Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Private Eye

The beauty of submitting cartoons to Private Eye is that you never know when in your day that message box will flash up in the corner of the screen and time will stop. I believe for a moment that my heart actually stops beating. I can taste the contents of my stomach. My eyes go bleary. I hear the sound of angels. If I have the strength, I might even move the mouse over to Thunderbird and open the email.

Then reality zips forwards like it does in those dumb American films to highlight important plot points. And the main plot point for me is always the same:

The Ed says: Sorry not to use. Thanks for sending.

Well, I say it’s always the same but I’m pretty sure it only used to read ‘Sorry not to use’ and that was it. It was the email equivalent of commando training manuals teaching the would-be assassin where to push the stiletto in order to sever the brain stem. Over the time (years) I’ve been submitting work to The Eye, the reply has got a little longer, though the message is always depressingly familiar. I don’t know why the reply has changed but part of me wonders if there’s some deeper hidden meaning. Does the reply get longer the more you submit work? Perhaps there will come a time when the reply will read:

Hi there. Strobes here. Just had a chat with Ian and he loved your cartoons but I’m afraid we’ve got all we need this month. However, don’t let this get you down. We really appreciate how much effort you’ve put into your cartoons and we’re sure that there will come a day when we can use them. So, for now, chin up and keep on smiling. Your friend, Strobes.

Of course, it will never happen. That’s how I’d reply to somebody I’m letting down. The Eye know how to keep it bland. They’ll have so many submissions that it’s in their interests to discourage people from sending more cartoons. And it definitely works. At these moments, there is a large part of me that wants to give up. Then I’m reminded that I’m still learning the craft and I’m almost attempting the impossible. I don’t know how many cartoons I draw a month but I only send a fraction to Private Eye. Even if there are other outlets for cartoons (though, in reality, very few still remain), it is Private Eye that I hold highest.

In fact, I probably hold it higher than The New Yorker, often seen as the ‘holy grail’ for cartoonists. The Eye was home to Willie Rushton, whose work I have hanging over my desk along with an autograph I managed to find on eBay. It was also home to Scarfe and, for a period, Steadman. Bill Stott has been published there and it is still home to other great cartoonists who used to get published in Punch such as Michael Heath and Robert Thompson. Not that I remember, Punch. I’m too young, but my ‘Best of Punch Cartoons’ proves that there was once a halcyon age of cartooning. Then there is the work of Modern Toss who well, frankly, I don’t really understand (I get the jokes, I just don’t like the jokes and hate the drawing), but I guess even this proves that the Eye remains a broad church for cartoonists, even if there isn’t room for me.

In a day or so, I guess I’ll be back, packing an email with three of four cartoons and for a brief period of time, I’ll delude myself into thinking… Well, thinking that it will be this time. This time...


  1. Maybe cartoons have fashions like fine art. Fine art lost its way when they invented the camera and described representational art as "too detailed". I feel that cartoons have gone the same way. The cartoons in Private Eye and New Yorker are amateurish scribbles to my eye.
    I think that a cartoon should not only have a good joke but a funny drawing. I remember seeing David Low originals and it would make the average cartoonist give up. I'm aware of the vagaries of show biz. When I first showed my stuff to a cartoon agent, he said they were crap. I went into the newspaper office right across the road and the publisher and editor signed me on the spot as resident editorial cartoonist. All in the space of an hour or two. My failure with the above magazines maybe because I use a graphics tablet now and my stuff is not seen to be "original". But I take pride in my draughtsman.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Richard. I love reading the opinions of other cartoonists.

    I think it's a complicated subject that doesn't seem to interest many people. There are cartoonists whose work appears amateurish yet they're celebrated. James Thurber is perhaps the most famous but it was widely acknowledged that he couldn't draw. His gifts lay elsewhere. However, there are some cartoonists who style is celebrated despite, for want of a better phrase, their style being somewhat naive. Saul Steinberg is that kind of artist but so, I guess, is Michael Heath yet he's probably this country's most prolific and influential gag cartoonist. You might be right. Perhaps we've moved beyond style, into a truly postmodern age of cartooning. Cartoons are now carried by the weight of the gag and the audience only need the shorthand of the balloon figures. I suppose the only people who are interested in the drawing are people who love cartoons as an art form. Yet the same could be said about satire in general. Satire in this country is woeful, produced by people who aren't really interested in provoking thought. They're in it for the cheap gags and filling TV's pseudo-quiz shows with the same guests. The thing is, I'm not really interested in drawing stick figures like I'm not interested in writing crap gags for Twitter. I'm a fool unto myself, I guess.

  3. Thanks for your nice comment.
    Humor is an emotion like anything else. Emotion is atmosphere. Would you stage Romeo with Juliette in the public bathroom of Walmart's? Cartoons can be more than jokes: they can be serious parables or metaphors and pictures can paint a thousand words. The cartoon characters should react like actors and you have to get the facial expressions and body-language right. To explain a philosophical point recently, I had four ants reacting to a Mr. Fred Smith spraying them with bug spray. The first (typical) ant was say "Duh - wassup?" The second was imploring "Oh Lord, spareth Thy people" The third was expressing the opinion that it was all caused by a dose of mad greenfly disease. The last, with a telescope, was saying "Dang - not bloody Smith again!". Hardly a quick joke: it was meant to illustrate several pages of philosophical debate on, perhaps, the limitations of scientific empiricism. I have no sense of humor when I joke. Most of it is with vicious intent.
    I also like captionless jokes and humorous theses in particular. In the 70s I did one about hi-fi.
    At that time stereo was just coming in and one could buy recordings of trains going past.
    So I had a picture of two stereo speakers and a silent movie villain tying down the heroine between them. Surreal: you either get it or you don't. How do you caption that? Another in the series had a guy in his apartment conducting his imaginary orchestra in full Gerard Hoffnung style: orchestra; choir, military band; cannons - the lot. Each member of the orchestra had his own character and mannerism. And on the floor below, some old lady was banging on her ceiling with a broom. I just like surreal images. Or a comment on modern man. A Yahoo is sitting in a tree eating bananas. A Google is sitting on the ground using his Android wearing diapers. Another was Faith, Hope and Charity. The first was an old guy with a packet of Viagra. The second was his bored wife reading a Bodice Ripper novel. The last was a prostitute leaning against a lamp post. It was just captioned "The Three Virtuals".
    I did a joke about Windows 8. Highly detailed cathedral in correct perspective with a pulsating alien Blob on scaffolding and zombies walking around with USB ports in their heads. One reason why I like atmosphere is because I write plays and like to write and perform satirical sketches with silly Peter Sellers voices. Perhaps one of the problems is that I am a mad Brit.

  4. Some very interesting, in- depth observations on the frankly cut-throat world of satirical cartooning on this site..........your 'spike' cartoons have some sort of potential in my eyes and I am unable to fathom out exactly why you can't get at least one of these cartoons accepted: your efforts certainly seem as good as some of the contemporary successful (ie: in print) entries I have seen.

    How do you go about submitting work to the Eye? Do they look at e-mail attachments, or does it have to be a hard copy? I am interested because my own stuff is increasingly tweaked about wwithn the ccomputeand it's maybe a waste of time even submitting anything to them.

    Best of luck with your future Eye s7bmissions though.......they must surely recognize your stuff by now.

    Regards. Rab (cartoonist of sorts)

  5. Thanks for your kind words. I needed them, especially after a bad cartooning day yesterday (see yesterday's blog!).

    The Eye accept submissions via email but I think they must get many thousands each week. I wonder if it's not simply easier to look for other outlets, though the number of places accepting cartoons is dwindling rapidly. Too many newspapers/magazines/websites only print cartoons from 'readers' almost as a favour to them (see yesterday's blog post) and then only as a second-class alternative to Photoshopped pictures which they also print as a favour because the buggers will never pay for them lest they're seen as condoning copyright theft. The whole situation seems a mess, which is probably why the Eye is so hard to get into. Saying that, you'll probably do it with your first submission! Good luck! ;)

  6. Thanks, David, for your quick reply and I apologize for saying .Spike' instead of 'spine' and also for all my previous spelling errors......I am on holiday and have a tablet only for the internet which works great apart from itsy-bitsy lettering on the keypad.....I will revise this post before sending!

    I write cartoons all the time and also like yourself went through a long period of getting absolutely nothing accepted.......Michael Heath over at the Spectator declared he liked my style and accepted one pencil (which I duly inked and sent in) but alas no more was ever heard and I gave up after a mere 6 weeks or so.

    I have more luck as a mere commercial artist-cartoonist and sell logos and advertising works.....it's selling out but it does feel good getting paid for my cartoons!

    I have about 3 cartoon ideas I can't use anywhere else but may be Ok for the satire mags maybe I will try 3 more ideas.

  7. My ow cartoons are not especially satirical (although I am certainly capable of adapting to this drier style) however my stuff is undoubtedly cartoon, through and through:

    Cut and paste this for a look at my stuff if so inclined, David:

    Polarized opinions on polar bears: the ongoing saga of Baby Boomer

  8. Hell, that's a lot more successful than I've ever been. A positive from Michael Heath is a big thing, in my book. I spent about two months last year preparing cartoons for the Michael Heath Cartoon Competition and go nowhere. I think that was what last broke my spirit and I gave up. I'm only now slowly trying to get back into the game but when my confidence is low, I just have zero good ideas. It's a terrible self-perpetuating cycle.

  9. Really nice work. I can see why Health said he liked your style. Just had a look and I'm trying to figure out your technique. Is that pencil, then ink (dip pen?) and then Photoshop for the colour or are you using a airbrush and then PS touchup? I've abandoned ink in favour of a Samsung Note, which I adore using since I can make really clean lines, but I find it really difficult to get colour right. Tried Corel Painter but it's too slow... Not that I even want to use colour but I feel there's no choice given that everybody seems to ignore black and white cartoons.

  10. Absolutely spot on, David: I pencil in first then use dip-pen then scan the cartoon into a free colouring program called GIMP (it is easy to find online) that does about 90 per cent of what the expensive Photoshop does: quite a steep learning curve granted but after a frustating start it works fine for me and I sell stuff using this.

    Yes my stuff looks airbrushed.....that is the effect I am after but it is all done on GIMP!

    Anyway back to ideas.......I sent in batches of pencils to the Spectator and almost all got rejected.......today I would probably spend more time honing a good idea before submitting.....I also avoid wholly topical gags as 5hey date so rapidly, also others may submit a very similar proposal.

  11. I had a question to ask you but can't send you an email because your inbox is full. Thought you might like to know, just in case no work's coming in. ;)

    Never been able to use Gimp. Just drives me crazy with all the crazy controls. I'd much rather do everything on ArtFlow on my tablet. Makes like so much easier.

  12. I am off to delete/make space in my e- mail inbox right now, David so do send me your cartoon question later.

    Yes Gimp was very tricky when I started, more lke maths than artwork......I have the hang of it now though but yes it was a headache for the first few eeeks!

  13. I sent two emails and I still get an error message so I've also tried your other email on your blog. Fingers crossed.

  14. Hi there. Thanks for these posts and the cartoons. As an aspiring cartoonist myself I was wondering what the email address was for submissions to Private Eye. Thanks, Damon

  15. I've emailed the details. Good luck!

  16. hello David:

    I have just published a small article on submitting gags to the UK satire market, which may interest you:


    lots of stuff about the overall cartoon biz in there as well

    cheers! Rab

  17. Thanks Robert. Nice read and I agree with your conclusions. I think there's a generational problem with gag cartoons in many magazines. They're chosen by and appeal to a certain age and class of person and those they choose from the younger generation tend to be vulgar rather than clever.

  18. yes David, modern humour is more centred around shock humour but I reckon this eventually just becomes boring---when there are no tabboos left, where is there to go?

    Great blog, kep up the good work

    cheers Rob