If you asked anyone in the UK to draw a character from the Beano, they’d most probably be able to get on with the task off by heart. The characters in the age-old weekly comic are etched onto our brains from a young age, and every kid’s got their favourite strip. For me, it was The Bash Street Kids, a cartoon created by Leo Baxendale in 1954 about a pesky gang of kids driving their teacher nuts. Lessons, rules, bullies – the Beano knew how to make its readers happy by bringing them seemingly infinite story-lines about something most British children see as the world’s worst chore – school.
To celebrate our month-long Back to School feature, we chatted to Kev F Sutherland, a comic artist and comedian who now contributes to the Beano by drawing The Bash Street Kids among other cartoons. Here he is…
What do you think is the key to a successful, enjoyable comic strip?
It’s all about good storytelling. If a writer and artist have an interesting story to tell, and an original way of telling it, then it should look at its best in the perfect medium. Some stories are best suited to “word only” literature – or comics without pictures as I call them. Some stories are best on the big screen, some on the telly, some in a game. And comics tell their stories best, especially those that really exploit what you can do with the visuals. I recommend Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a strip from the 1940s, as a perfect example of how imaginatively a comic strip page can be used. If you’re doing something in one medium that couldn’t really be adapted to another medium, you’re doing something good (see Watchmen).
Did you read the Beano as a kid?
Actually I didn’t. I got into Marvel comics really early on at about five years old. They used to do weekly black and white reprints of the Marvel superhero strips and all at pocket money prices. I used to be able to get ten comics and still have change from my one pound pocket money. So Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and a brilliant comic called Howard the Duck took priority in my comic-reading childhood.
What other comics did you read?
I also got into Asterix books very early on when they were given away free with Total petrol (not interesting but true). Those still stand the test of time, being the highest quality comedy writing you’ll probably ever see in a comic, and so well-drawn.
What do you love most about the Bash Street Kids?
Leo Baxendale’s original Bash Street Kids were a great example of something you couldn’t do in any other medium. He filled his pages, and every panel, with detail that you could only take in if you read and re-read the strips. You can’t do that in film or animation, let your eyes go back and recap on what you missed, without disturbing the flow of the story. He used to do massive full-page crowd scenes with a hundred things happening at once, like a Durer engraving or a Brueghel painting, but funnier.
Their characters have always merited exploring and I’m most entertained by the stories that do that. A writer-artist who did Bash St Kids Adventures before me, Mike Pearse, was the first in decades to really start filling in the characters’ personalities. Spotty became angry and sarcastic, something I’ve enjoyed developing, while Plug has always been idealistic and love-lorn, and Toots is the brains of the operation. I’m a big fan of Cuthbert Cringeworthy, who I enjoyed turning into a mad professor of sorts.
Do you feel you channel your own school life into these comics?
My own school life was far too boring to put into a story. If you want to read 20 pages of a kid sitting as his desk writing and drawing comics all day instead of going out and kicking a football, then that’s the strip you’d be looking at.
"Spotty became angry and sarcastic, while Plug has always been idealistic and love-lorn, and Toots is the brains of the operation. I'm a big fan of Cuthbert Cringeworthy, who I enjoyed turning into a mad professor of sorts."Kev F Sutherland
It must be tricky to draw characters that have been invented by someone else, when you first started was it tricky to correctly put across the characters’ personalities?
In long-running comics, like the Beano and Marvel, a good editor strikes a balance between giving the writer and artist creative space to make the character their own. This recently happened when Jamie Smart was allowed to make Roger The Dodger into a totally wildly original style of strip – and making the strip look more like the audience has become familiar with – as happened when Jamie was dropped from Roger The Dodger, ‘cos kids don’t like “wildly original.”
I’ve always tried to be true to the spirit of the characters while taking them in my own action-oriented direction and making sure they look familiar to the kids. I think it’s worked.
How do you go about creating a strip – where do you start and how do you finish?
I write my scripts, usually, as a biro scribble, which is what I send to the editor. So he receives an A4 biro page that looks approximately like the finished piece. So much humour lies in the visuals that I prefer to show rather then describe the action. Often I do parodies or pastiches as a starting point. Recently I had Bananaman meeting versions of various familiar superheroes in order to satirise oddities about them. Likenesses were changed just enough to be copyright-free. If anyone read Miracle Banana vs Captain Banana and his team of Super Lawyers earlier this year, that was me.
Do you feel that the Bash Street Kids are keeping up with the world?
The great thing about cartoonily-drawn characters are that they don’t date nearly as badly as real people. They wear school uniforms, caps and mortar boards that haven’t been seen since the 1950s, but it’s still okay. And nothing compared to how ridiculous Asterix the Gaul looks. Have you ever tried going to a fancy dress party as Asterix? Try it. You’ll soon realise how stupid a blonde moustache, blonde pigtails, a skirt and a helmet with wings on really looks on a bloke.
How do you feel the Beano has changed over the years?
At its best, the Beano has showcased some of the finest comic creating talent of its age. This decade there’s been Jamie Smart, Laura Howell, Nigel Auchterloonie, Hunt Emerson, oh and me. For a goodly while there’s been Nigel Parkinson and Mike Pearse. And you can go back 75 years now and find the work of legends like Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Dudley Watkins and so many more. And even better, nowadays the reprint books tell you their actual names, rather than keep them all anonymous.
"Kids find comics so easy to do. It's like making a movie, except you don't need 200 million dollars and a thousand people to help you. If you have pencil, paper and pen, you have exactly the same materials as the professionals. It's brilliant fun."Kev F Sutherland
Do you feel it’s important for children to continue to interact with comics?
In France they call comics, or bandes-dessinnees, “the ninth art.” You can do things in a comic strip that you can’t do in any other art form, which is why die-hards like myself champion it. Of course another thing that becomes very obvious when you teach comic art to kids (as I do in my regular Comic Art Masterclasses in schools – why not invite me into your school, kids?) is that kids find it so easy to do. It’s like making a movie, except you don’t need 200 million dollars and a thousand people to help you. If you have pencil, paper and pen, you have exactly the same materials as the professionals. It’s brilliant fun.
Do you have a particular favourite Bash Street Kids character or story?
I enjoyed writing and drawing An Ickle Wicky Werewolf On Bash Street, The Bash Street Zombies and Invasion Of The Beano-Snatchers in the weekly comics, and in the annuals you’ll find Pluggy Love, Teacher & The Head’s Parents Evening, and Roger The Dodger’s Reservoir Dodge, all particular favourites of mine. The 2015 annual features my Bananaman story Vom Monster, which I think you’ll like.