Friday, May 30, 2008

Situations Vacant: Must be a Shagger.

I did a quick cartoon about Aberdeen Council to celebrate the fact that the Lib/SNP coalition up there is bonkers - as Donald Trump discovered to his cost.

No kidding, you get a lot for your Council Taxes in Aberdeen; shagging in the Council offices, cluelessness about money, lack of leadership. Sounds like the place for cartoonists to be - so much inspiration. Except the place looks so dull - maybe David Lynch should be called in to make their next corporate video.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

National Treasure; Roger Kettle.

Well, maybe some day. I certainly think Roger Kettle gets nowhere near the recognition he deserves. You know, we don't have a lot of indigenous comic strips over here, I think in the last 50 years you would be lucky to spot 20 home-grown strips, national ones, so maybe we should make more fuss about the ones we do produce. Sandy Graham created Fred Basset of course and Reg Smythe created Andy Capp, but most of the strips that we make over here never make the leap to national and international consciousness and have little or no impact on popular culture. Roger Kettle is a little different though, his work has made an impact, and I don't think you can aim any higher than that, as a creative soul, it's about the most important contribution you can make - I think. Not only does Roger write Beau Peep, and A Man called Horace, but he also writes Andy Capp these days, and the strip has certainly begun to attract the attention of critics and writers in a way that it never has before. Which I put down to a combination of great writing and great drawing.

Beau Peep by Roger Kettle Andrew Christine

Anyway, our national treasure, Roger Kettle, did me an enormous favour and read over my Sunshine on Leith preview and picked up on a mistake and even offered some help with the wording and I am, honestly, overwhelmed that anyone, let alone someone with Roger's credentials, would take the trouble. You see, and I try to explain this to anyone starting out in cartooning, that sense that you maybe are as bad as the Cartoon and Art Editors make you feel, never goes away. You just have to get used to it. Nothing makes it go away, not money, not fame, not daily validation through daily publication. On some level, you will always feel that you are maybe The Ed Wood of cartooning, or of writing - that you are the only one too blind to see that your work really is awful. So someone, anyone, paying attention to your work is marvelous, but when your fellow cartoonists do so, it's just the best feeling there is because you know, no matter what the Editors say, that your fellow workmates are the true yardstick.

So, I've reworded the thing and to be honest it is much better, and it lends more depth to the narrative. And hey, who knows - I may not be Ed wood after all. Here's how it reads now, I'll put it up on Word Press later.

The fact that I've added so much worries me. It means I didn't achieve a good balance, with the earlier page, between the story I'm trying to tell with words and the story I'm trying to tell with pictures.

The whole episode got me thinking about words and pictures in a new way. That's because I'm usually concerned with how writers who who have no experience writing for comics have a problem when they approach this genre. They tend to overwrite, and that's why people like me just stare at disbelief when a writer approaches with a 2,000 page script. On the other hand, illustrators are used to using a few visual symbols to encapsulate pages of descriptive writing - take for example Ernest Shepard's drawing of Pooh, grimly clutching his balloon, being blown over the treetops of the Hundred Acre Wood - that scene takes Milne a lot of lovely descriptive chapters, the drawing takes half a page of pen-strokes. When the two appear together in the form of the Pooh book they both illustrate the same thing. They are working together, but they are also separate and independent. That's how picture books often work. But that's not the way comics and graphic novels work. You don't just illustrate the text, you don't want a character opening a door saying 'I'm timorously opening the door now', you can learn that from the drawing. In comics and graphic novels you have to show and say some things with words and show and say some things with pictures. Getting the correct balance between the two is difficult. Take this drawing for the second chapter of Sunshine on Leith, Down Town:

What's going on here is the protagonist has been left on his own at the top of the largest boulevard in Scotland whilst his aunt, a teenager herself, has slipped off for a coffee and a ciggy with friends. It's early evening and the sound of Down Town is belting out from the surrounding cafes and bars and the street lights have gone on and suddenly the eyes on the buses and cars have lit-up. The chatter of people leaving work at the nearby factories and shops and bonds and yards, all at the same time, overwhelms him and he races around frantically looking in windows to find his protector.

Now at first, I wasn't really going to have too much writing here because this takes part in a fully illustrated part of the story, but that's me forgetting that my 'ideal reader' is me. I will have to do some more editing, I think.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fair Puggled!

Fair Puggled means really tired (spellcheck wants it to be plugged or juggled, poor thing). It's a great phrase isn't it? I'm fair puggled today, I was up all night watching a Japanese quiz show that had cartoonists on it. It was odd and fantastic. It must be great to live in a country where cartoonists are celebrated. Puggled is a good Scottish word. Did you know there are around 15 million Scots in the US? That's astonishing, there's only ever 5 million here, in Scotland, at most. Millions of Irish people in the US too. I've been imagining everyone in the US of Scottish and Irish descent buying my book about Leith, because it's about people from both backgrounds. Anyway, if it happens, it won't change me. As long as you continue to be rich and famous and successful, I will always be your friend.

Some publishers are really, really, thick. No kidding. I've started to letter the first 100 pages of Sunshine on Leith and I've posted the introduction over on my Word Press blog, which will only be about the books I'm working on. I've done this SO NOBODY THINKS MY GRAPHIC NOVEL 'SUNSHINE ON LEITH' is comprised of my cartoons.


Fortunately we are all a great deal smarter than them. So I'll keep posting updates here. Did you read the Observer Book of Books the other week? Some authors make as little as £4,000 (about $8,000) a year from their books. Astonishing, isn't it? I have to say, I'm looking hard at the economics and as I haven't flashed my vagina getting out of a car and haven't slept with anyone in the public eye, or had my breasts reduced and don't really hate my parents, I'm going to get offered a real shitty advance and I'll have to make money from sales alone. I have to tell you, I'm seriously looking hard at, and considering Amazon's new plan. I can't see it being worse than most publishers offer - and Amazon operates the long tale - so maybe. We'll see. Time's are changing, some things are no longer unthinkable. Although Fantagraphics is distributing Chris Ware's latest book, he is publishing it himself. We live in interesting times.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The New Yorker Cartoon Rip-Off Scandal.

Okay, so it's a bit of a storm in a tea cup. I noticed the drawing and the Kirby creature registered with me, but I really didn't pay much attention at all. It was only after I followed the links on Dirk Deppey's Journalista blog that I actually paid any heed to the 'furore'. Anyway, I really like Harry Bliss's drawings. I love that strange looking pencil he uses. And, I also know how easy it is to end up with similar ideas, I mean, I'm sure I sent the 3 little pigs cartoon with the pig with the brick house being repossessed to the New Yorker months ago - they didn't use it, but one of their cartoonists did one very similar to mine in the April 28th issue. Of course they could have had that one in the drawer when mine arrived, and that sort of thing happens all the time. I really was certain that the sub-prime mortgage crisis would affect the little piggy much more than the wolf's huffing and puffing - and I wasn't the only one; it seems.

On this occasion though, with Harry Bliss's cartoon, it's a little different. If, like me, and I presume like Harry, you are a comic book fan, you would have noticed something vaguely familiar about the cartoon in the New Yorker caption competition:

Cartoon by Harry Bliss (after Jack 'King' Kirby), copyright, the New Yorker, 2008.

Yup, it's based on the work of the 'King' himself, Jack Kirby - the artist who 'co-created' many of Marvel's greatest comic book creations and breathed life into Thor, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, etc, etc. It is, in particular, a drawing that clearly owes a debt to Kirby's cover to the vintage Silver Age comic, Tales to Astonish # 34:

That's the thing though, it is very clearly based on that cover, right down to the buildings in the distance and the ring around the creature - it foregrounds its similarities to the work; it is clearly not trying to pretend it owes Kirby's cover no debt. Now I don't pretend to know what was in Harry's mind when he created the drawing, but it looks like an homage to the King, and Harry Bliss claims it is just that, so I believe him.

If there is a fault here, I'm inclined to think that it was in not acknowledging the debt to Jack Kirby in the first instance, either by Harry himself, or at some later stage by someone else in the magazine. After all, a simple 'after King Kirby' or some such would suffice. That is certainly fairly standard here in the UK. However, the New Yorker's response that they could assume their readers would find a reference to 'Tales to Astonish # 34 'obvious' , may be stretching it a bit - according to their demographic that is. Or has it become the latest object d'geek? No, it looks to me like an oversight, a real blooper, but thankfully one that has now been corrected.

Of course this has drawn unwanted, and perhaps unwarranted, attention to Bliss's output and someone has noticed a similarity between Harry Bliss's cartoon about being referred to a rehab clinic by a publicist, and one drawn some time back by John Rau.

Copyright, this copy, The New Yorker (click here to visit the Cartoon Bank)

Copyright John Rau, 2006.

Now I admit it looks similar, but this is surely a little like my 3 pigs cartoon that I mentioned above. Cartoonists can and do think alike. Their wires can cross and let's face it, it's a pretty obvious gag. I've actually looked through the Cartoon Bank cartoons and found a lot of the ideas I think are new, have been done, it's just a case of a subject not having an infinite amount of funny possibilities, I suppose.

I must admit, though, I did become a little perplexed by Harry Bliss's 'I'm with stupid' tee-shirt cartoon from the March 2008 edition of Playboy, after Mike Lynch brought the subject up on his blog. It made me think more about the cartoon, which up until then I had simply enjoyed as a drawing because of its very modern look. Harry has drawn a young male student walking through the campus wearing an 'I'm with stupid' tee that is pointing down to his junk. I actually recognised the t-shirt, vaguely, I was sure I'd seen it before. And I had, there are at least three companies out there who print an identical tee, BuyCoolShirts, Printfection and Jiggy. There may even be more. However, I'm fairly certain they are all certain they came up with the idea too, and I think Mike Lynch attributed the original to VIP (I may be wrong). But then I thought about why I liked the cartoon in the first place. I liked it because it looked like a modern Playboy cartoon, to me. In light of the fact that the t-shirt design isn't invented in the cartoon and therefore isn't really the gag; I don't like it any less. What I enjoy about it then is that almost every male student who turns up at University should wear a t-shirt reminding them they are with stupid and who stupid is, in the first two semesters, at least.

It's also worth pointing out here that 'I'm with Stupid' is, like the desert island and the visits of Death, a familiar cartoon theme, or trope, that is still fairly common in cartooning circles. The Harry Bliss cartoon here, from the New Yorker in 2004, where one gravestone is pointing at another and has 'I'm With Stupid' as the legend on it, establishes it is an idea he plays with often. And I think the fact that Bruce Bolinger's undated cartoon here at Cartoonstock (scroll down to 'I'm With Stupid, Cartoon #9'), which is also a cartoon with one tombstone with 'I'm With Stupid' pointing at another, is just another example of how when you have a popular subject and you have a lot of cartoonists out there 'thinking', they can come up with very similar ideas.

There's probably a maxim behind this that if you give 100 monkeys an infinite amount of time they can programme a virtual world where all the cartoonists will believe they exist and they will all have the same ideas randomly forever - or something to that effect.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The origins of the Graphic Novel

Earlier this month, pages from one of the most gorgeous and lavishly illustrated manuscripts of its time, the Sanskrit epic, The Ramayana (Rama's Way), were put on display by the British Library. You can view it online with Silverlight, available as a download at the site (pics below):

Some four volumes of this masterpiece, were given to Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod, the Scottish-born historian of the ancient Hindu royal warrior clan the Rajputs; by Rana Bhim Singh of Mewar. Colonel Tod took the volumes back to London with him in 1823, where they were acquired by the British Museum, which later gifted the volumes to the British Library. Since 1844, until now, they have been hidden away, stored in bound volumes, and made accessible only to scholars. Which is criminal, isn't it?

Tod, lording around on an elephant.

There isn’t too much about the manuscript in the newspaper articles, except to say that it was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh, who ruled over Mewar in north India from 1628 to 1652 and it was the work of several artists including the greatest of all the 17th Century Mewar artists, Sahib Din. But they did, to their credit, use it as an opportunity to print some of the illustrations. However, according to Vidya Deheija's, The Treatment of Narrative in Jagat Singh's Ramayana: A Preliminary study, Jagar Singh's master artist Sahib Din, himself a Muslim, who headed the imperial workshop at Udaipur, was responsible for the paintings of two of the seven books that comprised the manuscript, the second book, Ayodyakianda, and the sixth book, sahibadi citrakrtam.

Containing more than 400 beautifully crafted and vividly coloured paintings, the manuscript, one of the most heavily illustrated editions of the Ramayana ever made, copied in seven large volumes in 'nagari' script, by Mahatma Hirananda, is the only one to survive from Rajasthan from this period.

Set in northern India, around 1200 - 1000 BC, The Ramayana is a poem containing 24000 verses, or Sanskrit couplets. Although it was it written down around two thousand years ago, by the poet/sage Valmiki, the Hindus, with their strong tradition of oral story telling, had kept the story of Prince Rama's epic adventures, viewed as it was as a history of the Mewar house, alive for many centuries before then.

The poet Valmiki reciting The Ramayana

The Ramayana tells the story of Prince Rama (considered to be the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu) and his wife Sita (considered to have been a human incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi). An heroic figure, Prince Rama's mission in life is to fight evil, and his story begins when the former King Viswamithra takes him, along with his brother Lakshmana, from his home in Ayodhya to the Sarayu river for a sacrifice ceremony. The place is haunted by demons, until Rama kills the main demon Thataka, with his bow and arrow. Afterwards, he is taught by Viswamithra to use the asthras, the divine weapons.

The birth of Prince Rama

Many adventures later, including bringing life back to a woman cursed into stone, the adventurers arrive in the town of Mithila, where Rama falls in love, at first sight (this is inevitable because Rama is an Avatar of Vishnu and Vishnu and Lakshami take human form at the same time and are destined to be together), with the King’s daughter, Sita. However, because of a pledge, Sita is to be married only to the man who can lift, bend, and string the giant bow of Shiva; a task Rama not only performs but outperforms by breaking the bow. After the couple are married, Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, where the King Dasa-ratha, Rama's father, announces Rama his successor.

The night before King Dasa-ratha hands the crown over to his son, Prince Rama's stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, her ear poisoned by her hunchbacked servant Kooni, informs her husband that it is time for her to collect the two wishes he promised her; and she wishes him to exile Rama to Dandak's forest for 14 years, and to crown her son Bharata in his place. As promises are honour-bound to be kept, and despite his father's pleas not to go, Rama accepts his exile as duty and prepares to leave. Meanwhile, Bharata, disgusted with the intrigue of his mother, promises to act only as regent until Rama's return, and for the next 14 years refuses to enter Ayodhya.

Joined in exile by his wife, and his brother, Lakshmana, Prince Rama encounters many strange beings including Jatayu, the Great Eagle, Sugreeva, King of the monkeys, Hanuman, the great monkey General, Jambavan, King of the Bears, Kumbharkarn, Ravana's giant brother, Indrajit, Ravana's warrior son, Kamavalli, Ravana's sister and in reality the female demon Soorpanaka, Soorpanka's army of demons, and as a consequence of their encounter with Soorpanaka, her brother the demon king Ravana, overlord of the seven worlds. It is the ten-headed demon King, Ravana of Lanka, who steals away Sita for his own.

On his quest to find his wife, Prince Rama spends time in the land of the Monkey race, where he encounters the great Monkey General, the Monkey god Hanuman, and the new King of the monkeys, Sugreeva, who promise to help in the search for Sita. After visiting Bear Kingdom they also enlist the help of Jambuvan, King of the Bears, and all the Bears join the search too. The army of rescuers is lead by Monkey General Hanuman to the Demon Kingdom of Lanka, an island in the middle of the ocean, where Sita is held prisoner. Because Hanuman is the son of the Wind God, Vyu, he is the best at jumping, so leaps all the way over to Lanka where he delivers Prince Rama’s ring, to Sita. Although he is caught, Hanuman outwits the demons and escapes by leaping back to Rama.

An epic battle ensues after the army builds a causeway, with the help of a golden mermaid queen who lives at the bottom of the sea, to cross the ocean to the island, where Hanuman's troops meet Ravana and his demon army in battle.

Lakshmana is so badly wounded in the battle it seems that he will die before sunrise unless Hanuman can leap to the Himalayas and bring back the healing herb from the Medicine Mountain to save his life, which he accomplishes by carrying the mountain to Lakshmana and capturing the Sun itself.

Rama and Ravana fight using the divine weapons that Viswamithra taught Rama to use. Whenever Rama cuts off one of Ravana's heads, t falls to the ground, and another head grows back in its place. However, triumph he does, and afterwards the Monkeys and Bears run through the ruins of Ravana's palace to find Sita and she is set free to scenes of great rejoicing.

When Prince Rama tells her he cannot embrace her because she has slept in the house of another man, Sita proves her innocence by throwing herself into a funeral pyre, after praying to the fire god Agni not to burn her if she is telling the truth. After she emerges from the flames that turn to flowers, unscathed, Prince Rama embraces her.

Hanuman leads the band across the causeway and when they get to the other side the bridge sinks down under the sea, leaving a trail of rocks jutting out in the sea towards Lanka (much like Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, I suppose). The band then walk across India, and on the way people came out of their houses and place little lamps on their doorsteps to light their way. More and more people light lamps, and the band follow the trail of lights, home. This is still celebrated today in the Festival of Lights; Diwali - where people celebrate light in the darkness, placing lights in their windows to welcome Sita/Lakshmi, wealth and prosperity, into their homes.

At the very end of their journey, the couple fly into Ayodhya in the Puspaka, an aerial car borne by four birds (see painting up top, top left), which was stolen by Ravana from its original owner, Kubera, the god of wealth, where they are proclaimed king and queen; thus inaugurating Rama's rule (Ram-raj) and a golden age for mankind.

Because I don't want anyone trying to engage me in a debate about what ‘sequential art’ or 'narrative art' or a 'graphic novel' is, I shall refrain from commenting on the fact that the paintings clearly form a narrative in a sequential structure, often in guttered panels, or one highly sophisticated and elaborate gutter-less piece, that allows even one who cannot read the accompanying text to 'read' the story. You can decide for yourself whether or not the roots of the graphic novel were planted in India sometime between 1628 to 1653.

If you can find it, you might want to read, The Treatment of Narrative in Jagat Singh's "Ramayana": A Preliminary Study , Vidya Dehejia , Artibus Asiae, Vol. 56, No. 3/4 (1996), pp. 303-324 (article consists of 22 pages). Published by: Artibus Asiae Publishers; Museum Rietberg Zurich, the museum of non-European art of the City of Zurich, Switzerland.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Your Childhood Hero Needs You

Somewhere along the line you will have been inspired by Gene Colan. Perhaps his work inspired you to become a cartoonist - helped you on your way - aided your development as an artist.

Original art here

At the moment he is suffering from liver failure and needs your help and support. You could make a donation, however small, or buy some artwork. There's an Ebay auction here.

Original art here

You'll find some details here on Spurgeon's Comics Reporter, follow the links to other sites). Dirk Deppey has paypal details on Journalista, even dropping a few pennies there will make a difference.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Long Tail of Cartooning

I was going back over some old New Yorkers and I came across an article I remembered reading some time back, that I made a mental note to refer to, and clearly promptly forgot that mental note. It was an article about the business model, or philosophy if you prefer, called 'The Long Tail' that Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Chris Anderson, wrote about in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

I've since read a lot more about 'The Long Tail' and how it works in relation to the digital music and the book-selling business. More recently, I have read about it being applied to the DVD movie business, and it strikes me it is the perfect paradigm for the business of cartooning.

How The Long Tail works is best viewed as the opposite of the old video rental shops like Blockbuster. Those shops held very few titles, only the main block-busting movies, the top 20 usually, but lots and lots of copies of them. People popping in looking for an old Will Hay movie like Ask a Policeman, or Cocteau's Orphee, or the Dutch thriller Amsterdamned, were just plain out of luck.

With 'The Long Tail' model however, you can get any movie you want because everything is kept in stock, forever - everything, even the most obscure titles that shift only 1 copy in 5 years.

As you will have guessed then, the old fashioned concept of a shop is not ideally placed to adopt the Long Tail, even with enormous floorspace a traditional business all on its own, is not ideally placed to profit from this business approach (although it is easy to imagine a group of small shops working together, with a central warehousing facility pulling it off). On the other hand virtual businesses, that is to say businesses that can keep their stock as pieces of data, for instance those that supply digital songs or ebooks or emagazines or, even, cartoons and illustrations, are immediately ideally placed to profit from it.

With these e-businesses, the warehouse space needed for the items they produce, or store, is incredibly small, and measured in bits and bytes. They can keep a million copies of their number one best seller, by simply having one copy of it on a server, and it takes up just exactly the same amount of space as the obscure item that sells only once every 6 years. The appeal and the beauty of The Long Tail, in this respect, is that because of the way the work is stored, it also incorporates the old 'block-busting' philosophy as well, because endless copies of the top 20 best sellers are still available for anyone and everyone who still just wants those, and the buyer interested in something older and more obscure can also get what they want. It's a win/win situation.

I started thinking about The Long Tail in relation to the cartooning business when cartoonist Anthony Kelly was pondering the question of resending cartoons that failed to be bought on their first outing, or two; or ever for that matter. It's relevant to The Long Tail business model because these days we cartoonists scan all our drawings into the computer and over time develop a large database of digital work, that can long outlast the original drawings. Indeed many cartoonists no longer draw on paper, and draw directly into the computer and in both these cases the 'original' paper drawing becomes less useful than their digital clone, which can from then on be printed out endlessly as a high-resolution copy, or sent to publishers by email.

These high-resolution copies can quickly build up in number because cartooning is a high-volume business, so for that reason, and in case the computer's hard drive takes a nose-dive, many cartoonists store their accumulated work on a removable hard drive, flash drives, or burn them to disc. Either way, most cartoonists, essentially, build an archived Long Tail of our own cartoons. Which should be, with luck, categorised in a way that makes a cartoon on a given subject easily accessible.

Of course, without knowing they are doing so, many cartoonists and illustrators have been practising the Long Tail for years. I myself have, on more than one occasion, looked through my database of cartoons to see if any can be reused or adapted because some trend or fashion or major event has swung round again. I do it in August, when I get my cartoons ready for Christmas, and I do it every time I get a commission - no sense in wasting a good idea. It's actually a fairly common practise amongst cartoonists, and my colleague and chum, Mike Lynch has, in the past, written about how long it has taken to place a particular cartoon; proving that cartoons that are returned are never 'rejects', they are just under appreciated at that time. In short, they are ideal candidates for the Long Tail.

Back when I abandoned the UK market and started sending my cartoons to the US, along with the new stuff I sent some cartoons that hadn't sold in the UK - and quite a few were picked up by some major US titles (and yes that was very, very, satisfying). I suppose, like most of my colleagues, I just wasn't ever aware that I was practising a sound and recognised business model, experience had simply taught me that if I persisted and sent the drawings to enough titles, that I would eventually sell almost every cartoon. The 'rule' that cartoonists sell only 10 to 20% of the work they produce is only true when they are attempting to sell that batch of cartoons that month, to a small selection of preferred markets. Given the luxury of time, they will all sell, it's just a matter of the thing arriving in the right place, at exactly the right time - for instance when a magazine is producing a Special Edition that the cartoon relates to.

When you sit down and think about it, the Cartoon Stock Agencies, which a lot of cartoonists maintain they only send their old cartoons that failed to sell to, actually already operate The Long Tail model. To be sure, some of the cartoons they sell are contemporary, the 'block-busters' of the cartooning world if you will, but they are a minority, they mainly sell generic cartoons to companies or individuals or schools and colleges, from a large data bank of themed cartoons. When, for instance, the Society of Dentists is looking for 12 dentist-themed cartoons to print on a calender for its members, it isn't bothered how old the cartoons are, it doesn't care if a cartoon was created 15 years ago or last week, and doesn't really care who drew the cartoons, the good society's criteria will be 'dentist-themed' and funny.

Looking at it from a safe distance, you can see that it is the cartoonists themselves who are operating The Long Tail, but rather than selling the work themselves they have chosen to supply a middleman to operate the Long Tail on their behalf. This is not cheap, the Stock Agencies routinely take 50% of the sale, in commission, which is a lot of money for simply storing the work online. When you think about it, the Stock Agency website is in fact nothing more than a convenient storefront that displays a variety of old and new cartoons on a range of themes.

The thing is, these Stock Agencies prove, by their very existence, that a demand exists for a Long Tail of cartoons, on a variety of subjects; so why then, since each cartoon a cartoonist sells herself rather than selling through a Stock Agency will net the cartoonist 100% of the sale (and the payment will arrive a lot sooner), do so few cartoonists set up their own data bank of their own cartoon stock online?

It's a puzzle. Perhaps cartoonists are too busy or too unskilled in http to set the thing up, or too poor to pay anyone else to do so, or just too timid to try the open-source software that is available (but admittedly is very intimidating). Or perhaps they suspect, or fear, that they will not attract the passing trade, on their own. A fear they should disregard if our example of the dentist-themed cartoons is in anyway accurate. Remember our dentists really don't care who created the dentist-themed cartoons, as long as they are funny. If the lone cartoonist can provide all the cartoons in print-ready form, or even produce the actual calender, so much the better. All these people don't want to do is to have to hunt around the www and gather a bunch of disparate cartoons, in various formats, from different desperate cartoonists. What swings it for them, is the one-stop shop - a cartooning Wal-Mart.

For me, even lumping all these reasons for not giving it a go yourself together, hardly seems reason enough not to try, and it begs the question, why don't some cartoonists solve all those possible problems by banding together to set up their own small Stock Agency, or small syndicate, sharing the work, worry, jobs, and expenses involved?

That was the question I was left asking myself when I heard from 2 cartoonists who had sold about 5 cartoons, between them, through Stock Agencies, over a period of 2 years - for a very small amount of money. It intrigued me more when I realised the cartoons they had sold were all business cartoons. Had it occurred to them, I wondered, that if they got together and set up a website advertising their skills and experience, and their stock of business--related cartoons, that there was at least a chance that they could have sold the same cartoons to the same customers who were on the Internet searching for business cartoons - and for twice as much money as they had been paid? And had it occurred to them that if the people buying those business-related cartoons had just bought a quota of business cartoons from the Stock Agency, in the same way our fictitious Society of Dentists bought a hypothetical bunch of dental-themed cartoons, that they might have bought all the business-themed cartoons they were looking for from their own archives, rather than from the Stock Agency archive. Think about it, that one sale to you might have represented a sale of 10 or 20 or even 100 business-related cartoons to the Stock Agency. It is, after all, as it will make clear to you, not acting as your Agent. It is not there to try to sell 100 cartoons by you, it is there to move 100 units of 'cartoon stock'.

It seems clear to me that a very small, manageable, Stock Agency, with a handful of partner- cartoonists, all with a proven record of publication, perhaps specialising in business and office humour (which can be a broad sweep), or golfing humour, or IT humour, et al, could expect to meet with a reasonable degree of success, even if they charged slightly more for their cartoons than some of the other agencies out there.

I can even imagine a loose umbrella sort of arrangement where you have, for instance, two cartoonists who sell their work online, lets say Randy Glasbergen and Mark Anderson for example, both cartoonists who create business-related cartoons for The Harvard Business Review. They will still have their own individual sites, but they could also have an umbrella site, that sells their work together, as 'Business Cartoons by Harvard Business Review Cartoonists', and perhaps even prints the calenders and cards and other paraphernalia for the customer.

In the UK, I can easily imagine the same sort of umbrella site pulling together a vast array of talents including Tony Kelly himself, and when you add a few others to the mix, you end up with a graphic design workforce that can proclaim itself 'Britain's Best Cartoonists' and is capable of designing everything from caricatures to calenders, books, and even Flash movies for the web MOBS and TV.

Things have never looked so bad on the traditional front for cartoonists, and yet so exciting in so many new areas. But we will throw it all away if we keep putting our destiny in the hands of others. The Long Tail approach affords us an opportunity, at very little cost, that we must grasp.

Postscript: I have just stumbled accross a very good looking site that a young (I'm presuming) UK 'cartoonist' is selling his wares from. He is appallingly bad, and that the only thing remotely to his credit is that he is not claiming to ever have had a cartoon published anywhere.

What he is claiming to be is a 'professional cartoonist' and I suppose that in one sense he is just that. What is a;arming to me though, is that anyone limiting themselves to a search on Google, for cartoonists in the UK only, will find his site quite quickly, and they will either buy cartoons from him - or move immediatly to a cartoon stock agency for a more professional selection. That could well put this particular buyer off buying from individual cartoonists.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Practise my boy, practise.

I came across (now then Misses) a cutting of an old fart-cartoon I did for a rude magazine decades ago. On the reverse of the cutting was a cartoon by Peter Dredge. I'm trying to find the thing again, I put it down somewhere and its gone, but as I was telling Peter, his cartoon looks great and mine looks really bad. When I find the thing I'll scan both sides in.

I know we all cringe when we see our old work but seriously Peter has no need to because his really looks good. I put his cartoon looking better than mine down to the fact that he had more cartoons published than I did. Plus, if memory serves, he was also doing a daily editorial gig for his local paper - something that just wasn't possible in Scotland.

Anyway, I've mentioned before how those markets that were once around, the skin mags and regionals that bought cartoons, allowed us to grow as cartoonists, and how these days with the paucity of markets, the new breed of cartoonists just doesn't have the same creative outlets and opportunities. Fortunately they do have the web, and whilst some misguided amateurs will punt their unchanging poor quality work on the www, others, with real talent, will use the medium of the web to blossom and grow.

What I thought I'd do with this post is to create a sort of chronology of my cartooning development, such as it is, to see if I actually did get better at cartooning, and not just slicker at knocking the things out.

This is a popular Punch cartoon of mine from 1983. I have a copy of the original, but the real one was snapped up. What strikes me is that I can see such a heavy Noel Ford and Ken Mahood influence that I'm surprised they didn't beat the crap out of me. I'm also struck by the change in Nick Newman's work, his Private Eye cartoons are much more polished - I don't want to say they look slicker these days, but they do. On the other hand it looks like he did what I did back in the day, and that is is rushed through the inking stage so it all looked off-the-cuff'. I'm also struck by how unchanged Frank Cotham's style is. If you pick up a New Yorker today his cartoons still look exactly like that, and even his signature is unchanged - unlike mine and Newman's. It must be comforting to be that settled.

Here's a look at the copy. It's identical because I drew this cartoon 18,745 times. The evening before it was posted (in 1983 I sent in originals) I indicated the wash using green watercolour by mistake - it was late and I was tired and I was coming down with Chickenpox. The final 3 attempts at drawing it saw me give up the pencil and the ruler and just draw; which is why there isn't a ruled line there. I used the Osmiroid Artists pen, which was okay, but nibs were hard to come by. In fact, every time the nib went belly up I needed a new pen - and they were pricey.

These are an interesting find. My agent, at the time, sent me these copies of around 40 different cartoons all about 4"x 5" that he mailed out to publications in an ordinary letter-sized envelope. Apparently my best markets were Greece and Turkey, I think. I've put these 4 together, but I can see from looking at them that the one in the top left corner was a much later drawing than the other three. It's also a new punchline on a gag I sold to The Daily Star back in the early 1980s. The others are what I'd consider bog-standard single column cartoons for the daily press. But back then I thought they were pretty great I bet.

This was also from around that same period. I was self-syndicating a daily graphic panel about TV shows that I called On The Box. It was a hard slog selling cartoons to Scottish papers, and it was quite a result to even place it in one. I even negotiated my payments. I was very young, so I may have been pushy. Makes me laugh thinking about it. The cartoon, I don't find so funny. It was forced humour that related to TV shows that went out on the day the cartoon appeared. This one was about a TV show called something like Babble. Willie Rushton, a well-know cartoonist and one of the founders of Private Eye, and a notorious mumbler, and babbler was in it.

This is more like it. This is the experimentation I was speaking off, plus I got paid lots 'cause it was a full page. The punchline is 'The Honourable Bunty Featherington-Smythe's bottom'. It's a P.G. Wodehouse-type tribute. A mooning Drones Club member, if you will. It was drawn on a special marker pad and mainly coloured using Panatone pens (I was high as a kite with fumes by the time I'd finished). Of course it looks like a mess to me now. It is way too dark , I should have used a muted palette and watercolours but we live and learn; and that's really the point of it all, isn't it?

Ah, ha. This will come as a shock to people who only know the new toned-down Alistair Stein the journalist. This was in Alistair's magazine What's On Scotland. Back then he swanned around the New Town in a black Astrakhan-collared coat wearing a large black fedora, and a black eye-patch and swinging a black walking cane. He cut an impressive figure. Whenever we were talking payment he would sit me down at his 25-foot dining table, flick up the eye patch and talk figures. He was a very shrewd operator and once tried to pay me in paper, magazine off-cuts, reasoning I could draw on the reverse side, but he was a very nice guy.

The 'great British comic' mentioned in the blog below. This is the character Skid Kidd I drew for the Buster comic. The 'Vektar' job was an advert masquerading as a comic. Real subliminal advertising dressed up as a competition. I wasn't too pleased about getting this 'special script' and I was quite vocal about that, but money talked. Not to me, it talked to IPC. I heard that Satchi and Satchi were behind the campaign so someone got well paid. The 'great British comic', eh?

I think the robot sequence here, part of a three or four page adventure, was one of the last ones I wrote. I was already down to one page, which wasn't cost effective for me, and being forced to do the usual IPC format (what Tom Paterson calls the 'Here's a bob, get yourself a slap-up feast' stories). I worked with a writer for a short time but by then the comic depressed me more than anything. I ended up hating it. The only pages I ever really liked were pages one and two, which I drew using a uniform nib in the 'line-clear' style. I would have drwn the entire thing that way, but for editorial interference.

As far as learning things went, I learned a lot about what I didn't want to do while I worked on this. I also learned that some people in the comics business hate cartoonists, comics and their readers. So I wasn't surprised when the business went tits-up.

I've jumped ahead here. I could have filled the gap with cartoons but I took about 10 years off from cartooning full-time to go into academia. I also wanted to study writing and to read some books. However, my son was going to Switzerland for several months (he claims he stayed in the Swiss ghetto) and needed some pocket money, so I took on some cartooning work again and before I knew it I was sending the darned things off again.

The reason I've chosen this cartoon is because it represented my new found comfort with the computer. This is from the penultimate issue of Punch in 2002, and it is a combination of drawing and digital artwork, and it was the first time I had done that without using the old fashioned paste-up method.

This is, I think, another clear development. I had begun working with a new pen, the Faber Castell-Pitt brush pen, and I because I coloured the drawings on the computer I wanted to work quickly, so I tightened my drawings up in order to colour more easily using the fill tool rather than layers. The drawings, including this one for Prospect Magazine, look much bolder and tighter.

The same can probably be said for this cartoon from the Harvard Business Review in 2004. Although this wasn't the first cartoon I sold in the US, it was the first to appear in such a high-paying and prestigious publication.

Two years on and I can see some real changes in this Harvard Business Review cartoon from 2006. For one thing the signature is printed, it's more primitive looking. The drawing too is slightly different. It is still tighter than that first Punch cartoon up top, but looser than the drawing of 2004. Of course part of the reason for the look of the thing is the space that HBR gives its cartoonists in which to spread their wings. That matters so much.

I'm ending here, with this cartoon from last year because you know from the posts below about my books and cards, just what I've been up to lately. This Prospect cartoon is tiny, but the original was fun to do. I painted this homage to Magritte and then scanned it into the computer. I still enjoyed working in both mediums.

So what have we learned? Well, and this is especially true of people like me who have no formal art training, practise makes perfect, or at least it helps make you feel happier about what you produce. If the publications are not around today, and I know they aren't, practise on the web, and not just by posting some newspaper-style comic strip, actually try some adventurous stuff. And since the publishers aren't there to publish your work, publish your own. Make mini-comics and self publish with firms like Lulu. And get your mini-comics seen, several publishers look for new talent among the mini-comics producers, they don't look for it in the funny pages, or for that matter in magazines. So you will actually be ahead of the game.

Sunday Times has more Comics-Related Articles

The Sunday Times is trying to out comic the Gruniad and the Indy, in comics-related articles that is. There are two, side by side, in this Sunday past's Book section.

The cover features a jolly looking plump man, who could possibly speak as loudly as Brian Blessed, wearing a bow tie who is hailed as '...the man who's bringing back the great British comic'. You remember that, the 'great British comic', that's the comics we produced work for, and they demanded all the rights to our characters unless we went through the costly and injurious to health task of dragging them screaming into court to get our rights back. Those things that, you know, in Scotland, our comic artists finally won the right to sign their art work in - those 'great British comics'. I mean, fair enough it was a market, and a good one to experiment in, but it was never a 'Great' one. That it ended up ever so slightly less exploitative is hardly a cause for hyperbole.

Speaking of hyperbole (neat, eh?) the article 'Rebirth of the great British comic' is by Tom Gatti and it does read a bit like one of those 'advertisement features' for DFC (David Fickling Comics), which I have written a little bit about below. Meaningless phrases like '...charming panel' abound and David Fickling is allowed to get away with saying "We opened the doors and the most wonderful illustrators and storytellers came out of the cupboard." and as an example John Aggs, Simone Lia, Chris Riddell, Adam Brockbank, Paul Stewart and Philip Pullman, are mentioned. Excuse me, exactly how deep was that 'cupboard'?

John Aggs (who won Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga, UK division) is illustrating The Adventures of John Blake by Philip Pullman. Pullman says “Normally I write a book, give it to the illustrator and he gets on with the pictures...With this project, it is as if I’m doing a film script with me specifying what I want drawn.” Oh my God, could there be a worse scenario? Pullman is an avid graphic novel reader (aren't they all now), apparently, but he has just committed the cardinal sin of thinking that comics are just like little movie storyboards. And besides, I'd rather have seen a nice new creator-owned story by John Aggs.

This confusion about graphic novels being faux-filmscripts might explain why Harry Potter storyboard artist Adam Brockbank is involved with this project. I suppose that seeing graphic novels like Ghost World and A History of Violence and Road to Perdition and Sin City and Persepolis turned into movies has given some people the impression that graphic novels are just storyboards waiting to be shot - which will come as news to Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff who were silly enough not to just point the camera at Eightball and shoot (which would have magically churned out the movie Art School Confidential too).

Simone Lia is at least well know, and respected in both the mainstream and the indie comics community so her name lends at least a little credibility to the hyperbole, but how far and how wide did Random House have to open the 'cupboard' door to find her? Didn't they publish her book Fluffy?

My complaint is not, however, about the artists, and it's not even really about the hype. I have mentioned before that my great fear is that the British 'explosion' in the popularity of graphic novels will not happen because established mainstream publishers will attempt to employ the old tried and tested 'great British comics' model of using illustrators as 'work for hire' drawing monkeys , while their established authors will be given the job of 'creating' in-house graphic novels; and that will mean this country will never create anything approaching Jimmy Corrigan or Black Hole or Persepolis or Ghost World. Trust me, Katie (Jordan) Price's graphic novel will never top the best seller charts anywhere but in Britain. You get the graphic novels, and for that matter the comics, you deserve I suppose.

Now, sitting neatly beside the puff for DFC was an article by Paul Gravett, called Graphic novels down to a fine art. Paul Gravett knows his stuff, of that there is no doubt. He knows a great deal about comics and graphic novels, and even obscure manga titles. Reading between the lines, when he says read '...the original you will find in almost every case it outclasses its big-screen abridgement.', gives me the impression he is aware that Cosmo Landsman's piece of the previous week where Cosmo declared the graphic novel of Persepolis must be good because the movie was a loyal adaptation of it, and the movie was good.

In an otherwise excellent piece, Paul Gravett's only mistake, in my mind, is giving credibility to Hannah Berry's 'graphic novel' about a detective and a tea-bag. I don't mean to be cruel, and bear in mind she is young, but this book, by a young woman who seems to think she discovered the medium of graphic novels, is not a good example of what comics can be. Perhaps one day, when she has actually built up a portfolio as a cartoonist, and developed as a writer, she will produce a book that can sit easily alongside books like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, Sin City, Jimmy Corrigan, Blankets, et al; in the meantime, this is not that book.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Monster, Anime.

We are discussing animation at the UK Cartoonist Board, so indulge me. Here is the Monster intro, specially for cartoonist Alex Mathews. You'll find out more about it on my Manga blog. The end credits continue the spooky atmosphere with music by David Sylvain, formely of Japan.