Charlie Hebdo

imgres-4Having met them at French and Irish cartoon festivals, I knew two of the cartoonists assassinated in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, not well but enough to feel the pain. Any encounter with the French cartoonists was invariably a roller coaster of sharp wit and rollicking humour, but I had a particular affinity with them because of my passion for cycling (Le Tour) and rugby (Six Nations), neither of which the Scottish had made much of an impression on at that time, something my French colleagues persistently rubbed in… in the nicest possible way.

I followed the unfolding horror in real time, acutely aware that Cabu and Wolinski knew they were marked men and tempting fate with every issue of a paper that wore it’s origins in the revolt of May ’68 with uncompromising pride. Unlike British cartoonists, they talked about their public role as fools of court with a passion and commitment that maybe could only come from individuals whose nation had been through a real Revolution, in 1789, and Terror, four years later. Unlike Private Eye or Punch, Charlie Hebdo was vehemently left wing and totally unapologetic for being blatantly so. In part, it was also incredibly silly, thoroughly juvenile and hilariously irresponsible, with now tragic consequences.

imgres-3The assassination of political cartoonists is nothing new. Arab cartoonist Naji al-Ali, famous for including the ‘little man’ Handala in all his work, was shot in London in July 1987 and died five weeks later. Though he was probably rubbed out by Mossad, Naji was even-handed, equally vociferous at ripping into the Palestinian authorities as the Zionists. Kenya, Russia (then the USSR), Malaysia, Rwanda, Iran and many other less than democratic countries have sacrificed truth-sayers, and many many more wielders of the mighty pen in democratic states have and continue to receive death threats for their work. During the Second World War, Hitler effectively took out a contract on David Low, editorial cartoonist for the Evening Standard, and Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard will be living in fear for a lot longer than Salman Rushdie, if indeed he makes it to a natural death.

The response to events in Paris from cartoonists around the world has been strident but, as with most atrocities, variable in the extreme. It is difficult to know what to say about any outrage that everybody of sound mind unreservedly condemns. This was well illustrated by many of the post-9/11 cartoons that either drowned in their own sentimentality or said nothing beyond metaphorically laying a wreath. Martyn Turner of the Irish Times depicted the Twin Towers as a bar chart, comparing the thousands killed on American soil by terrorists with the much larger towers of the hundreds of thousands American Forces have killed on foreign soil, and received threats for pointing out that truth.

imgres-2Jan 08 15 Je Suis CharlieSome of the ‘toons that succeeded for me are illustrated. They fall into either the ‘fuck off’ gut response from the likes of Dave Brown of The Independent and Gado in Kenya, or ones that took analysis of the situation further, like Latuff’s in the Middle East Monitor. (In fact, during the so-called War on Terror, Arab cartoonists have often been far more perceptive and searing than those in the West, and Al Jazeera has been forthright in collecting and publishing them without editorialising.) The least successful have been either the ones that attempted to make fools of the terrorists, as with Steve Bell’s offering in The Guardian, or pulled out the ol’ sword v pen cliché to manipulate; a sure sign of cartoonist’s block.

6a0105369e6edf970b01bb07d5137e970d-800wiB6wFfiaIcAAIgpAWhen they are about to bury friends of yours, it is emotionally hard to believe the pen is mightier though, of course, the intellect understands that the ideas etched in ink are far more powerful and potentially fatal than the bullets lodged in blood.

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Lakes International Comic Arts Festival

Team TEAW at The Lakes – (back row) Dan Hill, Selina Lock, Brick, Stuart Richards, Robert Brown (front row) Kate Charlesworth, Jonathan Clode, Jessica Martin, Jenny Linn-Cole

Belgian creator Ivan Petrus at work on the streets of Kendal painting a WW1 British tank for auction on behalf of the festival.










Woodrow Phoenix presenting his and the world’s largest comic book.

Just back from my first visit to this snappily titled binge of most things comics-wise that aren’t big time corporate and oozing testosterone. Hugely enjoyable, and great to meet so many contributors to TEAW and bathe in the esteem the anthology has garnered among so many of those I truly respect. Scott McCloud’s talk was extremely entertaining, even educational, and several of the other gigs I gatecrashed were enlightening for a newcomer like myself. Our own TEAW gig on editing played to an unexpectedly packed house and went down well. It was recorded (for some reason) and is streamed on Resonance FM‘s Panel Borders series here.

But I guess the most enjoyable element, as always, was just chewing the cud with other creatives who largely spend their days locked in their own heads producing these weird things called comics. I was billeted with Ivan Petrus from Belgium (of The Neuport Gathering fame) and his pal from the Netherlands, Sytse Algera, who is a street copper seconded as an adviser to the government who writes cop comics for internal use (instructional material) and general consumption. Fascinating. Ivan and myself discovered a shared passion for Leonardo da Vinci, as well as WW1, and he spent Friday night pitching me the entire movie script of a wonderful Leonardo-inspired love fantasy he’s written that sadly will never be made due to the budget limitations on Flemish films.


Festival highlights for me were walking the streets of Kendal checking out the window displays complementing the festival, standing before the largest comic in the world and reading it as Woodrow Phoenix patiently turned the pages, and the hilarious cabaret turn laid on by the Knockabout ‘Fringe’ for Saturday night. What was the name of that fabulously anarchic stand-up?

Many thanks go to those who slaved behind the scenes of the festival, and to all the locals and professionals who were so welcoming. Long may it survive and develop.

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Leonardo’s Bicycle – The Movie

Well, okay, not so much a movie as a flick that illustrates something of where I’m at with the maestro and his controversial doodle. With two chapters to completion, I’m a little nervous about my telling of the convoluted story; whether it’s just too damn nerdy for y’average reader, never mind publisher. Time will tell, but gentle forays like this into the Ken Burns facility of iMovie help to confirm that it is a fascinating and truly bizarre story that needs to be out there. Enjoy…

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‘To End All Wars’ exhibition

There is still time to catch this wonderful exhibition of material from the critically acclaimed WW1 comic book anthology at the Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop, Machynlleth in Wales. Beautifully mounted by the owners of the shop, Diane and Geoff Bailey, it includes original art and enlarged prints of comics pages, along with their preceding thumbnails, plus highly informative annotations. Hopefully Geoff and Di’s hard work will be moving on to libraries in Gwynedd and elsewhere, but the whole so magnificently complements their unique and delightful bookshop, it is worth the trip to see them in their original placing.

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‘Depresso’ revisited

A couple of years since it was first published by Knockabout Comics, there has been renewed interest in this humorous comic book, graphic novel, whatever you want to call it about depression, breakdowns and the harrowing road to recovery. Maybe David Cameron’s impassioned plea to the Scots not to turn their back on England has raised a bit of a debate in restricted circles about ex-public schoolboys, their emotionally deprived childhoods and stumbling expressions of cod emotion as adults. Who knows, but it seemed as good a time as any to complement that debate with a little film about the book.

‘DEPRESSO or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace Being Bonkers’

Knockabout Comics   2010  £12:99 or cheaper

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TEAW – roundup 1

Good to see The Lakes Comic Art Festival employing one of the images from TEAW (in fact, one of mine) in their final promotional poster. Jonathan Clode and myself, along with a couple of our contributors, will be there in Keswick on 18th October talking about the methods and pitfalls of editing comics (as against content managing, which seems to be what most editors do).

And good to hear that the wonderful little exhibition mounted by Diane and Geoff Bailey at their Pen’rallt gallery bookshop in Machynlleth, Wales, has attracted such interest and considerable sales. The Welsh launch at the beginning of August included a reading of The Black Chair, JC’s Hedd Wyn story, performed by actors, no less.

Finally, for those still wondering whether to part with hard-earned dosh for a copy of TEAW to the benefit of MSF, below is a short film featuring some of the brilliant artwork you could come to own.

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Nottingham Launch of TEAW

Ian Douglas, moi, Selina Lock, Pippa Hennessy, Jenny Linn-Cole and Kate Houghton – just six of the 53 TEAW contributors.

By all accounts, the local launch of To End All Wars was a roaring success. I was there, but swathed in a bag of nerves. 72 men, women and children stuffed themselves into the basement of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio to listen to Pippa Hennessy, Selina Lock and Ian Douglas talk about the source material and writing approach of their contributions. Generously sponsored by the city’s only independent bookshop and introduced by Five Leaves Bookshop owner, Ross Bradshaw, the event was MCed by myself, who gave a six minute masterful summary of 16 months hard graft and, after the writers, talked people through the illustration contributions of Kate Houghton and Jenny Linn-Cole, both present in the audience. Wrapping up with a run through the delight of working with Sarah Jones on my Die and Become story, I managed to weave in the astonishing story of my relationship, through my father, to Field Marshal Sir Douglas ‘Butcher’ Haig. Heavily illustrated with slides from the book, there was no time for a Q&A (which I now understand the audience were itching for) but folk were animated into buying all but three of the 40 copies made available by Soaring Penguin Press. The order of the final flourish was a mass signing by all six contributors. TEAW’s thanks go to all who worked so hard behind the scenes to make the event such an unprecedented success for a local launch, and to those who found the time and energy to start Tweeting about the event before we even left.

John Stuart Clark (aka Brick) introducing the evening’s entertainment at the launch.
© John Birdsall Photography

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To End All Wars – the book

Nineteen months and avalanches of commitment from contributors on and we are pleased to announce that the book of the anthology of WWI short graphic stories has landed from Latvia, where John Anderson of Soaring Penguin Press had it printed. Weighing in at a considerable 2.5 lbs, with stylish black edging, bookmark and high gloss pages, the first 200 pressed into eager hands will come with a enigmatic bookplate donated by Charlie Adlard that recognises our anthology’s brotherhood with Charlie’s excellent White Death.

Nothing else to say, really, except a humungous big thank you to all our contributors who sweated buckets for no reward (except self satisfaction) and put up with my co-editor, Jonathan Clode, and myself through all manner of disagreements (or not). Please rush out and buy everybody and anybody a copy, thereby adding to the £2,000 already raised for Médicins Sans Frontières even before release. Many many thanks.

‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ sung by Coope, Boyes & Simpson from their album In Flanders Fields. Permission granted.

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Mental Health Assistance Dogs

…which is a grand title for the relatively recent realisation that dogs understand us humans better than maybe we do ourselves, can be a great comfort at moments of high anxiety, and could play a critical role in somebody’s mental and emotional recovery journey.

How often have you felt off-colour or downright bombed out and suddenly found your best friend there with his or her head on your lap, eyes plainly saying, ‘It’s alright, boss, we can get through this together’?

For myself, bringing Border Collie, Suzi, into the pack has been a life-saver, not least because I have finally found the perfect walking companion to share the hours I spend on the hoof in internal dialogues.

So when Asylum magazine asked me to produce something comics-style related to mental well-being, I felt it was high time I paid tribute to my closest pal and constant companion.


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Top of the Toon Pops

It is not often a cartoonist gets to discover which pebble in the avalanche of ‘toons he or she inflicts on the world is the most popular with readers. Indeed, what does that even mean!? The funniest, most cutting, hardest hitting, best drawn… what? And exactly how might that be measured or ascertained, particularly if, as with my work, the ‘toon is randomly flung to the four corners through the auspices of the ngos I tend to work for?

The number-crunchers monitoring the website of Irish development education ngo, 80:20, were recently delighted to inform me that they had identified my Top Toon, or one of them at least. 80:20’s site is now the major source of educational investment by Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s overseas development wing, and attracts a huge amount of traffic from around the globe. Periodically they commission me to produce something suitably scathing about some iniquity in the world and bang the resulting gag up on their site, downloadable at no cost and with no copyright restrictions. ‘Customer Counselling’ must be at least five years old now, and I reproduce it here for no better reason than it is not what I would call one of my better cartoons.

Just shows how wrong creators can be about their work!

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