Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Didn't Mean all British Cartoonists Are Crap, I Meant They Have Become Crap.

There's a point to this cartoon. I drew this cartoon for a special issue of The Harvard Business Review and it appeared on a whole half-page. I was well paid for it. It is not a domestic gag or a gag about new technology being funny or about how gauche youth are today. It is a gag that was created for a public audience, albeit one with similar interests (it's a very expensive magazine with an exclusive readership), but I'm happy with the interpretation that it's a lion playing with his food and his intended food, if lions could talk and if they had business lunches with rabbits. In other words it exists in its own parallel universe and it is one the readers of the magazine understand.

The title of this post is a little Hitchcock joke, you know, the one about actors and cattle. I think when I was on the Cartoonist Club public forum I called British cartoonists crap and thick. Sort of a very poor bunch, much in keeping with the society, or at least the readership, they sometimes create their 'gags' for. Of course they may have noticed that I am one of the people I have rounded on, I am a British cartoonist, then again they may not (whisper: not the sharpest nibs in the box).

Of course I didn't mean ALL British cartoonists, just the 'gag cartoonists', and not all of them, some of them are pretty great, like me. I certainly don't and can't include the British comic artists and writers, many of whom worked for IPC, who were poached by America long ago and have had the canvas of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image on which to practise and broaden their ever-growing talents.

That's the thing you see, the publications that allowed our gag cartoonists in the UK to show their talents and skills no longer exist. The old skin mags alone provided pages and pages of space for full-colour, full-page cartoons and comic strips and panels, and IPC and DC Thomson between them provided hundreds of pages for our gag cartoonists to stretch their wings and work on serials and self-contained comic pages. Learning about hitting deadlines and revising work and pacing and timing and self-editing and the disciplines and skills of the job. And, of course, there was Punch, the magazine in which, cartoons were born and the home of the surrealist cartoon.

If you had sharp eyes in those days you could fins Daily Mail editorial cartoonist Stan McMurtry's drawings in IPC's comic pages, in The Mail, and in Punch, sharpening his skills as a comic strip artist, and editorial cartoonist and a magazine cartoonist. Other cartoonists were drawing their daily quota of cartoons and even adding writing the comics to their ever-growing list of skills.

When the juvenile comics division of IPC went tits-up, some cartoonists moved to the one remaining major comics producer in the UK, D.C. Thomson, but with falling readership and the use of reprints it looks like the writing may be on the wall for the comics division there before too long (hopefully that won't be the case, but it looks like a familiar scenario). Others either moved into different areas, or gave up. I know quite a few who simply downed tools.

So what do we have left over here for people who want to draw cartoons for national publications? Well, not a lot, I'm afraid. The only daily paper left that sometimes buys cartoons is the Sun (wife and neighbour gags) The Oldie (isn't new technology and the youth of the day funny?), The Spectator (try to be Castro, or Heath), Private Eye (isn't new technology and the youth of today and Boris Johnstone funny?) and Prospect (pretty good gags usually), oh yes, and The Weekly News (wife and neighbour gags), are about the only national publications here in the UK that still buy cartoons. Given that this is all we have, for a population of 60 million, all of whom, apparently, are now cartoonists, to fight for space in, I don't have high hopes for the future of British cartooning. I mean, a simple bit of content analysis tells you that not many (even if my figure of 60 million cartoonists is a wild exaggeration) are doing good business, or possibly even making a living wage, especially since 3 of those titles have few open spots due to their habit of using their favourite 'tame' cartoonists; and in one case the Cartoon Editor's favourite is himself, so there's even less opportunity there.

This flippant little post makes light of a serious problem. There is a stage, a time that you give yourself when you start out cartooning, that you will not pass, it is a marker, it's the very last moment you are prepared to wait to 'break in'. At that stage only the really brave or the really foolhardy hang on. That used to be anything from 6 months to 2 years, depending on the individual. I have no idea how long it would be today, and I can't imagine too many talented newcomers will be prepared to hang on to find out. They are much more likely to bone-up on their Flash and Lightwave and Maya and Studio Max and Manga Studio skills and just head off into a different direction, leaving behind those less-talented, and too stupid to do anything else - those I mentioned at the beginning.

The irony is, of course, that the future has never looked so rosey. With publishers falling over themselves to learn about 'graphic novels' and small Flash animations all the rage on Mobs and new technologies opening up more new avenues a good, well-skilled, cartoonist will really be able to take advantage of what lies ahead. Of course that's the problem; this current generation of cartoonists have no experience hitting daily and weekly deadlines, they can't string a sequential narrative together, they can't write a story, half of them, and those who were at one point skilled enough have become deskilled providing for the only markets that are left. All they can do is sit down and think up gags about wives, neighbours and how funny all this new fangled technology is.

This is why, and I believe there is already evidence of this happening in the US, publishers are cherry-picking indy cartoonists and web cartoonists and people who publish their own mini comics to work on their titles rather than 'mainstream cartoonists', who have surely come to be viewed, perhaps rightly, as the least-talented of all the 'creatives' out there.

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