On Sunday afternoon, I managed to track down Gary Northfield who had just completed a six-hour workshop on how to draw cartoons. Gary – who describes himself as “Purveyor of Bog-eyed Loonies” – has been writing and drawing comics for yonks, and is probably best known for his daft characters – including Derek the Sheep, who was a regular in The Beano – and his work for National Geographic Kids. Gary’s Garden in The Phoenix is his most recent regular work, featuring all sorts of creatures who lurk in the backyard, such as the unhinged action hero Larry the Ladybird. Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs was published by Walker earlier this year.
We meet just after the announcement that the winner of the inaugural 9th Art Award was Stephen Collins for his book The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil. I thought Collins was a new name to me, but realised he was the one responsible for some excellent and really funny strips in The Guardian, such as the one from this weekend which was quite appropriate for an Edinburgh visit. So well done, Stephen, I look forward to reading it.
So, Gary, what have you been doing today?
“I did a six-hour workshop, with a bit of a break for lunch, doing a breakdown of how I approach my work: who I am, what I do and how to create a funny comic strip. It’s important that it’s funny, I don’t want you to end up with some blasé comic thing. I looked at myself and asked ‘what do I do, how do I approach my comics, break it down?’ I discovered there’s a bit of a formula going on, I didn’t realise, but I can see it now. I thought, ‘let’s see if it works’, and it does. I don’t know if I want to go too much into it as I’m against formulas generally. Things should be free-form and ‘go with the flow’, but I noticed that my stories generally turn on a penny at one point and lead into the punchline.”
Derek The Sheep was the first work of yours I was aware of, what had you done before that?
“That was about 2004. I’d been doing small press comics since 1999 I brought out a comic called Great! at Bristol Comic fair run by Kev F Sutherland – he’s such an enthusiastic person – but I didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t like my comic because it took me all day to draw one panel. I had billions of ideas and I wanted to get them out and draw quicker so I came up with this other way of working, I did these little boxes of comics. It would take me an evening to do a tiny little comic and sell them in a little box for a pound. I had good fun doing that.”
You can see one of these boxes over at ‘cultural magpie’ Anna’s blog where she also interviews Gary.
“I got to know people like Nick Abadzis, Tom Gauld, Matt Abiss and Dave Shelton. We all got together and made a book called Sentence, an anthology. there were eight of us and we all had the same kind of sensibilities. There weren’t many people those days who were into stuff like Lewis Trondheim and L’Association in France. We’d all been to Angoulême and whereas a lot of people back here were doing 2000AD-based things, it was quite weird, kind of a ghetto.
“I got to know Nick really well and he was working on Horrible Histories magazine. He said ‘I really like your work, I’m moving on to another magazine, do you want my job?’ It was a bit of a leap, but I went for it, got a proper in-at-the-deep-end job. I’d learned a bit of Photoshop and Illustrator and they said, ‘Six weeks, see how you get on.’ I was there for about six years, it was great.
“I approached The Beano at a comic fair in London and said, ‘Can I show you my portfolio?’
“They said, ‘We don’t really do that.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, but I work at Horrible Histories.’
“‘Oh yeah, come round, then.’ It worked as a foot in the door. Also, if you work for these titles, you show you’re capable of working to a deadline. I didn’t go there with the intention of showing them Derek the Sheep, I wanted illustration work. There was a small-press magazine called Sturgeon White Moss who had asked me for a story. I’d been doing a lot of sad stories at the time, so I thought, ‘I’ll do something jolly this time,’ so I did this sheep story which was really jolly and silly and commercial. I showed it to the Beano guys and they said, ‘We really want this.'”
I’ve been searching for a way do describe Gary’s style, and the best I could come up with is “deceptively simple”. It has the feel of being drawn very quickly – the characters tend to have stick-figure legs, for example – but look closely and there’s a lot more to it.
“This is kind of what I was trying to teach the guys in my workshop: don’t be so precious with your work. But you do work hard at getting the stories, it takes a long time, it took ten years to find I did have a formula. “
Gary’s Garden in The Phoenix is your regular project at the moment. There’s a massive cast of characters you must be losing track of, but there are several recurring characters. Chompy the caterpillar is wonderfully stupid. Most of the stories are quite daft, but occasionally you’ll do stories like the recent three-parter (Billy the Bee takes his favourite rock, that looks a bit like a face, to three clubs) where suddenly there’s a poignancy. Was that a conscious thing?
“I did ‘Twig Club’ first, I wasn’t intending it to be a trilogy. I had great fun with it because I’d already done similar things with ‘Camouflage Club’ a few weeks before. I thought it would be really funny if the bee also turned up at a Rock Club and it wasn’t what he had in mind at all, it was a really professional, pretentious thing, so I did it as a follow-up. I had a Larry the Ladybird story all lined up and it suddenly occurred to me it would be really lovely to do something where it all worked out for him.”
I thought it was a great message for kids: if you have something you love, even if other people mock it, hold on to it because eventually you’ll find someone else who does too.
Two other recurring characters are Boris and Monroe, a fox and a hedgehog odd-couple who go on daring night raids with sparse dialogue. They are great. Will you ever do a spin-off comic?
“I’d like to. I really enjoy writing those because they’re written quite differently. When I first wrote it I imagined these old Russians talking to each other. I love that ‘soaked in oak caskets’ kind of way of talking. I had a plan that I was going to do a 30-part Larry Ladybird story going on a mad adventure, but I didn’t as it’s nice to have different stories. If I ever did do that I’d bring it out as a graphic novel, but I want to do the same with Boris and Monroe.”
I recall seeing French reviews of your most recent book, Teenytinysaurs, has it been translated already?
“It was a co-production that came out in English, French and Dutch at the same time.
Is that because you’ve got a big-name publisher like Walker behind you?
When Derek was published by Bloomsbury it came out in France first as Norbert le Mouton. There was a fan of Derek the Sheep and he had a friend who was a publisher. I don’t speak French, but I love going to Angoulême and buying the books and lapping up the beautiful artwork. I really liked the publisher, who was the vice president of the museum in Angoulême, so so really knows his stuff. It helped me get the English edition, really.”
Moving on to The Phoenix and kids’ comics generally, I mention Jamie Smart’s Moose Kids Comics and wonder if such comics are going to be able to keep going in a market saturated by licensed, toy-festooned titles.
“The Phoenix is doing OK, I don’t know about numbers but they seem very positive about it. They’re moving into independent stores and slowly but surely they’re doing well. What would really help would be for another comic to come out. They say they that would be great if it inspired some other publishers, building up the field. When you go into bookshops, they don’t know what to do with children’s comics. they’re dotted around the place. Foyles have done a good job, as they do have a kids’ comics section. It gives it a nice focus. Sometimes you’ll see Teenytinysaurs stuck next to, say Punisher: War Zone and it’s silly really, it’s not the right place for it. “
A while ago you set up the Fleece Station. What was the idea behind that?
“We were all chatting on Twitter – me, Sarah Mcintyre and Viviane Schwartz – we were moaning that if you work at home, you get out of bed, go into the front room, do some drawing and go back to bed again. It’s debilitating and soul-destroying. When I was working on Horrible Histories it was lovely being able to bounce ideas about and I like being around people, I’m quite sociable, and I think those two were the same. We met someone who said they knew where was a little place available. Because we all drew sheep and it was an old police station, so it’s just a terrible pun. I think Peter Stanbury came up with it.”
Does it work, economically? It seems like an interesting idea that other people could follow.
“Originally I couldn’t afford it, and it was a massive leap for me. It was a difficult time, but it’s fine now. You treat it like a proper job and get out of your house, go to the office and go back home. And you have people around you so you can chat to people who know what you’re talking about.”
As corporations shed jobs and more people are working freelance, it sounds like a good model for people doing creative work. Have you ever thought of writing up how you did it?
Then it was time to enjoy the sun a bit before the Jura Unbound event in the evening, which packed out the Spiegeltent, featuring a bit of reading by Vic Galloway from his book, followed by the comedy gold of James Yorkston performing tracks from their almost-forgotten band Huckleberry. Then King Creosote came on and things got very weird indeed. So weird that the final line from Kenny was met with horrified laughs. I can’t repeat it here. There might be grandmothers reading.