Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Michael Heath Cartoon Competition

Well, it’s the last day of October and the closing date of the Michael Heath Cartoon Competition over at The Spectator.

When a friend emailed me back in September to make me aware of the competition, little did I expect it to take over my life. Naturally, since I’m trying to catch a break in the hard world of gag cartooning, the last few weeks have been characterised by my riding around town muttering ‘man in motion, man in motion’ and standing at the Tesco checkout whispering ‘man in motion, man in motion…’ Last thing at night my prayer was ‘man in motion’ and then again first thing in the morning. I have a Word document now filled with a few thousand words of finished man-in-motion gags, half-finished man-in-motion ideas, and hundreds of going-nowhere man-in-motion thoughts.

What’s worse: for once I don’t overstate any of this for comic effect.

When The Spectator holds a cartoon contest, cartoonists across the country probably sit up like hungry meerkats smelling rain after a parched summer. The Spectator remains one of the last great homes for gag cartoons. In many respects, it’s Britain’s New Yorker but with the added kudos that comes from being the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language.

Then there’s the name attached to the competition: that alone is enough to set off the Pavlovian drooling. No name has dominated English cartooning over the past half a century quite like that of ‘HEATH’. When I first started to take cartooning seriously, I quickly noticed that Michael Heath’s work set a tone quite different to the usual world of middle-class mores.


I’ve spoken before about how difficult it is to cartoon about the real world rather than the imagined world. Even the process of learning to draw cartoon faces is more technical than it is observational. You learn the shapes and the shortcuts but they don’t necessarily convey anything meaningful about your characters. Recently, I’ve even taken to taking photographs around my town to build up a collection of faces I can use that aren’t simply versions of faces I’ve subconsciously remembered from all the cartoons I’ve studied.


Faces are very different in a working class town such as my own. They fold in different places, probably due to bad teeth, bad lifestyles, the weight of the world exerting different pressures. I think Michael Heath was the first cartoonist I saw who had recognisably broken away from the rather staid tradition of cartooning in which the middle classes predominately figured. One of B. Kliban’s best qualities was his depictions of bluecollar America but Heath looks for and finds the same rich ugliness in the British culture, unlike the majority of English cartoonists at the time who either look to their own lives or tried to illustrate the lives of their newspaper’s audience. Class has recently started to fascinate me for a number fo reasons. Listening to Billy Tidy talk a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much his Cloggies were a fictional Northern working class created to entertain the largely middle class audience for cartoons. Standing in a gallery in Manchester watching rich folk laugh at cartoons about ale-drinking working men, I was trying to figure out this dynamic. Heath, in contrast, draws ugly versions of the working man yet he doesn’t simply resort to caricatures. It means that sometimes the figures are as meaningful as the gag. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the work of a cartoonist such as Stan McMurtry but he draws largely sympathetic figures (right), reminiscent of the sublime Ronald Searle’s long-nosed businessmen and ex-Trinian women. Mac’s cleaning women and ordinary punters are shorthand versions of the working class. Even when he draws thugs they tend to be recognisable grotesques who are lovable for being that.

Given such pedigree, this was obviously the kind of competition I knew I had to enter. They come along too rarely and I wanted to send the very best gags I could think up. Had I not been distracted by this new job I might have had better final selection to choose from but, then again, I might not. It’s not been an easy month.

The theme, in case you hadn’t picked it up before my slight digression into representations of class in contemporary cartooning, was ‘man in motion’, which sounds like it would be a generously broad and fertile subject. However, after weeks of trying to think up gags about ‘man in motion’, I came to the conclusion that it was a theme fiendishly chosen. Most cartoons are about the opposite of motion. Cartoons are by their very nature a static medium but this is especially true of gag cartoons. Many of the standard cartoon jokes are based around frozen moments of time, such as this beautifully understated gag from Gahan Wilson which I just happened to be looking at earlier today.


Most cartoons usually involve at least one person standing or sitting quite still as they watch another involved in some memorable event. Cartoons are the business of the man dressed as a traffic warden on the comically small desert island, the wife watching TV as her short-sighted husband kisses the coat rack, the conversation over the back fence as a shark swims in the ornamental pool. I can't say that motion figures much in the kind of strange offbeat cartoons that I really enjoy drawing, such as this, this, this, and, of course, this.

That’s not to say that cartoonists never exploit motion. There are some great examples of motion in cartoons but I suspect they are the exception, not the rule. For example, The New Yorker printed this classic by Jack Ziegler.


I had ‘Superman’ written all over my notepad for a month but I never thought of anything this good. This is brilliant because it’s obvious yet not so obvious. In many ways, that’s what defines the really great cartoons. They’re palm-of-your-hand-to-your-forehead obvious as well as laugh-out-loud funny.

Now the competition is finished, I can retire my list of man-in-motion ideas, perhaps salvage the better gags and append them to my enormous general ‘cartoon ideas’ Word document. Last night I opened that up for the first time in weeks and I sat down with blank sheets of paper and started to draw cartoons without a theme. It was hard not to think motion. It might take me weeks to get out of the habit. In the meantime, here’s the first draft of the very first cartoon I drew for the 'Man in Motion' competition and I think it was probably the worst to reach this stage. It never made the first cut and I never worked to improve it, probably because it's only funny to me. Probably because it's all about me and my current preoccupations.


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