The last Monday in the month (give or take a bit of manoeuvring) is always reserved for Cartoon County – the monthly meetings of the Sussex Association of Cartoonists and Comic Strip Artists. And it’s been going since 1993…If you measure out those Mondays, that’s 884 meetings, or two and a half years worth of my evenings taken up with Cartoon County, or buying 884 pints of Guinness for my co-coordinator, David Lloyd. Well, perhaps I’m not that generous all the time, but that works out as a pretty big black lake, however you measure it. Commitment or madness, or just a dogged devotion to the cause of promoting comics and cartoons in Sussex, because the fact is that Brighton, at the epicentre of cartoon creativity on the south coast, is just buzzing with a new input of creators every week. A constantly rejuvenating stream of cartoonists finds their way into (currently) The Cricketers on Black Lion Street in Brighton’s Lanes, and while a certain leverage to London takes its toll, there are always new faces who join our informal gatherings from 6 till late…
So why is Brighton this creative hotbed? Woodrow Phoenix in his graphic short story ‘The end of the line’, puts it like this:
Behind London’s back (or maybe, I don’t know, over its shoulder) Brighton gets on with its business. The business of magnetism. The rootless, the curious, the feckless, the loveless. The wanderers, the day-trippers, the lovers and the haters, the crazies and the weirdoes and the oddballs and the outlaws. The bucket and spade brigade. They take the train as far as it goes to see what’s at the end of the line. Some people take a look and go back. Some people stay and rattle around like peas in a tin. If you tipped England up, everything loose would roll down here.
[Click here for image in PDF format; featured by permission of Woodrow Phoenix]
In fact, Brighton cartoonists are a domestic lot – much like other cartoonists. So far from appearing like loose change, in fact they seem firmly rooted in Brighton life, many with partners and children. Perhaps some of them like to adopt a veneer of ruin, or something having gone wrong once, a sense of having moved here from elsewhere, being in recovery. Some have followed the regular trajectory of having come here to study and stayed: graduates from Brighton University’s narrative illustration MA as well as from the vast student cohorts of two universities.
Cartoon County was originally the brainchild of David Edgar Booth – not, in fact, a cartoonist, but someone who was very much a fan of cartoonists, and saw the potential in Brighton being the chosen residence of so many. The association was set up in 1993, to foster the appreciation of cartoons as an art form, to show the quality and diversity of cartoon and comic strip art, and to encourage the involvement of the public. The success of our inaugural show, which claimed to be the first combined exhibition of comic strips and cartoons to be held in Britain, led us to maintain the group, and organise annual exhibitions and related events for several years, with the likes of local creators Steve Bell, Ross Thomson, David Lloyd and Ian Miller on its board. Meeting at The Sussex Arts Club in Ship Street, until its closure in 2007, the group now lodges in the Greene room at The Cricketers, Brighton’s oldest pub. The original focus was ambitious, with exhibitions, and even international comics conventions in the pipeline. We settled, however, on an annual show, tied in to generous space offered by the Gardner Arts Centre at the University of Sussex, held every June just after the Brighton Festival.
The first show celebrated the wealth of East and West Sussex cartoonists (including our one and only contribution by Raymond Briggs – the blank page in Where the Wind Blows). Double Vision, in 1994, focussed on some of the top French artists of bandes dessinées, including a visit to Brighton of artists from our twin town in Normandy. The Cartoon Stripped, in 1995, was a series of curated essays on reading comics. The 100, featuring, as you might expect, 100 cartoonists from Sussex, paid homage to the centenary of Tom Browne, the first truly popular comics artist, whose characters Weary Willie and Tired Tim made a first appearance in 1896. The Cartoonists Progress, in 1997, celebrated Hogarth’s tercentenary by cartoonists paying individual homage to the great artist: the exhibition toured to the National Theatre in London. Shock!, in 1998, was a centenary tribute to Brighton-born Aubrey Beardsley, exhibiting fin-de-siecle decadence and winning entries to a Beardsley-inspired competition. Only one show featured the work of a sole creator: Don Lawrence, in 1999; this year, his former apprentice, Chris Weston ( a childhood friend of Lawrence’s son), gave a presentation of his work for 2000AD to the group that meets at the Cricketers.
[Click here to see the poster for Shock! Reader discretion is advised; comic includes a small amount of sexual content. Image © Cartoon County; used with permission.]
Regular access to the Gardner Arts Centre became unavailable in 2000, but our involvement in the annual Big Draw celebrations between 2000 and 2004 gave us the opportunity to continue bringing together dozens of the county’s finest cartoonists, illustrators and caricaturists to entertain the public and demonstrate their skills. The best venue was at Al Fresco’s, a seafront restaurant with beach access and ideal for the chance footfall of families strolling along the front. As the Big Draw promotion became less a focus for Cartoon County, more a national event, members preferred to concentrate on their own local activities: eg Paper Tiger Comix, Mindless Ones, a blend of underground and alternative comics artists coming together for specific exhibitions and events.
Alongside the exhibitions, over the years, Cartoon County has organised a satellite series of workshops, panels and events – originally in association with the Gardner’s Education programme – and latterly with Brighton & Hove museums and libraries, youth groups and in a residential care home for the elderly.
Even without the gallery space in its home base, Cartoon County has continued to curate and tour shows of comic art: most notably, for the 50th birthday of the Bash St Kids, in 2005, and Shooting the Witness, a major retrospective of the art of Naji Al-Ali at London’s Political Cartoon Gallery in 2008, to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of the Palestinian cartoonist, murdered in London in 1987.
And thanks to its co-founder, David Lloyd, the travelling exhibition of artwork from the graphic novel V for Vendetta continues to cross borders and continents.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of Cartoon County has been its monthly meetings: a social occasion where the prime interest is in gathering together for a chat with like-minded folk, established artists, mainstream comics creators, underground zine producers, fans as well as artists, men and women alike. Like its younger, feisty London sister, Laydeez Do Comics, the meeting aims to provide a welcome for everyone with an interest in this amazing art form, and to provide a special guest each month who is interviewed for future podcast by Fraser Geesin. We start from 6 and go on late; the interviews are normally scheduled from 7.30pm: you are invited to drop in any time on the last Monday of the month (unless advertised differently). And the sandwiches are on us!
Local comics artists Dan Locke and Joe Decie sketched by fellow Brighton cartoonist Nye Wright, author of Things To Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park: