James met Mick and Jon back in the 1990s in the offices of media giant IPC’s latest money-spinner, Loaded. Together they created the blueprints for what became the archetypal lads’ mag. “I wanted a magazine that encapsulated everything I was into as a 27-year-old man; football, music, humour, clubbing, travel, drinking and drugs. There wasn’t anything like that back then. I remember Mick had a book about the history of Rolling Stone and he said ‘We could be like this’ and I replied, ‘We’ll be better than that.’”
James worked with Mick for a few years previously, before they perfected the recipe for intelligent but crass publishing. “I had met Mick years before. He was in a band called Deep Freeze Mice.” Jon came later. “He had a navy peacoat, a short back and sides, and a portfolio with Erasure record sleeves in it. Jon turned out to be the most popular guy in the office in a very unusual and twisted way; a bit like how people love horror and slasher films.”
Left to their own devices, the Loaded office became a sort of strange, over-productive womb in which a legend grew. “ Loaded was the fastest payback on investment in IPC’s history. We made millions every month, selling almost half a million copies with Harry Hill sitting on a badger on the cover! Mick and Jon’s first collaborative effort was If Biscuits Were People. I think Lou Reed was a chocolate digestive.” Among other early collaborations was Office Pest, a small, dry, one-panel cartoon that used clip art-style characters to satirise the daily grind of office work.
A few years later James left Loaded, taking Mick with him as a creative director to work on its naughty, know-all cousins Hotdog and Jack magazine. Jon was brought in to work on those too. “The best part of Jack would be me, Jon and Andy Capper, who went on to launch Vice in the UK, sitting in the office late after everyone else had gone, working out ways to do the magazine differently. We’d all just had kids and I remember Jon coming in and telling me one of his twins had tried to saw the other one’s head off, which made a change from him calling me in the middle of the night saying he were going to kill photographer Chris Floyd just to see what it was like.”
Tired of magazines, Mick and Jon finally began working together under the moniker Modern Toss. “They’re just two funny guys with a similar sense of humour, it’s a formula that works,” says James, “and they’ve worked hard at making it work commercially on lots of different levels. I remember Jon bringing in this clipping of a siege at a greengrocers in Brighton where the bloke kept the armed police at bay by throwing fruit and veg at them. That sums up Modern Toss.”
We met Mick and Jon in London’s Southbank Centre where they meet up to work together because there’s free wifi and loads of places to sit.
Tell us about those early days at Loaded…
MB: I was writing, Jon was art directing. It was quite chaotic. We all used to work on different things in twos and threes to get all the different ideas going. So me and him used to work together quite a lot on visual stuff and came up with all these mental ideas.
JL: You could often pair off and come up with projects and just make them. It wasn’t like a normal magazine where you’d have someone to interview and get some copy in. So that’s partly why cartoons like Office Pest turned up, because we thought that would be a good idea.
Did you make the images for Office Pest?
JL: They were like the first sort of clip art. I had a clip art book sent to me in the post and I was looking through it. There were a lot of office-based things in it – photocopiers and stuff. We tried to do a cartoon strip out of photocopiers talking to each other and that was really hard work. We actually saw some of the fully-formed Pest characters in there as well and took them straight out of that.
MB: We used Post-It note yellow for the background to get that office feel. Also, that was the first time we used words coming out with a straight line.
That’s your trademark isn’t it?
MB: Yeah, comes spurting out in a straight line!
So they just let you come up with that sort of stuff all day then?
MB: Loaded was like a little jungle where everyone just did what they wanted and handed it in.
JL: It was a bit of an accident. We were just put in this little office and it became very successful quite quickly. It was a sort of weird publishing experiment.
MB: You’ve got to remember that most magazines in those days were really organised. At IPC they were all put into the tower in their own little departments.
JL: You’d have Horse and Hound, Country Life, Cage and Aviary bird people, Yachting Monthly…
MB: They didn’t know what the fuck to do with us.
Did you get to mingle with the guys from Horse and Hound?
MB: Sometimes. They’d come and talk about horses. Bit of horse chat.
So that was in the IPC building?
JL: It was a shitty stick by the side of the IPC building.
MB: And we were in the stump next to the stick.
JL: We weren’t even in the stick. We couldn’t even go in the stick, we had to sit in the stump!
MB: But at least we were the only people in the stump so we could do what we wanted.
JL: You could smoke in it as well, and play golf and football. You could smoke in the main tower when we got in there. You could smoke at your desk. It was amazing!
MB: Yeah it was totally lawless. And the bloke who had the money would come in every so often, tell us we were doing really well and to keep on going – maybe bring a bottle of champagne. Then he’d go away.
JL: I was there for about three or four years and then did some other magazine stuff. We still worked on Office Pest and a
few other things as well. That was the sort of birth of Toss really. The first Toss-style cartoon.
So what happened after you left Loaded?
JL: We both sort of found ourselves out of work at a similar time.
Did you ever think about taking yourself to a different magazine like Viz or something?
MB: Nah. What’s the point? We can do it better ourselves. The first jokes that we did were in a little pub up the road. Jon came in with loads of little jokes that were two or three words drawn in pencil. They were the first cartoons for the first issue.
JL: They’d been online a bit and they had been picking up quite a bit of interest. But it wasn’t till we did it as a comic that anyone took it seriously because, you know, anything can go on the internet can’t it? Suddenly you put it on a bit of paper and people take it seriously.
Do you really think that?
MB: Definitely. It’s more special. Plus we came up with the the idea of giving a page to every joke instead of cramming hundreds in. It’s always a good idea, to give it a bit of room.
JL: That was the main thing we worked out from working on magazines; that nobody reads them. People put huge amounts of work into filling pages up with words, small words, and stuff like that, and no one reads them. And when they read it they’re like “Ooh I really like the captions.”
MB: Bit of a downer innit, that.
JL: You should blow these bits up when you write your own captions. They like the headlines, and they like the standfirsts. That’s how Twitter works. It’s just the standfirst of an article isn’t it? So that was our main thinking for the cartoons, it would only be one per page and we’d make it really good.
MB: And no more than four words in each joke. Really strict. We do keep it pretty short, boil it down. A joke is funnier in proportion to how short it is generally, unless you’re Eddie Izzard.
JL: We reduce it down to its smallest form and somehow it’s funnier.
And with the pictures as well?
JL: That’s another thing, keeping the picture quite small on the page. It just makes it funnier, I don’t know why. Looks more cack-handed. Looks fucking stupid. The worse the drawing is the better it is, the smaller the joke is the better it is. In fact the less you do the better it is for everybody. That’s a rule for life. Not just for cartooning.
MB: It’s a good idea to put the characters right down at the bottom of the page as well. Really small.
Which one of you draws the pictures?
JL: We both draw the pictures.
MB: We make up the jokes as well.
JL: We’ve both been very interested in cartoons for a very long time. It’s quite an odd thing to be into.
What kind of cartoons?
MB: We just started doing our own jokes, things we thought were funny. We tended to like jokes that are just single panel jokes anyway rather than comics. Private Eye jokes. Gag jokes.
When you first started, how did you manage to pay yourselves?
MB: We didn’t.
How did you survive?
MB: Dunno. You just keep going don’t you?
JL: We had a bit of book money and things like that, then the TV stuff came along quite early and that was actually one of the biggest things that helped us get through the first five or six years.
MB: Normally you have to wait about 10 years to get a TV commission but we were about four weeks in. We were a
JL: Our first comic had come out and this guy rang up…
MB: He asked if we wanted to make a TV series. It was a guy called Shane Allen who’s now the boss of BBC comedy. He can obviously spot something good. It took about nine months to make, to write and animate.
JL: Things just take a long time.
MB: Animation takes a long time. It can get really boring. Especially when we want everything to be simple and creative people tend to want to go out with everything, more, more, more. You often have to tell people who have spent weeks doing something to take it back. The people we work with totally understand what we want and they do it brilliantly.
Do you ever find yourself getting carried away and then have to rein yourselves back in to be simple again?
MB: No not really. That’s our only rule. It’s like being in The Ramones; we’ve got one idea and we just keep hammering away at it, and you get different versions of it. That’s where you have to be a genius because you’re only using one idea really.
JL: We work back-to-front for all that kind of stuff. A stand-up will take one small idea and expand it out to a three-hour set in the O2. We sort of work the other way round, we boil it down.
Have you ever drawn each other?
JL: No. We don’t like looking at each other. We work on the phone a lot because Mick’s in London and I’m in Brighton, but it is actually a really good way of working because you’re just concentrating on the joke and that’s it.
JL: We do jokes on the phone then I just do a drawing as quickly as I can, scan it in and email it to Mick. Then we sort of refine it and that’s it.
How often do you speak on the phone?
JL: We try and get all our cartoons done on Monday and Tuesday. That’s for The Guardian, Private Eye and The Sunday Times. We work pretty fast.
MB: When we decide to do a comic we’ll meet up somewhere and just pile through loads of ideas. 50 or something. Whack ’em all down. You have to meet up when you’re doing a lot of stuff. When we were writing scripts as well obviously we’ve got an office in Brighton so we’d go and sit together and write scripts. You can’t really do it on the phone.
JL: We work quite a bit in here as well.
MB: We wander around London quite a lot looking for places to take us in.
JL: There used to be quite a good place above Victoria station, with old oars and things on the ceiling but they did it up. It’s terrible now, we can’t go there. This is the best place we’ve found.
Do you find London’s a good place to people-watch and get ideas from?
MB: Yeah I suppose it is really. There’s always a few weird people hanging around. You can also eavesdrop on conversations. So when someone’s queuing up for a sandwich or something you just… stand there listening. It’s a bit fucking creepy.
JL: Take a picture of them.
MB: You can’t help it when you’re on a bus though can you, because nowadays people broadcast their lives don’t they, on the bus. I heard a woman complaining to the teacher of her kid on the phone once. That was really memorable because she was really shouting – “You call yourself a fucking school?” all that sort of stuff. So it’s all out there, it’s all going on, and it’s all funny. Real life is funny.
So you take the entire, annoying mass of London’s general public and boil it down to one character saying one thing?
JL: A tiny nut.
MB: At any one particular moment.
It’s pretty amazing.
MB: Somebody’s got to do it, haven’t they?