Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Sparkling Strangeness

What strangeness. What sparkling strangeness…

My Sparks cartoon appeared on their Official Facebook page tonight.

This is me (holds up finger) passing this close to greatness (passes finger past nose). My nose isn't a great nose but for the purposes of this metaphor let’s imagine it is. It’s a monumental nose. It’s a nose that makes the best albums in the business and, when seen live, my nose is a revelation. In fact, I hope my noses plays Manchester soon so I can see it again.

Excuse this ramble but, if you follow this blog, you’ll know that last week was a bad week because of my elbow injury (the swelling is now almost down) but there were other things too grim to mention. You might say I was filled with momentary euphoria when I saw my doodle on the Facebook page of my favourite band. Hell, my work getting posed anywhere is remarkable. I remember when my book first appeared in bookshops; I’d just go into Manchester or Liverpool and look at it in utter bemusement. Mind you, when it was pulped, I also stood there looking at it in bemusement…

However, this Sparks boost was a great surprise. Last October, I’d been standing across the road from the HMV Ritz in Manchester, shivering as I waited for the coach replacing my cancelled train home. I could see Sparks fans waiting around the stage door. I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t have waited even thought I wanted to wait. It seems a strange thing to do: to annoy artists you admire by loitering and staring at them… And I say that as a man who wrote a book of spoof letters in which I annoyed artists I admire by writing them funny letters. Or I least I hope they found them funny. The best ones usually did. I’d written to Ron Mael about six months earlier and suggested they tour again. Some small part of me hoped I’d played my part in making it happen.

So, even if I hadn’t played a small part in making it happen, this cartoon gave me real pleasure. I’d drawn two strips based around Sparks and to have the first received so well filled me with confidence. Humour is a tricky venue to play, especially when you know that your humour is too warped for the mainstream, though I partially blame Sparks for that.

I remember Sparks from earliest childhood when I was too young to understand the music but Ron Mael’s glare would fascinate me equally as much as Russell’s missing tooth. I think even then my humour was warped. Or perhaps Sparks warped my humour. That’s something I’ve often considered. All I know is that I’ve always loved things that are left of centre. Cartooning, my heroes are the often incomprehensible B. Kliban, the I-dare-you-to-like-me Robert Crumb, and that wild visionary Ralph Steadman. My favourite books are the dense ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the second volume of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters. Films: Orson Welles’ ‘F for Fake’, Huston’s ‘Treasure of the Sierre Madre’, and Tony Hancock’s ‘The Rebel’ (which I maintain is *the* greatest movie about modern art ever made). Musically, it’s always been Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and Sparks…

So, I write this blog for myself like I write my books for myself, hoping to find others that like them. So, imagine my delight when I saw that my cartoon had made Spark’s Official Facebook page. My grin reached from ear to ear, taking two circuits around the living room in the process. People seemed to like the strip. I’m feeling really happy and then…

‘Am I the only one who doesn’t find this cartoon funny in the slightest?’

I paraphrase. I’m not going back to read that comment again. Just cue the mangled cry of the brass section falling down the stairs. Cue the comic slide whistle descending the depths of pathos.

Never ever look. Never read the praise. Never read the hate.

Hard lessons have taught me that. From my first absolutely stinking review on Amazon to snide comments to my work online, I’ve learned never to listen. When I was interviewed on Radio 4 last year, I never went back. Never listened to it. I don’t look back. I just move on. That’s my approach and why I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps I should try the Stuart Lee approach (and why I rate him as the finest stand-up in the business) which is to embrace the hate. Only, the problem with embracing the hate is that you really need to know you’re good in the first place to carry that off. My problem is that I feel that my cartoons are essentially worthless. Working class paranoia runs deep up here in the north and I find self-doubt the greatest obstacle when engaged in creative projects. Admitting you're a writer around here is like admitting to being a sheep strangler, something that's not encouraged and possibly illegal. So when the blank page faces me, it’s cruel. Marking it is a defiance and I will scribble something rather than face nothing. It’s the best way.

‘Am I the only one who doesn’t find this cartoon funny in the slightest?’

But that line lives with you before you pick up a pen or type a word.

‘Am I the only one who doesn’t find this cartoon funny in the slightest?’

The audience’s voice is always there in everything you do, ready to mock you for even trying to create something different, for simply trying to make people laugh and feel better...

‘Am I the only one who doesn’t find this cartoon funny in the slightest?’

Then I think: what would Hunter S. Thompson say.

And I think: fuck them. Fuck them in the desert where black ants can dance drunken Irish jigs on their shrivelled eyeballs. That’s probably what Hunter S. Thompson would have said but better than that, tapping deeper reserves of justifiable anger.

Because here’s the crux of the matter: there is more stupidity in the world than there is creativity.

Something happened to me a few months ago that puts it into context.

A friend teaches English Literature at a local comprehensive and one of her students needed help on an A Level project. It happened to be on the author I wrote about for my doctorate. I never have reason to use my PhD so I was delighted to write down some ideas about how to tackle the project. The suggestions were passed on. It felt like my ten years of university weren’t a total waste.

Fast forward two months. My friend mentioned the student so I asked how my advice has been received. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘they ignored your suggestions completely.’

‘Completely? You mean all of them?’

‘I know. She did something else. We couldn’t stop her, even though it didn’t make any sense…’

I shrugged but here’s the thing: when I got home that night, I actually went to my books and I researched the very thing I’d written down just in case I’d been wrong.

Of course, I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I was more right than I’d suspected and it was actually a pretty imaginative way of tacking the project. But after studying an author for ten years and having written a 100,000 word thesis, why did I think that I might have been wrong? Just because some vacant 16 year old, who couldn’t take her studies seriously, decided to take an easy option?

Then I realised it was just self-doubt, self-loathing… We all have it.

So, I’m writing this to myself as well as to anybody who creates and actually reads things like this ramble on the web. My advice to myself and to you: never listen to the critics. Never accept the praise. Ignore the scorn. Just write, draw, keep your head down. Produce. The poverty will get you long before the critics get to have a say.

Remember: the only thing that matters is the work. And occasionally getting your work on Spark's Official Facebook page. That makes it all feel almost worth it.



  1. enjoyed reading this, very sage advice, thank you :)

  2. And thank you for not being a SPAMbot! Glad you enjoyed my ramble. ;)

  3. Don't knock the SPAMbots! Sometimes they are the only commenters I get on my portfolio!

  4. Tell me about it. What's even sadder is I sometimes find myself answering them as though I have real friends... Those Russian SPAMBOTs can be so sexy...