When I do school visits, the Q&A often includes the question: “If you had not been a writer, what would you have been”
The answer, usually, is “a cartoonist”. (More accurately, I suppose, a cartoonist is what I would have liked to have been, rather than what I would have been.) The inspiration for this is Leo Baxendale, the Beano comic artist who died this week, aged 86.
I possess a modest talent at drawing. Had I pursued it, practised it, honed it, I daresay I could have made more of that talent than I ended up with, but I didn’t.
I got Baxendale’s joyously illustrated memoir, A Very Funny Business when I was about 16. It’s a great book, crammed with stories about his time with the Scottish publisher, D C Thomson, and very generous assessments of his fellow-cartoonists. At about the same time, I conceived and drew a series of short (3-4 panels) cartoon strips demonstrating simple magic tricks. I sent samples to the editors of local newspapers around the country and quite a few accepted them for £2 or £3 each. It was a small syndication business, and good pocket money in 1980. I though – briefly – that I could make a living from it.
M drawing style was (and is), however, stiff and forced compared with the brilliantly daft freedom of Leo Baxendale’s pen. It was he who came up with The Bash Street Kids as well as Little Plum, The Three Bears and loads of others.
Baxendale had already moved on from The Beano by the time I was born, but I still knew his work from the old board-covered annuals at home. He also drew for two comics that I enjoyed as a child: Whizzer & Chips, and Shiver & Shake. Of course, I had no idea who he was but I remember two of his strips especially: Grimly Fiendish and Sweeney Toddler. The latter, in particular, had a dark streak that was characteristic of Baxendale’s middle period.
The Beano doesn’t really exist any more. They bring out a Christmas annual, I think, and there’s a website, natch. But it doesn’t compare to the comic’s heyday in the 50s and 60s when Baxendale and a small army of other comic artists would be producing multiple pages of incredibly detailed cartoon strips every week.
There is one publication, still, where very funny drawings combine with very funny scripts, and that’s Viz. Entirely unsuitable for children, of course, but Viz is a knowing pastiche of golden-era comics like The Beano and The Dandy and occasionally the drawings are as good as Leo Baxendale’s.