That was the year that was, or How I stopped worrying and learned to call myself a cartoonist!
Amongst the many wonderful encounters that made this year's Nottingham Comic Con such a memorable and invigorating day, was getting to meet cartoonist, illustrator, comics educator and podcaster, Dan Berry whose interview show Make It Then Tell Everybody has been a staple in my podcatcher of choice for well over a year now. One of the first questions Dan asks his guests, who are all creators from the world of small press and indie comics, is a deceptively simple one, What do you call yourself? Comic book artist? Cartoonist? Illustrator? Up until very recently, the question would always illicit the same imagined response in my head, a kind of snobbish shudder at the mere mention of the word... cartoonist, and I thought this might be a good time time to try and unravel some of the possible reasons why.
I guess I've always kind of thought that cartoonists draw funny pictures. Much like the fictional Kalo in Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken, cartoonists draw the kind of single-panel gag cartoons that appear in magazines like The New Yorker or probably nearer to my frame of reference growing up, The Far Side, or else classic three-panel comic strips that would appear in newspapers, like Dik Browne's Hagar the Horrible, probably the strip I read most as a kid. In fact if you'd asked me when I was younger to name three cartoonists, I'd have probably only been able to name Browne, Charles Schultz and then later Gary Trudeau, even tho I still couldn't tell you what's going on in most episodes of Doonesbury, the politics and cultural references often flying so far over my head all I kept coming back for was Trudeau's exquisitely clean lines. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not an idiot, even young me knew that Schulz was a genius and Peanuts was even the first comic I bought for myself in those litte Corgi paperback editions, but in the mental hierarchy of cultural production that I was building in my brain, cartooning was what happened in funny books and kids comics like The Beano or The Dandy or Viz - full disclosure, I've never had much time for any of that stuff, but hey, we can't all be perfect - and anyway, what I wanted to do was become a comic book artist, like Todd McFarlane or Albert Uderzo. These guys were professionals, and by that what I mean is, they were specialists, responsible for the art while Peter David and Rene Goscinny handled the writing, a division of labour that meant that each half of the creative team played to their considerable strengths and the products of their collaboration were touched by that little spark of alchemical magic that happens when a creative partnership clicks.
And yes, I am fully aware that I am guilty here of conflating a couple of different complaints at once, an objection to cartooning as being both not-serious in its subject matter, a snobbishness about gag strips and humour mags, and not-serious-enough in it's approach to the artistic question of craft. I mean, just compare the draughting chops on display here:
No doubt, Albert Uderzo gives good boat, but I really dig that Dik Browne cartoon, the look on Lucky Eddie's face, the spray and wash chopped up by the oars and the motion lines around Hagar's waving arms and how that all contrasts with those four stately curves propelling the duck forward, beak to the sky. Now Asterix was and always will be, my jam, and it has been a gateway for me this year to finding the work of Tillieux, Franquin, Peyo and others in which a similiarly kinetic, cartoonish visual style was used to tell genre stories in recogniseably modern settings, complete with well-cut suits and chrome-plated cars. In as much as The Sheep And The Wolves leans heavily on lessons learnt poring over panels from Gil Jourdan, Spirou and Fantasio and even Benny Breakiron, the other big influences that I've been looking to are the serial newspaper strips of Roy Crane, John Spranger and Gus Arriola, visual storytellers that combined the roles of writer and artist, penciler and inker, letterer and layouts, the whole comics kit and caboodle and who would have been, you have to imagine, utterly bemused were you to ask them what they call themselves, as tho there might be anything else you'd rather be in this world than simply... a cartoonist!
Happy New Year Folks!