Cartoonist Kev F. Sutherland dutifully tries to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear on The Apprentice

In Review: The Apprentice does Comics… Badly

Cartoonist Kev F. Sutherland dutifully tries to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear on The Apprentice
Cartoonist Kev F. Sutherland dutifully tries to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear on The Apprentice

A fleet of four black cars, sixteen wheelie suitcases, early morning phone calls and a bunch of bold claims. If downthetubes is covering this show, it can only mean one thing… over on The Apprentice, they tried making some comics. And they did – but oh, dear, what a disaster…

The Apprentice is back on the BBC “bigger and better than ever”, it’s claimed , exposing once again how little sixteen budding entrepreneurs know about the task presented to them, and how vicious some people can be towards each other when backed into a corner by when – in this show’s case, Lord Alan Sugar, Baroness Brady and Claude Littner – their failures are exposed.

The Apprentice operates to a well-worn formula to many a tv show these days, from baking biscuits and strictly dancing to dating and running a farm, with one “winner” after XX Number of episodes. The British public in general seems to delight in seeing people squirm; and there seems no shortage of candidates prepared to sacrifice themselves to potential ridicule in the hope of huge reward.

In the case of The Apprentice, the rewards are, potentially, massive, of course. Over the past seven years, Lord Sugar has invested a staggering £2m into eight fledgling businesses. Last year’s saw him partner with both finalists, each receiving a £250,000 investment, proves that anything can happen in the boardroom.

Every week, in case you’re unfamiliar with The Apprentice, the candidates to be Lord Sugar’s apprentice get assigned a task they need to complete at breakneck speed, presumably to minimise the costs of making the show and save on the number of hours of recording of privileged wingeing the long-suffering production staff at makes Boundless have to plough through in the edit, for the sake of their own sanity.

Last night’s task for Team Boy and Team Girl was to create a new comic character and associated comic that would both educate and entertain in just two days, aided in their task by comic creators and other creatives who did what they were told, with no on screen credit during the show or in post.

(In that, The Apprentice proved exactly like the comics industry up until a few years ago, when no-one’s name, other than the publisher, featured in a comic. For the record, we saw, briefly among others, Nigel Auchterlounie, Emily McGorman Bruce and Kev F Sutherland, who’s sideways look of despair at the camera pretty much said it all about Team Boy’s appalling superhero Benji ).

Khadija Kalifa, whose management style was compared to Kim Jong-un . She didn't know who he was. Image: BBC/BBC Studios
Khadija Kalifa, whose management style was compared to Kim Jong-un . She didn’t know who he was. Image: BBC/BBC Studios

Led by Khadija Kalifa, the no nonsense owner of Eco Cleaning Company, Team Girl won the challenge with their rapping globe trotter character M.C Gogo (sic), incredibly gaining potential orders from WHSmith for 10,000 copies of a comic that aimed to educate and entertain, referencing French, a language it turned out none of the team spoke.

Frank Brooks led Team Boy to comics disaster, but it wasn't funny. Image: BBC/BBC Studios
Frank Brooks led Team Boy to comics disaster, but it wasn’t funny. Image: BBC/BBC Studios

Senior Marketing Manager Frank Brooks led Team Boy to unmitigated disaster with a stale superhero concept that even most of his team didn’t believe in, but seemed unable to persuade him from a route that almost saw him fired.

(If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil it for you, but I have no idea how he avoided it).

For me, what was horrifying about the transmitted episode was not the on screen battles between candidates, or the sheer awfulness of their character ideas. It was the message the show sent out about the comics industry itself, belittling the actual work that goes into creation of a new comic character and series at most publishers, the time it takes to create a comic, and how little regard the candidates had for their target audience, eight to twelve year old kids – after the comic had been printed.

I’ve been involved in the creation of an audio-enhanced comic at breakneck speed, drawn by Andrew Chiu in under a week, that included an audio soundtrack – a pitch to Kanye West, no less, although I never met him. (The expletives in response to the deadlines were pretty blue). It can be done – but it’s not an ideal way to create a comic, and the rush to create M.C Gogo (sic) and Benji simply confirmed you need a little more thinking time than the candidates got.

At Marvel UK, for example, Paul Neary and a title’s editor, together with the writer and artist  spent weeks developing the concepts for any new characters, and I’m pretty sure Paul had been thinking ideas through for Genesis 1992 for much longer. Racing into a comics project is dumb, but that didn’t seem to bother the show makers whose message appeared to be that this is how all comics are created. Anyone watching any recent news item about Beano Studios, where some scenes were filmed, knows this is simply not the case.

Even more shocking was Lord Sugar’s pronouncement that the Augmented Reality aspect of the comic covers was one of the most important things about the project, although he was clear how bad the derivative superhero story Team Boy came up with, too.

Worse yet, however, was that given awfulness of the realisation of both characters, for all the hard work put in by the uncredited comic creators who actually drew them, was that neither team seemed prepared to listen to distributors comments… but quite why WHSmith took orders for 10,000 copies of M.C Gogo (sic), despite its weaknesses, without their usual demands for a cover mount, TV support or promotional plan, says more about WHSmith quality control and their desire, perhaps, for a bit of good publicity, than I shudder to think.

(If there was stuff left on the cutting room floor, I’m assuming it’s the ribald laughter at the ideas after the candidates left the room at distributors Seymour and online subscription house Magazine.co.uk. They, at least had the temerity to tell the candidates what was wrong with their ideas).

Where were the industry statistics The Apprentice used to be peppered with, beyond revealing that worldwide the comic industry is worth over a billion. There were, none, and yet in asking the candidates to educate and entertain, this latest series sadly seems fixated on the latter rather than the former, which is truly disappointing. Perhaps, like the candidates, someone failed to do any research into the business the episode was focused on.

Were there any pluses to watching The Apprentice dip its well-manicured toes into the comics industry? Well, it was worth it for that sideways look of despair mentioned above from Kev F Sutherland, currently in Denmark with the Falsetto Sock Company and still unaware he’s suddenly a bit more famous than he was since his last TV appearance, robustly defending the rebranding of Dennis the Menace to just “Dennis” on Sky News at Christmas. And I definitely want to visit the House of Illustration in London, where the show opened, because it looks amazing, even if it isn’t, as claimed, the only dedicated space in the UK to illustration art.

The Apprentice - Lord Sugar Comic by Nigel ParkinsonOh, and the Augmented Reality Lord Sugar comic was rather fun. But I’m afraid I can’t tell you who created it, because they didn’t get a credit*.

Will I be watching the rest of the series? Find out next week… or not.

  • * It was only top Beano artist Nigel Parkinson! Sheesh!

ADDITIONAL INPUT: Over on the Comic Scene magazine page on Facebook, independent Comics Publisher Steve Tanner of Time Bomb Comics notes he enjoyed the show immensely, but he’s always watching it with a real awareness of how much of it is steered by the production team.

“They provided as much fact and acknowledgement to the industry as they do to every industry thrown at the candidates to be honest,” he notes. “The comics produced were exactly what you would expect to be produced in 48 hours from concept to publication, by folk who don’t understand the industry and who are not allowed to consult the internet or industry experts to gain any insight.

“It’s the formula of the show – whatever is produced by the teams is always pretty diabolical week on week. What’s important though is that it’s always the candidates who appear lacking, not the industry around which that week’s task is centred.

“They can’t use the internet, they can’t travel round London by anything other than those black cars, they can’t seek guidance before they start. It’s why any consumer feedback is only solicited after the produce has been made – too late to change it then. None of the tasks can be achieved properly in the time given with the resources available.”

• The Apprentice is airing on BBC One at 9pm weekly on Wednesdays and available live and on-demand on BBC iPlayer

• Comedian Rhod Gilbert is hosting The Apprentice: You’re Fired, analysing each week’s events at 10pm on BBC Two, immediately after the main show. Joining Rhod each week will be a panel of business professionals and celebrity fans, sharing their opinions on the highs and lows of each task

The official website for The Apprentice hosts additional content. Fans can also find all the latest Apprentice news on Facebook and Twitter, and share their views with #TheApprentice

The Apprentice is a Boundless production for BBC One. Paul Broadbent and Paula Fasht are Executive Producers; Cal Turner is Head of Popular Factual for Boundless; Neil Smith is MD for Boundless; Sarah Clay is Commissioning Editor for the BBC

All images © BBC/ BBC Studios

Published by

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", working as an editor, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years. His credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel UK and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines. He also edited STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics, including Team M.O.B.I.L.E. and The Beatles Story. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare” for Tian Books. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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