An interview with cartoonist Jacky Fleming
Jacky Fleming’s illustrations and cartoons have regularly featured in The Guardian, Big Issue, New Statesman & Society and Independent on Sunday amongst many other publications, books of her cartoons published by Penguin and her work exhibited far and wide. She kindly agreed to an email interview for the We are OCA blog.
Did you always want to be a cartoonist and illustrator? And who has influenced you along the way?
I was only interested in drawing. I drew all the time, but didn’t think as far as a career. My dad once looked at a page of sketches and said ‘I think you could make a career out of this’. I had no idea what he was talking about. We had Ronald Searle’s St Trinians on the bookshelf, which I stared at a lot, mainly because the girls smoked, drank, looked frightful, and killed people. Then I came across John Glashan and was totally absorbed by his use of ink to convey power and wealth, usually through architecture, and tiny insignificant people overwhelmed by it. I must look at his work again.
What was your learning journey? Did you attend art college, were you self taught and what/who really helped you develop your way of working?
I did a foundation year at Chelsea, where I discovered posh kids for the first time, with their mysterious self confidence. I also learnt how overtly sexist male tutors could be, without anyone appearing to notice. It was like the elephant in the room. I was more interested in life painting during that year, because people were paid to sit still for us, which is a great luxury. I had a university fine art place waiting, or I’d still be life painting. At university I learnt the ways in which women were excluded from art practice, and from art history. The women who had managed to become professional artists were missing from the books we regarded as authoritative, but of course you’d never know that unless someone told you. Once you get that, it changes everything, forever, and not only with regard to women. You stop believing what ‘experts’ tell you, and start finding out for yourself. Cartoons became a better medium for communicating my preoccupations than painting, although my technique was dire, and there was no-one to offer advice. It didn’t stop me, but it was endlessly frustrating trying to make my weird drawings look competent. In the end I stopped trying and just aimed to make them funny and true.
Your cartoons cast a humorous and insightful eye on the day to day details of women’s experiences. How important has feminism and gender politics been to developing your work and has this thrown up any obstacles?
You could say gender politics was fundamental to my work, or you could say this it what it looks like from where I’m standing. Drawing has been the only way I could address the areas of my life which made me too angry to articulate. Because cartooning is a very disciplined process of distillation, it involves unraveling to the core what has made your blood boil. That doesn’t mean you know what the result will be, but it does mean you can’t stop until you’ve arrived at it. It’s an almost scientific application of logic, in order to rubbish something which passes for normal, and reach something which everyone knows is true. Emperor’s New Clothes. I didn’t realise how radical it would be, seeing things through female eyes, so it was a surprise to me how shocking some people found them. They’re not so shocking now. I don’t think it created obstacles, because on the whole women are desperate for something we can identify with. A particularly anti-feminist reviewer of an exhibition of political art at the Barbican left me out of his article altogether – I suppose becoming invisible was a bit of an obstacle for anyone who wanted to know what was on at that show, but I drew cartoons about him later on.
There seems to be an abundance of illustrations and cartoons around today from fanzines to graphic novels, t-shirt designs to internet animations; what’s been catching your eye?
Anything which manages to be funny and clever catches my eye because I know how hard it is to do that – in any medium. Douglas Adams who wrote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said writing’s easy – all you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds. I wrote to him asking what you do next, but he didn’t answer.
I’m still more amazed by Winsor McCay‘s obsessive drawings for Little Nemo, a comic strip which ran from 1905 to 1911, than by a lot of contemporary stuff. Robert Crumb could do it on drugs, but Winsor McCay did it without. He began as a circus poster artist, which is clearly present in his comic strips. His influence permeates so much familiar drawing – Maurice Sendak‘s illustrations are full of references to McCay. I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for the Simon’s Cat animations, because of their simplicity and truthfulness. They are a lesson in pure observation and accuracy. Interestingly, they don’t work as books, even though the popularity of the animations, first seen on youtube, made the bookdeals hugely lucrative, so I don’t suppose he cares. Simone Lia‘s graphic novel ‘Fluffy’ is far stranger than you think it’s going to be from the cutsie title. Joann Sfar‘s graphic novels are like watching a child making up a very long story on their own – his pleasure in doing it is the story, and everything he loves from the culture he grew up in is in there.
Has anyone ever taken offense to your work?
I hope so, or I’m not doing my job. One women told me her fella wouldn’t allow it in the house, which I thought said more about him, than about my work. More recently a lobbyist for the financial and property sector in London complained about my weekly cartoon. If you draw for a paper, there’s often an awkward balance to be struck between what you want to say, and what people paying will print. Some artists find a vehicle for saying things obliquely through satire, or find other outlets where they aren’t so constrained. There’s a history of left wing cartoonists drawing for rightwing press. Giles used to sneak things into his drawings, so the editor would study them through a magnifying glass before giving them the go ahead. It’s not my intention to give offence without being funny, but I don’t always succeed. Without the humour the drawing doesn’t work – and gender politics without humour just provides ammunition to the other side, so we’re honour bound to at least try and make it funny.
What attracted you to the postcard as a form for your work?
One of the big advantages of producing postcards is that you aren’t accountable to anyone else in that distorting ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ way. You are the artist, editor, and publisher, so you can say what you want, without interference. They’re cheap, they can travel, and they last years stuck on the wall, so postcards are effective for communicating in an accessible format. But not so good for earning a living. You can earn a living from greetings cards but that’s another ballgame altogether. Another reason for choosing cartoons, and putting them on postcards, was that at college we read really interesting ideas, but they were often written in obscure academic jargon. That seemed daft to me, because if an idea is worth getting out there, then doing it in a way that people will come across, and enjoy, seems like a good plan. If people think you’re clearly incredibly intelligent, but are longing to put your book down and leave the house….you get my point.
Do you think it’s easier to get your work published and distributed now? How did you manage to get your work out initially?
It’s easier in some regards now, and harder in others. Easier because the internet is such a transformative global way of communicating. You can produce your own work and sell it online. (Simon’s Cat probably wouldn’t have found a book publisher without the youtube phenomena first). Harder because there’s a huge increase in the number of people drawing graphic novels now, particularly the type of narcissistic biography which Robert Crumb inspired in a whole generation of artists. Publishing has changed too, with commissioning editors focusing on finding a best-seller, and abandoning less commercial work – the ‘Harry Potter Syndrome’. They want to sell worldwide translations to make the greatest returns possible on their outlay. Having said that, more publishers are interested in graphic novels – Jonathan Cape for instance. There are some small presses which publish interesting drawn books – like Buenaventura Press, and Fantagraphics.
Your recent cartoons pick up on current political issues, given the quick turn around of this kind of response, what’s your working process – how do you get from ideas to finished piece?
Outrage, scribble idea down, research on the internet to establish facts – don’t want to get it wrong publicly, more scribble, more research, copious notes, then sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and try not to panic. Draw it out in pencil, go over it in pen, make a copy so that if it goes wrong I don’t have to start again, colour it in felt tip, scan it into computer, more changes and colour. Finally, remind myself that cartoons are meant to be funny. Probably too late by then. That should be at the beginning of the process. Must remember!
The Open College of the Arts illustration module has been supporting students in developing their illustrations, what do you think are the priorities for any budding illustrator – what do they need to learn?
Not to fetishise technique above content. A lot of people can draw really well, and have brilliant technique. Technique is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It serves, but shouldn’t lead – otherwise it’s just a virtuoso performance of not much. To reach people there has to be something to respond to, and technique alone won’t hit the spot. Whatever it is that draws you to other people’s work – in any medium – will be thing which excites you. Then you have to find your own way of creating that feeling in other people, not emulate other people’s work. Most good stuff comes from following your nose and your heart, and if you aren’t slightly obsessed with it, do something you are obsessed with. Otherwise what’s the point? You’ll get bored.
To view more of Jacky’s work you can visit her website at: