Sunday, June 28, 2009

Let's Go Dutch

I don't want to get involved in all that "green shoots" hype that the morons (bankers and politicians) who screwed up the World's finances try to spin to us; but I do feel a little more upbeat every time I come across a country that seems visually-literate, and still provides an outlet for cartoonists in these hard times.

The Dutch comic, EPPO, has had more than one incarnation, and over the years it has published many great strips by great cartoonists, including Aloys Oosterwijk, Gerard(Gleever)Leever and Peter de Wit. The latest incarnation of EPPO Stripblad, launched in January of this year, is seen by some though, as a retrograde step, an attempt at reviving a form of comic that is no longer fashionable, overtaken in popularity, as it has been, by the graphic novel and the bande dessinée. It is a familiar story, and it is one that I hope has a happy ending because, like most every cartoonist out there, I want there to be as many markets as possible for our work.

I'm sure that the UK cartoonists out there will see the similarities between India's Comic Digest(see blog below) and EPPO Stripblad, and old IPC and DC Thomson titles. The major difference between the Indian publications and EPPO and the old British titles is that the Indian titles rely more heavily on syndicated US strips, rather than European work. In many ways India's Comic Digest is more like a US Sunday Funny insert, with one or two old IPC pages thrown in. Whereas EPPO Stripblad, with its Belgian influences, is more like IPC's Giggle Comic (see earlier blog here) than its Indian counterpart.

The lead comic in EPPO, Storm and Red Hair, is an example of the science fantasy comic series that has proved so popular in Europe over the post-war decades. It was originally drawn by the great Don Lawrence.

Eric Heuvel's January Jones, is a comic set in the 1930s, about a female pilot. The series was written by Martin Lodewijk and was published in the magazine Sjosji until the late 1990s.

The main force behind De Partners is illustrator and scriptwriter Dick Matena, who in addition to writing scenario's for the Carry Brugamn illustrated De Partners, also wrote for the Don Lawrence illustrated Storm (he also illustrated the Storm mini-series Kronieken van de Tussentijd).

Franka, the story of a Dutch, female, detective, is a very popular Dutch comic book series, and strip cartoon, by Henk Kuijpers.

Uco Egmond is one of the two EPPO cartoonists who can be likened to Britain's Leo Baxendale, in comic creator terms. From his debut with the gag strip Eppo in the magazine Pep, his work has been a constant. When the magazines Pep and Sjors merged in the 1970s, they became Eppo Magazine, named after Egmond's character. He co-created De Leukebroeders along with Peter Coolen and together they work under the pseudonym, Peco.

Dick Heins is another prolific cartoonist who in addition to working on Kleine Napoleon with Frank Jonker, inks and colours Uco Egmond's Eppo strip.

The team behind the Belgian comic series Plunk, a series of wordless stories about a little pink alien with green trousers and a green hat, from the planet Smurk, are Luc Cromheecke and Laurent Letzer. Plunk, created somewhat ironically as an experiment on behalf of the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art as an example of cartoon merchandising, became a very popular strip in its own right, was collected in several albums, and was republished in Spirou Magazine.

Kim Duchateau is just one of a group of talented new young Belgian comic artists. His comic, Esther Verkest, is also published in other magazines besides EPPO.

Bob Evers is the work of writer Frank Jonker, and illustrator Hans van Oudenaarden. There are some marvelous pics and a lot of info' about creating the new BOB EVERS comic books, on the pair's blog here, in English.

Flippie Flink is of course Beetle Bailey. It's a popular strip all over the world. They must be doing something right.

Havank, by Daan Jippes, is a series of exciting detective stories.

Jean-Marc van Tol, of Fokke & Sukke fame, is also the artist of the comic series Kort en Triest, on which he works with Herman Roozen.

De Stamgasten is by the other EPPO cartoonist who can be likened to Leo Baxendale, Toon (Antonie Marcel) Van Driel. His many great creations for Eppo, Eppo/Wordt Vervolgd and Sjors en Sjimmie Stripblad, the daily press, and television, all combined to see him awarded the Stripschapprijs, the most important Dutch comic award.

And finally Eppo, by Uco Egmond, coloured by Kliene Napoleon's Dick Heins.

Over all, I think the balance of Eppo Stripblad is really nice, it amounts to a pleasing, enjoyable and funny read. It's also great to look at, and not stuffed to the gills with syndicated US strips. I'd love to see this sort of publication over here in the UK, supporting some new UK strips, which might in turn help foster an appetite amongst UK comic fans for volumes of work featuring their favourite characters. I've also long been an advocate of this sort of publication appearing as an insert in US papers, funding the publisher with national adverts, and the newspapers with local adverts. Perhaps, as the amount of print publications continues to diminish, and those that are left drop their comic strips, it will be a business model that someone might want to take a long, hard, look at, again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Writing Autobiographical Comics

They can be really self-indulgent, autobiographical comics, but that's really because the "I" of the story is right there in your face, illustrated, coming at you. The character, because even in an autobiographical comic the "I" of the story is a character, is no more, and more than likely a lot less, self indulgent than say, Salinger's Holden Caulfield - but of course The Catcher in the Rye is a "real book". For some reason even members of the cartooning community, many of whom create comics themselves, cannot get their heads round the fact that autobiography can be used as a method of telling a story, rather than simply being a vehicle for telling a truth. It is not a new concept, and there is nothing dishonest about it; it is a method of storytelling that clergymen have utilised in Saturday and Sunday sermons for hundreds of years; "a funny thing happened to me on my way to worship today...". It is simply about placing a character, yourself, at the centre of the story you wish to tell, in much the same that one does when one relates an urban legend: "this really happened, I know because it happened to me...".

It is commonplace in fiction to use autobiographical and biographical details of people one has met, and one knows, in order to make the fictional characters more lifelike. It is also common in "non-fiction" to embroider stories, or to inflate the role of certain individuals. It is very common, more so than you might imagine, to discover that what was supposed to be an accurate Primary source, on which the history of an event was based, was actually partial, and part-fiction. It is also just a quirk of human nature that memory is unreliable, and so we change the order of events, and even the importance of our role in what happened, frequently over the years whenever we retell the story of ourselves, to ourselves. This is not a conscious attempt to deceive, it happens because the narrative of our lives is written in shifting sands.

Now, many of you (regular readers know what that is code for) have asked if many of the things that happened to my cousin Allan and I actually did happen. Well, yes they did; I believe. And more than one person has asked if my cousin Allan actually exists, or if he is a figment of my imagination, like E.J Thrib's friend Keith. Well, yes he does; here's a recent photograph of him modelling the latest fashion in Inverness:

Monday, June 22, 2009

British Culture, Anime, Corto Maltese, and Reefer Jackets

I followed a link on Journalista (required reading, every day) that lead to yet another Guardian article on comics culture. This time it was about manga, well more specifically anime based on manga. The article is called Why is anime invisible on British TV? and it looks at the cultural differences between Britain and Japan that might help explain why Britain's TV schedule is now devoid of manga - after the demise, of course, of Anime Central. The premise of the article seems to be that animation aimed at anyone other than children is doomed to fail in the UK because we are Disneyfied. I'm going to call shenanigans on that.

The article lacks any depth or insight into why British TV has such a paucity of anime, save for the quote from Emily Man from Orbital Comics, who says "The UK censorship laws have made it extremely hard for the networks in the UK to show Japanese anime on TV too, our societies' tastes and cultural history are different." This is definitely a truism, but the "cultural history" that has disconnected some adults from appreciating animation, including anime (remember one hell of a lot of adults in the UK watch The Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill), had nothing to do with Disney (a point made in the article), and everything to do with the stranglehold a couple of British companies had on the indigenous British comics industry.

The success of the Japanese anime industry is inextricably linked with the popularity of manga, and as we have discussed here in a number of posts in the past, the Japanese manga industry has thrived because of the method of production and the primacy of the manga creator. The Japanese public have grown up reading comics, and have progressed through the ranks of the different genres targeted at males and females and children, teens, and adults. It is actually difficult to imagine an occupation, a way of life, a hobby, or a past time, that is not reflected in manga's broad range of subjects, from adventure, romance, sports, history, comedy, science fiction, horror, business and commerce, fishing, tennis, football, basketball, being a teacher, a wine critic, a butler, a shop owner, a baker, every gamut of society is catered for, and almost nobody is excluded.

I've written before about the organic way that much manga finds its audience. A serial like Monster or Death Note, begins in a manga magazine fighting for its audience alongside a lot of other stories, and its success leads to the collected chapters of the story being republished in book-form ( Tankobon). If a manga series is popular enough, as both Monster and Death Note were, it may be animated, and the process that leads to this stage practically guarantees financial backing because the readership or viewing figures are already proven.

I'm not going to suggest that had the British comics industry mirrored that of Japan we would also have manga cafés, where people can drink coffee and read manga all night. In that respect I suspect our cultural differences do matter, but I am going to suggest that if it had mirrored the Japanese model, British TV would not only be airing a lot of anime today, but it would also be airing a great deal more British animation. I'm convinced that with a different British comics industry, anime as good as Monster and Death Note, and animation on a par with King of the Hill and The Simpsons, would have been made and produced over here.

Anyway, there I was thinking about the different methods of comic production in different countries, and I happened upon the French magazine, Monsieur; which caught my eye because it had a Hugo Pratt drawing of Corto Maltese on the cover. Those of you who read my article on Corto Maltese on the Forbidden Planet UK blog, will know that I just had to pick the thing up. Also, and you may not know this about me, I'm a bit of a clothes horse (I'm wearing blue deck shoes and a stripey pirate top at the moment, and my Reefer jacket has anchors on the buttons) and since I know that all things nautical are de rigeur for men, currently, I didn't need to call on my very poor French to work out that Corto Maltese was being featured here as a fashion icon. looking at Monsieur, I just couldn't help thinking that this sort of love affair, with Bande Dessinee, or graphic novels, evidenced in the illustrated review of Piscine Molitor and the gorgeous Hugo Pratt reproductions, just wouldn't happen over here in the UK, with any degree of heart-felt honesty.

A quick update, Spirtofcorto left a message and I nipped over to the site and there is some great Corto Maltese info over there (really nice blog), including the new edition of Celtiques and a good look at the Corto Maltese line: Spirit of Corto.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

There's Only One Nickelodeon Magazine

When it comes to the creative arts it is never, or at least seldom, a good idea to dissect how you work. A great many people tend to shy away from doing so in case the analysis of the method leads to something happening, perhaps some spark vanishing, or maybe some unconscious secret becoming conscious and then unavailable. At some risk then (you are on the edge of your seat, right?) I'm going to divulge a part of the cartooning process that happens before one commits even one line to paper.

Before sending any cartoons to a publication, you must familiarise yourself with it. So you look up current copies and old copies and even vintage copies of the publication, and you begin to look for common themes. On a superficial level, you are simply trying to find out if you can work out what the Cartoon Editor of the publication likes; on a deeper level, you are conducting a close reading of the cartoons in order to imagine how the Cartoon Editor thinks, and trying to imagine what the Cartoon Editor's ideal cartoon might be. Now this is not too difficult with themed publications, like fly-fishing Monthly, the chances are you will be on target with a cartoon about fishing, but it is a dark art with more cosmopolitan and varied titles. When I was planning to send to Playboy my friend and fellow cartoonist Mike Lynch sent me a really thick envelope stuffed with pages of Playboy cartoons, which I glued together onto a lot of boards. Once I had those boards in front of me, I went over and over them, trying to think myself into a "playboy" frame of mind. When I was convinced I had done so, I created a batch of cartoons for them.

Now there are two ways of looking at this, it is either a strange voodoo-like technique that cartoonists employ to read the Cartoon Editor's mind, or it is simply a very practical example of the old adage of "being familiar with your markets". I'm inclined to think it is the latter, but it does sometimes feel a little strange when it works well. Years back, when The National Enquirer was a cartoon market, I sent a submission from the UK and the Editor sent me back a bunch of examples of the cartoons they had used; again, I used these examples to think myself into the magazine. To be honest, in that case it was more a case of realising the publication used what we call "general cartoons". But there you go, not a secret and hardly mind blowing - research your market and target the publication with work it can use.

So, having heard good things about Nickelodeon Magazine (US), I decided to get a hold of the thing and go over it with a fine tooth-comb, and try to think my way into the thing. The thing was, I had no idea what to expect, it was a kids magazine after all. Well, I was astonished when I saw it, really astonished. I'm not kidding, I was really bowled over by the magazine, I had never seen a publication more visually literate, more cartoon and illustration friendly, it was a cartoonist's delight. Imagine what was going through my mind; I was expecting maybe a gags page, or maybe a comics page or two, or maybe some sort of comic related to the Nickelodeon shows, but I was not expecting page after page after page of illustrations and gags and puzzles - page after page of fun.

As I looked through the magazine, I found myself responding to it with the same levels of wonder and delight as a cartoonist, as a parent, and as a teacher. I had never seen anything like this, and I had never seen such a range of mainstream and indie cartoonists all gathered together in one publication.

If anything, there was just too much opportunity, there was the chance to be an illustrator, a gag cartoonist, a comic artist, a colourist, there was a chance to create puzzles and quizzes. I had just started, in those days, to look to the US for cartooning opportunities and here, in this one publication, I could see dozens. Of course I knew it wasn't likely to be the case, and indeed it wasn't, but what if all the kids publications in the US were like this?

Not only that, but I could see the opportunity to get out of my funk. I wasn't feeling to great about being a cartoonist at that time, but now I could maybe recast myself as a cartoonist creating the sort of work I would like to read. In the UK a couple of my markets had dried up, there was effectively no comics industry, and here I might have the opportunity to create work that would appear alongside the work of Charles Burns, one of my cartooning heroes. What an opportunity.

Sadly, that opportunity will not be around for much longer. Nickelodeon Magazine is often referred to, in cartooning circles, as the New Yorker for kids. If you had never seen the magazine, you might consider that hyperbole, but I have little doubt that after seeing it you would know you were looking at a very superior publication. When the magazine ceases publication at the end of the year it will be missed, by a great many children and adults, and a good many cartoonists and illustrators. Perhaps it signals an end of an era in print cartooning; perhaps we will never see the likes of Nickelodeon Magazine again.

In this issue alone, from 2004, you can find the work of, amongst others, Charles Burns, Wayno Honath, Steve Ryan, Craig Thompson, Jason Lutes, Nick Bertozzi,Jason Shiga, Kaz, Ellen Fornay, Jen Sorensen, Johnny Ryan, David Sheldon,Jordan Crane, Robert Leighton and Sam Henderson. Over the years, amongst others, the magazine would also feature the work of Scott McCloud, Aaron Augenblick, Scott Cunningham, Dan Moynihan, Mark Martin, Terry Laban, Michael Kuperman, Scott Roberts, Andi Watson, Bobby London, Charice Mericle, C.H. Greenblat, Bob Flynn, Meg Hunt, Richard Thompson, Pat Moriarity, Jef Czekaj and Sherm Cohen. But that is just a random selection of names, however talented, and the creative team behind Nick Mag, lead by Christopher Duffy and Dave Roman, are the real stars behind the magazine's success; they will be sadly missed. If there is any justice, they will find themselves at the helm of an equally important magazine before too long.
The names above, with links, take you to examples of work from Nick Mag.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

True Story, Swear to Blog.

This actually happened, except that part of it didn't. It was a rugby night, we were playing the Welsh, and my cousin and I eventually wound up on Lothian Road in search of a good Brandy (VSOP). We did get locked in the cinema and the owner had to set us free.

It's a story that sounds like it should be exciting, but I think you really had to be there because getting locked in a movie theatre after a horror fest really has to be experienced.

Oh yeah, cut us some slack, neither of us has smoked for many years but in 1981 everybody smoked. Ach, you know...sometimes I still think about having a puff, and I gave up for good about 12 years ago.