Cartoon County - The Cartoon Stripped

The Cartoon Stripped

THE CARTOON STRIPPED was a series of displays on comics and cartoons, first held at the Gardner Arts Centre, University of Sussex, 4 - 30 June 1995

THE CARTOON STRIPPED was our third exhibition, inspired by a late-night discussion of Scott McCloud's book, Understanding Comics. We asked our curators to build on their own "experience and enthusiasm for a particular aspect of comics/cartoon art, and explain how that genre works. Collect excellent examples from various artists, living or dead, and write blurb (i.e. analyse its language), and/or, where relevant, explain why those particular examples have influenced the individual in his/her work in that medium". Quite a tall order - especially without any funding. Steve Bell guided us through a world of images, analysing the politics of comics, where they come from and how they work, and Woodrow Phoenix showed how this supposedly 'simple' medium demands sophisticated skills from its readers. Erica Smith and Peter Pavement got together with Simon Gane to introduce the excitement of the small press world, while Corinne Pearlman made wild connections and grand claims for the origins of educational comics. The brief for this show became less an analysis of form than a celebration of genre by the individual creator/curators. Thus David Lloyd mounted a retrospective look at one of his heroes, Tony Weare, and Ross Thomson presented the work of his pals in the world of gag cartoons. Ian Miller produced fantasy paintings from times past, and, in the original show at the Gardner Centre, decorated the walls for times present. Herinder Bassi showed us some of his favourite things from the contemporary scene and told us what makes a fanboy tick.

One thing after another - by Steve Bell

If Architecture is the mother of the Arts, then the Comic is the bastard single-parent grandmother. It's as old as the Human Race. You can say anything in a comic.

I discovered this back in 1967 when I first stumbled across the work of Robert Crumb - just one scrappily drawn page in The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge, but as soon as I'd seen it I had to see more. It was a lovely rich, scratchy and sordid feast of ink which, most importantly, appeared to be able to tackle any subject head on. And it was very, very funny.

Crumb is the ultimate existentialist, and his work embodies a central truth about comics and cartoons. The experience of reading a comic is more akin to watching a film or a performance than to reading a book, yet cartoons and comics are above all else literature.There's a common assumption that comics are cinematic, which seems to be one of the motivating factors behind the 'graphic novel'. These try and operate cinematically. The point is that they don't need to try. The comic came first. Any film is pre-dated by its storyboard. The interesting thing about Pulp Fiction is that here at last we have a film that's striving to be a comic, not in any visual stylistic sense, but simply in the way it apprehends the reality (or fantasy, whichever you prefer) that it's describing. It exists, as do comics, in the permanent present. As the great Tarantino says, in his films violence and stuff "just happens". Some of our less acute film critics have berated Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction for being amoral and somehow making violence stylish. On the contrary, these films are tightly structured in the way comics are, and events are followed through with precisely the same relentless comic logic. The result is violence that truly shocks, that makes you sit up and feel ashamed of the fact that you're laughing, and yet which by the strength of the characterisation, pulls you back in and leads you on to the next absurd confrontation. The emphasis is always on cause and effect in human relationships: that if you shoot people it messes up your car; that death can be as entirely undramatic and matter-of-fact as a sneeze. The sense of ironic dislocation induced by these films could be construed as amoral, but that's our problem. The technique is entirely moral.

Political Comics are as old as Politics, which is roughly the same age as Morality and Religion. We don't know if paleolithic cave paintings were intended as religious icons or as political cartoons. We can never know. All we do know is that meaning drains from an image over time, leaving us with the visual husk. Meaning also drains from an image over distance, which is why looking at foreign political cartoons can be an experience akin to looking at cave paintings. Communication is always relative. As I write this, I'm convinced that I'm making sense. The reader might not agree. The reader might also have become aware by now that I use the words comic and cartoon more or less interchangeably. We may as well acknowledge that most cartoons are comic (even the ones that are serious), and most comics are cartoons (even the ones that are made up of photographs). What we regard as a comic is simply a lot of cartoons intended to be read in sequence. There is no serious conceptual difference between a comic and a cartoon: we read one just as we read the other. The important thing about both is that our eye is free to wander back and forth over the image or images. This freedom does not apply to the text. There's not a lot of mileage to be got out of reading text backwards, but looking at images backwards can be most rewarding. It is, however, quite possible to read gobbets of text in the wrong order.

This brings us quite neatly to the Montage Principle, which I believe underpins comics, cartoons, films, television, concrete poetry - you name it, it underpins it. It is simply the technique of juxtaposing meaningful imges (or sounds, or words, or bits of plastic, but let's stick to images, for Christ's sake) in order to create new meaning. When the principle was first articulated in the early years of this century by, most notably, the soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein, it seemed plausible in theory but somehow failed to translate into practice. Literary culture and tradition were far more effective and experienced at describing and dealing with reality, so the infant medium of the cinema was swaddled in a tight blanket of literature. Images were still quite precious in the early years of this century. Even as late as the fifties, when I was growing up, it was still a comparatively rare treat to see full-colour reproductions of anything, which is why I especially treasured my full-colour Beezer annual. True, I did have television, and Popeye came on at 5.25pm twice a week, but once it was gone it was gone, and, with one or two exceptions, everything else was utter crap. Since that time the infant medium has grown into a monstrous toddler of vast proportions, with a loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other. Now we are drowning in images. We receive more high quality imagery in a fortnight's junk mail, or in one minute of Skycrap, or one weekend's lifestyle journalism, than your average seventeenth century peasant would have seen in an entire lifetime. We have a vocabulary of imagery that is growing apace, but like the monstrous toddler, we have no language with which to articulate it. But we do have comics. When Alfred Jarry stated that "Clichés are the armature of the absolute" he was probably taking the piss, but from out present perspective he was being terribly profound. Cartoons are clichés by their very nature. They give us a hold on reality by simplifying it while keeping it just about recognisable. They impart a tiny kind of power over a terrifying and incomprehensible world, which is, I assume, exactly what happened for the Cave Persons when they drew elks on the wall. We see the past through a veil of cliché and stereotype, both written and drawn. We see the French Revolution and George IV through Gillray. We see the history of the Irish Rebellion through Gillray, Cruikshank and, less impressively, JAK. We see the evils of drink in eighteenth and nineteenth century London through Hogarth and Cruikshank, and we see the underside of High Victorian London through Doré. But (with the possible exception of JAK) these images are more than stereotypes. They are lovingly obsessive records of a view of the world. Any political cartoon has to start with an opinion or a view. It is this which sustains the near lunatic amounts of energy needed to execute such works as the "Worship of Bacchus" by George Cruikshank. The original painting is some 90 feet long and languishes in the bowels of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Some might argue that it is a Work of Art pure and simple, and that anyway it is not dealing with 'politics' as such, rather than society in general. I would argue that it's a Work of Art with an ulterior motive, and this is the defining quality of a political cartoon.

A Work of Art without an ulterior movive is simply a Work of Art. It is about itself, its own material and its own methods. Some Works of Art develop the language of imagery and give us something to see with. Others don't. The problem with the development of any visual language is the absence of any agreed structure. Since by definition such a language is beyond words, our only means of understanding it is subjective. We can only judge whether such a language works for us by reacting spontaneously to its effect on our eyeballs. This is why cartoonists keep referring back to existing imagery, to imagery which is so well-known that it can provide a framework on which to hang other meanings, comments, cheap laughs or political obsessions. It isn't just a desire to save effort (which it obviously does); it's a genuine attempt to establish some visual common ground. Why do some images last? We try and take them apart and see how they work by copying them, and since we are by nature iconoclasts, we sometimes copy them and interfere with them directly. If we were so inclined we could write treatises on their iconography, on their formal composition, on the social history of the time of their creation, or on the psychic development of their creators. The History of Art was the history of hagiography, and has lately become the history of pseudo-scientific linguistic deconstruction. The imagery remains, and we can only keep looking at it and taking it apart. That is our sacred duty.


The comic strip is full of contradictions. As a form it is usually home to throwaway ideas and simplistic images. Yet the demands a strip makes on the reader - to read the panels in sequence and construct/infer a narrative, to skip between balloons and picture, synthesizing them into a whole, to also read captions which can be in first, second or third person, which can introduce other spatial/time based elements, integrating the strip or fragmenting it; all these things add up to a very complex way of receiving information, requiring more effort than reading prose in novels or newspapers where the text has only one form (if many ways to decode it), or viewing television which requires only a minimum level of awareness or effort to receive the transmitted sound and images. Comics combine strengths from both books and film. A complicated scene that requires yards of description to establish in a novel is just 'there' in a film or in a comic panel, to be looked at. A character's state of mind or emotion is impossible to express in a film without using a voice over which interferes with the objective reality of the film, but comics have thought balloons and captions which can be used in a vast number of ways and still remain a natural part of the strip rather than feeling tacked on. We place a high value on complexity. On the notion that worthwhile ideas or images have layers which require some kind of effort to decode them in order to reach the message at the base. Some kinds of complexity: accumulation of many details revealing/leading to an overall picture or conclusion accumulation of many details concealing/subverting/preventing a single conclusion accumulation of many details 'fleshing out' a portrait of an individual (as we know, real people are contradictory and 'complicated') Which one is more complicated? 3 panels of painted comics or 3 panels of Calvin & Hobbes?

The problem with this idea that MATURE MEDIA ARE COMPLEX is the way the style of a piece can be confused with its content. In other words, comics look simple so they are simple. Books filled with long words look difficult so they are difficult. Writer/artists who confuse the two frequently drive straight into one of two dead ends: Things that look like comics but are just bad 'art'. Things that look like 'art' but are just bad comics. Which one has more content? 3 panels of painted comics or 3 panels of Calvin & Hobbes? Of course a lot of this isn't really a creative problem at all; it relates to the way different media are marketed. Comics have always been regarded as throwaway and/or juvenile because they were cheap, but as other media get cheaper and cheaper to use, people become less impressed by formats alone and start making decisions about what they want to consume based on content. Happens all the time... Remember how thrilled you were the first time you saw a video recorder? The first time you loaded a CD into its tray? When the idea of home computer games was excitingly futuristic? Aha. This is a word from your sponsor to say perhaps comics have been in a ghetto but it doesn't have to stay that way and we shouldn't lower our sights. So if there's a message in these notes, it's this - resist the ghetto. Readers will take their stories wherever they can find them.


So there I was in a comic shop - it was Fantastic. I was a graduate biochemist with time to kill and I got bitten by the bug - no, this is not the origin of Spiderman. I was rediscovering the wealth of comics entertainment. Comics are so familiar that they have become cultural pop icons - like the clean cut SUPERMAN, the vigilante BATMAN, the cosmic traveller SILVER SURFER, or the premier team - the FANTASTIC FOUR. Comics are a recognised part of the arts spectrum around the world. They even have a cultural festival devoted to them in Europe. To the uninitiated or sceptical they may still be perceived as for a juvenile audience. Would you dismiss all cinematic endeavours on examination of the worst Hollywood had to offer? Would you dismiss all music on listening to what the pop charts usually serve up? Am I turning green? This is a personal selection of some of the wealth of local (world class) talent that I have been fortunate enough to beg and borrow from. I have included some favourites that may go some way to demonstrating the diversity and strengths of the comics medium. From the inked line to fully-painted delights, let me illustrate my enthusiasm for comics. The rich world of comics receives Hollywood blockbuster exposure - this summer's hottest releases are BATMAN, TANK GIRL and JUDGE DREDD. JUDGE DREDD is the popular character from the pages of 2000AD. His world is an extreme vision of a crime-ridden future society, where the role of judge, jury and executioner are performed ruthlessly by the judges, the toughest being JUDGE DREDD. Inspired by the Clint Eastwood image of a gunslinger bringing justice to a lawless frontier society, Dredd is rich in black humour, typified by his nemesis JUDGE DEATH. Accompanied by the DARK JUDGES, JUDGE DEATH comes to us from a warped reality where life itself is a crime. Joined in battle is the pyschically talented female Judge Anderson. The world of the Judges spreads globally, including Brit City Inspector Judge Armitage (UK), and the former Hondo City Judge Shimura (Japan). Now see a masterless outlaw (ronin) who pursues the organised crime underworld (the Yakusa). The equivalent of selling coals to Newcastle is the success of Hellcat, a demoness for the Japanese comic book (Manga) market. The Manthing conjures up images in the true Godzilla tradition. The love of Manga and Anime (animated movies) usually overshadows the offerings of Hollywood. They are enjoyed equally by business men and women, either as entertainment or as an educational comic on economics. 2000AD stablemates like slaine and rogue trooper are firm favourites - explore Celtic warrior mythology in a matriarchal society (Slaine is the Earth Goddess' champion). The rogue trooper is a genetically-cloned warrior lost in a future war. The appeal of the adventure comics is very strong and further enhanced by thought-provoking issues of morality and motivation. What passion or trauma drives a man to nocturnal war dressed in a sinister constume, embodying the demon totem of the bat? New dimensions to traditional characters are explored by some of the best writers. However, the scope of the stories range from the epic to the everyday, bizarre and humourous - these are comic books, after all. Very popular with an older audience, and particularly with under-represented female readers, are the more sophisticated and challenging stories produced by DC's Vertigo line. Books like Sandman have won international awards of excellence. Hellblazer, invisibles and shade the changing man provide vehicles for imaginative tales which range from the macabre to the rich fantasies of immortal families, and from the relationships of screwy individuals to modern tales of conspiracies and paranoia. Genres battle for attention, be they the hard-boiled, pulp fiction world of crime or the autobiographical truths that make us laugh and wince at the same time. Even classic science fiction gets a new dimension - just what the Doctors would prescribe. The much-loved Star Trek and Star Wars universes go boldly on with new stories to seek out and explore for everyone. Unashamed plug - this exhibition is a taste, so why not come to the Fantastic Store and gorge yourself or just nibble. I won't bite, and if you've got the time I'll show you some other dishes. Hang on, it's a comic shop, not a restaurant!

SMALL PRESS COMICS by Erica Smith, Peter Pavement and Simon Gane

What are small press comics? Comics drawn, written and produced by the creator, or by tiny non-profit-based publishers. Print runs as low as tens or into the thousands - but usually between 100 and 1,000 copies. Small press comics can be minuscule hand made booklets, badly photocopied scrawls from the heart, or professional looking magazines.

Why self-publish? You have 100% Creator Control. You can say WHAT you want, WHEN you want, itÕs the ultimate Freedom of Speech (for now, anyway...) If no-one else will publish your work, you can do it yourself! Free yourself from commercial constraints... You can justify your empty existence with a creative hobby!

The World of Zines Small Press comics are part of the zine publishing explosion. Zines are small press magazines, they can be on any subject, music, technology, politics, personal experiences, or comics. The D.I.Y. Ethic Small Press comic creators are more likely to be into self-produced media of all kinds - e.g. bands, lo-fi tape & record labels, painting, sculpture, film, video and the electronic Frontier - rather than to have much interest in mainstream comics. The key to it all is PRODUCTION IN CONTROL OF THE CREATORS! As small as a stamp, as wide as the world! There's a worldwide net-work of comics and zine creators communicating through the postal system - and of course, making use of the Internet. Often comics themselves are minuscule - for ease of postage (and added cuteness value!) Two Boys to every Girl... The number of women creating their own comics is on the increase. These days about one in three small press comic artists are female - whilst the commercial comic industry remains male-dominated with a predominantly male audience. GET CONNECTED...

TONY WEARE by David Lloyd

The late Tony Weare drew Matt Marriott in the London Evening News from 1957 to1977. Written by Jim Edgar, it was the finest and most atmospheric newspaper strip about the American Wild West that has ever been produced.Tony was one of just a very few strip artists here and in the US whose creative identities owed nothing to the heritage of stylisation which influenced many other newspaper adventure strip creators - he was primarily an illustrator who just happened to love drawing strips.His style on Marriott was that of a sketch artist - a portrayer of the instant.  It was naturalistic,  raw, and unsophisticated - perfect for depicting the primitive quality of a realistic-looking  Wild West.  One of his major strengths as a strip artist lay in his consistently creative compositions. If we look through the three-frame strips that make up the  Matt Marriott stories we see no evidence of the repeated  formulas of picture design which some strip artists use.  Because of the sheer weight of material most of these craftsmen have to produce , easy options in picture composition are often sought by them and repeated to ease the burden of emitting a constant stream of new layouts ; but when we look at Tony's work it's as if we're just watching people going about their business through a lens that he has cleverly positioned for us, not viewing figures which are overtly posed for appropriate effect. The way he rendered his drawings reflected this 'realistic' approach to portraying the action, with  almost lazily handled brush work and pen cross-hatching.  He also had a superb command of light and shade, which promoted the impression that he was drawing something he could see in front of him, rather than something he'd built up from his imagination.The only things Tony ever hated drawing were mechanical objects of any kind, though this antipathy is very difficult for any viewer to detect.  As a lifelong nature lover he preferred to draw the organic.  This passion for depicting living things above all else, is what gives Tony's work the energy which shines from almost everything he put his brush to.  Like all the best artists, he sought to draw only what he loved to draw. 

FANTASY by Ian Miller

Fantasy: Unstable compound. Used esp. as an oxidizing and bleaching agent, an antiseptic and a rocket propellant. The images date from the early eighties. Sedimentary images, drawn from unlit places? united under the title On the Road to Antioch. Though fielding strong figurative/representational elements, I was equally concerned with the interplay of surfaces/ the juxtraposition of different media i.e. photomontage etc./abstract features. Further, an escape from the confines of image-making geared specifically to graphic reproduction. In short, creative wobbles all round.


Comics - pictures used in sequence, with or without words - have been used for thousands of years to document everyday life and historical events, and to inform, educate, and indoctrinate. Whether following a career as dieticians, divers, or drunkards, comics will bring you the truth. Examples from the world of non-fiction show what a powerful medium comics can be for auto/biography, history, science, health, religion, advertising, propaganda, interactive education and even academic analysis of the medium itself.

Is it just coincidence that the Body Shop's comic chronicling Anita Roddick's flight into the Amazon jungle to save the indigenous people from disaster (Fight for the Forest, early 1990s) bears an uncanny resemblance to two twelfth-century French monastic accounts of the acension of saints and the stars falling from heaven? Elsewhere in history, Egyptian mummy cases reassured the living of the dead person's journey to the afterlife, while in India today, comic books are the most effective and popular means for people to learn their complex mythology.

Internationally, comics are widely used in health promotion. HIV awareness comics have proliferated since the late 80s: comics from the USA, Europe, Australia, South Africa and Zaire impart basic information, narrate real-life stories, or are tools to explore and expose attitudes. Cheri Samba's paintings use speech bubbles and captions to satirize both public and official complacency. In the UK, comic workshops promote safer sex.

Clifford Harper's lovingly-rendered depiction of a Utopian society (Class War Comix no. 1: New Times,1974) used the comic to explore "two basic problems... how to change [society] and what to change it to". A much-quoted finding of Pentagon research (the reference has famously been lost: if anyone knows it, get in touch!) is that comics are the most effective medium for getting a message across. Even the CIA uses them, as shown in Brought to Light: Shadowplay (Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, Eclipse 1989), documenting the US role in Central America. The Christic Institute, on whose lawsuit Brought to Light is based, chose the comic book to tell this politically sensitive story because the tradition dated back "at least to the time when Martin Luther conducted his passionate campaign criticizing acts of misconduct in the Catholic Church using the comic-book form".

An early devotion to Girl annuals and, later, R. Crumb, gave me a missionary zeal for picture biogs - whether straight-faced realism, inspired interpretation, or self-loving/loathing recordings of daily fact and fantasy. Art Speigelman's Maus alternates the story of his fatherÕs survival of the Holocaust with his own autobiography as the child of a survivor. A classic of comic strip art, literature, biography and historical documentation, it has become a challenge to the worldÕs library catalogue data systems.

Scott McCloud's analysis of the art form (Understanding Comics, 1993) - itself a comic book - shows how sophisticated a medium the comic is to be able to convey and explore complex ideas with simplicity.

HUMOROUS by Ross Thomson

From a 'giggle' of cartoonists of my acquaintance, I've managed to beg, borrow and bribe (a pint) to show off the work of some of the best 'gagmen' in the business. I hope you will appreciate their diversity of styles and ideas that come from those who start each day staring at a blank sheet of paper.