Nigel Auchterlounie AKA Spleenal, is a cartoonist who has worked on everything from all-ages comics like Dennis the Menace to biting, one-page satirical strips that, when posted on Twitter, point out the inconsistencies and unfairness behind the policies and actions of our current coalition government. For Blank Slate Books, meanwhile, he has produced Spleenal and Weak As I Am. The former is a comedy, while the latter is his own unique take on the superhero genre.
I think he deserves more attention because he is, in my eyes, a pretty immense talent. I hope that you will check out his work after reading this interview (or even before!) via his blog and/or his Twitter feed.
Matt Badham: How did you get into comics?
Nigel: Well, I never got out of it. My earliest memory is of a “Barnaby Bear” strip from Pippin, the British version of the Colgarol 1970’s stop-motion cartoon. I think they used stills from the show to make a comic strip. My first regularly bought comic was Nutty (starring Bananaman).
Then there was 2000AD of course. All the time I was copying comic art. I really, really tried to draw Strontium Dog so many times. I’m still trying. After art college I was living in Brighton and found the small press scene, which I guess is the first time I did my own characters.
Matt Badham: When was that?
Nigel: Err… the late 1990’s. I did a few things for publisher Slab-O-Concrete. It was a good time for comics as people seemed to be searching out rare and weird zines instead of looking for a comic of a movie they’d seen.
Matt Badham: How did your work for DC Thomson come about?
Nigel: I’d moved to Newcastle because I fell in love with a Geordie. I started working for a company that made toys and figurines as a mould and model-maker (casting resin hard-copies). They had a toy range called The Bogies and they thought it would be cool to do an advert in a comic that also worked as a strip. They knew about my hobby so asked me.
I don’t know much about the deal, but I was drawing an advert in the Dandy. Those first strips were pretty badly drawn but everyone seemed impressed with the writing. I got better at drawing and the strip (advert) ended up lasting longer than the toy-range.
From that I was able to shoehorn a couple of my own things in. I ended up doing “Korky the Cat” in the last weekly Dandy, which I’m really proud of, but after that last issue there was a short period of time where I was thinking that was that. Then, out of the blue, DC Thomson got in touch and asked me if I wanted to write “Dennis the Menace”. I said yes.
30 years earlier I’d sent them a “Bananaman” strip (they told me to keep drawing), then 20 years earlier I sent them a better-drawn “Dennis the Menace” strip. I remember the letter back saying the story was very good. So I got [into comics professionally via] ‘stick-to-it-ness’.
Matt Badham: But you don’t just do all-ages work, of course… Please tell me about the more personal stuff you do.
Nigel: Becoming a father in 2000 really threw me for six and I stopped drawing for five years. I didn’t even put pen to paper. When I started drawing again I had to steal pencils and paper off my kid.
I’m an angry, grumpy bastard (more so 10 years ago) and I’d totally given up on getting published so started my Spleenal blog where I could ‘vent my spleen’. [The work was] badly drawn on purpose with loads of spelling mistakes (there still are) and blurry scans coloured with the free software you get with a scanner. It was meant to be the opposite of what gets published.
I’d totally given up. ‘F*** ’em all,’ I thought. I couldn’t help myself though and started trying to draw better and do longer stories. I think the pitch/mail I sent to Blank Slate Books was something like ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ and a link. I know it’s the shortest pitch they’d had at the time, but I couldn’t bear to put more into it for [what I assumed would be] another rejection.
So they published Spleenal.
Spleenal is two stories, a time-travel story and a sex-comedy. I think the sex-comedy story may have been me trying to have a mid-life crisis on the page instead of in real life. It’s 90% fiction… honest!
Matt Badham: It sounds like you’re compelled to make comics. Would that be an accurate statement?
Nigel: I’m compelled now because I have kids and it’s how I make my money. When I started after art college it was more because Gilbert Shelton wasn’t bringing out a Freak Brothers comic every month. In the time-travel half of the Spleenal book, my character even goes back to hang out with Gilbert.
I didn’t know what he looked like so I just drew Fat Freddy. I’m a huge fan, but I don’t care what he looks like or where he lives [or about his background generally]. I did regret my lack of research when I saw a picture of Gilbert on the Forbidden Planet International website with my book in front of him. I thought, ‘Urrrgh! He’s going to think ‘Looks nothing like me!’’
In my defence, I didn’t know Spleenal was going to get published!
I think for my personal stuff, I’m driven to write the stuff I would rather be buying. With Weak As I Am, [my inspiration was that] I like superhero movies and comics but they often go the same way. A bad guy turns up, some people die, the good guys fight back, stuff escalates until the good guys do something awesome and they win. So I started thinking, ‘What if the big massive CGI ending didn’t work and the bad guy survived? What if there was no way to win and if beating the bad guy actually made things worse?’
So if you read it there’s a big cool ‘ending’ but it’s half-way though.
I was also thinking a lot about my up-coming heart surgery, so that got mixed in there as well.
Matt Badham: Are comics an important medium? What benefits do you think they bring to readers, if any?
I think comics are important for the same reason some think they’re not. They’re quick and disposable or at least can be. Reading comics is reading. Instead of looking down their nose at comics, schools should be full of them. Start with wordless ones like Owly then ones with a couple of word balloons before moving on to ones with loads of writing in boxes and balloons. Have comics as well as prose books, not instead of.
I’m dyslexic. I didn’t know that until my youngest son was diagnosed and I had to say ‘Wait a minute! I do the same as him. I do that and that, and that’s what it’s like for me too!’ I still can’t spell eles or is it else? Which way round does that s and that e go!?! Back in school, I was labelled lazy because teachers could tell that I wasn’t stupid.
Comics are easier to read and it feels like you’re not really reading. Some look down on comics as the lowest form of literature. Good!
The “Dennis the Menace” I write is like me. He’s an undiagnosed dyslexic. A clever kid who can figure anything out, gets bored easily and doesn’t do well in school. And you can see that his dad is the same way.
Oh… and I’m compelled to do the political cartoons because, Jesus, what a screwed up load of bullshit that whole scene is!!!
Matt Badham: Are you an angry young man (or angry old man, perhaps, as I don’t know how old you are)?
I’m 42, so I don’t know if I’m old or not. Is 42 old? I feel younger since the NHS fixed my heart so I’m pretty pissed off with the Tories for what they’re doing to it. Don’t get me started on politics. Aw, crap! I have started. It was the rich and the powerful who screwed up the economy, so how come the poorest have to pay for their f***-up? And how are immigrants to blame for the average guy’s problems? Did an immigrant not provide enough social housing since the 1980’s meaning that everyone now has to pay way over the odds for housing? Or did an immigrant freeze everyone’s pay for a decade!?!
Matt Badham: Is there a danger with satire that it just defuses people’s anger rather than inspiring them to work for change? After all, laughter is cathartic…
Nigel: Yes. I think that’s true. Spitting Image was on all through the Thatcher years and Roger Law thinks now that it no effect or helped her stay. But what else can I do?
I think the best satire feels a bit like comedy but isn’t actually that funny. It should leave you angry, not laughing. Satire is tricky at the minute because the cruelty the government is giving out to some is almost cartoonish.
There was a guy whose work fitness test was stopped halfway through by a nurse because he was having a heart attack. They then stopped his benefits because he failed to complete the test. That kind of s*** is meant to be the stuff the satirist makes up but it really happened!
Matt Badham: Do you feel angry about your old school and the way they treated you?
Nigel: No. Dyslexia was a new concept back then. I just about managed to scrape a C in English. It didn’t stop me becoming a writer. In fact, if you’re dyslexic you should really become a writer as writers get proof-readers and editors. Other losers have to spell right. I once dumped 25 free pages of comic on my blog and I think the only comment I got was, ‘Laser is spelt with an S.’
That guy pissed me off.
Matt Badham: What’s next for Spleenal?
Nigel: I’ve no idea. There’s been no plan so far. I think Gilbert Shelton should write another Freak Brothers and Hunt Emerson should draw it, but that plan doesn’t involve me. I’d like to do something for Image or Boom or one of them. But I don’t know what. Some funny comics, probably. There should always be funny comics out there.