GUEST WRITER OWEN WOOD looks at a doco about words and pictures

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GUEST WRITER OWEN WOOD looks at a doco about words and pictures

Many years ago while working in London I met a bloke who was, like me I suppose, one of those identikit “something in the The City” types. We all wore the same suits, laughed at the same jokes and were thrusting, ambitious and obnoxiously over-confident.

Many of us didn't like our pals much but knew that any one of us could “be something” so we needed to keep up the pretense of friendship when we met in the smoke-filled pubs.

One of our number – whom I was never properly introduced to, it was always just assumed you knew each other – was more circumspect than the rest of us braying nuisances, but one day dropped the bombshell which defined him.

He was going to quit his job and become an artist.

Not just any artist but – in the post-Maus days when graphic novels were being written up in the London Review of Books and comics, or “co-mix”, were being taken seriously as an art form -- he was going that direction.

Our chum was going to be one of those artists. He had an idea – if I remember it was about a mild-mannered lab worker who gets irradiated and develops superpowers, although the twist was he didn't, just thought he had – and had sketched out the doings of a couple of graphic novels.

We all thought he was mad of course, although the idea actually sounded promising as it was more psychological than physically driven and he would include real life characters in cameos.

Among ourselves we ridiculed him and I suppose willed him to fail.

I would like to say he didn't, but in fact he did. He stopped coming out for drinks and on the rare occasions he did he had put on weight, was increasingly pasty and frustrated by his lack of success, and the last I heard he had gone home to Devon and had taken a job in a small accountancy firm.

On reflection, he maybe went out too soon into a demanding marketplace when major publishers were looking for the next Maus-cum-Dickens-cum-Trollope of the comix world.

It must have been a lonely life for him.

Today of course being an illustrator, artist or comix creator are legitimate full-time professions and there is a brotherhood/sisterhood which is global, tied in through the internet and celebrates itself at conventions.

You can even do courses in cartoon art and expect to get a job at the end. More likely perhaps than if you do a BCom.

In the slightly run-down town of White River Junction in pretty Vermont is the Center for Cartoon Studies (founded in 2005) and every autumn they invite 20 promising artists/graphic novelists to participate in an intense programme of work, criticism by their fellows and guest lecturers.

Interestingly enough, some of the people in the intake seem as uncertain about their direction as the chap who ended up back in Devon, some of their key characters are rather mundane (Muscle Duck, an irradiated duck with a physique like Superman) or the core ideas very thin..

The programme is a full two years (you get a Master of Fine Arts degree) and obviously arduous as seen in the documentary Cartoon College (Arts Channel, Thursday July 18, 8.30pm).

Among the students are those who vacillate and are serial non-finishers for any number of reasons (too busy on too many projects), and for some more talking about the work than work itself. There are also interesting subjects (the whole menstruation series might have a limited marketplace however) and the oldest member in one intake is Al – taking time out from his work at an archeological journal – who is 61, but seems much older. He admits being at home alone just drawing can be depressing.

There are well-known and successful guest artists (Maus' Art Spiegelman refers to them paternally as students being with “a bunch of other outcasts”) but no one could deny this is hard emotional work. One of the lecturers says bluntly “it's not fun” because you are drawing these same characters every day . . . and there are so many more distractions these days. Students also try to hold down jobs while meeting course commitments.

In this cartoon world today there are various schools of thought, competing ideologies, serious critics, rapid change in styles and directions and, despite it all, still an affection for superheroes.

Many of these people acknowledge they were misfits, shy, outsiders, withdrawn, loners and so on. One guy says he was voted the prom queen, another was believed to be gay or British in his hometown because he knew proper English, and another was a Mormon proselytiser.

But now this is their tribe, this is family. But it is also as competitive as it is supportive.

If we'd known at the time our pal in the pub didn't have that when he made that life-changing decision, maybe we would have been more supportive. Although I suspect we still would have laughed at him behind his back.

Spiegelman says even now this is more a calling than a career. That seems accurate.

Owen Wood describes himself as such an occasional writer that he can't recall much published between '84 and 2004, says he prefers television programmes with real actors rather than reality people, orders real ale over red wine, and promises faithfully to get a Facebook and Twitter account as soon as he thinks of something worth saying. He has no website but does have a large library and "No, I don't like at home with my mother". His previous contributions to Other Voices Other Rooms are here.

Other Voices Other Rooms is an opportunity for Elsewhere readers to contribute their ideas, passions, interests and opinions about whatever takes their fancy. Elsewhere welcomes travel stories, think pieces, essays about readers' research or hobbies etc etc. Nail it in 1000 words of fewer and contact

See here for previous contributors' work. It is wide-ranging.

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