From The Comics Journal #198 August 1997
Hunt Emerson stands alone. With Bryan Talbot and Steve Bell ( … If), he is the only survivor from the brief heyday of the British underground press. Unlike his contemporaries, he still works there. After cartooning for regional undergrounds and a period in the fertile environment of the Birmingham Arts Lab In the ’70s, he found his true home in 1978 at Knockabout, the customs-battered keeper of Britain’s underground flame. His books for them have included 1983’s career-spanning The Big Book of Everything, the character-based Calculus Cat and Jazz Funnies, literary adaptations like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Casanova’s Last Stand. He also draws Firkin the Cat, written by Tym Manley, for porn magazine Fiesta. His cartooning, influenced at first by American underground comics, is distinctively British, a sort of ribald Baxendale. In France, he is rated alongside Crumb and Shelton.
It’s a career which is hard to put into context because it barely has one. Due to its nature, his work has always existed on the margins of British comics. The popularity of the likes of Alan Moore hasn’t helped him at all. Still, the quality of his work has steadily grown. The only thing that hasn’t improved, to his frustration, is sales. His comics just don’t fit. This interview took place over two sessions, the first In Emerson’s apartment in Birmingham, England, in the summer of 1994, the second in London a year later. The last section, “Aftermath,” is drawn entirely from the second session. Both were bad times for Emerson, inconvenient in various ways, which may account for the occasionally strained nature of what follows. The questions also took turns which the cartoonist, rigorously funny and free from intellectual analysis in his work, didn’t always find easy to accommodate. But to his credit, he left the transcript virtually untouched. What follows is a sometimes raw, sometimes tight-lipped (but always honest) conversation with a major talent. — Nick Hasted
NICK HASTED: Let’s start with some biographical stuff. When and where were you born?
HUNT EMERSON: I was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1952. Newcastle’s in the Northeastern England. It was originally a big industrial area, ship-building and coal mining. And that’s no longer the case.
Is there anything that stands out from your childhood? Anything that was unusual about it?
Unusual? [Pauses.] Only that I could draw. [Laughs.] It was always with me. No, I had a very normal childhood, I think. My dad used to work for the weather service, he was a radio operator and he used to work on weather ships and go out into the Atlantic on tours of duty, which meant he was away quite a lot of the time. He was away four or five weeks, and then home for a week. So, I don’t think I built a really strong relationship with him when I was younger. And then of course in my teenage years, I argued with him all the time. And my mum was busy with my younger brothers as well. It was quite a normal childhood, looking back on it. And also looking back on it, it was as abnormal as anyone else’s, I’m sure.
Is there anything from your childhood, or from your teenage years, that shows up in your work now?
No, I don’t think so. l wasn’t really interested in comics very much. I was always interested in drawing, and I used to love TV programs with artists on them, like Sketch Club: With Adrian Hill. Adrian Hill was an artist who wore an artist’s smock and a flamboyant cravat and had long sensitive hair and long sensitive fingers, and he used to do a thing on the BBC where he’d show you how to draw a landscape, or how to paint a waterlily. He’d work it up from start to finish, all in black and white. That sort of thing used to fascinate me. I loved watching people draw. I can probably still draw some of the things I learned back then. But I was never that much bothered by comics. We weren’t allowed to read the cheaper comics, The Beano and The Dandy and Knockout. They were frowned on in our house. We had to get comics like Look and Learn and Eagle, educational stuff. But I didn’t used to read much of them, I used to look at the pictures, and that was it.
Were most of the things that stimulated you visual?
[Pauses.] l don’t know. When rock ’n’ roll music came along, and the Beatles started, that was it, the end of everything. Life became one-directional. But up until then, it was just a childhood. I was always very into war, I know that: soldiers and war. I used to go out to school in the mornings — especially winter mornings when it was really foggy, and I couldn’t see the school at the end of the hill because it was so foggy — and I used to have these fervent imaginings that war had broken out and school had been blown up. [Laughter.] It never worked.
What exactly was the impact that rock ’n’ roll and the Beatles had on you?
It was just what life was all about. I started playing the guitar when I was 11, with my brother, who was a year younger than I. And by about 12 or 13, we were doing gigs, we had a group. That lasted until I left home to go to art college when I was 19.
It seems like quite a rapid reaction from you because you must been 10 when “Love Me Do” came out. Did you feel a need to react to the Beatles as soon as you saw them? Were you that excited?
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s not something I ever thought about at the time. It was just what we did. I was never very interested in football or any of the other things that the lads around were doing. We were musical, me and my brother. My mum was musical, and she had sung when she was younger; my dad played a little bit of piano, much to our surprise. But they didn’t encourage us in this.
But they didn’t discourage you?
Yeah, they did. Very actively! When my dad was at home, we weren’t supposed to be in a pop group, so we had to do everything in secret. But while he was away, my mother used to let us get away with it. It meant that we always had to borrow our equipment from other people and everything we had was ropey. That made me compensate by doing what I could with what we had, so I was interested in arranging the songs and learning the songs rather than getting better as a guitar player.
Had you seen anything like the Beatles before? Did they really stand out?
Yeah. It was all completely new. It’s nothing unusual. It was the same for everybody. It’s been said many times how everything suddenly crystallized. And the Animals were a big thing as well, coming from Newcastle. When “House of the Rising Sun” was #1, I remember we were all pleased and proud and surprised that something from Newcastle was Top of the Pops because Newcastle was a backwater — or at least, it was for me. These were schoolboy enthusiasms. Everybody was into it: the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, Kinks, the Who. Me and my brother took it further. Bur people were forming groups all over the place. That was an important period for us. I wanted to be a rock star then. I was always able to draw, and that was what I was best at in school. But it never really occurred to me to do anything with it because my mum and dad disapproved — my dad in particular, who wanted me to be an engineer or something useful. He had no time for this art business, it was considered an utter waste of time. All through my school years, I wanted to be an artist or a singer. I didn’t really think about it, I had no idea what that meant. But that’s what I used to tell everybody. The drawings were just what I did. I managed to rearrange the lessons I was having at school —officially —so that I had five free lessons a week, which I filled in with art. So, I was doing tons of art all the time, by myself in the art room, not with the rest of the class. They were off doing biology.
Did you enjoy being in a band more?
Yes. I liked organizing, and I liked arranging the music. I was always very busy. Being in a band is a good way of avoiding teenage scenes when you’re kind of shy and unsure of yourself. I never learned to dance, and I never learned to chat up girls because I was always on stage or bustling around trying to fix amplifiers. The rest of the band just used to let me get on with it. I never made any money from it because any money went for guitar strings and microphones. But I was totally wrapped up in it. I was in two bands. The first one was called Size Five, and that was great fun. It was quite tight, and we played lots of pop hits and rhythm and blues and Who songs and Kings songs and Tamla Motown. We did lots of gigs at youth clubs and places like that. I was only 16 when that band finished. The next band was dreadful. We never really had a name, but it was in the British Blues Boom, and we were followers of John Mayall and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, then Cream and Jimi Hendrix. We had two lead guitarists, and I was the singer. I’d go up and sing a few verses, then stand aside while the guitarists fought it out. It was awful, booming noise.
But did these groups stimulate you in ways other than making you play the guitar? It seems to me that Britain was different before the Beatles that it was from the instant they arrived.
It was a big freedom. It was a new culture that belonged to us. I was reading Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography recently and that brought it through to me again. Poor woman, she had a terrible life — largely self-inflicted, but at the same time, the book rings very true. I recognize the points of view and the attitudes. Had I been a few years older, I’m sure I’d have gone in the same direction as her because they were doing it for the first time. It wasn’t as though she had any good examples to base her life on. Who was to say what people in this position of power were to do? They were doing what they thought should be done, but they were just kids, and kids don’t really think about things too much; they just get stuck in. It wasn’t a case of dressing like hippies for them. They were hippies.
How do you think being a teenager in the ’60s affected you?
I was swept up in the whole mythology. Believed it all, the hippie stuff and everything else. I was a beatnik in Edinburgh when I was about 14 when we were first getting an inkling of what was going on in San Francisco at the time. I was dossing around Edinburgh — I mean, I wasn’t dossing at all, I used to stay with an old auntie, but I used to go and hang around with these beatniks on Princes Street.
How could you be a 14-year-old beatnik?
Oh, just hang around in the park and tell everybody that you were a beatnik. [Laughs.]
But by the time you really got into your teens, had the shine gone off it? Were you just a bit too young?
Yeah. By the time you got into the ’70s, it had become very sordid.
How else did you react as a teenager to this stimulation around you?
Becoming an art student was one thing. I was reading about this new creative freedom and community that was going on, and I was trying to be part of that, without really knowing what I was aiming at.
Did you think of your drawing as a way of responding to what was going on around you?
Not really. I was just reacting from day to day, trying to avoid having to do the sort of job that my father wanted me to do. There was this thing at the time about personal freedom, and really what it meant was doing whatever you wanted.
Was that as far as you got at the time? You knew you wanted to do what you wanted to do, but you didn't know what it was?
I don’t even think I knew that. [Laughs.]
Who were you reading?
Oh God, Tolkien. I didn’t really start reading a lot of good stuff until I left home. I started reading Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. I’d read about these things, I think Eric Burden had mentioned reading Lord of the Rings, so I was just going along with the general feeling of the time, that escaping into other worlds was worthwhile. It’s the same sort of thing that kids do all the time. But I didn’t really know how to go further than that. I didn’t know about science fiction until later and I didn’t know how to find out about those things. It was only later when I moved to Birmingham that people pushed books at me and then I started getting into Fortean stuff. That was a breakthrough. It showed me other ways to think about science fiction. l remember when I read these things that I was always looking for something to be true, secretly hoping that Middle Earth might really exist. Also, I was always more interested in science fiction than I was about other planets, rather than about inner landscapes. I was always looking for an escape.
Was it like there was some sort of secret area of knowledge and information that you couldn’t get to, and you just had hints dropped to you from people who were there, like Eric Burden?
Yes. I kept expecting that one day I was going to grow up and then I would be vouchsafed these secrets. Also, I always liked creating little worlds. When I was a kid, I was into model soldiers, I liked to paint them carefully and set them up and then get crouched down on the floor to become part of that world. And I would make model theaters, and boxes with peepholes that you looked into. I was always after making little things. And if there was a toy car that had an inside, with seats and things, I was always really interested in what was going on inside there and how these things were so little. I think my reading took that in as well, looking for secret worlds. And I think that led into comics too. I’m sure it did. Part of doing comics is the desire to create or be part of a world that I can control, an inside world, a miniature world. I used to like General Jumbo in The Dandy, the kids who controlled the little mechanical army with a wrist-pack. I was so jealous of him!
So, did you ever feel when you were drawing that you were getting through to some sort of truth?
No. But I was in control. I used to avoid tackling the real world in comics. I was much happier dealing with the stuff that I could control.
It sounds like you were more interested in things beyond the prosaic world anyway. You’d rather be somewhere else.
Yes, absolutely. It’s escapism. It’s the same motivation that makes me not read newspapers. I get the news I need off the radio. The rest of it cuts too close to the bone.
What did drawing mean to you at that time? Did the lack of being able to see a practical application for it make a difference, compared to music?
I didn’t really think about it. I always wanted to go to art college, but only because I wanted to be an art student. When it came time to go to college, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I was a very naive, undeveloped teenager — socially undeveloped, politically, and just in terms of common sense. When I went to college people suggested that I should do graphic design. To me, graphic design meant designing toothpaste tubes and I wasn’t going to do that. I wanted to be an artist, and paint. So that’s what I did, and I was hopeless at it. I had no idea what I was doing there. I wasn’t a painter; I was just messing around. So, I left after a year. That was when I came to Birmingham in fact, to do that course. It was a three-year course and I left after a year.
Had you turned up there as part of some sort of rock ’n’ roll myth? Because the Beatles were art students?
Yeah, yeah. It was all that sort of thing. I left art college more because I wanted to be a hippie than anything, doss around. But yes, it was all just mythology and imagery. Silly adolescent stuff.
Did you because you had no idea why you were there?
Well, looking back on it, yes. At the time I had all sorts of other reasons. There was a very controversial teacher there at the time, the head of painting, and he came in and upset a lot of students. Quite a few people were quitting around that time, and I was one of those. Although really I had no argument with the man. It was just that everybody else was upset by him, so I was upset as well. I was always a follower-on, and joiner of groups and gangs. I never really formed my own ideas and never really got involved in anything serious. Politics went right over my head: I had no idea what was going on politically at all.
Was there still pressure to be political in 1970?
No. Not at art colleges. The Students Union people used to come round at the beginning of the year, and they would be in disrepair because nobody at the art college was remotely interested. They’d say, ‘‘You bloody art students, we’re trying to do things for you!” We’d say, “Yeah, man, yeah … [laughter] … that’s cool … I ain’t into all that stuff.”
Did you have any sense of direction or purpose?
No. Only that whatever I was doing was going to be to do with drawing and art. And then just before I left art college, I started seeing underground comics. And when I left, I met some people who lived close by to me who were running the underground magazine in Birmingham, Street Press, and that was when I first started to get an inkling of what might happen — really when I first saw Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb and Zap and realized this was what I might do with my cartooning skills.
So, from then on, everything was geared toward that. It took a while to slot into place, but it got that way. It was pushed on by the fact that I’d quit art college and gone to work in the library — this was when jobs were easy to find, and you could go and work in the library in any sort of physical condition. They’d say, “Are you alive? Can you walk? You’ve got the job.”
l was still puttering around at home as well, playing at being a painter. I had a room in somebody’s house which I used as a studio for a little while, and I was producing odd things that were less and less like paintings and became boxes with toys in and collages of sequins and feathers. But really that was down to running out of money and running out of paint and having to use whatever was around. So first of all, I was using the cheapest household paints I could find and then I was using stuff that I picked off the streets, anything at all, old toys. And there was a sort of purpose to this because I was very interested in painters like Robert Rauschenberg and Duchamp and Jean Tinguely, the sculptor, people who were working with random elements in their work and found objects. And then I stopped. I was gradually doing less and less of these collage things and more and more drawings, which were starting to turn into little cartoons.
This was after you’d left art school, and after you’d un the undergrounds?
Yeah. I always did cartoons and copied various things from here and there, but it was seeing the undergrounds that made me actually start working on it, and developing a style, rather than doing something that was totally unformed that I did to give the kids in school a laugh.
Did this have anything to do with the drawings you’d done as a child?
I drew wars then. You know, what kids always draw. We’d get sheets of paper and join them all up and draw a big, long horizon line, and everybody would have to fill their paper with soldiers and tanks, and you’d put them all together and have a huge battle.
What about your teenage years?
Pop groups [laughter]. I was making an almost lucrative living at one point while I was at school by painting pictures of Jimi Hendrix onto bit cardboard and selling them to my classmates.
Can you make a connection between what you saw in underground comics, and what you’d done until you saw them?
No. When the ’60s came in it wasn’t just the undergrounds, it was the whole hippie thing. In Newcastle, like everywhere else, there were hippie shops, and I was starting to see psychedelic posters, mixed in with the comics stuff, sometimes with the same artists.
Was it again associations of lifestyle that impressed you? Or was there something in the art that really struck you?
I think it was the latter. I’d never seen anything like this before or even imagined that it could be. And again, you see, I was a raw adolescent, and one of the things l went for in comics was the sex. I’ve heard people talking about those times and the underground magazines, like Oz and I.T. [International Times], and how there were certain types of hippies who were into the philosophy and the politics, and how there were others who just looked for the tits, and I was one of the ones who looked for the tits, unfortunately. [Laughs.] That’s why I was getting hold of underground magazines, and why I was interested in them.
But did you notice early on who was drawing the tits?
No. It never really occurred to me that anybody was. It only gradually came through that there was this man Crumb who was doing this stuff. I remember seeing this word, “Crumb,” and gradually realizing that this was the bloke’s name, and it was his real name. But then, I forgot to say that I had seen the early Mad books when I was a kid, which did affect me, that was some of the stuff that I used to draw. And did notice that there were artists involved there, after a while. I was only about eight or nine, and they really confused me at first, because it was all stuff that was totally new to me — basically, American culture. I would see these things which were obviously jokes, but which I didn’t understand, because they were about American TV programs and American shops. But I still used to laugh at them, because I could get the idea that there was some sort of weird humor there. And I saw the word “Wood,” carved into the side of a ship or something, and it was ages before I realized that this was the name of the bloke who’d drawn it, and not just some other daft gag. So, there was that, and then I did start noticing that Crumb and Shelton were doing this and thinking I could do it.
Did seeing the undergrounds, and realizing that there were artists who did comics, remind you of the Mads that you’d sun as a child?
Not really, no. I didn’t make that connection at first. I think it was later that I realized that they’d all been influenced by the same things, in a different way. The Mads I’d seen were the Ballantine paperbacks, and there were only one or two. But I do remember that I was aware of the Mad version of things before I was aware of the originals — horror films, and superheroes as well. I knew “Batboy and Rubin” before l knew Batman and Robin, “Plastic Sam” before I knew Plastic Man. So, it always gave me an odd twist on American culture. I think that’s one of the reasons why I latched onto the undergrounds as well. It was obvious they were parodies.
I want to pin down your reaction to the undergrounds a bit more. What were the things that surprised you about them?
That they could get away with doing this stuff. It was a window into a hippie world that I wanted to be a part of — I wanted to do drugs, and they had stuff about drugs, and the sex stuff.
So really it was the content? It wasn’t anything in the drawings themselves?
Yeah, sure it was. Robert Williams always impressed me, with his slickness. And Rick Griffin as well. I liked that smooth, flowing professional style. I think that appealed to me first, that impressed itself on me before Crumb and Shelton. But it was very quickly that I realized that there was something else going on, with Crumb in particular. Shelton, I took a little longer to start reading, maybe because it looked more conventional than the others. Then when I did start reading The Freak Brothers it became my favorite, and it still is. So, there was some of that, some of the style. I remember seeing that there were one or two comics that were always quality, and Zap was one of them, and then there was a lot of other stuff that was rubbish. Because in the early ’70s there were a hell of a lot of undergrounds, there was a real craze for them, and most of them weren’t worth publishing. But you see, I don't remember studying this stuff at the time. I remember that there was a phase when I bought a lot of Marvel comics when I was on the dole and had no money, and I could afford a treat of 9p for a Marvel comic. I used to read through these things, and I can’t remember what any of them were now. Man-God I think was one. Howie … Chaykin? Star-something or-other? Star … Cody Starburst? But it wasn’t looking for fresh inspiration, it was just filling your life with pop. Because it was all just part of other things that were happening, like gigs, and writing songs.
When I spoke to Steve Bell [cartoonist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper], he said that “Crumb went straight to my brain.”
But that wasn’t really the case with you?
Not in the same way as Steve, I don’t think, no. But he’s always been more together in his thinking than I have.
So really the most important thing about the undergrounds was that they showed you something that you could do with your drawings? They were a practical inspiration, more than anything?
I think so. And I saw a way I could become part of this world, by doing what I wanted. But it wasn’t decisions so much as just slipping into this. At the time, apart from a short period on the dole, less than nine months, I had jobs, in order to be able to fund myself drawing comics in the evening. I worked in the library, and I was a postman for a few months, and I did clerical work in a prison.
But at the same time, because you had this example of the underground comics, did you think of yourself as a cartoonist-in-waiting? Did you think that was what you really were?
I did by then. Because I was having stuff published in Street Press, and also gradually in some of the other underground papers around the country, in particular, Muther Grumble in Newcastle. I even had a drawing in the I.T. in London once — pirated, of course! [Laughs.] So yes, I saw myself as part of this. And gradually, from being individual drawings with captions or speech balloons, they became, well, I dread to say “sequential,” because they weren’t, but they were frames joined together. I would make a point of giving all the characters fancy noses and ears and feet, and then making sure that they all changed in every frame. Different stripes, different spots, different lumps on the end. I used to fill the whole page with these things and became obsessive. If I’d drawn the same sky as I’d drawn in the previous comic, that was a failure. I was putting all of these rules onto the comics, and never really thinking about the writing. The writing tended to be grabbed out of the air around me, from people chattering and records playing. There were a lot of people around at the time, sharing a house and having parties, and we’d pick up pieces of drunken conversation and stoned conversation, things that were funny at the time, things which became private jokes purely because they were written down. I’ve got files full of that, I was sometimes drawing three pages a night.
When your style started to come together, as the ’70s went on, there seemed to be quite a strong influence from British children’s comics, from Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, whether you knew it was them or not.
I didn’t know it was them, but yes. When I started drawing comics, I was deliberately and consciously trying to make them like these American comics, but with a British bias, and looking for ways to bring in bits of The Dandy and The Beano. I also bought the Penguin Book of Comics at around this time, and that was quite an eye-opener as well because I discovered stuff about the history of comics that I had no idea of — in particular, Krazy Kat, Herriman, that was the other big influence on me. I was really turned on by the fact that they were poetry, and that they were in a secret language, and I started trying to be Herriman as well. Of course, you can’t be Herriman. Not just like that. He came up with quaint and esoteric things, and what I came up with was just silly nonsense.
Presumably, there were only a few panels or pages of Herriman in this book. Could you see immediately that it was poetry?
Well, I read that it was poetry in the text, you see. [Laughter.] And then I read the strips and I thought, “Yes, it must be.”
The backgrounds in your strips were like Herriman from very early on.
They still are, to a large extent. Dotting the “o”s — l always used to say that I dotted the “o”s as a tribute to Herriman. Then Paul Gravett pointed out to me that Herriman didn’t dot his “o”s. [Laughter.] I’m sure I saw him do it once!
I’m interested in the fact that you were influenced by people like Baxendale, and people like Crumb at the same time. I wonder if they connected in your head at all?
No, I don’t think so. Like I said, I was using the children’s comics to try and anglicize the undergrounds, but also to keep them innocent. One of the things that I couldn’t come to terms within the undergrounds was adult sex sensibilities. I was interested to read the stuff, but I never really wanted to draw it. I never wanted to do sex and drugs and rock and roll. For a start, it always seemed too easy a subject. So, I was after doing … Well, I don’t know what! But I didn’t want to do those things. Also, I wanted to do stuff that I wasn’t ashamed to show my mum. And one way of doing that was bringing in influences from the kids’ comics and using children’s comic language. I always felt that Crumb’s and Shelton’s characters had a sort of personality to them — they were streetwise, they were in charge, and my characters always felt like innocents abroad. In a way, I think I felt the same myself. I always tended to feel that, in any given group of people, I was the least experienced. There was a feeling of discovery, but of knowing that I was only on the verge of making this discovery, that I was very much at the beginning of whatever it was. I had no idea what the discovery was because you don’t find out until it happens. But certainly, I felt very inexperienced, and I was always anxious about that inexperience.
Was this what you felt when you were drawing, early on?
Well, in a way, no. In a way, doing the drawing was where I could control things. But that was inasmuch as I was controlling what was going on the page. What the influences were coming into it, and how I was writing it — I did feel very innocent and inexperienced about that, although again, I couldn’t have admitted it at the time, because I didn’t know it at the time. It’s only looking back on it now that I see this sort of thing. At the time, I was ready for anything, jumping into any sort of adventure. There was lots of careening round town in vans with no doors on, people wearing flying helmets, all sorts of odd drugs going down. The usual, the usual.
Looking back, do you think there was something quite childlike about the life, and about the work as well?
I don’t know about the life. I’m surprised I made it through, actually, in many ways. Although I don’t think we ever did anything fantastically dangerous. There was never any heroin or cocaine or anything like that around. We used some LSD and other rubbish psychedelic drugs. But it never really got out of hand, I don’t think. Maybe it did for other people. But … I used to go to bed before it got out of hand.
But by that time, you’d managed to crack the alternative lifestyle …
Not really, no. I was constantly falling short, and I had this constant awareness that other people were having a better time than me. I didn’t go to clubs, because I couldn’t afford it for a start, and because I didn’t know where they were, and nobody ever said to me, “Let’s go to a club tonight!” Or if I actually did go somewhere, I’d as often as not, not be allowed in because of the way I looked, which tended to get pretty weird around that time. We’re talking about the early to mid-70s, ’74ish I suppose, and I was wearing eye makeup and psychedelic paint on my face and sequins around my eyes, and I had my hair dyed black and red, and I used to wear odd clothes and a big floppy hat, a long fur coat. And my brain was fried, and I had very long hair. It was generally pretty sleazy and sordid, looking back on it all. Pretty crummy all around. Some people I think had a glamorous early ’70s, but mine was pretty seedy, although I thought I was having a good time.
It seems like you had a lifestyle that in some ways was breaking barriers, and letting you do things you hadn’t done before, which presumably was true of the comics as well. But was there still something quite safe about both processes?
Probably, yeah. I guess my concept of safety in those days was not one that would really hold good when I think about what we were in fact doing. Mandrax and cheap wine, that wasn’t very sensible to do. But all in the past, all in the past. I was aware quite early on that! had a quite specific drawing style that was peculiarly my own, and that people recognized, and that they liked, which I suppose was comfortable. The stuff that was going into the early Street Press things was popular, certainly around Birmingham and with people I knew. I became “their” cartoonist, and that was nice. I was always after doing stuff that was friendly and accessible, and funny. I never had any desire to do serious comics at all. It never occurred to me that that’s what they were for. So, I think people took it to their hearts, and I started to gain a following of some sort, people who recognized the drawings. And I think you’re right, they were kind of … not exactly middle of the road, but they were safe, and they were comfortable and they were friendly drawings. And I was deliberately trying to make them popular. I wasn’t exploring the insides of my head, I wasn’t using it as a catharsis, like a lot of people seem to do. That was never my intention. In fact, l deliberately masked that sort of stuff most of the time. I still do. I’m not comfortable doing autobiographical stuff. It never seems to be very interesting, especially mine. And it always seems a bit of a con, in a way. Why should anyone be interested in my life? I’d much better spend the time inventing a new story, which has actually got some value to it.
Did that style that you’d arrived at by this time come quite naturally out of the drawings you were doing already? Having experienced the undergrounds, did you end up with stuff that was yours?
I think so, yeah. Because they didn’t look like the English kids’ comics either, not even remotely. Some of the speech balloons had that flavor, and there was a general air of innocence, but the characters used to truck around the place, as in “Keep On Truckin’,” and I used to look at the way that Robert Williams drew Cootchie Cootie, and work on that sort of character. I was interested in doing psychedelic, anthropomorphic stuff — little demons and potatoes, and things that walked around with their noses in front of them, not joined to their heads. I liked making experimental drawings like that. But I never got myself down to drawing real people, real characters. That came later.
Were you just being playful?
Mm, yeah. ‘Cause it was a playful time for me. I was much more interested in the play side. There’s a book called Play Power, by the old editor of Oz, Richard Neville, which is about the whole ‘60s hippie philosophy of play as a cultural phenomenon. I remember reading that and being impressed by it. But again, I also remember skating over all the stuff about politics. I didn’t understand it. I really didn’t understand politics at all. I had no idea what was happening. I wasn’t very in touch. I didn’t watch television, even then. I’m still not very in touch. Although I listen to the radio now.
Has that idea of play fallen away from you a bit?
To some extent, yes, because now it’s a business, it’s a job.
It must have been strange to have a following as a cartoonist when you describe your earlier life as following and tagging along with one group after another. It must have been good to provoke other people’s reactions.
Well, in a way that’s what I’d always done drawings for. Even when I was at school, I’d do drawings on a blackboard or on a book, and everybody would crowd around and watch what I was doing. It made me the center of attention, and popular.
Do you still get pleasure from that? Or are you more sophisticated and past it all now?
Ooh, I think I’m much more sophisticated now. [Laughs.] No, I’m sure it is, I’m sure it’s mainly to do with wanting people to like me. I think that’s why I don’t do serious stuff, because I can’t help feeling that people would feel cheated, feel imposed on, if I tried to get them to read serious stuff. What business has he got trying to teach us anything, or tell us stuff?
The way you draw yourself in strips makes you seem very diffident and nice — which I’m sure is the case …
I don’t know about that. I’m sure you’d find people who’d disagree with you on that. Drawing yourself is like drawing the shape on the inside of your head rather than the outside. Have you ever seen these drawings where they draw the human figure, but in terms of where most of your nerves are? So, people have huge hands, and huge noses and tongues, and huge genitalia, and very small backs, and very small backs of their legs, because there’s less nerves there? You get this strange, distorted figure, which is obviously human, but which is much more to do with how we feel than how we look. In a way, it’s that sort of thing. I draw myself as I feel from inside. I draw myself with a bigger nose than I have, and a bigger chin and a more receding forehead.
I remember the first picture I saw of you was on the back The Big Book of Everything, and I thought you were some sort of Ivor Cutler figure [eccentric, surreal Scottish poet], about 70 and very strange.
Yes. People have said that before. I had my head shaved then, cropped very close. I was saying about wearing all this crazy makeup. Well, later on than that I used to dress, not exactly like a skinhead, because I used to wear all sorts of odd things, but I did crop my hair down as close as I could, with these ferocious little round spectacles, and ragged jeans and ragged jackets. And really, as with the makeup before, it was a mask. It was a way of keeping people at a distance, frightening people off.
Have you ever tried to do that with the comics when you’ve appeared in them? Have you ever toyed with the idea of creating a persona, so that the readers of your comics could get some idea of you that wasn’t really the case?
No, because that would involve making myself into a sort of antihero figure, or a more negative figure — a powerful figure, I suppose. Which is not how my comics work. It’s certainly not how I work in comics. I’m not a powerful figure in them.
Let’s get back to your prehistory. You started working at a photocopying place at Birmingham Polytechnic, 1971, I think.
That’s right. I started working with a little printing machine, just a step up from a photographer, really, but adequate. And it was there that I started publishing — well, making my first comic books, which were four pages folded and stapled. The first ones that I drew, I didn’t realize that you could draw them bigger and reduce them, so l drew everything “real”-size, and I also drew the sheets as page one and page 16 on the same piece of paper. Didn’t realize that you could do all of that later. I was calling the thing Large Cow Comix, for no reason other than it was something to put on the title, and it filled in a half-hour while I was lettering it, and wondering what to put in the first frame, and it was the silliest thing I could think of. I did four of those, 200 at a time.
You moved on to the Birmingham Arts Lab’s printing press in 1973, with I know is when your comics work started to develop. What kind of people were you working with?
The staff of the Arts Lab were originally painters and sculptors and actual practicing artists, but they quickly became arts administrators, and there were people involved with avant-garde theater and cinema — Andy Warhol films, Kenneth Anger, poetry, and there was a silk-screen workshop. All sorts of things used to go on there, it was very stimulating, very exciting, because it was absolutely the sharp end of contemporary arts. I bagged a job as a print operator, which I was no good at, and I became a designer in 1976. A bunch of us ended up running a press, mainly due to a man called Martin Reading, who pushed for the press to operate as a legitimate, profit-making operation. I was designing leaflets, posters and also comics. Paul Fisher was — I don’t really know what Paul was doing, but he was part of the gang, for sure. Later on, a guy called David Hatton came in with us, and he’s still a printer. If I want anything printed, I go to him. So, there was this gang, and we started publishing my comics — Zomix Comix, and a book called Dogman, which was something Paul Fisher had written and performed as a monologue in rhyming couplets, and I did as a comic. That was the first “real” book I had published. That was fun. We did it as a stage show when we published the book. We made a stage troupe with friends from the drama college, Martin built big stage sets with canvases, I painted Dogman cartoons onto them, and we toured around theater festivals and folk clubs and church halls.
Was this expanding your ambition as a cartoonist, or were you getting a bit distracted from that?
Well, I was expanding my ambitions back into music, because I still fancied myself as a performer. I used to write songs and play guitar. They were crap songs, absolute rubbish. But I really liked performing, and I still do — I like being on stage. So doing Dogman satisfied that a little, although I was an actor in that, not a musician. I also played off and on with a loose collection of musicians and performers. Because we were working at the Arts Lab, and because there was so much stimulating activity going on around us, we all tended to branch out away from doing strictly comics. So, when we went on from doing Dogman to doing other comics — and this was after we’d seen French comics for the first time, in Metal Hurlant, which was a big stimulus — we wanted to produce something experimental. The fact that we were working directly with a printing press was always an influence on us. It was as though the press was a fifth member of the group, rather than being a tool, it was part of the creative process. We were doing things like creating comic pages in the darkroom, that didn’t actually exist in artwork terms, but were done by putting things down onto photographic paper and exposing them to light, collaging things up.
What were your aims for the cartoons that you were doing then?
Just to do ’em! Just to do ’em! Everything was a struggle to make money, to make a thing of some sort. We used to get paid by the Arts Lab, and we would periodically take cuts in pay, as the place gradually went more and more bust because it was so good to work there. We were supposed to make money by publishing and selling the comics, but we never did sell that many, because we didn’t have the distribution, that was way beyond us. But whatever I was doing, it was always with the idea that one day, this was going to pay off. I was never into doing it purely for myself — although I did it for myself, and I produced a lot of stuff unpaid, it was all with the idea that this was towards a career.
What sort of scene was around you at that time, in the early- to mid-70s? What gave you the ambition to think that your work won’t be seen? Because I imagine the counterculture scene was tumbling down around you …
I wasn’t that planned about it. I didn’t really think towards the future in that way. I wouldn’t have known how to have ambitions or make plans. I just knew by this time that what I was doing was cartooning, and I took on all sorts of jobs to make a living at it. Anything at all involving drawing I would take on. I didn’t know there was a comics scene or comics fans until I started to get letters from them, asking for copies of Large Cow Comix. That was the first clue I had that other people did these things in the way that I did.
It sounds like you created your own path as you went along, not by any brilliant strategy, but just by …
By carrying on, yes. A path appeared behind me, really. And immediately closed up so that nobody else could follow through it. I started to build up a network of customers who wanted me to design things outside of my Arts Lab work, and gradually they left Birmingham and got jobs. So, a network formed around me, through my work being accessible and funny populist. People liked it, and it was very distinctive, so people came back to me. I was also probably the only cartoonist that people knew.
Did you have a need to be a cartoonist by that time?
I did feel that. As much as anything it was a way of shutting myself off. I needed a lot of time to do the things, so I would take this time, and destroy my social life because of it. And I was doing more and more work. I was working full-time at the Arts Lab and picking up more and more freelance work as well. Eventually, I was doing two jobs. And we used to work long hours at the Lab — we weren’t shirkers at all, we weren’t slackers. I’d work 8:00 until 8:00 there, and then I’d work on until 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning, cartooning. After a year or so of that, I went freelance.
It sounds like, just as much as you decided to become a cartoonist, cartooning took you over.
Well, it was what I was doing, and it was paid. I’ve always been a good worker, and apart from one brief period on the dole, I’ve always had employment, and I’ve always been determined to have employment, I didn’t like being on the dole. So, I’ve always been the sort of person who says, “No, I’ve got to finish this,” rather than, “I’ll leave this and go out to the pub.” And that’s good, it gives you a good reputation. I very rarely miss deadlines. And I was making money out of it, I was starting to earn a real living at it, especially when I picked up some advertising jobs. So, it was further and further away from the idea of being an independent cartoonist. I always felt much more of a jobbing cartoonist. In a way, I’ve always been surprised that I’m an “underground” cartoonist because I’ve never felt particularly “underground.” I’ve always been a working cartoonist.
I think it was while you were still at the Arts Lab that you did Thunderdogs, which was your first major comic.
That was in 1977. I’d actually just left the Arts Lab, and it was something that I started drawing quite sporadically. I started by making a model kit of an aeroplane. I was sticking a tank chassis onto the bottom of an airplane and sticking a hand on the top with an engine in, and I thought, “This looks interesting, I’ll draw it.”
So, l never finished doing the model, I drew characters to go with the airplane, and this turned into the Thunderdogs comic. It’s a story of transdimensional tomfoolery, a gang of paramilitary idiots led by Major Mongrel, again kind of based on the old Mads, like Wally Wood’s “G.I. Shmoe,” and also to some extent “Black and Blue Hawks,” which was a parody of Blackhawk, but which I swear I never saw until years later when Gilbert Shelton showed it to me. The story is that Major Mongrel gets separated from the others. He goes into a two-dimensional universe, and they stay in a three-dimensional universe. And the 2-D universe is comic book pages. The only information Major Mongrel was given was that he was between pages 20 and 21, and the actual drawings are of the backs of the pages, as though they were canvas with wooden struts, which the characters climb between.
Did you feel you were making some sort of breakthrough, as you carried on with this?
I was making it up as I went along! [Laughs.]
It took about three years to do in the end because l didn’t know what the story was.
But just because of the length of it …
Well, I didn’t know what it was going to be when it started. I started at the top corner to see what happened, it was more or less a doodle. Then I went to the States in 1978 and I met Gilbert [Shelton]. I’d been visiting Trina Robbins, who shunted me around to just about every female cartoonist in the West Coast, and as well as that we went to Rip Off Press. Gilbert saw Thunderdogs, half-finished, and said, “We’ll publish this.”
It took another two years to finish the thing, but eventually, it was, and they did. They did 10,000 of it, we brought 3,000 over to England, and most of the rest were destroyed in the Great Rip Off Press Warehouse Fire. Then the others were destroyed in a flood.
Was Shelton a hero to you? Were you impressed to be there?
Oh sure, you bet. There was a big Halloween party at Trina’s while I was there, and there were all these old heroes of mine, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Ron Turner was there, God knows who else. I got drunk, and when I get drunk I get kind of introverted, so I spent most of the evening sitting out on the back porch, too shy to talk to people. So, I didn’t get to meet them! The story of my life.
When you met Shelton, was he an impressive figure? Did you feel he was on a different level?
He was older, 10 years older than me. And he was in a big professional-looking studio, even if it was only the Rip Off studio, with a Ping-Pong table.
Did he look professional?
I didn’t really know, I didn’t know what a professional looked like, I don’t think I’d ever met any. There was a drawing desk in the corner, I remember, with a rubber chicken hanging from it, and this desk was the one where, when people came nosing around the place, saying, “Hey, is Larry Rippee around?” They’d say, “Oh, that’s his desk there, you just missed him, he just went!” [Laughter.] “Hey, is Dave Sheridan around?” “No, that’s his desk, with the rubber chicken on it. You just missed him!” It was the decoy desk. But it was impressive because it was all the things that you’d read about on the back covers of the Freak Brothers comics — the Ping-Pong table, and the laidback atmosphere. Gilbert rolled a joint, and it was just like a Freak Brothers joint.
Did you feel like you’d arrived?
I was chuffed to death. I got my photograph taken outside the Rip Off Press offices. Really chuffed, with my hair bright orange. I’d dyed my hair blonde while I was in San Francisco. That freaked them out because they were still all hippies. I came out of the bathroom with my hair peroxided, and they thought I’d gone out of my mind.
Were you their first version of punk?
Well, it was 1978, and punk hadn’t really hit San Francisco. When I was walking around with Suzy Varty, who’s been my traveling companion on many adventures, we found this boutique run by a guy who had obviously been to Seditionaries in London, come back, bought a lot of T-shirts and thrown paint on them, and was charging a hell of a lot of money for them. He clocked that we were English, and started getting very shifty, very nervous. But we weren’t particularly punk. We were just how everybody else in this country was. But where we’d turned up, on the West Coast, we were freaks.
Was it the first time you’d been to America?
The only time.
Did it impress you?
I was too wrapped up in myself to notice, really. San Francisco was very pleasant, very laid-back, I had a good time there. Then we went to Tucson, Arizona, and that was smashing, really laid-back. From there we flew to New York and got dumped in the middle of the city at half-past six at night, and couldn’t get in touch with our contact there, so we started to feel a bit of panic, having come from the desert, where everything was four times as slow, and with the dark coming down. So, we booked into a hotel on 42nd Street, closed the curtains, got stoned, started poring through a Street Plan. The next morning, I could deal with it. I never really liked it, but I never got to see it properly. I kept taking the wrong turn and ending up in the Bowery.
Was the whole thing like an adventure? Was it like all your best hippie dreams come true?
It was more of an adventure in that it wasn’t all pleasant. But that was my fault. I was very introverted, and I used to get closed off — still do, I suppose. I am shy in public, I don’t open out very easily, especially if I’ve had a drink or two. I tend to doze off in the corner. That was the case then, as well. We got dragged to posh discos, and I didn’t even know what I was doing there.
Was it like there was an adventure happening around you?
Yeah, but I wasn’t really aware of it. l was waiting for the adventure to start, and it never quite did.
During that period, when you knew that Rip Off was going to put your comic out, did that make you feel differently about things? Did you feel that you were really on the way?
Yeah, l did actually. I was very pleased and proud to be the only English cartoonist to have his own book in the underground press, published in San Francisco by Rip Off.
Did that change your work? Did it make it more coherent?
Well, I was starting to get more coherent by then anyway. I’d started planning The Big Book of Everything, which was originally a joke about something which would be useful to have, and I’d started drawing comic books as chapters, each one telling you about something scientific, from a nonsense point of view — things like Mrs. Newton learning how to cook before Isaac invented gravity, nailing the sandwiches down. The book became a general mixture by the time it was published, but I’d started to tie the stories down much more, and Thunderdogs was a big exercise in trying to have a coherent storyline. I still wasn’t going to the trouble of writing the thing beforehand.
When narratives do start occurring in your work, they’re like that story in The Big Book where Alan Rabbit is faced with the synchronous universe.
Oh yeah. I drew that while I was tripping.
So, everything seemed wry synchronous at the time?
It tended to.
But the plots are like these pinball coincidences, they’re like ricochets.
Well, that’s because of another interest which had grown around this time, which was in Fortean phenomena. Carol Bennett introduced me to the editor of Fortean Times, Bob Rickard, in the early ’70s, and I agreed to do some work for him. This was all new to me, about flying saucers and things, and l started to get very immersed in that, and to read around it quite a lot. So, I was reading a lot of science fiction at that time. I can’t remember any of it now, I was reading SCIENCE FICTION, not individual books. And also, I was reading popular cosmology, about black holes, and coincidences were coming into that — theories of coincidence, and to look at the world in that sort of way. The psychedelics tended that out as well. Synchronicities happen when you’re on psychedelics, or they seem to. You were always looking for deeper meanings in things and looking for patterns.
Did you find them?
No, no. You just found odd synchronicities. I’m older now, aren’t I? And I know that’s just nonsense. [Laughs.] There isn’t anything there at all. It’s our minds that put patterns onto things, the patterns aren’t there in nature. But at the time it all seemed to link together very well, there seemed to be grand patterns to the universe.
Are you still interested in those patterns?
Do they still come out in your work?
Yes, they do. When I write stories, they largely seem to revolve around coincidences. The characters don’t do things, they have things done to them. I think it’s one of the amusing things about the world, the way these nonexistent patterns show themselves. At the Fortean convention, I heard a talk about ley lines and shamanism, and the link between the ley lines, which the speaker, Paul Devereux, reckons to be death tracks, where the corpses and therefore their souls would be taken on a straight-line journey. This is all to do with shamanism, and it applies to cultures all over the world. And once you start looking, you find links everywhere.
Do you know why that interests you? Has it to do with what you were saying earlier, about secret knowledge?
Other worlds, yes. I think that we’ve lost such a lot in cultures, and it may be there are secrets in old ways of living and thinking that would benefit us. I’m sure there are. We’re not going to go back to it, unfortunately. I think the world’s going to hell on a hand cart. Things like the dream time of the Australian and American native peoples, and the shamanism in Lapland, there must have been something to it, or they wouldn’t have done it for such a long time; they wouldn’t have used these things if they didn’t work. We’ve lost the ability to look at it properly now, largely as the result of Judeo-Christian ways of looking at things. Paul Devereux was saying that primitive peoples had soft-edged egos, and our egos have hardened up now, and become more enclosed, as part of Western agriculture, which involves enclosure, and has had an effect on our heads. We see things in more of a personalized, fixed way, whereas primitive people seem to have been more in touch with each other, and to have blurred the distinction between themselves and the outside world. I think that bears investigation. If ever you have experience in mysterious places, wilderness places, there’s something there that you immediately feel connected to. We tend not to stay in these places long enough to find out what the thing is, but there’s a connection there somehow, which we should know more about.
Have you had those wilderness experiences yourself?
To some degree. When I was in Finland last time, I spent the night out in a log cabin in a forest by a frozen lake, and that’s as wilderness as you can get totally isolated. I’ve never experienced silence like that. And l remember being in the desert in the States, having the same sort of feeling. These things come from time to time. The wilderness I can find is just by myself in a field. When I talked before about liking toy soldiers and little worlds, l was always burrowing to the bottom of hedges, and rotting around in tree roots and underneath things. I was always interested in looking down inside things, microcosms within macrocosms. And: I can still do that. Get my face down into the grass, and that’s a wilderness. With a little bit of help and a little bit of effort, l can still get that kind of experience. I suppose it’s called relaxing. [Laughs.]
So, do you think you can get back to the old ways?
No, l think we’re too far gone. But possibly there are new things to be made from them.
Do you still take drugs as a way of increasing your perception?
No. Because it doesn’t do that. I think people tend to find new things when they initially take psychedelics, but like all drugs, you continue trying to get the original thing back again, and it never happens. As to whether it happens in the first place, I don’t know. It seems to.
I want to follow your career in the ’70s a little further. When did you get to Knockabout?
In about 1978, I think Carol Bennett, who I’d know in Birmingham, phoned me up and said she’d got together with Tony Bennett, and they were starting a project, and would I like to be involved? I was pleased to be because we’d just wound down the Arts Lab by that time. We’d stopped publishing comics because we were wasting too much money. So, I was wondering what might happen next when this came up. It was perfect. Carol said, “We’ve got a great name for it, too.” I said, “What’s that?” and she said, “Knockabout!” And all I could see were letters that were going to have to be fitted into a masthead.
But I started working with them. They imported Thunderdogs from San Francisco, and that was my first comic through Knockabout. Shortly after that, they also did The Big Book of Everything. And they were publishing The Freak Brothers as well, which was how everything was working, and still is — Knockabout runs on The Freak Brothers, basically. Since then, Knockabout’s gone from strength to strength, in small steps. It’s been quite a long time, but they’re still in business.
Are they really important to you?
Yeah. For a start, they’re two of my best friends. We’ve gone through a lot together and made lot of decisions together and … In a way, we’re a team. It’s difficult to think of Knockabout without all the three of us in it. I think we’re seen as a team. I do have a financial stake in it, not to a great degree, but I am involved. I’m known as a Consulting Editor, not just a contributor, and of course, Knockabout has first call on any comics I do. And they’ve been good people to work with. They’ve never made me rich, but I don’t know that anybody else would have done that either. They’ve also never made impositions on me. They’ve always been happy to let me develop whatever it was I wanted to do, and not to make me look for a commercial way of doing things, because we’re none of us into the mainstream.
Do you think Knockabout’s quite important to British comics?
Mm, you bet. In a small way, because they’re a small publisher. But they’re one of the oldest established comics houses now. Knockabout’s still there, it struggles on, and is always imminently in danger of collapsing, but we’re still going. We’ve made mistakes — we got involved in the graphic novels scam, just like everybody else, when the market wasn’t ready for them. But we’ve hung on, and now Knockabout leads the field. I do honestly believe that — that we publish the best because we’ve got Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb … But also, Knockabout leads the field in terms of ideas, and readiness to have a go at new things, and we’re respected for that.
Do you contribute to that editorial side?
I try to, yes. It depends how I’m feeling, and how busy I am.
Would your life be more difficult without them?
Well … I wouldn’t know what to do with my comics, actually. I don’t know who else would publish the things — not in the way that I do them.
I know you don’t feel comfortable talking about Knockabout’s censorship trial directly, but could you talk about it as a general issue? Because right through the ’60s, up to the Oz trial in the early ’70s, there were high-profile literary obscenity trials in this country which in every case, sometimes on appeal, ended ill favor of the arts concerned, and it seemed like the walls were tumbling down. So that now American Psycho can come out here and no one blinks an eye. But the authorities seem to still feel that they can kick around the “low arts” — comics and video — as much as they want.
It’s because they’re ignorant arseholes and they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re always looking for an easy solution to their problems. It’s the same reasoning that used to say rock ’n’ roll music was behind juvenile delinquency which was behind the downfall of the country. They’re avoiding the issue. The issue is that people are capable of looking after their own minds and organizing their own censorship if they want. The issue is that they want jobs, they don’t want to be censored, but of course we have a government determined to impose fascism on us. Merely by the fact that they’re there they’re fascists.
Do you mean by being a government, or by being censors?
By being in government.
More or less.
There seems to be a vindictiveness to the process.
It’s power. You have to remember that these people will do anything at all to hang on to power. Don’t trust them an inch. Don’t give them anything.
Why do you think they bother with comics?
It’s easy. They can look at them, see the stuff that shocks them, it’s easy to see. And they’re small-minded people. Narrow-minded bigots.
Have they been surprised, do you think, at Knockabout causing such a fuss about their decisions?
Well, you’re dealing with people who aren’t going to change their minds. They may be forced to do so by law, but that’s not going to change their attitude to things. What Tony finds dealing with Customs is that it’s an ongoing thing. He has a sort of agreement with the bosses there that he’ll show them the material he wants to bring in and they’ll say yes or no to it, to avoid having to be prosecuted as much as possible. But they’re not saying yes or no because they think it’s more or less acceptable. They’re saying yes or no because they realize that they’re not going to be able to prosecute us. You’re never going to alter their attitude that This Is Sin. So, you get the odd one, the “inexperienced officer” who takes it into his head that he personally doesn’t like this and thinks everybody else should be offended by it. He maybe told by his superiors that this isn’t going to work, but it’s not going to change his attitude, or theirs. Because they’re ignorant arseholes. I despise and hate them.
Have you ever had any trouble with them personally?
No, but then l avoid being too controversial. There again, I’m inured by Firkin, and because so much of my work is about sex, and I forget that other people don’t take it the same way. And I’m surprised when people are shocked by it — these are people that I know sometimes. They see things and say, “Oh God!”
But it’s just another drawing for me. I forget that my views on these things are probably different to other people. I’ve been twisted and perverted by the work. [Laughs.]
THE BIG TIME
I was interested in what you said earlier, about being surprised that you were an underground cartoonist, because your characters, like Alan Rabbit in The Big Book, and Max Zillion in Jazz Funnies, are the kind of characters I associate with a Warner Brothers cartoon. They’re strong, defined characters, exactly like ones which have become very popular in the mainstream. Do you think it’s an accident of the marketplace that you’ve never been like that, and that you’ve been stuck in this alternative ghetto?
Maybe it’s just that the stories weren’t good enough. I’m only now learning to write proper stories — and maybe in a couple of years I’ll be saying, “It’s only now that I’m learning how to write proper stories.” [Laughs.] I look back at things I did two years ago, and think, “How the hell did I get away with this?”
It sounds like a huge gap because of what’s happened to these characters, but the gap between Max Zillion and Bugs Bunny is not so huge, in terms of the defined concept, and how approachable the characters are.
Well, like I was saying before, I always wanted to make them easy. If people have to struggle to read the things, then they’ve failed. It’s one of the things that I don’t like about a lot of the new independent comics that I see. There’s too much in there that people are too obviously doing for themselves, and not for the reader. Unless my eye flows over it, I tend not to read the things. And if my eye’s got to flow over things, then for the general reader it’s absolutely imperative, otherwise, they’re just not going to look at it. I try to do my stuff for people who don’t read comics because I don’t really know many people who read comics. Certainly, none of my friends or neighbors read comics with any regularity apart from the ones I give them unless they’re cartoonists themselves. And a lot of my friends I find don’t know how to read them. They really don’t know what they’re looking at. When I show them my stuff, they can read it, so that must be working somehow. I’m deliberately doing this — my drawings aren’t simple, but they’ve got to be clear, there mustn’t be any ambiguous bits, I have to keep the number of words in the speech balloons down.
So, is it frustrating that the way things have turned out, you’re still seen as alternative and marginal?
Cult is the word. [Laughter.] Yes, it’s frustrating. But then I have to judge that I’m not commercial material. Or maybe it’s to do with Knockabout being an independent. Our independence does mean a lot, you see. There’s no argument or hassle at Knockabout about who owns the copyright. If you do work for Knockabout, you get paid for it, and then you own it. And: Tony pays probably better rates than anybody else, he always has. It may not be much, because it’s not a big print run, but it’s 10% rather than 7 or 6%.
Are all of those things important enough to sacrifice the possibility of mainstream success?
Well, you see, looking at the mainstream, I don’t see that there would have been a success there. I gather that the big names in the States for example, the respected names, like Jim Woodring and Chester Brown, have day jobs, don’t they? So, they’re not actually making a living from doing their comic strips. Now I’m not making a full living doing comic strips, but I’m making some living at it. There was a time a couple of years ago when all my living came from comic strips. I’m back to doing illustration work as well now, but I don’t feel as though I have a day job. And what would be the mainstream success? What is a big success? Neil Gaiman? But that’s not what I do.
There’s some hole where you should become like Chuck Jones, someplace that doesn’t exist.
Maybe, maybe. It’s my own place. Me and Gilbert and Robert Crumb. We get associated a lot in France and Germany, the three of us together. Shelton, Crumb, Emerson … The three names that come up as the Three Underground Cartoonists. That makes me very proud, to be associated with them. I feel as though it’s not warranted, really, because they’re much bigger figures than I am.
Do you feel like you’re a generation down?
Yeah, and not only in age. But I suppose because I’m fairly prolific, and people see that I come from the same place as them … It means that I pick up some work, at least. When people in France are looking for underground cartoonists, they think of me too.
One of the things I like about The Big Book of Everything is that it doesn’t look like an alternative comic, really. It looks like something for children, with that title and all those characters on the front. Would you have liked it to be a success with children?
Well, not when I was doing that. ln fact, not now. I can’t write for children, really. I’ve never seen the necessity for it. Again, you see, comics for me are funny, not serious, and also comics for me are for adults. The idea of doing children’s comics is a different world, a different job. But what you’re saying about The Big Book looking different was one of the problems. That kind of book was a new artifact which is still fighting to find its place in the market. It doesn’t fit into any recognized categories. They had to open humor sections and comic sections in bookshops when everybody started producing these graphic novels. And of course, what happened was that people who’d read about these new adult comic books in the press, comics with subject matter and writing worthy of an adult, would go into bookshops looking for them, and what they would find were collections of Judge Dredd. This wasn’t what they were looking for, this wasn’t adult, so they’d walk out of the bookshop and not come back. And the bookshops got really pissed off with this, because they’d had to invent a new category, and it had reneged on its promise to them.
Bringing The Big Book out seems another example of this accidental path that you’ve wandered along — to have a whole category opening up around that time, to encompass what you’d just done.
Yeah. Because it wasn’t going into the comics shops, either, they didn’t have a section for it. I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better just doing comics rather than books, and for me to have flooded the market with 30 or 40 comics, not 10 books. But things happen the way they happen, and at the time the idea was that people would produce books. And they’re nice books.
CALCULUS CAT AND SERIOUS JAZZ
I think you invented Calculus Cat and Max Zillion as characters around the same time …
Yes, I was inventing a lot of characters around that time, and often they came from doodles. Calculus was a doodle. Other times, like Alan Rabbit, they would just arise. I would get to a point in a story, and Alan Rabbit would come into it. His first appearance was that way, I didn’t know I was going to do a story about Alan Rabbit until he was there on the page.
Do you use characters to anchor you?
Yes. And l was starting to write proper stories and to explore these characters.
The obvious paradox about Calculus Cat is that this is someone who watches TV all day, and you don’t watch it at all.
He watched TV all night. He spends his days working, running around the streets with his grin, and then he comes home in the evening to watch TV, and the TV’s been saving up nothing but adverts, which it insists on showing. They have a big row. Calculus is about to smash the TV, then the TV shows one of his favorite programs, and that’s basically the shape of every Calculus Cat story. It wasn’t about television. It was about marriages and partnerships in a way — in a very uncruel sort of way. It was about the way that people live together without really listening to each other and follow their own individual lives inside relationships.
They want something from each other that isn’t provided.
Yes, I suppose so. I’d thought of it more as people wandering around muttering to themselves and expecting the other partner to be listening to them, when in fact the other partner is wandering around doing exactly the same thing.
Calculus also has the structure of a Warner Brothers cartoon, or of Herriman, in that it’s the same story every single strip. Do you like that repetition?
Yes, it’s a good structure to work from. It means that you can get off onto fresh territory fairly quickly, with dialogue, because the scene’s already set, then the dialogue leads to wacky things happening in the pictures, and things come together and become funny.
There are some scenes of really hideous turmoil, lodged in what’s basically a funny strip. Why?
Because life ain’t easy! Because that’s what happens in cartoons. A comic strip that’s all talking heads is a waste of a comic strip, you could do it with photographs. If you’re drawing the stuff, you should be drawing things that are worth drawing.
Is there any particular reason why you’ve never watched TV? It seems like you’re resisting your whole culture.
Yes, I know. It seems like that to me as well. I really stopped watching TV regularly when I was about 14 or 15 when I was still at home because I was spending more and more time up in my bedroom, drawing, painting, playing the guitar, playing with my girlfriend. And I didn’t want to spend time downstairs with my dad. It went from there. When I came to art college here in Birmingham, students didn’t have TVs. You used to maybe know one person in your year who had a TV, and if Monty Python was on you’d go round and watch it. But otherwise, we couldn’t afford it. That’s the way life was.
It must have been quite useful in a way because it kept you with your own imagination, instead of the popular one.
And now when I see TV most of the time I’m stultifying bored by it. It just seems like such a waste of time. When the TV’s on in a room, I can’t keep my eyes off the bloody screen, and I hate it because of that. If I’m sitting watching it, after five minutes I can think of something I’d rather be doing. It hurts my eyes as well. If I do settle down to watch a film, one film’s all I can watch, and my eyes are jumping around by the end. It’s the same with computers and computer games. I just can’t be bothered with them. I have an initial mild interest to see what the graphics are like, but so far as playing them, it’s an absolute waste of time. It doesn’t interest me in the slightest.
So, your mind and body are completely unadapted to …
… to the cathode ray tube, yeah.
I know Max Zillion came from your friend Bridget playing the saxophone, but there must be more to it than that. His environment seems much mere formed than anything you’d done before.
I think you’re right. I’ve noticed that because I’ve been doing a few more Max Zillion stories just recently because we’re republishing that book with some new pages. It’s interesting because, as you say, it’s a very rounded world. I’m not quite sure how and why. It’s just one that came together nicely, and naturally. There were set positions for the characters. If there was a musician, then there was going to be an agent, and perhaps a club owner, and perhaps a girl singer, and it’s quite easy to fit these in, and to write around them. Then there was the idea of drawing the music, and the saxophone being the brains of the outfit, and being the one that gets him out of trouble. All you’ve got to do then is find the trouble to put him into, and let the saxophone think its way out.
You’ve got bop talk and noir scenes, but it doesn’t seem like pastiche. It seems like something sealed, in its own world.
I deliberately didn’t get stuck in the bebop thing; I didn’t want to keep it in the 1950s. l can put in whatever musical references I need. If he needs to play with synthesizers, then he can. I had an idea once of having him play with James Brown’s Famous Flames and I could have done that because he doesn’t have to be a jazz saxophone player. He can do a tour with James Brown, no problem. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t go and play in a bar in Mexico, or why there should be any explanation for that. So consequently, it is a nice, enclosed world. It’s quite a big world, but everything slots in, and you don’t have to set things up every time you want to introduce a new element.
It’s true that you draw music. You’ve got notes leaping, panels turning cubist, bodies leaping. Do you get some of that energy as you’re drawing?
Yeah. I don’t see how else it would work. I like to make gestural marks, big fast things, and then work them up into something more complicated.
But the initial energy has to be there?
Yeah. Make it bounce. You get the bounce from an extension of the handwriting effect.
The four pages in Jazz Funnies that obviously stand out from everything else you’ve ever done are the scenes at the end of “Hell on Earth.” Why did you draw them?
Because of the story. Because Knockabout was doing a “Hell On Earth” comic, and that’s the way the story came out. When I came to draw them, it was obvious I was going to need more room than a standard page size, so I drew them twice as big. So, they became big projects, and very intense because of that.
Were the things on each of those pages the four worst things you could think of — animal abuse, pollution racism, and social iniquity? Did you have to put some sort of limit on the thing1 that outraged you to get the work done?
I can’t remember. I had four pages to do.
So, when you’d filled them, you stopped being outraged?
More or less. Such a lot of it is down to mechanistic things — to how many pages there are, or how big this panel is.
But you’d avoided that sort of seriousness so successfully in your other work. Was it very difficult to do those pages?
Yes. It was painful because they’re painful subjects, and I remember being quite anguished while I was drawing them and feeling very angry and involved with them. But it was necessary in that story that they should be there. But there couldn’t really be any more than that. That was enough because otherwise, it starts to interrupt the story, and becomes a thing of its own.
Were they only there at all because, having decided to write a story about Max meeting the Devil and Hell on Earth, it would have been a cheat to do anything less?
So, it wasn’t anything you particularly wanted to do?
Not to start with, no.
The art is quite different from your usual style. On the third page, the one about poor people as victims, some of the people look scratched in or scratched out. The figures are much more tenuous and harsh than the ones you usually draw.
That’s something that comes sometimes on bigger pages in particular. When I’m well into drawings, they’re not so much drawing as painting; it’s not so much drawing figures from black shapes and silhouettes. It happens late at night; it happens when I’ve been on a long run, and I’m relaxed into it. There’s maybe an hour or so where these things go down really quickly, and I’ll draw legs by scribbling in lines and getting the creases on the backs of the knees; I’ll draw a good pair of trousers without drawing any outlines. I don’t really know quite how it works, because I can’t generate it spontaneously, I can’t generate it to order. It happens at the time it’s meant to happen.
But it seems with the figures I’m thinking of that there might be something more particular happening as well. Because the only other example of that style that I’ve seen in your books are a few scenes in Lady Chatterley, ones where Constance is at her most isolated and pained. So, is there some connection between how you’re feeling as you do those things, the fact that they’re difficult, and this tenuous hold the characters have on the page?
Not so much how I’m feeling as how the characters are feeling.
Did you find those “Hell On Earth” pages more difficult to do as you went along?
No. Once I’d started into them, it was a job of work. It’s a drag filling big sheets of paper and having to think of more outrages to put into the corners, but it’s mechanistic. Like, I get into expressionism a little bit when it needs it. If Connie is isolated, then these spindly, shadow figures are the sort of thing that’s needed. It’s a drawing style. And it’s mechanistic because it’s a case of filling the pages, and also of there being four pages because that made the timing right. I think with three pages I wouldn’t have come out on the right-facing pages when I needed to.
So, there’s nothing in the actual drawing of those pages to turn you away from doing that sort of thing again, if the subject arose?
No, no. If the subject arises, it’ll have to be done. I’ve got a story over there that’ll need the same sort of page in … two pages time! [laughs.] It’s very much part of making the story. And something that I think I’ve got good at is being able to tell things in comics stories. Not so much to tell new stories, but once I’ve got a story, to break it down into a comic book page. I find I can do that in very efficient ways now. I enjoy that part of working out the stories more than anything. Getting it down to this sort of level. [Pointing to a sketched-out page.]
Does politics exclude itself from your work quite naturally?
Yeah. Quite naturally. I did a political book with Titan Books: You Are Maggie Thatcher. It was a good book, a good idea. Pat Mills wrote it. But it was out-of-date when it was published. There’d been a cabinet reshuffle, and all the politicians were in different jobs. Now hardly any of them are in the government at all, so the shelf life of that book was weeks if that. I prefer to be doing stuff that I can republish and resell.
You also said to me once that comics seem too ephemeral to deal with serious subjects.
For me they do. That’s not the case with everyone, some people do some very good stuff. I’ve been impressed by some of the political and social work that I’ve seen. But for me, it’s an abuse of power. And I’m just not sure enough about my own ideas.
What do you mean when you say “abuse of power?” Do you mean by the cartoonist?
Yeah, to think that his piffling little medium has got any meaning in the world. But then people read things for different reasons to what I do. I just look over there and see Peter Loveday’s Plain Wrapper Comics. Do you know that one? It’s all about hemp, and how we came out of the forest with the dog and the hemp plant, and we should still have it with us, it’s been one of the mainstays of our culture. That comic book is full of information, although by the end it’s become more of a tract than a comic. It’s got far too many words. But it works, it’s interesting, it’s a good read. So, when I say comics are too ephemeral, really I shouldn’t say that because obviously other people are able to cope with it very well. But I’m not.
It does seem strange that you should use words like ephemeral or “piffling,” however jokingly, about a medium which you put so much of yourself into.
Well, it’s only comics. Look at what’s going on in the world, you know? We can live without ’em, very easily.
But do you mean it’s only art basically?
No, I mean it’s only comics. It’s not art, it’s comics.
So, what’s the distinction?
Between art and comics?
Yeah. What makes comics less suited to serious subject matter?
I don’t really have a distinction that I could draw between comics and art that would hold in general terms. It’s just that I’ve never thought of the comics I do myself as art.
I know that you’re doing educational leaflets as part of your work at a drug rehab unit and that you think your art is useful to the drug users you’re working with. That makes it sound like you do have a more serious attitude to the world now, which is perhaps coming through in the comics.
Quite possibly. I’m finding it hard work doing the drug leaflets. It’s interesting work, but it’s hard coming up with the stories. And to do that all the time just wouldn’t be on.
Does it seem unnatural to you?
Yeah, to me, because I don’t … Politics makes me too angry to deal with as an entertainment thing, and that’s really what the comics are, they’re entertainment.
Are you able to deal with it in other ways?
Well, I try not to be outraged, it’s bad for you [laughs]. I sit here and listen to the radio and get as outraged and angry and upset as anyone, but you can’t live on that. Or I can’t.
You can’t work on that either?
No, no, it’s just too disruptive. It tears you inside too much. And for me, the stuff’s entertainment. We’ll talk about the drug stuff later on, but that is interesting actually because doing that has given mean insight into precisely this that we’re talking about. So, I’m having to re-access my ideas, to be honest. I’m finding things in doing the leaflets that I hadn’t realized was there before in my work. But then again, the leaflets are not my comics. They’re not the sort of stuff that’s going to be anthologized and looked back on in the future.
So, your attitude might change a bit, but finally, your work’s entertainment?
Yeah. I’m finding more and more these days that the underlying sadness to the story of Casanova’s Last Stand, for instance, is the kind of level that I’m interested in exploring — greater subtleties in the level of storytelling. I suppose some of that might encompass politics.
Is that change in you, or a change in your idea of what your work is?
I’m growing up. I’m getting involved in more things, like working with the drug project. Also, I’m doing a little bit of teaching, from time to time. Not currently, but in London, I was teaching for about a year, and I never believed that I could teach, and never would have put myself up as a teacher, until I did it. And when I did it, it was the time to do it, because I had the experience. I had to reach 40 before I had the experience, and there’s no way I could have done it before then. So, I suppose the ideas are changing because I am.
Do you have more confidence in yourself?
I’m much more willing to say, “I can do this,” or “I can’t do this,” rather than just take it on and sort out the problems later. Also, as I’ve said, I have more understanding of my medium. I’m an expert at it, actually — especially when I’m the only one around doing it! I am the expert, and I’m not bad at it, and that’s one reason why the Church Road drugs project is being as successful as it is.
Having decided you’ve got this expertise with your medium, are you now in the middle of deciding what you’re capable of, and what you can do with it?
Possibly. Not consciously. But I’m certainly looking for deeper things in the stories nowadays — if I can get them in there. The two Max Zillion stories I’ve just done are just silly bits of nonsense. But this one here [picking up a page] is ecology stuff for a French publisher. They’re doing a series of books, and each one has a political theme, and I’ve got the ecology one. A few years ago, I would really have balked at doing that, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but I now know that what you do is, you write a story. And then you put a bit of ecology in there somewhere, just a little bit, because a little bit’s enough. It’s not a tract about ecology, it’s a 21-page comics story.
So, as long as you have a story, you can do anything you want?
And I can find ways of putting serious stuff inside it, which is much better because it’s a way of getting people to read this stuff. But talking about all this political stuff, it occurs to me that … It’s not something I ever think about. If I have to put something social or political or ecological into a strip, then I think about it, and usually, I think, “Ohh, Go-od!,” just like any restriction, but If you’re given restrictions then you play to them, you get on and do it. But I don’t think, ‘‘Now I’m looking for deeper subjects.” I realize that this is happening later on. Like when I finished Casanova, I realized there was new stuff there, stuff that I was very proud of that had gone on in it. But talking about it like this makes it all seem very artificial, and pretentious as well.
Does politics seem all about restrictions? is there a reason why you’re uncomfortable dealing with it? Do you think it’s a waste of time?
No, it’s not a waste of time. How can it be a waste of time when it runs all of our lives? No, there are some absolute bastards and some real crooks in the political world, some scum and you can’t believe the hypocrisy of some of these people. But it’s about power, not restrictions.
You’re not suppressing something by not having much political content anyway. It’s just not there. It’s not in your head.
Not in the comics, it’s not something in my head, no. Not as something that I want to express to everyone else. I have political opinions, but they’re very unformed, and I’m sure very naive. And why should anyone else want to know about them?
So, let’s talk about the Fortean stuff. What was your job, why were you approached, and what did you have to do?
Well, Fortean Times was first started as a fanzine, really. Bob Rickard was basically collecting and categorizing newspaper clippings, on all sorts of odd subjects, like falls of ice, and he wanted me to do cartoons and vignettes at the head of the columns. I was doing that for 15 years until John Brown took it over and made it a proper magazine on the newsstands, which was when I started getting paid. It became more regularized, and so I’m doing a comic strip for it, Phenomenomix, each month.
The thing about Fort, as I understand it, is that he didn’t necessarily believe in the thing he was writing, so much as he was trying to provoke with ideas.
Mm, absolutely, yes. Forteans don’t believe; they present possibilities and ideas and let you make your own mind up.
Is that your standpoint? Or are there phenomena that you believe in?
I believe a lot of the stuff. I believe that fish and ice fall out of the sky, for whatever reasons. I believe in crop circles — not the elaborate ones, but there’s something that makes simple crop circles. I believe in natural phenomena, actually. I like the personal side of it. I’m not into psychic stuff, and I’m not very interested in Satanic things. But I do believe in spontaneous human combustion.
There’s a quote from Bob Pickard in the introduction to your Phenomenomix collection, “Startling Planet,” where he talks about Fort and says, “Everything is linked to everything else, and all barriers, definitions and categories are artificial and arbitrary.”
Yes, I agree with that.
It seems to apply to your work, in more ways than the patterns you talked about before. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner performs a real balancing act, where you’ve got scenes of really grand, almost Fortean phenomena, about also you’ve got a joke and characters who look like they’ve come straight out of a children s comic. Is that quite natural to you?
I think it is. With The Mariner, the whole book was about the borderlands between reality and illusion, and hallucination, and using spirals as a symbol for this. But I tend to see the characters in the book, like most of my characters, as people playing amateur dramatics. Which is why they clump around and bump into things, and why, when they’re not actually doing anything, they stand around looking like planks of wood, or why, if somebody else has a big scene, one of the incidental characters will be picking their noses, or going through their pockets, or doing something else that's distracting. Amateur dramatics. Because, I like that scrabbling effect, of things being thrown onto stage, and I think it’s funny.
Characters not staying dead when they’re supposed to …
Yes. And not being real actors, having to be told what to do. “Stand there and say that!” So, there’s that kind of contrast. But it’s not a contrast of subject matter and character; it’s just the same thing again — the characters in the books tend to be like this, against whatever the subject matter is. It’s the same with Max Zillion. It’s a jazz background, but they’re the same actors.
One of the things that makes Ancient Mariner different from the work you’d done before is that some of the scenes really seem designed to give a sense of awe at the phenomena you’re drawing. That seems another case of you having more serious intent in the book.
It’s a grand poem, and it just seemed to suggest that sort of thing. And also, given the fact that there are sea monsters in the thing, with wild descriptions of them, am I then going to draw some piddly little eel, or a guppy, or a newt? The special effects in comics are cheap, so you might as well use them.
But is it still necessary for you, once you’ve done that, to put some jokes at the bottom?
Yeah, because I’ve got to put something in the corners and because I feel that a page without a gag on it somewhere is going to be a cheat.
You’re not doing your job?
Yeah, exactly. I’d get rude letters from people saying, “Why isn’t there a gag on this page?”
So, would you be interested to do a whole book of visionary moments? Would you be capable of it?
You mean without the humor? No, I wouldn’t really be interested. I would be very bored after the first one, probably. Because you’re just reproducing the same thing in bigger and more elaborate derails.
Are jokes better than seriousness when it comes down to it?
I can’t draw serious. I draw hands with three fingers.
Did you adapt Coleridge because you’d have some good words to go with your pictures?
Well, there are things that I like drawing. Sailing ships is one of them. And we were looking for a new book to adapt, and somebody mentioned The Ancient Mariner, and it was obvious once it had been suggested. And, as is always the case, once I started to me do a bit of investigation, the whole thing became very fascinating, and so it became important that I got all of Coleridge’s words in there, even his margin notes. I like sea stories, I like poetry that rhymes and tells stories. I like a good rollicking tale. And I liked the craziness of it. Also, do you remember Wally Wood’s version of “The Wreck of the Hesperus” in Mad? If you look at it, you’ll see that it’s exactly the same as mine! [Laughs.] You’ll see what I was trying to do.
I don’t read much poetry at all, but I do like ones that tell stories, like Robert W. Service, who wrote “Desperate Dan McGrew,” and other ballad poems about the Alaskan Gold Rush. That’s great stuff. I nearly did one of those as a book one time, but it didn’t really come to anything in the end. I don’t really much about Coleridge. I’m not particularly well-read in that way. I’ve only really started discovering classics in the last 10 years, and I’ve never really read poetry. My reading is patchy, although it’s constant. It’s what I do for preference.
I’ll tell you one other thing. There’s going to be an exhibition of illustrators who’ve done versions of The Ancient Mariner. This is going to be at Coleridge Cottage, in Somerset, where he was living when he wrote it. I’m going to be part of it, they’ll be using one or two original pages from my book. I’ll be going down with Knockabout to take a look, and the man at the cottage said that he’s got a spare room, so I’ll be able to sleep in Coleridge’s cottage one night. That’ll be really nice.
Have you had any reaction from Coleridge scholars to the book?
Well, we had a letter from Lord Coleridge, the poet’s great-grandson, I think, who said he very much enjoyed it. We had some reaction from Lawrence scholars to Lady Chatterley, who pointed out sexual symbols I’d never imagined, but I can’t recall any about The Mariner.
It’s interesting that the current Coleridge has come across it.
That’s because the Coleridge Society has got it. The book sells quite well at the Cottage, and at Grasmere for the same reasons. That’s one of the nice things about doing these classics. You edge into other worlds, where you can surprise people.
Is that part of the appeal of research to you?
I like information. I like involving myself in information, and that means books, really. I’m a great gatherer of general knowledge, useless things. Current research is all about the Beatles, of course. I’ve got all of their albums now, and as many again of bootlegs, and a shelf-full of books.
You should do it as a book.
It’s already been done. There was a Marvel one, and there was one that Arthur Ranson did that was much better. That was a nice book. I have thought of it.
You should do one on your obsession with the Beatles — and you and the Fifth Beatie.
[Laughs, then assumes scholarly tone.] No, I’d be the seventh. Stu Sutcliffe was the Fifth Beatle, and Pete Best as the Sixth Beatle, according to himself, according to himself, so I would at least be the Seventh. It’s not going to happen.
There’s lots of sex in your work. Why?
Because it pays! [Laughs.] Because it sells. There’s Firkin for a start, and I’ve been doing that about 16 years now. It’s a job, and it was offered to me by the editors of Fiesta [British porn mag]. I was doing illustrations for them, and they came to me with the idea of making a comic strip, which I said I’d be happy to do, provided it wasn’t just an extension of the rest of the book, with pneumatic ladies, and they said, “No, no, do an underground comic, that’s what we want.” So, the sex is there because it’s a sex magazine, but I consider the strip itself to the social satire. And as such, I think it stands up OK.
Is it true that there was very little distinction made between underground and porn magazines in London in the early ’70s, that they were part of the same community?
I don’t know about that. Tym Manley, who writes Firkin, says that when he used to edit Fiesta, around 1968, ’69, he was in with the same crowd as the guys who ran Oz, and people did know each other in that way in those days if they were in the same place. He reckons that Fiesta in those days was an experimental and avant-garde magazine that was pushing boundaries, and I suppose in a way they still are, because now they’re trying to get in photo-sets with men and women in them, and they’re having problems getting that through their distributors. But the boundaries they’re pushing are so that they can sell more smut.
Do you think about who is reading it?
What, you mean the people who buy Fiesta? There are 350,000 of them a month! There are a lot of them in prison, and a lot of them in the forces, and why shouldn’t they? I’m finding people down at the drug project who say, “Oh yeah, you do that, seen that in the nick!” It’s seen by more people than any of the other work I do. These magazines exist, and amongst those magazines, Fiesta is relatively mild. It always takes itself lightly, it’s got a good sense of humor, and it doesn’t denigrate women to the extent of some other magazines.
Was that important to you when you took the job on? Did you make a distinction?
Yes. I’ve been asked to work for other magazines since then, and I tend not to do it. I did a little bit of work for one called Razzle, but when the first issues came through with my drawings in them, I thought, “Eurrhh, l don’t want to be in this ...” So, I cut that off. But Fiesta I can deal with. They’re lighthearted about it. They’re easy about it. And half the staff are women.
Given that you were uncomfortable with the sexuality of the American undergrounds, and that you wanted to draw comics that you could show your mum, how did you overcome those reservations?
They offered me money. All they had to do was offer me money. And they’ve made me the best offers I’ve ever had. The same with the illustrations I’m doing each month now for Electric Blue. That is a nasty magazine, but I’m not being offered any other work that pays in that range, certainly not in comics.
Do you feel compromised by the work that you’re doing for Electric Blue, by the fact that you can’t survive financially without doing work that you find unpleasant?
Compromised … I’m very disillusioned about the comics business because it’s on its arse at the moment. And I do sort of wonder, “Is this what it’s come to, after all this time?” [laughs]. But I am working at least, and that’s enough these days. I’m fortunate. And what the hell? It’s just illustration work after all. I don’t really feel compromised because it’s work, and working in the system, in the first place compromises you, so once you’ve taken that step, then it’s all the same.
The sex scenes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover are very diverse, in the style and effects you use.
That was bashing through it at great speed, basically. I was working to a deadline on that, and by the end of that book, I was drawing two pages a day, which is a lot. I had to go and stay with a friend to finish the book, And it was a case of get it down in the fastest way possible, make use of what’s going on. If there’s some weather going on, then draw the weather, because it saves having to draw lots of other stuff that’s incidental.
In the scene where Constance climaxes with Mellors for the first time, there are different techniques and styles from panel to panel.
Yes, right. But these things just come out. Again, I’m not really consciously thinking of them. It’s just the right way to deal with that particular frame, being expressionist.
It’s interesting that you talk about the work in mechanistic terms, or in terms of solving problems — but the result isn’t like that.
So, it’s a success! I hope it isn’t like that, I hope it works, that it reads naturally and flows properly.
So, your part of the process in a comic is the problem solving, and the result of that can take care of itself?
Another thing in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that even more than Jazz Funnies, it has a very detailed environment, especially in terms of landscape.
Well, it’s real people. I think that’s possible the first book I did with real people in it. And because it’s a human story, you have to be correct with the backgrounds as well so when they’re in Venice it needs to look like Venice, or if I’m trying to represent the decadent life of the 1920s, then I’ve got to sort out what that actually meant and read Aldous Huxley and all the rest of it. And the English landscape is like an extra character in Lawrence’s book, so it was necessary to deal with it in some detail and to get it right.
Your attitude to class is different from Lawrence’s because I skimmed the novel and you seem more critical of the ruling classes than he is.
Yeah, sure. I haven’t read it actually. [Laughs.]
I forced myself. I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d known you hadn’t?
I read part of it. I was working on the book from a précis that Tony and Carol prepared, and for a little part of my book I actually worked with Lawrence’s book, but I found that it was far too long-winded, so … I went back to the précis. But I think that Lawrence is quite damning about the class system, considering the time he was coming from. I think we’re more able to jeer at it and mock it now. In those days it was still dodgy territory, and as you know the book itself ran into all sorts of problems, not so much because of the sex, as because of the adultery between Lady Constance and Mellors the gamekeeper. That was more shocking to the English than the actual sex scenes — it was inter-class sex.
One difference between your book and Lawrence’s is that Lord Chatterley in the novel is quite a good-looking guy, and in your book, he’s a lobster.
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s right. But again, I was just glancing at it. I think I read that he was a slight figure with a fair mustache. That’s about as far as I went. There are lots of things in my book that are collapsed and telescoped. It’s very much an adaptation.
Are you quite class conscious?
Aren’t we all? We’re English, it’s bred into us. Coming from Newcastle was interesting in a way, because there aren’t many rich people up there, or not as many as there are in the South. When I came to Birmingham to art college, I came across the phenomenon for the first time of young ladies whose daddies were so rich that they didn’t get student grants. One of the things about politics that makes me angry is the way these bastards think that they rule us — the liberties they take, the salaries they take. The French had the right idea.
In Phenomenomix, a pterodactyl turns up in a mine, and they all think he must be an aristocrat, became he quacks.
[Laughter.] Oh yes, that’s right! The Geordies can’t make out what he’s saying, so they assume he must be an aristocrat. Yeah, that’s Walbottle Pit. That’s where I was brought up.
There’s a quote from Lawrence which if it connects to you must be quite accidental, I’m sure. He said the point of the book was to be able to “think about sex fully, completely, honestly and cleanly. “Was that part of the point you wanted to get across?
No, not particularly. We were doing it partly to celebrate Knockabout winning its censorship trial, and partly because everyone in England knows that Lady Chatterley’s Lover equals sex, and sex sells and that worked — it was the bestselling book we’ve done, we sold about 12,000 of them. But no, I wasn’t looking for a new way to do sex. I wanted to do it without it being pornographic, but then I always do. Firkin may be in bad taste and rude, but I don’t think it’s ever pornographic.
How do you draw that line?
I just know inside myself. It’s what you feel comfortable with.
You obviously took a lot of care over the bodies of Constance and Mellors; they’re very detailed, and they change as well — almost look like different bodies, depending on who’s looking at whom, and what their moods are.
Yeah, that was a deliberate thing, having Mellors through Constance’s eyes being big and hunky, while everybody else sees him as the slob he really is. It’s a cartoon, so you can do that. And as far as drawing the bodies goes, I did a lot of life drawing at college, which I think is the most valuable training a cartoonist can have. And, of course, I’ve drawn a lot of women since then as well, so I can get ’em down on paper, I know how to put things in the right places.
That’s one of the things that comes across in Casanova. It sums like you really love women and love how they look, from the way you draw them, and the ways they’re all different.
One tries. [Laughs.] It’s difficult. I used to have great difficulty drawing women at all. l used to avoid it like the plague. I still can’t caricature women the same way I caricature men. I can’t draw them ugly. That’s my innate gallantry, perhaps. I like to make them look nice, look good, even if I’m cartooning. I find ways of making them more cartoony, to do with proportion and this sort of thing, but say if [Firkin co-writer] Tym Manley writes that he wants an old woman with huge, drooping breasts that dangle, that’s difficult because it’s not pleasant.
But you cartoon men in the way that you draw yourself, in that it’s very unflattering in most cases. Does doing that to women go against your whole idea of them in a way?
No, I think it’s more to do with the shapes that you need to make it look like a woman rather than like a potato with tits. Whereas you can draw a man like a potato and stick the legs on, for a woman you really need the hips and the bottom as well, you need the curves. And once you draw them on, you have to deal with the breasts in the same sort of way, otherwise, it just doesn’t look right, and you wind up with a more realistic-looking figure.
But is there something more general to it as well, in the way you think of women, and how they look?
Do I like women? Yeah, I like women. [Laughs.] It’s quite different drawing different types of women all the time because I have an idea that I prefer, and when I’m trying to draw really gorgeous girls, they always turn out looking like that, and so I try to change it and make them different in some way. But I’m not quite convinced because they’re not quite gorgeous enough for me.
Why did you do Casanova in the first place?
Again, because we were looking for a book with some sort of instant appeal, and everybody knows that Casanova equals sex. Tony and Carol suggested it, and at first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea, then I started reading about him, and got very interested in the character.
The idea of Casanova as it’s come down to us has quite bad connotations now, but to you, it obviously doesn’t.
Well, if you read about him you find out that he had a very wide and varied life. Having said all this — and I do this in the introduction, I talk about what a rounded character he was — I then go on to make all the stories about him sex stories. [Laughs.] That’s the way it goes. But there was a lot more to his life than sex, and his attitude I found appealing in that he was much more into the idea of being loved and the conquest and the chase, rather than the act itself, and quite often his affairs didn’t come to anything. But they were still important to him. Somebody like Don Juan is more to do with numbers.
All the characters in the book are chasing after sex all the time, with as many people as possible, but it all seems very healthy.
Well, you see, I think people do chase after sex all the time. Certainly, enough so that you can use it in a comic book.
Did the life of sadness and melancholy you achieve at the end of the book when Casanova dies surprise you?
No. I was very conscious it was going to happen, and I wanted it in there for depth, and for personality. I like good literature, and I’d do anything rather than write a story about big guns and big muscles. There’s more to life than that, the supreme part. If you look at big guns, big muscles and violence as being the bottom end, then the top end is love and romance, and that includes pathos, which makes the character more sympathetic. I think if I hadn’t had that if he’d just been randy, then he wouldn’t have come out as sympathetic, he would have been risible. And, having read the books, and realizing that this guy had been a trier and a struggler and a fighter against all the odds, I wanted to keep that. I admired him.
DRUGS AND WORK AND ROCK AND TRACING
You say you work very hard. Why do you think that is?
Because I’ve got nothing else to do. [Laughs.] Because I’ve got deadlines. I’m doing 15 or 16 Firkin stories a year, and about the same number of Puss-Puss stories for another magazine, which works out at pretty well a deadline a week. Then there’s Fortean Times on top of that, and then there’s whatever other work I pick up and, if I’ve got time, then there’s my own work as well. I work late, and I also tend to start late. So, it’s an ongoing cycle — if you work until 3:00 in the morning, then you don’t get up until to 10:00, and you don’t start work until about 3:00. But it needs the work. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. Such a lot of it is down to putting in time at the drawing board.
But, given that you have to pay the bills and you’ve got to have an income, there must an element of choice in the work you take on.
Sure there is. Mainly because I don’t know how to say No. People phone me up and offer me work, and I say, ‘‘Yeah!” After that, there doesn’t seem any reason to say no. Yes, I could actually skip that, but it’s another hundred quid, so why not? But you see, I don’t have a social life, I don’t go out much. I don’t go to pubs, and I have a lot of acquaintances, but very few close friends and a lot of the friends I do have don’t live in Birmingham. Most of my acquaintances I see during the course of work. And I enjoy working. It’s something that I can do very well while I’m listening to Radio 4, which is where I get a lot of my entertainment from. What else do you do when you listen to the radio?
So, it’s not a question of the work creating gaps in your life, but filling gaps in your life. That is how your life fits together.
Mm. I’m sure that I do more than I need to, but I’ll come in nights and I’ll sit down, if I’ve been visiting or if I’ve been to London, and I start working. I do another two or three hours before I go to bed. It’s probably not necessary, but I don’t mind. It’s like meditation, doing the drawings. It’s not something that I can pick up and do a half-hour here and 20 minutes there. I have to actually get tuck in and do three or four or five hours, to get it to work. It’s like meditation because I can feel the alpha waves, and I can feel my body slow down to do it. Just exactly what you read about in transcendental meditation. I can do five hours drawing and stand up very refreshed for it.
So, it’s a pleasure and a positive force in your life? It’s not something you don’t know how not to do?
It’s a positive force. I have to do it. If I’ve not drawn for two or three days I get very fidgety, very anxious.
Is that a force that’s grown the longer you’ve done this?
Yes. It’s also something that I think I’m finally learning to come past. I don’t do anything for fun anymore. Everything I draw has a home these days, and that’s partly because I’m asked to do it. But think that if I actually caught up with all my deadlines and found myself with nothing more to do, I wouldn’t draw anything. A few years ago, I would have, but now I don’t think I would. I think I’d probably read.
So,. the negative effect of having all this work to do is that you’ve lost the sense of play that you mentioned before?
It’s still there, in that it’s play doing the thing — it’s a job, but it’s play. But I’ve lost the sense of doing it just for the drawing.
I’d like to talk about the work you've been doing for the drug center.
It’s run by a charity called Turning Point, who deals with drug and alcohol problems, and this particular project is called Church Road. It’s a residential rehab center for people with drug problems — as many as 20 people at a time coming off heroin, crack, cocaine. Hard drugs, basically, but not alcohol. I have a good friend who works there and he asked me to come down first of all to do a talk, and then to see if we could get some workshops going. We’re not the first to do it, there’ve been comics used in drug education in Manchester for a couple of years. My friend Michael wanted me to do things like that. Gradually, we pushed things into motion. We’ve published two comics now, called DF House Comics — DF means “Drug-Free,” because they sign a piece of paper when they come in for six months, and they agree that they’re not going to have any drugs or alcohol while they’re in the place. So what I do is partly therapy for them, partly entertainment for them and partly it’s a way of reaching out to the ones who aren’t in the project.
Are the people you know there entirely different from anyone you ever met in the early ’70s. when there were drugs around?
Yeah, because they’re young people in the’90s — that’s all, that’s the only difference. They’ve got short hair, they wear shorts, they have rings through their noses, they’re into rave music … They’re just kids. When they got off the drugs, they’re just like any other bunch of young people. They’re playing practical jokes on each other all the time, they’re arguing and fighting and bitching and griping. They have problems, it’s not easy for them. A lot of them don’t make it. A lot of them come or go three or four times before they settle. The big difference — I’m not expert on the drug side of it, and I always make this point to them, that I’m not a social worker, I’m not a drug worker — but the biggest difference, I think, is crack. That is really dangerous, that is proving to be a big, big problem. It’s frightening. When you get a couple who came to stay in the place, who have had their three children taken off them and put into social care, and they’ve spent [pounds] 33,000 last year on crack, then you’re talking about a full-time job, just to feed the crack problem. It’s not at all unknown for a crack user to go through [pounds] 1,500 in a weekend, just on crack. It’s not physically addictive the way heroin is — it’s compulsive. So, they don’t go through detox before they come into the place, which heroin addicts do. You get them straight off the streets, rattling around the place like maniacs, they’re mad. Bur when they get off the drugs, they’re people just like anybody else. The main topic of conversation in the place is drugs. [Laughs.] Hours and hours of conversations about smack.
How has working there affected you?
Well, I find it really interesting and stimulating and I’m pleased and happy I’m doing something that’s giving something back. That sounds a really facetious and obvious thing to say, but it’s the case. It’s time to give something back and I’m giving it back where I can. I could have gone and pushed old people around in wheelchairs or something, but I’m a cartoonist, and I can do this with cartoons.
Does it feel better to be doing it in a direct way, to work on cartoons together with the people you want to help?
Mm, that’s great fun, very interesting. Because mainly they’re people who have no drawing experience and aren’t really interested in doing it. But it passes an evening for them. Some of them get stuck in and work, some of them just do a little bit. Some of them I’II help to draw stuff, or I’ll do the pencils and they’ll ink over the top, I do storyboards and they draw from that, or they do their stuff all by themselves. Three of them have got into art schools which is great, especially with one of them, who found out he had amazing creative talent, which he never knew he had until he got off smack. He’d been on smack since he was 13, and he finally got off it at 24 and finds out that he’s a painter. It’s lovely to be able to help him.
Is it good for you that you’re using your skill without associating it with the comics you do for entertainment — that you can use your skill in a practical way, without trivializing anything?
Yes. Especially seeing the response that it’s getting. The other drug teams around the city are well into it. They’ve given us encouragement, and they’re organizing grants for us.
While you’ve been talking about this, you’ve been talking in a very emotional way. Is that a level of emotion without commitment that you can use in your comics work now?
Yes, I think it is. Again, I think it’s to do with experience, and knowing that the best thing is not to overdo it. If you keep that emotional bit under control, then it comes over as true, and viable. Whereas if you let it rip, all the horrors of it, then it becomes scaremongering and panicky.
Does that change come from that particular experience, or is it more general?
General. It’s part of growing up.
Is the way you’ve produced these drugs comics to be useful as a lesson that other comics would learn from?
I think so. There is a cartoonist in Birmingham who’s working on something called Goddess, and I think he’s into his second year on this book. I haven’t seen it, but I’m told it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, but he won’t let anybody touch it, and it’s going on forever. What’s the point? I mean, is this going to be so good that it warrants this? If it’s going to mean anything, it could be done quicker, and it ought to be more immediate, and more disposable. Because I’m sure it’d get through to more people.
Do you think he’s not being humble enough?
I don’t think he’s being practical. I don’t know whether he’s being humble or not. We never see him, ’cause he’s always drawing. [Laughs.]
You spend a lot of time in Europe these days, more than other English cartoonists, I think. Having started wanting to anglicize comics, do you now think of yourself as a European artist?
Yes, I do. I’ve stopped writing English-language jokes. I used to do a lot of puns, and they don’t translate, which means that what you’ve drawn is limited to one sale. I’ve learned to do without them, and I think it makes for better writing. I find that when I see other English comics. The bloke who did it is a very bright guy, and he used to be a stand-up comic, and this shows in his comics, they’ve got one-liners and feed-lines and wisecracks. But it’s not really comics. And of course, European reprint sales are all free money, because it’s all drawn already. I’ve started to get jobs where I’m working specifically for Europe, and meanwhile Lady Chatterley has been published in Spanish, Portuguese for Brazil, it’s in Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and French — that’s seven times I’ve been paid for it.
It seems like a way to make the survival of alternative comics easier. If the peripheral scenes and people in every country are connected, then everything becomes much easier.
Well, it should be. I’m a believer in Europe, in every way. I’ve never been nationalistic. I think the sooner it becomes a United States of Europe, with one currency, the better. It should be like a United States, where you have basically separate countries but a huge market. All right, you have to translate the things, but you do something specifically for six different masters, not just drawing it for one and then touting it around. I would hope eventually to have a network in Europe which would make it all automatic.
One more question. Is there anything that you feel you’re doing wrong? Anything you wish you’d done that you hadn’t?
I wish I’d been a guitar player in a rock ’n’ roll band. [Laughter.]
Do you really?
That’s a good enough answer to finish with, isn’t it?
We’ll finish with a gag.
You and Tony and Carol, are you more or less of a generation?
Yeah. They’re a bit older than I am.
Would it be true to think of you as active remnants of the ’60s ideals?
Speaking for myself, not as active as some. But we all went through that time, and we’re of an age now where everybody except me has families, and we all have responsibilities — and your view of the world changes. You feel less the need to fight all the time, you realize it’s not really worth it, it’s not going to change anything. And you have to pay the bills, and you can’t work things the same way because the world’s so different., 30 years later. It’s not the same at all. But it doesn’t stop us still believing we were right. All you need is love is still the best philosophy I’ve come across. It’s not easy to put into practice, it never way, but it’s still better than anything else I’ve heard.
So, did you feel more isolated in the ’80s, the way the country changed?
Yeah. It all came crashing down. I’ve been realizing in the last few years that it’s necessary to have more compassion. That really is what we have to do. We have to give a lot to the young kids today, the generation that’s coming up because they have so little. I do work at the drug project for example, and I’m looking around for other things to do. It’s not really the teaching that I want to do, I don’t want to teach cartooning particularly, but I’d like to get more involved with young people. It’s what’s coming into my mind now, that we have to do this, we have a responsibility. As I said earlier, it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen until it’s time to happen. When I was in my 30s I didn’t think like this because I was in my 30s. In my 40s I’m starting to think like this and to think that, in a lot of ways, it is more important to me than drawing comics. Because the comics have proved to be such a dead loss, maybe the time has come to stop trying to be a famous comic artist. Perhaps I should be part of the community.
If you could find some practical way to help young people that look up all of your time, do you think you’d be able to stop drawing?
I don’t know about that. It would probably still involve drawing because that’s what I’m best at, it’s what I can give. I think you have to live in the world, you have to do your job, and then you have to put more in on top of that. It’s not a case of giving up one for the other, it’s just that you have to be prepared to put in more. You make more time. You work later at night.
Has the fact that your comics have in the end been read by relatively few people disillusioned you to their worth?
[Sighs.] Well, we don’t know why it doesn’t work out. Casanova hasn’t sold very well, and we’re so disappointed by that. We really thought this was a good book that was worth doing and would sell and would be appreciated. And the people who do read it like it, they think it’s great. But there’s not enough of them. We don’t know why the Firkin comics don’t sell, especially when we see the way stuff like Cherry PopTart gets gobbled up … I mean, in a way we do know why it doesn’t sell, because it’s not actually about sex, in that way. And who buys the things, who reads them? It’s adolescent boys. And they look at Cherry, and they open it, and it’s 16-year-old girls with big tits. The y look at Firkin and it’s not like that. It’s not about that, it’s about something else entirely.
Do you think you’ve been misguided in a way, to do comics for so long?
Well, I’m making a living. I’ve got a little place of my own and I'm working in it, still. It’s just that attempts to become internationally famous and to sell more books have failed.
Is this something that you’re thinking about a lot? That you’re maybe going down a dead end?
In a way, yes. There’s nothing you can do about these things. [Laughs.] The living I make is now mostly from Fiesta and another magazine, Electric Blue. It’s all smut.
But do you think of the books as your real work?
No, because it’s all my real work. The books are what I’d like to do, but I’m feeling less and less inclined to thrash away at something …
When nobody is taking any notice?
Yeah. Mind you, since we talked last time, I have a new project on the go, for Finland. I’ve just started working on a comic strip version of Kalevala, which is the Finnish national epic, their Iron Age mythology. My Finnish publishers have asked me to begin with one of the books in the cycle, and if that works then there’s be a series of books there, and that’s going to be... not easy to sell either. [Laughs.]
Is what you’re saying that if you could find something better to do, something that seemed more worthwhile, then you could give up cartooning without a qualm? Because you’ve gone at it long enough?
Possibly. I can’t see it, though. Whatever I do is going to be to do with cartooning because I can’t just change course in the middle of things like that. I can’t physically take on any more work, so what I need to do is to find a way to get beyond that, a way of making more money, in royalties perhaps, to buy myself some time to think about things, and to deal with things a little less frenetically. Because as it is, I’m just covering paper most of the time.
Is that what it feels like?
Yeah. Meeting deadlines, getting it down, getting it done. Obviously, quality control is still there. I’m still tearing up cartoons if they’re no good. But like I say, I can’t. take on any more, and in this world, one is supposed to increase one’s income.
It seems, the way you describe it as if your life, filled with deadlines now, to the extent that you can’t move, like a treadmill.
Pretty well. It’s a fine treadmill to be on. I was in Finland for two weeks; I’m going to the south of France next month. Some treadmill!
But you’re still not getting anywhere?
No. I have to flog myself to meet the deadlines in order to get away.
Do you think that possibly your own life has been squeezed out by filling it completely with your work for so long?
No way of knowing, I suppose until you stop, or do less.
I don’t know if I’m considering doing less. I’m just considering how to keep in business. It is a business, it’s a job, and until it stops being a job, I’ll have to treat it as one.