Thursday, 25 July 2013

So my heart sinks looking at a Private Eye cartoon

Spirits are so low today I’m finding it really difficult to get going. I’m wondering why I even bother drawing cartoons. In a way, it feels like my creativity is continually stifled. I started out, a number of years ago, writing novels and I would have had one published – a light-hearted satirical skit loosely based on Jacob Rees Mogg – if the publisher hadn’t been gobbled up by Harper Collins. I still write novels and have 90,000 unfinished words sitting here on this computer. Except I know there’s so little chance of getting anything published that I might as well dump the manuscript in the local canal, myself with it…

So I reduced the scale on my ambition. I wrote spoof letters and had one book published. I have a second book finished, even better than the first, but I can’t find a publisher interested...

So I reduced the scale of my ambitions again. I started to draw cartoons and comic strips, thinking if I condense my wit, I might have more chances to be published and earn some small income. Yet even that is proving fruitless. I submit cartoons to Private Eye and every one has been rejected.

It’s depressing but, as Tom Waits would say: ‘that’s the business we’re in’. Rejection is a chance to revise and edit. As Nietzsche puts it: 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' When I met Steadman, he said 'rework your failures'. Rejection should make me question my work. Are my cartoons funny enough? Are they drawn well enough? How can I improve? I ask myself all those questions daily. I struggle through doubt, confusion, and monstrous self-loathing. Why can’t I just find myself a humdrum job and be happy?

Yet the spirits are never more batter than when something like this happens.

Yesterday I bought Private Eye and I saw this cartoon on page 13.


And this is what I submitted to Private Eye back in the New Year when it was quickly rejected.


It’s the same joke done different ways, different styles, but that is always bound to happen when cartoonists address the same material and same ugly world. Was mine submitted first or second? I can’t tell. Is it better or worse? I guess it’s for others to judge. Mine is less 'on the nose', as they say, but perhaps too detailed for a single panel gag. All I know is that it again makes me wonder just why the hell I even bother getting up in the morning...


  1. I used to buy PE every week (and also New Scientist) but now I wouldn't wipe my arse on either of them - you shouldn't either...

    I recognise the style of their cartoon tho - a 'resident' cartoonist...?

  2. That’s the thing. I was brought up worshipping Peter Cook, Willy Rushton (whose autograph I have hanging over my desk as inspiration), John Wells, as well as obviously Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, who both worked for the Eye. I’ve read books about its history and since being a child I always wanted to write for them. It’s probably made me very cautious about what I say about the Eye in the past because I love what it was and what it stood for. It’s a very important part of our culture but one that sadly hasn’t moved with the times. I should also add that somebody at the publishers once told me that Ian Hislop liked my book…

    You say ‘resident’ cartoonist and I know what you mean. They have a stable of cartoonists who fill every issue and (if I’m honest) some are very mediocre. I really don’t ‘get’ the Modern Toss at all, though cartoonists like Tony Husband make the cover price almost value for money. Overall, it’s very much a very mixed bag. Some great things and some very poor things. I pretty much agree with what Harry Cole says here…

    I’m pretty tongue in cheek when I go on about my Private Eye rejections because I pretty much know that they’ll never publish any of my cartoons. I sometimes doubt if they even look at them. I just wish I lived in the age of Punch when I might even have stood a chance sending things to The New Yorker before that became invitation only to cartoonists.

  3. I used to love Punch soooooo much!

    Bill Tidy made great contributions there - I remember he was in New Scientist too... I distinctly remember a cartoon where a guy fishes some developed 35mm film from a polluted river and his mate comments how the chemicals in the river had developed it...

    ... "yes, but it was in the camera when it went in", he replies! :)

  4. Ah, yes... I used to love how Bill Tidy would just draw cartoons live on TV. It's something you so rarely see. He was of a tradition of cartooning which is unique to this country and unlike anything you get abroad where cartooning can sometimes seem too serious and less fun.

    Bill Stott is one of my favourites and very much in the same tradition as Tidy as well as being an extremely nice bloke too. I think I first came across his work in Punch which I'm too young to remember but I have the huge volume of collected cartoons. Wish they'd do with that what The New Yorker did and issue all the cartoons on CD-Rom.

  5. I'm not a gag cartoonist but my theory is to look at the gags you love and see how simply drawn they are.
    Speed is the most important tool to help deliver the joke. The brain wants to be caught as quick as possible.
    I think the crucial difference between the two bin gags is that you've given the readers' brain that extra second to have to work out/admire the perspective.
    Yet a straight forward front shot hits the retina quick, making the joke more instant with less work.
    As a fellow illustrator, I understand the urge to be creative but frustratingly, in cartooning, the most creative part is writing the gag.
    I really like the traffic cone gag. But the sky lines, horse shading and canon stop it having a sharper impact. Resist those artistic urges!

    Again, I'm really no expert but I stumbled onto your blog and thought I'd give my 2 pence to see if it helped. Keep spirits up and all the best!

    (Oh, I can say PE is much more welcoming to newbies than other publications I've worked for. Watch -

  6. (I should say that in that video, in the 7th minute, note how Ken Payne has all his detailed household background removed for the final printed version. And he's been at it since the 70's!)

  7. Well, this is quite the morning! A real reply from a new visitor and with genuine insight! I can’t thank you enough!

    I know exactly what you mean and it’s a suspicion I’ve had myself. Hearing it from somebody makes the difference, though. I can see I’ll have to reassess my approach. You’re right, of course. My problem is that having had zero training, I’ve been trying to teach myself to draw as well as to write the gags, so I’ve probably been putting in too much effort. I've recently been looking at Kliban's cartoons (again) and thinking about that minimalist style. Of course, I’ll now have to figure out how to pull it back and simplify my own style and I’ll certainly give it a go. Watch this space!

    Yes, in my frustration I’m probably a bit harsh on PE who are indeed more welcoming than other places I’ve heard about. However, being a long time PE reader, I do notice that the majority of the cartoons are by established names and, IMHO, a few every issue are pretty poor. Breaking in is probably very difficult and I’ve heard that from other cartoonists who have broken through.

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback and I hope you’ll come back. Your input was very refreshing and welcome.

  8. LOL. Just looked at your website and I see you've worked for PE (and there you are sounding so humble!). Not that it makes a difference to how I was going to respond to your advice. I'm so glad that a real illustrator is giving me tips!

    Thanks for the link. I've already watched that video a thousand times. I have it saved on my home network and I've studied it in such fine detail that I can probably tell you the contents of all the drawers they open. Seeing all the changes in whiteout and paper was one of those slap the head moments for me and helped my workflow enormously.

    I guess my heart is actually in the drawing which I find difficult, not the gags which I find easy. I adore Crumb who I (quite obviously) studied as I was learning my technique, though my gags are more like Klibian. Perhaps the two don't go together. I'll sit down this afternoon and I'll try to do something different and see how the result turns out.

    Thanks again! ;)

  9. No problem.
    I also like to look at it this way:
    If I was publishing my own magazine and I had a bunch of my favorite creators that kept sending me work, it would be natural to keep wanting to use them. And it would be my right as the publisher to do so.
    I think everybody would do the same.
    But from our side of the non-publishing fence, it hurts a little.

    Also, a little something to lighten the subject.

    All the best.

  10. I guess/know you're right and who am I to complain? And yes, it hurts but I'm used to the hurt. My history of rejection is worthy of book and I don't just mean cartoons.

    If you detect anything on this blog recently, it's a deeper frustration with the world. The lack of any feedback from *anywhere* has been getting me down: agents, publishers, newspapers, magazines, websites, even applications for jobs so far below my qualifications that I begin to question my sanity for applying for them... That's why your advice is so welcome. It gives me something to act on. It should help me to improve. Even a minor success would give me confidence.

    Love that cartoon and a great website, though I see they've sadly been forced to remove one of the greatest letter of all time.

  11. PS. Consider your blog added to the blogroll so I can always pester you in your virtual space... ;)

  12. [...] a different post, a different David kindly offered some cartooning tips to this David. The main suggestion was that [...]

  13. As least we can do something that makes us happy, a personal ink history if you like, so for now let's put the rejection down to history. I wouldn't redraw my ideas, keep doing what motivates you and one day your dawn will come.

    I too submit cartoons to PE and haven't been successful yet but doesn't stop me from drawing and trying other avenues. I wonder if most cartoonists take a pessimistic view, perhaps its why we draw. The challenge is the commission, because we need bucks to spend more time doing something thatm matters more. My advice, keep drawing, bank your hours of creativity, its important to you so keep drawing what you want to draw.

    Good luck.

  14. Possibly the best advice I've had. Of course, we all doubt ourselves and rejections feed into that. I was lucky to hear Tony Husband talk about the advice Bill Tidy gave him and that was "be different". Made me stop and think. There is not right way and the only important thing is to covey the messages you need to convey. Be true to yourself, I guess, which is what you're saying. So, good luck. I hope one of us make it to the summit. ;)

  15. There is a difference between your Private Eye cartoon and the one that got accepted. It's similar to telling a joke. In my opinion less is more. Allow the viewer to make the connection, round the circle don't spell it out. The Cluff cartoon has a surreal image a big bin which doesn't make sense and then we read the punchline which explains it all. However the punchline could be more succinct. Your cartoon gives the game away too early - you've telegraphed the joke.

    Matt did a similar joke. Two men drinking in a bar and they both have 5 foot tall glasses of wine. The punchline is "I never have more than one glass". Again puzzling image contrasts with the punchline explanation.

    I don't think your drawing style is the problem although I think any style that is too laboured can kill the joke.

    Finally you should be your favourite cartoonist. Meaning you should do cartoons to make you laugh - chances are other people will find them funny too. And what's great about this approach you still get satisfaction if no one publishes your work.

    The next time you submit a joke to Private Eye why not publish it on here first and see if we can improve it. I think that's called Crowdsourcing.

  16. You're not the first person to tell me my style is my problem. The difficult of that is that my style is my style. I started out as a writer, who quite enjoyed making Photoshop images but always wanted to draw. So I began to teach myself and I now draw how I enjoy drawing cartoons, how my drawing has evolved from a point of being unable to draw anything to being able to draw how I now draw. I don't think of it as 'I'll draw this way'. I draw the only way I know how to draw. I think I'd need at least a year to train myself from drawing like this to drawing some other way. I tried being more like Tony Husband, whose cartoons I enjoy, but it's so difficult and I hate everything I produce when drawing that way.

    I agree about drawing like your favourite cartoonist. Unfortunately my favourite cartoonists (visually) are Steadman, Searle and Crumb, all three of whom you just can't imitate, though I think my style is too sub-Crumbish for its own good. My favourite gag cartoonists are B.Kliban and Bill Stott who, I think, are where I like to be in terms of my humour.

    I have done private blogs for my cartoons, since I never want to publish things publically. Perhaps I should do it again now I'm finding more time to get back to my gag drawing.

  17. Do you realise the illustrator that does all the covers of This Week used to be a journalist. He looks like a self taught artist.

  18. Do you mean Howard McWilliam? Yes, I love his work but didn't know he was a originally a journalist. His style is a brilliant combination of digital and traditional.

  19. Yes Howard McWilliams – here is a link to his background . This probably explains how he's got the regular spot doing the covers for This Week. Nepotism is the way of the world. Matt wouldn't have a career if his father didn't write a regular column for The Telegraph. A swap deal was done when Richard Ingrams's son Fred worked for Punch and the daughter of Punch's editor worked for Private Eye.

  20. Bloody hell... I never knew any of that, which is deeply depressing.

    I quite like Matt and I admire how little he does to such big effect. However, I'm not sure I'd actually enjoy drawing like that but, perhaps, that's the thing about minimalism. It takes a lot of effort to make so little work.

  21. Matt's figures are more or less icons. I know from personal experience he can draw or he used to be able to. When he refined his cartoon style he removed more and more of his drawing skill which must of been traumatic. He was throwing 4 years at art school in the bin. However he ended up with something that worked in that small rectangle in The Telegraph. You might well have to compartmentalise your work. You might have to be brutal and eliminate elements that are getting in the way of the message. It would be great to tick all the boxes of personal satisfaction in one drawing style but you'll be lucky if you got it to work.

  22. Yes, I watched a video the Telegraph did last year about Matt's work and it was really interesting watch him use a cutout to limit himself to a small patch of paper. What I like about Matt's style is what I love about Al Hirschfeld's caricatures: they work because they're so simple. They might only draw a few lines but what lines they choose to draw!

    To be honest, I've probably been a bit naive about my attitude towards cartoons; a little too involved in what I like myself. I should compartmentalise and I haven't. However, I've been doodling tonight and have a cartoon I might post tomorrow. My brain is worn out and I've been busy writing computer code for so long that I relish the chance to spend some time just cartooning and perhaps now is the right time to try to work simpler. I'll give it a try starting tomorrow. ;)

  23. […] my head, last night, when I fell asleep. When I awoke I tried to relax by drawing a cartoon. Taking the encouragement of Ben as my starting point, I thought I’d try to change my style. I can’t honestly say I […]

  24. You got screwed bud, it looks like they took your idea and gave it to the resident cartoonist. Shameless. I would submit somewhere else, maybe even a different country's magazine, digital age and all that? Then when established reapply.

  25. LOL. Thank you, Sam. I'm delighted to find somebody who shares my deeply cynical outlook on the world. The problem, of course, is that there are very few magazines which take cartoons. Hmmm... Makes me think that I should perhaps start to compile a list...

  26. Hi David I share your frustrations, I too have had rejections from PE, the thing is if I'm honest I don't think they were good enough by far. I've just sent them in a couple of new ones which are much better but I still feel doubtful that they'll be published. I was published in Viz last year and really want to crack the Eye next but it's tough. PE humour is very clever, the humour quite sophisticated, I agree with the gent who said less is more, I've always thought the funniest cartoons are ones where the drawing is very basic. Complicated art detracts from the joke! Typical, I'm into detailed art too and struggle with this. I also worry my ideas could be stolen. I'm sure that's happened to me before. Keep going, I'm sure you'll break through in the end. I like your attitude, the pessimism! I'm the same. Sometimes this feels like the loneliest proffession in the world. It's hard not to turn to the bottle lol. You draw well, I can see the Crumb influence. Do you send your stuff into PE by post or email?

  27. Thanks Danny. To be honest, I haven't sent so much lately. Just don't see the point. I agree with the things said but it's easy to get lost in the maze of advice and counter advice. I listened to people and after a while I looked at the work I was doing and thought: I've stopped having fun. I was trying to be a middle class guy in his 60s who used to work for Punch and has a very specific outlook on life. In other words, I wasn't being me. I was trying to be those great cartoonists who publish in Private Eye every single week but who are very different to me. I was also hating the work of cartooning and the cartoons I was drawing. For me the pleasure was in coming up with really weird cartoons but I ended up drawing cartoons which were derivative of what's in The Eye.

    Oddly enough, I'm currently working on some new cartoons which are 100% me and which I'm thinking of sending somewhere, perhaps even The Eye. They probably won't get published but my humour is strange. People either love it or they hate it. But I think it's too easy to get depressed by rejection. I never started to cartoon because I wanted to be published in the Eye. I wanted to be published in the Eye because they have great cartoons. If they don't like my stuff then there's not much I can do. I've come to the conclusion that the important thing is to keep going and stay loyal to yourself. And stick with the detail. The great Martin Honeysett (who sadly passed away recently) was all about the detail and he was a Private Eye staple.

  28. It is indeed a tough market out there and I too have turned to writing as well as cartoons, and this seems just as tough a nut to crack as cartoons.

    Although I have had sucess over the years in comics and spot gags, my thoughts on Private Eye is this: Like most editors they have their favourites and tend to read them first and pick from that batch. If they happen to make their quota up this way then everything else gets rejected. But if, however, their usual favourites fail to hit the mark then the also rans (that's you and me and others like us) get a look in.

    Now I'm not saying this is definitely how it happens, but logic and human nature would dictate that there's probably a lot to what I'm saying, especially seeing as how they probably get a few hundred submissions every week and using this method, although sloppy and lazy, is definitely an easier route, especially for them.

    Anyway, that aside, keep on trying and keep growing your market; try cartoonstock and sites like that. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A&C Black) have a good section on magazines that take cartoons

    Best of luck


  29. Hiya, I found you when googling "how many cartoons get sent in to Private Eye each week". They've accepted a grand total of five off me, out of about 25 sent. There's one in this week's issue (1399). I was confident about only one of the drawings that they chose - the others they chose I thought were the weakest ones. The ones I thought were screamers got knocked back!!!

  30. Well, congratulations! I'd deeply envious. It proves they do accept cartoons. Perhaps I should wait until I have 25 new cartoons and then send the lot!

  31. I was just wondering - is there a stock response they send for people they're saying no to for cartoons? Just got a fairly short no today from them.

  32. It's a stock response and I wouldn't read anything into how terse it is. Usually it's something like 'Editor say sorry not to use'. However, they usually reply quite quickly and they always reply, which is more than I can say about some magazines!

  33. I just came across this blog, and as a regular Eye cartoonist - people who work for Private Eye call it The Eye, so we get to feel nice and cliquey - here are a few tips, although I really shouldn't encourage competition...
    What Ian Hislop looks for is the joke. He's not interested in how well, or badly, you draw. Send five or six of your best ideas, just drawn roughly and simply, at a time. If they're topical, send them as near to press day(every other Monday) as possible. Otherwise, send them at about the time that the new issue hits the street. Don't be discouraged, try and get into the habit of sending a few every two weeks. If they're emailed, send them as a PDF. You can also fax ideas, or post them if they're not particularly topical. All contact information is in the magazine. For your information, none of the regulars ever nick other people's ideas, they wouldn't even see them, as we all work from home or a studio. And yes, Bill Stott is a great bloke, as well as being the chair of the Professional Cartoonists Organisation.

  34. Further to what Andrew Birch just said, I sent an idea for a series of small cartoons to 'The Eye' a few years ago and it got used. I was asked to draw the cartoons but I can't draw, so they asked if I knew anyone who could. An art student drew one for me but even I could see it was much too ornate, so they gave it to Neil Bennett to do, who was excellent (not surprisingly). I got half the fee and a joint credit for each idea used in the series.

    I've sent in other stuff that was rejected though - such is life...

    So it seems that the core gag is the crucial thing, and then the drawing.

  35. It is frustrating, but I doubt you have been victimised. The 'Eye' would not hand your idea to one of their regular contributors.
    Sometimes, people just have the same idea for a gag. I too submitted a similar big wheelie bin joke and it was rejected. Often it is a matter of wrong timing, you can submit a joke too early.
    Not wishing to criticise your drawing, but the perspective is the wrong one to chose. If you want to portray the bin as very tall, it would be better to draw it at eye level looking upwards. If you wanted to show the Eifel Tower as big, you woyldn't draw it from the top.
    The 'Eye' have regular contributors, some of whom have been submitting work for over 50 years (Bill Tidy, Ed McLachlan, Ken Pyne, Kathryn Lamb) and it can seem like impossible to break into that clich. But it can be done. They do seem to have their favourites, but you must percievere and not take setbacks personally.

  36. […] blog post I wish I could unpublish is one I wrote about Private Eye. I’ve not bothered sending cartoons to Private Eye in a very long time but I feel slightly […]

  37. Thanks Dave. You have to forgive this blog post. Sometimes my blog is just me griping. It's sometimes hard to remember that it faces out to the world and it can seem to be more 'published' than it really is.

    You're probably right about my style but, really, cartooning is more of an adjacent and recently learned skill rather than my reason for being. I get better with each year and at some point I'll probably try again. I should also probably unpublish this blog post. It probably doesn't do me any justice. Merely a bad mood one day some years ago.

    Merry Christmas! ;o)

  38. Dear Spencer,

    I think I saw a cartoon of yours published in last week's Private Eye (1415). Just wondering if there was anyway to get a copy, as it made me laugh?

    Many Thanks,