travel

Sketchbook: The Lakes International Comic Art Festival, UK (2017)

This week I decided that instead of recuperating from the severe sleep-deprivation incurred by the most intense 4 days of non-stop insanity at New York Comic Con, I’d immediately fly to the UK for an even more intense 4-days at an international comic art festival.
Because of course I did.
 

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Long-time subscribers will remember earlier in the year when I popped across the pond to Manchester to lend a hand planning parts of this festival. It was a long 48-hours, during which time I slept a total of 4 hours. 
 

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You’ll remember my flight over on that occasion was with the infamous Thomas Cook airlines; a company that provide little more than a seat and a fart-filled fuselage. I sat next to a screaming baby that entire trip.

This time was no different.
 

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On Wednesday afternoon, I got a haircut, pulled on my crappy suit jacket and (over)-packed my bags for another Thomas Cook flight to the motherland, and sat right in front of — you guessed it — another fucking inconsolable baby.  

I swear it was the same one. This baby has been following me around the world. It screamed the entire flight. Don’t believe me? Click here.
 

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Already sleep-deprived, I desperately tried to get a wink of rest on the 5-hour flight… to no avail. Screaming baby was having none of it. By the time I landed in Manchester, I was greeted by the lovely Karen, a gardener from Kendal, who waited patiently while I ingested a year’s worth of caffeine to reanimate my lifeless, zombified body. It was 9:55am.

You see, I was to go straight from the plane and be driven 2 hours directly to Kendall College to teach a full theatre of engrossed students a slew of invaluable tips on using a Wacom tablet to create your art. I struggled to put two sentences together, but managed to cover the most important advice.

 

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The lovely Karen patiently drove me through the centuries-old town of Kendal, educating me on the local wool industry and many lakes* of the Lakes District. *There’s one lake. I was so tired I barely retained any information but enjoyed hearing all about the history of Cumbria.
 

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I had now been awake for 24 hours and desperately needed sleep, so she dropped me to my lodgings for the duration… Stonecross Manor Inn. Or as the locals call it “Fawlty Towers”, or "Flowery Twats"... or something.

This place was built in the Cretaceous period. The creaky walls burbled with sounds of boilers and snoring septuagenarians. The power sockets buzzed and cracked whenever anything was plugged in, and the Wifi was only available if you sat on the bottom of the staircase and held your laptop up at waist-height— Oh, and did I mention it was haunted?

Yeah. It was once an infamous girls orphanage.
Because of course it was.

This hotel was not the festival’s first choice for guests. The main hotel in town usually housing the VIPs was being used for a wedding this weekend, so we were relegated to the edge of town in this haunted old boiler-factory. I checked the guestbook to see who had previously stayed here.

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After a brief nap, which was interrupted by a screaming baby in the next room (yes, actually) I spent a good hour trying to figure out how to use the shower. Like most hotels, they appear to have come up with their own wacky twist on ‘tap that turns on and water comes out.’  I had to solve a riddle and answer three questions to a troll before I could get a slow stream of warm, off-brown water to bathe in.

I ambled downstairs to be welcomed by my fellow National Cartoonists Society compatriots; Steve, Luke, Joe and Deb McGarry, Tom and Anna Richmond, and the inimitable, legendary Sergio Aragones. We stood around waiting for the shuttle bus to the Mayor’s welcome party, sharing horror stories of our first encounters with Fawlty Towers. We’d all been invited to the VIP opening night dinner and were to be received by the Mayor — a man of few words.

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After a couple of complimentary sparking rosés, we were ready to mingle with the rest of the Festival guests and sit down to a welcome dinner in the aforementioned theatre.
 

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I did fanboy out when I met Manchester-based New Yorker illustrator Stanley Chow. If you’ve ever seen my social media avatar (above), you’ll know what a huge fan I am of his style.

You’d have seen it at the top of every single online New Yorker article next to the writer’s name. he somehow manages to defy the conventions of asymmetry in caricature and create these perfectly symbolic illustrations, perfectly encapsulating the person and their entire aura in the process. He’s a wizard. With a Manc accent.
 

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I found my place at a table with Graham Dury from VIZ (UK’s equivalent of MAD), along with Stan Sakai (Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo) and Sergio Aragones (Living God.)

After mains, there was a 26-question quiz for each table to compete in. The questions were projected up on to the giant screen right behind my head. At one point there was a question about me. Every other table got it wrong.

Because of course they did.
 

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At the conclusion of the quiz, we filtered out into the night and down the streets of Kendal, to a local pub at which we’d be spending a lot of time this weekend by the name of Ruskins Bar. There, we sang karaoke and drank locally brewed ales until the wee hours, because body clocks be damned. I sang Drops of Jupiter by Train. I reckon they liked it.
 

 

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After a lengthy wait in the rain, we were shuttled back to our haunted lodgings in seemingly the only cab in town for a nightcap and a spooky few hours of sporadic shut-eye.

 

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The next morning after a quick English breakfast of baked beans on toast with sausages, we were whisked away to the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall, to be taught all about Kendall’s history and its rare, priceless artifacts. 
 

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We sipped our cups of tea in fine china while a tall gentleman by the name of Simon hovered about the parlor, nervously holding centuries-old relics with his white cotton gloves. At the conclusion of his session, he offered for us to don our own pair of gloves and hold the various shiny things as Simon told us fun facts about them.
 

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From there, we walked through the rain, across the bridge to the local tap house for some local ales and ham sandwiches. They loved their beer very much in this town and had even specifically brewed a number of beers for the festival itself. For dessert, we had chocolate cake. Made from beer.

Another nap was in order before the big live drawing event in the Festival Hub: The Brewery Arts Centre (I told you they liked their beer.)

Steve McGarry and I co-hosted a night of live-drawing with two artists hooked-up to giant screens, working on Wacom Cintiqs, while Sergio Aragones drew by hand, with a live camera feed from overhead lit up the stage with his drawings. 

The theatre was completely full, and the demand so high for viewing that they ended up simulcasting the event to an adjoining venue for more people to pile in and watch.

Seeing Sergio draw live is like seeing all seven wonders of the world at once. I would implore you to look it up on YouTube. The man is as prolific as he is hilarious — and the most generous, charming person you’ll ever meet. That night we awarded the inaugural Sergio Aragones Award for Excellence in Comic Art to Dave McKean. You can see his work here.

We also officially announced the UK chapter of the NCS and inducted our first batch of new, British members. This has been in the works for years, so it was nice to be there when it finally came to fruition.


The rest of the weekend was a blur. I attended events, moderated a talk with Canadian cartoonist, ex-NCS President, and Pulitzer prize nominee Lynn Johnston on her comic strip For Better or For Worse. I demonstrated on the Wacom tablets at the ‘Wacom café’ and met a tonne of insanely talented comic artists that all made me feel welcome, and at the same time like a hobbyist, dabbling in the scribbling arts.
 

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I was booked to do a ‘cartoon-a-room’ event to teach kids how to draw, not realising of course that I was following the famed comic artist for The Walking Dead, Charlie Adlard. Lovely guy. Tough act to follow!
 

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The biggest highlight of the weekend for me was getting to sit and do signings next to Sergio. I only sold about 5 cartoons, but I was spending most of my time leaning over watching him draw and sign all his collections of books and prints. We chatted about cartoons — and about the fact that in spite of his appearances, he is 80 this year.

He said he liked my Wacom video which made me smily like a goofball for the rest of the day. I didn’t get to see him for the rest of the weekend. I’m glad I got to spend that time with him.

One big event that I’d been looking forward to was the so-called “Knockabout Cabaret” event on Saturday night — a variety show of music, comedy and humorous slides from all corners of the globe. I was asked to do a 15-minute comedy set, about which I’d been quietly nervous all day.

I re-jigged my set to tailor the jokes to a UK audience but got the sense as I saw the MC “warm-up the crowd” that no amount of re-jigging would help. It was futile. I was walking onto a beach of gattling gunfire with no weapon.

I did my 15 minutes to varied response… they liked the Smiley bit, but I lost them when I started ragging on the queen. (Bad move). I think by the end of the set they couldn’t have been more nonplussed by my lack of local references and verbose stories in jaunty dialects.



I left the stage dejected and sunk my sorrows into a couple of local brews, sinking into the shadows to avoid the glares of Her Majesty’s subjects, as the following, baffling act took the stage.

The MC called him onto the stage but alas, the act was nowhere to be seen… he was out the back of the room somewhere. As the MC figured out where he was, the enormous gentleman ascended from the shadows to reveal he was wearing a skin-tight unitard, a mask, goggles and was holding an electric guitar.

The audience clapped once again as he slowly took the stage, plugged in his guitar and leaned into the mic. What happened next was 30 minutes of jaw-dropping bewilderment and a stony silence from the audience that rivaled even my performance.


The performer screamed mercilessly into the mic while violently strumming his Fender until the strings broke, and he had to stand on stage to re-tune it. He asked the audience to take a beer break while he tuned his fractured axe. It didn’t end well for him.

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The final night’s farewell party at old Ruskin's Bar consisted of a comedian by the name of Gavin, who unfortunately shared my comedic fate from the night before. After the Bohemian Rhapsodies and the Britney Spears medleys of the karaoke encore, the show came to a close as we cabbed it back one more time to trusty old Stonecross Manor Towers Gaol Institute for the Daft for one last nightcap.

We were treated to some old English folk songs from old English folks until eventually, we turned in around 3:30 in the morning.

I got 3 hours sleep before stumbling down the stairs with my suitcase only to find my ride to the airport had gone to the wrong hotel. Not to worry… it was only a swift 2.5 hours to Manchester at 6:30am in peak-hour traffic. At this point, my brain had gone into suicide mode and was thinking of quick and convenient methods of ending it all. After arriving at the airport and taking 1 solid hour to get through security, it made me wish gone through with it.

 

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By the time I got to the plane I was an exhausted husk of a human, collapsing into my chair and passing out before we left the tarmac. Not even the screams of the baby in the next row could keep me from my coma. 

And yes, I’m pretty sure it was the same baby.

 

 

Where do your ideas come from?

ONE of the most frequent questions I'm asked, aside from What's the deal with your face? is Where do your ideas come from? I write and draw a daily comic strip (6 dailies a week and a 3-deck half-page Sunday strip every week). It's written for a 40-80 year old audience and goes out to 34 countries. It gets translated into different languages at the syndicate, so it needs to be finished and sent 6 to 8 weeks in advance of being printed. I usually write 12 dailies at a time and 2 Sundays for consistency of tone and narrative. Writing one strip per day would be jarring; each gag would reflect how my brain was functioning on that day, and knowing my brain, I wouldn't wish that upon any readers.

To answer the question, I'd say "It just looks like this. All the time." To answer the other question, I'd say "I change up the scenery. Often."

I've had 7 studios in 7 years. For those of you playing at home, (and thank you for playing) you'd have incredibly deduced I've moved house every year since I left home. I also scrimp and save so I can take an overseas trip ever year- it doesn't have to be far flung location; places like Bali, Vanuatu or New Zealand are great as long as I'm taking in new surroundings, absorbing new cultures and expanding my visual vocabulary. It always does the trick. I write volumes every time I change scenes. Then I unpack.

I used to work out of a tiny 2 x 3m bedroom in my mum's duplex in Greenwood, an old suburb in the sleepy northern suburbs of Perth. In the room was a bed, a chest of draws and a small desk for a computer. There was a small space for standing. In that room I slept, ate, watched TV and, most importantly, practiced drawing. My sister joked that I was the only person prison wouldn't phase. The polar opposite became the case, but I did learn to work in confined spaces. It came in handy when I had a deadline to meet while working on the edge of a shoebox-sized room with a mattress and a sink in France, or a train seat in Long Island.

My mum's ex-boyfriend was the kind of bloke who would go around with a ute, picking up old furniture during roadside pick-up week in each suburb. He was a real estate agent and thrifty as they come, so he knew when each suburb was holding it's annual large garbage week, or as he poetically coined it, "Lar-Garb".

One day he was rolling around the shimmering glamour of Winthrop, a suburb infamous for gun-crime and chalk outlines, when he came upon an old wooden drawing desk propped on the curb of a house made built in the bronze age. The old desk looked about 50 years old and needed work. He lugged it onto the back of his ute and snuck away before the neighbours could reload.

On my 17th Birthday, (well it was months before, but he didn't know), he presented me with the drawing table, the surface of which he'd wiped clean with a hefty swab of methylated spirits. This might have explained some of the Steadman-esque drawings I did that summer.

It took up the last chunk of standing space in my room, but it became by far the most valuable piece of furniture I owned. It wasn't 'til years later when I started working digitally (drawing on a tablet and looking up at the screen) that learning to draw by hand, on a drawing board was an invaluable skill to have. The best advice I have for young artists starting out is always 'Learn to draw by hand first -THEN draw digitally. The 'undo' key is the world's worst hindrance to learning to be bold with line.'

But I digress.

I was trying to answer a question about how I get my ideas. Well that digression is a perfect example. I start by thinking of one thing, then allow my mind the white space to drift off and explore another in as much detail as it needs. I don't like to control the way my mind works a lot of the time. I'm not talking about my inability to master some kind of Norman Doidge-esque neuroplasiticy, I'm able to form habits and stick to them, but when you're talking about being creative, finding new ideas for the rest of your life for your JOB, you need to learn to let your brain wander. Professionally. (I used to be great at it in History class.)

You can still give yourself restrictions. The human brain thrives on patterns, so if you set guidelines like allowing an hour between 10am and 11am every day for 'mind-wandering' you can still quite easily enjoy creative freedom without forcing it. If you're trying to come up with ideas and you're making a grunting sound, you're doing it wrong.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, wine does have magical powers when it comes to getting creative.

Some people will tell you their best ideas come to them when their subconscious is occupied with mundane tasks; when they're in the shower, doing the dishes, watching Jersey Shore. That's not true for everyone, but there's something to be said for occupying that warden in your brain so your conscious mind-goblin can escape and do some exploring. Others will say they marinate on an idea, then go off and do something completely different then come back to it with fresh eyes. That's another good method. Others will say after agonising over an idea all day they 'sleep on it' and let their subconscious work it out for them. You'll find a lot of writers, musicians and cartoonists keep a pad and pen by the bed in case it happens mid-slumber.

But as I said before my goblin wandered off, I've found the activity most conducive to creative inspiration is change. Luckily for me, time does that for you whether you like it or not. You can't keep everything the same no matter how hard you try so you're best off going with the flow and adapting to the change rather than fighting against it. Even if you don't want Breaking Bad to end.

Moving house so often means I'm forced to audit my possessions annually, so I live with only what I need and nothing more. It makes packing easier, but it makes day-to-day living even more so. There's less distraction when you're trying to think- your mind isn't consumed by physical clutter. As a result, I don't tend to attach myself to material possessions the way I did when I was growing up. I don't own anything 'just in case I need it one day'. If I haven't used it in a year, it's gone. Craigslist is my homepage.

If you're wondering, that old drawing board never made it past move number 1. It was so old the council got it heritage listed. I'm pretty sure the carpenter's name was J. Christ.

My ex-housemate, Wyatt, who constantly (and hilariously) has the fervour of a drugged pet-store puppy, used to bounce around our apartment and laugh at how everything in our tiny apartment was messy chaos except my empty desk. Which was in the living room/dining room/entire apartment. He'd come home and say 'Hey do you know where the bread is? And DON'T SAY EBAY!' I'm still convinced that apartment was meant as a broom cupboard.

But, despite its microscopic nature, I was accustomed to working and being creative in tiny spaces. It was new, interesting scenery and I stayed there for 12 months before clicking the 'next' button. One friend asked if I was too A.D.D. to stay in one place; that I was the epitome of the too-easily-bored Generation-Y archetype who couldn't sit still for more than five minutes without craving something new. I get that it seems that way, but it's more a case of 'keeping momentum to stimulate my little creative brain-elf'. I did have to delete Twitter from my phone to focus, so I'm not completely innocent of all charges.

I still have creative blocks, I still hit brick walls and I still work close to deadline some days. But the more I do, the more I learn the best way to work around them. Everyone is different, so any self-help book telling you 'THE 5 GUARANTEED WAYS OF THINKING CREATIVELY' immediately take with a bag of rock salt. Everybody's different, thus, there's no one way to get ideas, or be creative, or let your brain wander. I hope to hell anything I've written here helps someone, otherwise wow. What a waste of time for you! Sorry.

I once met a cartoonist who needed to work in a noisy Starbucks and work out his ideas on napkins to be able to get his creative buzz. You would have seen his work - he appeared daily as an editorial cartoonist and has one of the most widely-syndicated strips in the US. The consistency of his work is astounding. It obviously makes a guppy like me feel like a total hack, but then, I'm a guppy. I'm allowed to be making mistakes while I figure my stuff out. Right?...

I understand not everyone is afforded the opportunity to do what I do; to move around so often or to even have the luxury of figuring out how to work without a clock-tapping boss breathing down my neck, but I think the guilt of not having to work a day job any more (which I did for years before this) keeps me propelled enough to work hard and never rest on whatever laurels might be on my chair. (I just checked. There are no laurels there. NEW IDEA! The Laurel Chair. Available to seniors, and Mark Hammill.)

I can't believe I just wrote 1400 words on how to think creative as a distraction from writing a Sunday strip. The good news? I just got an idea for a Sunday strip.

Thanks.