Anime that I like, and that I want you to get to know a little better, that may or may not be popular in the West already. The first few posts certainly are, but one or two later ones are not very well known over here and may never be optioned for the Western market. In which case there may be scans available. I don't know about you though, I still like having the tactile, tangible, non-digital object in my hand; when it comes to reading.

Where to Begin?

The odd thing is that so many of those people who profess to dislike Manga, seem to think that 'Manga' means some kind of generic drawing and writing style. So whilst they are aware that all around them the world is changing, they believe that young, and old, Japanese cartoonists are still drawing Marine Boy, which usually just means bigger eyes, despite the fact that they must be aware that few nations on Earth are subject to such rapid change as Japan. It's all very strange, especially so, because a lot of these people are themselves cartoonists. It would be fair to say then, that the creeping worldwide popularity of Manga has sneaked up on them and they think that they can think that popularity away by adopting the Ostrich-Approach.

So, in addition to making this blog for me, I am also making it so that I can point those misguided souls here and I won't need to say 'look, Manga is stories and stories differ and some Manga, like the Manga I read, MPD Psycho, Death Note, Soil, Seizon, Monster, Pluto, YKK, The Walking Man, et al, is some of the most beautifully illustrated, daring and adventurous literature around'.

So, again I ask, where to begin? Well, I think we'll begin with MPD Psycho. The shock of the new, to us in the West anyway, might be the best approach to take.

You can buy MPD Psycho here now, well, in the US at least, these scans here were all taken a long time ago, before the title was optioned and Band of the Hawks and Omanga, who put in all the hard work, removed the title from the internet as soon as some shrewd Western publisher cottoned on to how popular MPD Psycho is. The scanning and the translation (I tweaked the graphics a little for the web) are courtesy of Gatsu, Zyph and Myyah, who did an outstanding job.

Here's a note from the author:

So, yeah, there are some dead bodies in MPD Psycho, but then the title must have given you some sort of clue; Multiple Personality Detective Psycho, it is a slight understatement, I think, to call it a strange title, but then some Manga, like Sexy Voice and Robo, have titles that positively beg you to misinterpret the content of the stories, so what is MPD Psycho really about?

Well, I'm afraid it really is about a detective with multiple personalities, one of whom is a psycho, the protagonist, MPD Psycho himself, Yousuke Kobayashi, was a detective working for homicide and was involved in tracking down a deranged serial killer who mutilates his victims. When the killer sees Yousuke on television he claims an affinity with the detective and mutilates his wife. The grief-stricken detective eventually tracks down the killer but something inside him snaps, and reveals a new personality, Shinji Nishizono, an arrogant and callous psychopath, who shoots the killer dead. From here on in, the personality of Yousuke (or Nishizono the psychopath) is replaced by yet another personality, that of Kazuhiko Amamiya, a brilliant, cool-headed and deeply-analytical criminologist. From here on in, the story gets a little complicated, with the killer that MPD Psycho killed apparently returning from the dead.

That's enough of that, there are plenty of sites out there with brief, and confusing, plot details, already. What I want you to gather is that the thing is such a visual feast, such a complicated array of signs, symbols and images that it is difficult not to be transfixed and spellbound by the sheer virtuosity of the work. In fact, it can wash over you so quickly that you fail to notice that much of the content of the story is extremely disturbing.

The covers alone though (which are strange and beautiful), should have informed the alert reader of this:

The artwork, don't worry I'm not going to subject you to the more grisly of the images that would be your choice if you buy the title, is excellent throughout. The use of black as a colour is stunning and the artist, Sho-U Tajima, is never afraid to fill a full page with a single eyeball if the story calls for it:

Writing this complex narrative can't have been easy, and Eiji Otsuka unravels his tale at a blistering rate, relying on the intelligence of his readership, and those readers have rewarded the author by making MPD Psycho one of the most popular Manga ever written.

The narrative is changed somewhat with the 6-part live-action series, which is now available on DVD. Although the series follows Manga closely, it unravels the narrative at a different pace, and stands alone as an artwork - however, I would strongly recommend reading the series before watching the DVD; unless you are just a huge fan of Asian movies and Manga adaptations (clearly the people who bothered to comment on were neither).

At its heart, MPD Psycho is a search for justice, truth, and identity, I suppose. But it's okay to just revel in its strangeness. It is an intense and often disturbingly surreal journey that both mocks and glorifies violent manga itself, and its influence on the young and on society itself, a point that is repeatedly made, but not laboured, by the excellent direction of Takashi Miike:

Now I've been giving the popularity of Manga a lot of thought recently, and I have come to the conclusion that our post-literate society, the section of it that does consume literature, responds better to the multi-layered, character-driven aspect of some Manga titles, the more voluminous the better, than it does to the short, sharp, neatly encapsulated work we produce here in the West in our comic books, graphic novels and comic strips. That is why, I believe, that the popularity of our comic strips and comic books is declining, whilst the larger and more satisfying genre of cartoon art that we call 'graphic novels' becomes more popular.

For sure, the Manga method of making the story available as a weekly couple-of-pages serial, over a year or so, helps to build up a fanbase, or a community, of readers, but that doesn't explain the loyalty and enthusiasm of the new readers who are introduced to the titles not by the likes of Shonen Jump, but by Scanlators like Band of the Hawks and Omanga - it is often these groups who build a willing audience that Western publishers like Dark Horse then exploit. Hopefully, the fact that readers are actually buying a serial with intelligent content that stretches for volumes won't be lost on the likes of Dark Horse when the submission come in from cartoonists/writers from the West.

The story so far

Those of you who are familiar with the story I am illustrating (well the one I am currently focusing on so I can finish it and deliver the next one), will realise that I am not so far from the end now. I think a further 10 pages, or thereabouts, will see the job done.

The tail is a modern day parable, but I have given equal waiting to the wondrous aspects of the story, and I think it casts it in a new light. I've also tried to focus on the story, on how the narrative shape works, rather than make it an exercise, as is often the case when two people, usually strangers, tackle a story, on how well the writer can write, and how well the illustrator can paint. The only tension in the story is often the struggle between the two monstrous egos writing and illustrating the thing. I think this is the advantage of having a cartoonist tackle these 'graphic novels', there is an understanding, in our profession, because we usually have experience of working on comic books and comic strips, of how the words and pictures should work together. I think this approach also adds to the text, rather than distracts from it as it often does when an 'illustrator' without that experience, is showing how much promise 'their' work has, rather than bothering to understand the nuances of the text and the space between what's said and what should be shown.

In these excerpts (haven't lettered them yet), the protagonist has left the Palace and entered the cavernous Black Mountain, and is about to go through his sternest test.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grim news all round.

Playboy cartoonist Robert 'Buck' Brown, passed away just the other day. I'd like to show you one of Buck Brown's colour cartoons for Playboy because they are so beautifully painted - but there may be copyright issues around that so I'd suggest getting that marvelous big fat collection of Playboy cartoons, Playboy, 50 Years, The Cartoons, so you can marvel at the masterly brushwork the book contains. The book contains cartoons by some really, really, big names in cartooning, like Jack Cole and Eldon Dedini and Gahan Wilson and Buck Brown's work is among the best in it. Now that's a legacy.

Private Eye cartoonist Kevin Woodcock has also passed. I liked Woodcock because he was a good cartoonist with clever ideas, and he didn't much care for mixing with the poseurs and brown-nosers of Greek Street. He was very much in the mould of some of the cartoonists I admire, the still-maverick freelancers, because he just got his head down and produced his own style of work, regardless of what was fashionably funny. You wouldn't catch Woodcock producing some dumb cartoon variation on 'Sat Nav' like all the other Eye-hacks, he was much too inventive for that. His surreal view of life will be sorely missed.

I think that any death is tragic, but when it is untimely and unexpected, it always seems more so, in that respect perhaps the saddest news this week was the untimely passing of Pullitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette, who died in a car crash, aged just 57. He was hugely talented and work appeared in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other titles and in addittion to his award-winning editorial work, Doug was also the creator of the 'Kudzu' comic strip, and a celebrated writer. What a tragedy.

Finally, George Melly, who took over the writing of Wally 'Trog' Fawkes's Flook strip after Humphrey Lyttelton and wrote it, uncredited, for 15 years. Well, as I have said, any passing is to be mourned, and George Melly was a colourful character who loved my home city of Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, and I though he was pretty funny; the best show in town on some occassions - but I didn't ever like Flook, and now, in retrospect, I don't like the way the writers were picked. I just don't think jobs in cartooning should be handed out that way. I always hated Marc Boxer's cartoons too, so obviously I hated any of those that George wrote. That said, the man did write Flook for one and a half decades, and he deserves his place in the cartooning hall of fame.

However, the George Melly I prefer to remember is the old Jazz rogue, dressed like a pirate, who could still prop up and transfix the top bar in William Burdett-Coutts's Assembly Rooms when he should have been at home, in bed, with slippers and a mug of Horlicks (yeah, fat chance).