Tuesday 13 December 2011

Cute Puppies and Kittens

In an effort to attract more mainstream interest to the blog, I'm posting a few drawings from my sketchbook featuring loose but - I hope - frankly adorable observational (apart from the one with the rabbit) drawings scanned from my sketchbook. (To prove how good my scanner is, look for the ghost of images showing through from the reverse of some of the pages!)
In case some of you are wondering if being in love has made me go soft, most of these were drawn in the months prior to meeting Jane, proving that I've always been a soft bastard!

Sunday 4 December 2011

Serendipity in Brighton

As some of you may know, about seven years ago I was a contributor to the Glasgow-based underground comic Freak. You are probably also aware that my partner and I are regular visitors to Brighton, down on the south coast of England. I haven't been in touch with Freak's creator, the indefatigable Doctor Simpo, since about 2004, nor seen his work around. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my partner and I wandered into a joke shop on Bond Street, Brighton, only to find a pile of copies of Doctor Simpo's Things and Stuff solo comic just inside the door. I was delighted that he was still working and finding people to stock his comic. I thought that he must have a good relationship with these people, too, as they have a few original Doctor Simpo drawings on the wall too... and some more of his comics... and some more original art hanging on the walls. What was this place?
It was at this point that a guy in a fez wandered over and introduced himself as "The Doctor." It was the first time I had met Doctor Simpo in person, having only corresponded by letter, email and telephone, during the old freak days, and he took the opportunity to show us around his latest project - Frighton or Bust. He even gave me a copy of the final Freak (issue 5, see above), which contains a two pager of mine, but which I never received for one reason or another at the time.
Frighton or Bust is in town for an initial run of two months, as a fully functioning gallery/comic shop/joke shop/magic shop, so that means that you have until the end of January 2012 to get down there and check it out. It's well worth a visit if you're in town.

Friday 14 October 2011

What Has Boris Ever Done for Us?

Boris Johnson is a conservative journalist and politician whose appearances on the satirical TV news show Have I Got News For You and comments in the press can sometimes be very witty and amusing, while at other times being outright insensitive and even a bit racist (such as the time when, on the campaign trail, he cringingly described a young black child as a “picaninnie”). But, putting aside the casual racism, let’s take a look at what he has done for London since being elected Mayor?

His Staff at City Hall
His administration did not get off to the best of starts, being dogged by scandal from the beginning. First, there is the case of his first Deputy Mayor for Young People, Ray Lewis, who was appointed by Johnson on May 6 2008, two days after assuming control of City Hall.
Lewis had been embraced by senior Tories for his work with disadvantaged youngsters at the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in east London. Understandably if you consider that his approach to London’s problem teenagers was one of tough love and strict discipline. However, before he could damage these youngsters further, Lewis was forced into the position of having to resign only two months after being appointed to his role, following allegations of financial misconduct during his previous career as a Church of England priest [1]. Johnson claimed he was “misled” by Lewis [2], whose resignation came within days of the resignation of one of Johnson’s senior advisors, James McGrath, over racist comments he was alleged to have made about African-Caribbean migrants.

Early Initiatives
One of Johnson’s first moves as mayor of London was to ban the consumption of alcohol on public transport, which TfL’s director of transport policing and enforcement described as “reasonable”, and to halt the westward expansion of the Congestion Charging zone introduced by previous Mayor Ken Livingstone (primarily, it seems, to satisfy the residents of Kensington & Chelsea), which annoyed motorists no end but resulted in a noticeable improvement in air quality in central London.
He also set up the Forensic Audit Panel, tasked with monitoring and investigating financial management at the London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority, which had previously investigated allegations of financial mismanagement itself. However, questions were raised about the “politicization” of this nominally independent panel. It is headed by Patience Wheatcroft, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and wife of a Conservative councilor, and three of the four other panel members also enjoy close links with the Conservative Party.

Wasting Money
In 2009, at the height of the MP’s expenses scandal, it was revealed that Mayoral expenditure on taxi fares had risen significantly under Johnson’s administration, and that “out of a total of £8,169 in personal expenses incurred since he took office, taxi costs were by far the biggest item as he ran up a bill for £4,698 to be ferried across the capital” [3].

Green Credentials?
A keen cyclist, in July 2010 Johnson launched a new bike hire scheme in London, popularly known as the “Boris bike”. The scheme, which was sponsored by Barclays Bank with the stated aim of turning London into a “city of cyclists”, was subsequently undermined by his decision to cut £10m off the budget for new cycle lanes in London [4]. An unintended bonus of the scheme, though perhaps one not appreciated by Johnson or his sponsor, was that the bikes provided anti-arms trade activists with a wonderful means of drawing attention to the fact that the scheme’s sponsor, Barclays, also invests heavily in the international arms trade. This was done by pasting info stickers across the large Barclays logo which the bikes were originally emblazoned with.

Charitable Projects
To his credit, Boris Johnson supports a number of charitable causes, including The Iris Project, an educational charity which promotes the teaching of classics, ancient languages and culture in inner city schools.

Courting the Gay Vote
He has also made a serious attempt to distance himself from his support for the homophobic Section 28 which he supported back in 1988. This nasty piece of legislation, which prevented teachers from “promoting homosexuality” by talking about it in the course of regular sex education classes, and hampering their ability to tackle homophobic bullying in schools, was only repealed in 2004. Like most Tories, Johnson voted in favour of the legislation at the time, although he now thinks, like the rest of his party, that it was a “bad idea.” Quite when his views altered is not clear, as he was still making comments like this one, in his book Friends, Voters, Countrymen, as recently as 2001:
“If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”
I hope this was intended as a joke, and that the “libertarian” stance he has adopted towards LGBT rights subsequently, especially in interviews given to the gay media [5], is sincere. He has, it must be acknowledged, voted in favour of civil partnerships in recent years.

Law and Order
One of the things which undoubtedly played a part in Johnson winning the 2008 mayoral election was his decision to halt the planned westward expansion of the congestion charge, especially into the wealthy boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. This certainly mobilized the owners of expensive 4x4’s against previous mayor Ken Livingstone, and his power mad crusade to improve the air quality for people who live or work in central London.
Given his previous track record of abolishing funding for bike lanes and protecting the freedom of rich people to drive high polluting vehicles, it is easy to see that Johnson is a mayor who takes no serious interest in environmental issues. But his electoral base tend to care more about law and order and the economy than “wooly” issues like environmental health, so as long as he’s tough on crime it should be all plain sailing, right? Could anything really work against him at the next election?
In February 2011 Mayor Johnson announced that he would be slashing 300 police sergeants from London’s 630 teams (in June the Met Police figures revealed that the number of officers in London would be cut by 1,800 over the next two to three years). This would seem to be an inevitable consequence of the cuts to public services demanded by the government, except that somehow the number of City Hall staff on 6 figure salaries has increased from 16 to 28 [6].
Will Londoners be taken in a second time, or will Johnson return to what he does best, peddling his unique brand of wittiness and bigotry on satirical quiz shows?

6 ‘Police cuts in spotlight as 2012 ballot draws nearer’ Morning Star, Thursday July 14 2011

Monday 5 September 2011

Community Gardens of Melbourne

Check out this short article I penned recently about the beautiful community gardens they have in Melbourne, Australia, which my equally beautiful and eco-minded Australian fiance Jane introduced me to during our recent trip there -

We visited the massive Ceres Environment Park as well as the much smaller Veg Out community garden in the suburb of St Kilda. The latter is where the photos were taken, although this was uncredited.

I must say how pleased I am to have my piece in the 'cultural resistance' section!

Thursday 1 September 2011

Capitalising on anti-capitalism

It seems dreadfully amiss that I haven't posted any toons on here lately. So here's one I did a while ago, inspired by some of the sights and sounds of Camden Market...

Monday 4 July 2011

...And Continuing The Downbeat Theme

Bad Press Ltd, the independent comics publisher run by comics giant Alan Grant, which until recently had been putting out the quarterly adult humour mag Wasted, has sadly gone into liquidation.

It was fun to be a part of Wasted, and an immense honour to be featured alongside so many artists and writers who I admire greatly, and who have always been incredibly supportive of new and aspiring talent (like yours truly).

Anthology titles are vehicles for a wide array of talent, and underground mags are often intermittent, short-lived enterprises. I've no doubt that many of the characters which appeared in its pages will rise, phoenix-like, in new and unexpected places.

I hope to return soon with tales of new beginnings.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

RIP Brian Haw 1949 - 2011

Sadly, Britain’s most renowned and persistent anti-war campaigner of recent years, Brian Haw, succumbed to cancer on 18 June 2011.
Haw had maintained his Parliament Square peace camp for ten years, becoming such a thorn in the side of the Britain's warmongering establishment that MPs even went so far as to introduce a law banning protests within one mile of parliament (without prior permission). The funny thing is that this turned out to be a pointless waste of time and money for them, as they had failed to anticipate that their restriction could not be applied retrospectively to Brian.
In the last couple of years Brian’s actions inspired other, younger activists to set up peace camps in Parliament Square, such as those who established the Democracy Village peace camp (which resulted in the fencing in of Parliament Square) and a regular 24 hour Westminster Peace Presence, which takes place on Sundays.
Maybe one day, when British politics is once more ruled by those committed to serving the interests of people, rather than the private profits of the oil lobby and arms industry, we will see a statue of Brian erected in Parliament Square?

Friday 24 June 2011

Hollywood and The Abuse of Literature

Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 film Children of Men, loosely based on a 1992 novel by P.D. James, stands in a long tradition of British dystopias which includes such classics as George Orwell's seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film itself also carries on a long tradition among film-makers of contorting works of literature into forms that are practically unrecognizable to anyone who may happen to have read the original, reflecting the somewhat contemptuous attitude apparently held by some producers/directors that those who watch films will never bother to read the original, and that the opinion of those who read books is of no value.

When Danny Boyle brought Alex Garland’s novel The Beach to the cinema the character Jed was written out completely, and the latent sexual dynamic between the central character and two of the principal female characters in the book became explicit once transferred to celluloid, altering the dynamic and mood entirely.

Comics writer Alan Moore became so disillusioned with the unfaithfulness of Hollywood producers that he insisted on having his name removed from all future adaptations of his work (ownership of which belongs to the publisher DC Comics). This is a persistent trend, satirized by MAD magazine in the 1950s when they contrasted the explicit sex and violence of a book with the sanitized Hollywood rendition. This is a trend which has seen an ironic reversal since the 1970s.

I find the fact that film-makers re-write books not nearly so damaging as the fact that the end result is frequently an artistic disaster, rife with inconsistencies and plot-holes you could drive an articulated lorry through.

On a seperate note, I am often struck by the way in which some film critics take verbal diarrhea to whole new levels. To use an example, one review for Children of Men by Michael Joshua Rowin talked about the “stunning verisimilitude within its mise-en-scène.” Clearly, Rowin could not have simply referred to the film’s “stunning visual honesty,” without having to explain what he means.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A Brief History of British Underground Comix

Underground (or alternative) comix are often thought of as an exclusively American 1960s west coast phenomenon, growing out of the underground press of that time, and best represented by the likes of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman. This is fair enough, as the explosion of American underground comix (around 1967-68) pre-dated the UK scene, which at that time was still centred around one newspaper (International Times) and one mag (OZ).

One of the first British underground comix was Nasty Tales, an International Times spin-off edited by Mick Farren, who wasn’t just a magazine publisher but a real renaissance man, playing blues-based psychedelic rock with his band The Social Deviants, before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s to write science fiction novels. While Britain had a thriving psychedelic music scene, it took longer for strong artistic talent to emerge, so a fair bit of the content of Nasty Tales was reprinted from American underground comix.

The most well-known early UK underground comic was Brainstorm Comix (Alchemy Press, 1975), which was published by Lee Harris, the proprietor of the Alchemy head shop on Portobello Road (which is still there, but now sells mainly clothes), to showcase the work of Bryan Talbot, who had contributed comic strips to Harris’ dope mag Home Grown.

Brainstorm effectively launched Talbot’s career in comics, running for 6 issues and featuring his character Chester P. Hackenbush, the Psychedelic Alchemist, and sold quite well, by counter-cultural standards.

Other stuff had been going on at that time in Birmingham, centred around the Birmingham Arts Lab. One of the Arts Lab’s leading lights was Hunt Emerson, who produced one of the earliest home-grown underground comix in the form of Large Cow Comix (Ar:Zak, 1974), which set the tone for his later surrealistic excursions for Knockabout Comics, Fiesta, Fortean Times and the Beano.

Funded at one point by an Arts Council grant, the Birmingham Arts Lab would launch a number of different comics, including the anthology title Street Comix (1977-78) and Heroine, the first all-girl UK underground comic. It also launched careers, with future Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell contributing to Street Comix.

Another underground cartoonist who would go on to become a popular illustrator for the Guardian was Clifford Harper. While the work of Talbot and Emerson drew inspiration from science fiction and the surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, giving it a modern 70s twist by adding sex and drugs to the mix, Harper brought radical left politics to the world of comics with his self-published Class War Comix (originally published in 1974, before getting picked up by the US underground comics publisher and distributor Kitchen Sink Press in 1978). He still describes himself as a “militant anarchist” and in 1987 created an illustrated book on the subject for Camden Press. When not creating his beautiful faux woodcut illustrations for mainstream journals like the Guardian or Radio Times he has helped to organize the London Anarchist Book Fair.

During the 1980s the main publisher of alternative comics (and underground reprints) was Tony and Carol Bennett’s Knockabout Comics, which is still based on Acklam Road, just up the road from where I grew up in Notting Hill. Publishing libertarian literature by Crumb, Shelton and Emerson at the height of Thatcherite repression, Knockabout had the misfortune of being busted for obscenity on a number of occasions, notably for distributing American cartoonist Melinda Gebbie’s semi-autobiographical comic Frezca Zizis. The book was found to be obscene by the UK authorities, and all copies seized and burned, an experience Ms Gebbie made wry and poetic reference to in a 4 page comic strip published in Anarchy Comics #4 (Last Gasp 1987).

By the end of the decade, with the startling popularity of VIZ (the comic that spawned a thousand imitators, all trying to cash in on the trend for toilet humour), the Scots weighed in with their own bawdy offering when Dave Alexander, Frank Quitely and a few others got together to publish the first issue of Electric Soup in 1989. The comic ran for about three years, even securing distribution from VIZ’s own publisher John Brown at one point, before the bubble burst. Quitely has subsequently gone on to become a successful comics illustrator, producing work for 2000ad and DC/Vertigo. Alexander has stayed in the underground, continuing to draw the MacBam Brothers for the stoner comic Northern Lightz (1999-2005) and new adult humour mag’ Wasted.

Which is more or less where I entered the story. Well, better late than never!

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Grayling Goes With the Flow

In an article defending his New College of the Humanities, Professor A.C. Grayling argues that he is not in the “vanguard of the marketisation of higher education” being pursued by the current Tory/LibDem government because:

“The part-privatisation of the publicly funded universities has been going on for years, though it is now doing so at an accelerated rate.”

Thank you, Professor Grayling, for cleverly sidestepping the main point held by nearly everybody who is concerned about or actively opposed to public sector cuts: that just because something is already happening doesn’t make it right or sensible, especially when that something happens to be the erosion of the public sector. As one of the article’s respondent’s eloquently put it “Education is not a commodity to be financially valued and traded.” The assumption that it is has been a major contributor to the widening gap between the richest and poorest we have seen over the last three decades.

Grayling adds: “Many universities seek overseas students at full fee, and most of these are now requiring staff to recruit as many more overseas students as they can in a bid to supplement revenue.”

This courting of wealthy foreign students is happening mainly because universities are already strapped for cash. But you do not solve this kind of problem by going with it. If anything, acquiescance to such a policy has the potential to lay the groundwork for a future of xenophobic resentment, from foreign students forced to pay much higher fees and, in effect, to subsidise UK nationals, and from British students denied places because their university of choice was more interested in chasing money from abroad. This is not a good direction to take, yet it has been relentlessly pursued by successive UK governments.

To quote Grayling again:
“Since 1970, general public sector pay has risen in real terms by more than 40%. University pay in the same period has risen in real terms about 4%, if that.”

A big contributor to this backwards slide may have been the attack on teaching unions that began in the 1980s, making it harder for them to protect the livelihoods of teaching staff, and by extension, the quality of public education. Again, you do not solve this problem by going with it.

Taken as a whole Grayling’s article suggests that, despite his stated sympathy with the situation faced by publicly-funded universities in the UK (such as his former employers Birkbeck), his main motivation in starting the independent NCH is merely to exploit the current situation, rather than pose a genuinely inclusive alternative.

Bear in mind that no where in the article does he even attempt to defend the £18,000 a year fees the NCH will charge, choosing instead to focus his attention on the New College’s charitable trust, which will apparently offer free or discounted access to around 30% of new intake.

A nice gesture, certainly, and one he can clearly afford to make!

Addendum: Curiously, Grayling made some interesting statements about free higher education in the Guardian back in 2009, which you can find quoted here.