Advice to the aspiring cartoonist


Malcolm McGookin is an animator and a part-time cartoon strip artist. He offers some useful advice to the aspiring cartoonist and comments on the state of the British cartoon market.

Malcolm McGookin superimposed on one of his cartoon characters.

The problem with cartooning is that you cannot go to college to learn jt. I don’t know if it is a unique discipline in that respect, but if it isn’t then few art forms can be compared to it. Jazz is one, you can go to music school to learn to read music or to play the Cor Anglais, but to play jazz or the blues you really have to feel it first and play it after. In fact, it has just struck me how many cartoonists are blues-type musicians.

I have always drawn cartoons, even as a small boy. I often got belted for scrawling incessantly on my school books, so I think that may be another pointer to the behavioural idiosyncrasies of the cartoonist. He (or she) is a compulsive doodler, loath to prepare or plan to any great extent, preferring to scribble the contours of their minds onto paper immediately.

I feel I am talking to three types of people, firstly, to the fellow cartoonist, secondly to the aspiring cartoonist, and thirdly to the person who thinks it is a hell-of-a-way for a grown adult to make a living.

To the aspiring cartoonist I would say this, (and it is my version of “… when you can walk on the rice-paper, Grasshopper, and leave no trace… “) draw, draw, draw, and I don’t just mean cartoons. Do plenty of life drawing, look at other artists’ work, and start finalising your style. Everyone has their favourite artists, and even Shakespeare nicked styles and ideas, so have a look around, and be influenced by what you see. If you like a certain cartoonists style, then write to him or her and ask how they go about their work. It would be a steely-hearted person who could not respond to such a flattering plea.

There are thousands of cartoonists in Britain, and they fall broadly into two camps – those who have been published and those who haven’t. Not all the published ones are good, and not all the unpublished ones are bad. Unfortunately our national newspapers contain a good deal of rubbish, and many of their cartoons reflect these mediocre standards. No names no pack drill, but the titles of great British cartoon strips could be written on a bus ticket. No wonder we import so much American material. There are no trade tariffs on humour, and nor should there be.

Technical points: “What size should I draw my strip I spot cartoon / full page layout?” I hear the aspiring artist cry. Sorry, there are no hard or fast rules. As a guide, get a copy of the paper or comic you want to draw for, select the kind of cartoon you want to draw and put a diagonal line through it from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. If you carry that line on, a vertical and a horizontal line meeting at the diagonal will give a box of the same proportion. Choose a size you feel comfortable with. If in doubt, write to that paper, or comic, and ask for information. As a rule I do not draw spot or strip cartoons larger than an ordinary business briefcase. Big black portfolios are great but there is always the risk you may be mistaken for an art student – and shot!

‘Blacknose the Pirate’ strip.

More technical points: I prefer to use a ‘dip’ pen, sometimes known as a ‘witch’ pen, the sort of thing you see Fagin or Bob Cratchit using, only without the feather. However, my latest strip was bought somewhat faster than I had anticipated, and my supply of nibs being exhausted, I had to Improvise.

I scoured Manchester (I had just moved there from Glasgow) but could find nothing even resembling my favourite nibs. Instead, I resorted to a fibre tip pen which rejoices in the name of the ‘Fountain Pentel’. I had to adapt my style somewhat, but it has served me well in the absence of something better. Unfortunately its line is somewhat less than dense black so I photocopy my strip to obtain a darker line more suitable for reproduction. This is not a totally bad thing because, as I retain the copyright, I keep the originals, send the copies, and save the newspaper the tedious business of posting my work back to me later.

Not everybody uses my type of pen, different horses for different courses. I have seen some brilliant work accomplished with technical pens, mapping pens, big fat stubby felt pens, Nikkos, Biros, God knows. Surrounded, as I am at Cosgrove Hall, by cartoonists of varying styles, I sometimes feel like a kid in a sweet shop. There is so much talent and ability it is unnerving. I liken it to a man who has been wandering around for years without meeting another person and who suddenly comes across a small but densely populated town. For someone like me, who enjoys talking, and particularly enjoys talking about cartooning, it is a great place to be.

‘Blacknose the Pirate’ strip drawn by Malcolm McGookin for the Manchester Evening News.

Oh yes, money. If your motive for taking up cartooning is to make big money, and your only alternative is to work for a living, you would be better off getting a job on the bins, most cartoonists are part timers. The great and brilliantly humorous boys may be earning telephone number salaries, but ninety per cent of us are unencumbered by either greatness or brilliance (not to mention humour).

As far as those people who do not draw cartoons are concerned, dare I call them the paying public?, Britain serves them badly. The comic strip and the humorous drawing are still seen to be the preserve of kids, whereas in the rest of Europe and the Americas, adult comics abound, and as a result some marvellous work is produced. The sooner we begin to emulate them, the better.

Some brilliant talent has been fostered in this country, only to have moved to foreign shores to flourish, which is a shame. Modern artists do not want to draw comic strips re-hashed from the 1940s and 50s, with the kind of story-lines even our Grannies found twee. You know the sort of thing: the local bully was always called. ‘Basher Bloggs’ and any sort of attraction to the opposite sex was ‘cissy’. The most heinous crime a boy could commit would be to knock off P.C. Dimm’s helmet or scrump a few of Farmer Brown’s apples, running home with his jumper bulging. We always knew he would get a severe dose of cod liver oil as a punishment. Nowadays he would be in the juvenile court. As long as this is the main kind of assignment on offer to cartoonists we will stay in the dark age of comics.

There are a few ‘new’ comics aimed at the children’s market which try, rather pitifully, to project a more radical ‘naughty’ image. Although they may avoid using bad language, they perpetrate an even worse offence by combining poor artwork with unfunny scripts.

While we continue to use our children’s minds as a dumping ground for such awful efforts, the golden age of British cartooning will be a long time coming.

About the author:
Malcolm McGookin has drawn cartoons for national newspapers including the Sun and Star, for Titbits and Weekend magazine, and presently draws ‘Blacknose the Pirate’ for the Manchester Evening News. He also works at Cosgrove Hall animation studio as an assistant animator on the new feature film The B.F.G. and the Count Duckula series.

Printed in Animator Issue 20 (Autumn 1987)