One of the things that I'd planned to do when I launched this new site back in September was to use the space to interview some of the interesting creative people I know. Here we have the first of these, a Q&A with cartoonist Gary Northfield.
I first met Gary at the Bristol Comics Festival in 2001, browsing the small press table that was run by Pete Ashton back in his Bugpowder days. I was delighted to discover A Little Box of Comics, which was just what it says: a little box not much bigger than a postage-stamp, with three tiny comics in it, all goofily funny stories about daisy-eating monsters and talking baked beans. As I was excitedly squealing about them to my friends, it transpired that the creator was standing right behind me; looking a bit bashful in the face of such high praise.
A Little Box Of Comics, 2001. [view at actual size here]
The praise is richly deserved, though, as has been proven both by his employment as an in-house illustrator at Eaglemoss Publications, and by his recent success with the creator-owned strips Derek The Sheep in The Beano, and Little Cutie in the DFC.
Gary's simple-looking stories often belie the complicated emotions at the heart of them. His scribbly drawing style has always lent itself well to the madcap antics of silly characters like the monsters and pirates in his early small press comics, Stupidmonsters and Bernard Cribbins' Rousing Tales of Action and Adventure (done with Matt Abbiss), or in the recent funny animal strips mentioned above, but he excels at telling stories, and often with minimal dialogue. Some of his stories, like The Monster Who Enjoyed His Dreams (from Stupidmonsters #4) or Be A Happy, Healthy Dog, his contribution to 2003′s Sentence anthology, can be as likely to move you to tears as the more madcap adventures will make you laugh out loud. As you can tell, I am a fan. I hope after reading this interview, you are, too!
Who/what inspired you to start self-publishing?
GN: For a few years, I worked at an art shop close to Gosh Comics and this exposed me to small press comics by people like Tom Gauld & Simone Lia and Steve Marchant. There was plenty of other weird stuff from Europe and old copies of Caption containing the likes of Lewis Trondheim and Darryl Cunningham. I was also getting into indie American stuff like Hate [by Peter Bagge], Land of Nod [by Jay Stephens] and Tantalising Stories [where Jim Woodring got a start]. So, fired up with inspiration, in my spare time I knocked together my first comic "Great!" and took it to the first Bristol fair in 1999.
Did you always want to do comics?
GN: Pretty much. I've always enjoyed telling stories. My favourite subject at school was English/creative writing, as well as art, and I would always get top marks for my stories. My mum even made me write stories during the summer holidays, which I didn't mind a bit! I was always writing mad stories about superhero dogs or groups of garden birds getting into gang wars (I was a big fan of Hong Kong Phooey and Top Cat).
Back at school they moved me up to the top group for English, based on my good grades, but the new teacher was very unimpressed with my awful handwriting and she forced me to work on that instead of doing any actual creative work, so I quickly fell behind and lost interest in the subject pretty quickly (which is why my grammar is so terrible!).
My other favourite subject was history and I was lucky that sometimes we could draw a comic strip instead of writing an essay. I did this colourful strip about the history of the Spartans and the teacher loved it so much, he made me draw it on two huge A1 sheets and it was on the classroom wall for ages.
from Bernard Cribbins' Rousing Tales Of Action And Adventure, 2005
I guess I should also mention that, as far back as I can remember, I've always loved comics. When I was four, I used to get Disney Weekly delivered, then British Marvels like Planet of The Apes and Captain Britain, to the Beano and Nutty. I was a complete fanatic for comics throughout my entire childhood and would make my own comics by sellotaping pages of my drawings together.
What was your favourite comic (strip) growing up?
GN: Well, alongside my regular delivered weekly comic (whatever it happened to be that month!), I was a huge fan of Peanuts and Asterix. This is going to sound horribly pretentious, but bugger it I don't care; I loved Asterix for all its detailed drawings and detailed world, and Peanuts for all its simplicity. I guess both also had a solid set of recurring friends who would discover the world together, and that always appealed to me. I did try Tintin, the other prominent comic strip of my childhood era, but I thought it was horrible! Half the panels were taken up with speech balloons and it was all a bit too clever-clever for me. Give me a drunken fish-fight in a medieval market, or snoopy arseing about pretending to be a snake!
Derek The Sheep, 2008
How did you get a creator-owned strip running in the Beano? That's a first, isn't it?
GN: To be honest, I'm not entirely sure myself! They offered me the choice and I took it. I don't think it ever happened again in the Beano, but there's been a couple of creator-owned strips in the Dandy since then (most notably Jamie Smart). Unfortunately, as far as I'm aware, they don't solicit creator-owned strips anymore, so I've been very lucky.
Why was Derek collected in a French edition (Norbert Le Mouton) before there was a UK one? And why was he renamed Norbert? Was that your idea?
GN: I had an email from a fan who was good friends with the comic translator/writer Harry Morgan. I sent samples to Harry, who really enjoyed the strip and he then put me in touch with Edition De L'an 2. The name "Norbert" had nothing to do with me, but I loved it, so I was happy to go along with it. I'm guessing it's a naff uncle-type name, like Derek, but for French uncles. I don't think anyone is called Derek in France, so that name would never have worked!
Little Cutie, 2008
I can see Derek and Little Cutie working well as animated cartoons. If your work was ever animated, who would you like to cast for the voices?
GN: If I spoke on this subject, someone would come round to my flat and break my legs. So no comment. [Ooh, sounds intriguing! --ed.]
Are you going to self-publish any more mini comics or are you only going to do stuff for established publishers like the Beano and the DFC?
GN: I would love to do more small press comics. I seriously miss making them, but it's all down to time. I barely have enough time to do The Beano, DFC and National Geographic Kids (plus all the other odds and sods that come my way).
a page from Stupidmonsters #2, 2002
There's a lot of great stuff being produced for comics these days. What are you reading at the moment?
Jason's The Last Musketeer, which is definitely his best book since Hey Wait…, my all time favourite, favourite. Manu Larcenet's Ordinary Victories, which Matt Abbiss got me into. A beautiful story, beautifully drawn, which deals with a miserable git trying to deal with real life and the march of time (it spoke volumes to me). A very moving graphic novel indeed. Similarly anything by Michel Rabagliati and his latest Paul Goes Fishing is a very emotional story and exquisitely drawn as always.
I must mention Pieter De Poortere's Joe De Eskimo, which I picked up this year at Angouleme. Very stupid, silent comic strip about an eskimo who gets thrown into prison and goes on mad adventures with his cell-mate polar bear. This is exactly the sort of book I want to draw!
Is there anything done by someone else that you wish you'd had the idea for first?
GN: Joe De Eskimo, as pointed out earlier, and James Turner's Super Animal Adventure Squad from the DFC. I love that strip and wish I'd though of it! Lots of mad creatures running about on madcap spy adventures. Brilliant! I especially wish I'd thought of Agent Beesley.
The Derek The Sheep hardback is now available from all good bookshops. Buy one for everyone who loves The Great Escape, Grange Hill, Ealing comedies and The Simpsons. Which is every right-thinking person on earth, right? There's also a Facebook fan page to stay up-to-date.
To get your weekly fix of UK-created comicky goodness, subscribe to The DFC via the DFC website.
Gary's mini-comics are probably available for a small price from Gary himself if you ask him nicely enough.