I first came across ‘Betamonkeys’ whilst idly browsing the Internet during a rest day in El Chorro. The climbing-themed comic strip took me completely by surprise with its left-field humour and keen eye for the eccentricities of the climbing world. Having exchanged numerous messages with the strip’s creator Ed O’Grady, I took advantage of a return to the UK to find out a bit more about the man behind these increasingly popular comics.
Arriving at Ed’s house, I’m nervous, as I imagine most people are when they meet someone they’ve hitherto only communicated with online. I needn’t have worried however; Ed bounds to the door, flush with enthusiasm. As cake and tea are thrust into my hands, that effortless bond that is so easily generated between fellow climbers springs to life. I’m introduced to his son, Joe - “the real climber,” and ushered into the study.
Ed isn’t what I expected at all. A father and 6th form psychology lecturer, his approach to life, climbing and even his cartoons is far more cerebral than the puns and gags with which his work is littered would lead you to believe. He sits in front of a wide bookcase where copies of the classics are interspersed with graphic novels and cartoon collections, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin sitting alongside Scott Pilgrim.
After discovering numerous mutual acquaintances and discussing our experiences of the UK climbing scene, we eventually get round to Betamonkeys: Ed’s comic strip that has struck such a chord with climbers the world over. “I seem to have a really large following in Europe” Ed tells me with surprise. “Maybe even more than the UK. I haven’t had much luck in the States though. I did some stuff for Red Rocks Rendezvous and the humour didn't seem to translate.” It’s true - Ed’s work has an undeniably British edge with dad jokes and puns mingling effortlessly with his surreal imaginings.
Perhaps the odd dad joke in amongst the comics shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Ed is a father and clearly a proud one. His son Joe has competed in the GB Youth Championships and is a large part of the reason that Ed returned to climbing. Having ‘bimbled,’ (there wasn’t a word for bouldering back then), in his youth, his son’s discovery of climbing reignited Ed’s passion for the sport. The time before his climbing renaissance wasn’t idle though. “I did a variety of martial arts for a number of years.” He explains. Indeed his house is littered with evidence of his former passion from the framed handprints of sumo wrestlers that adorn his staircase to the instructional training guides on the shelves behind me.
“I was about a V8-V9 martial artist, proficient you could say. But eventually I decided that getting all hell beaten out of me in the name of inner peace wasn’t worth it anymore. With bouldering I still get slammed into a mat from time to time, just less forcefully.”
For about five years Ed drew a martial arts comic called ‘Mikka Bouzu.’ A Japanese phrase, Ed explains translating literally as ‘Three Day Monk.’ “The conceit was to play on the idea of a guy who gets really into one particular branch of the sport every week, but gives up when he isn’t an instant master. Sort of like that guy in climbing with all the gear and no idea.”
Mikka Bouzou never really took off though. Not in the way that Betamonkeys has. “The climbing community is less fragmented and far more supportive” Ed explains. “There’s a universality about the sport that you can tap into regardless of what branch of climbing people are involved in.” It is undoubtedly the universality of Ed’s work and his humour in particular that has made it such a big hit. While he admits to a definite bouldering slant in the comics he’s been pleased to discover that his work is well-received by climbers of every ilk. He likes to hone in on the experiences we all go through in climbing. Whether that be projecting something above our abilities; arguing over height advantage with friends or simply shooting the breeze down the wall. “What gives me most pleasure is seeing someone tag their friends in a Facebook comment for one of my comics. It’s like they’re saying ‘that’s you, that is.’ It means I’ve hit on something relatable.”
Much of his work has an origin in real-life conversations, and it’s not just dialogue that he’s fond of harvesting from real life either. A lot of the cartoons, especially the frames that depict people climbing, are based on photos. Ed flicks open the iPad and picks out his friends from amongst the cartoon figures. “That’s Amber and this is Tim.” He points out two figures. I learn that the iPad is in fact Ed’s main creative tool. Focussed on the tablet and armed with a ‘Bamboo’ stylus he dedicates up to two evenings a week to the comics. “I’d like to do more, but I struggle to find the time.”
This is hardly surprising. More than half of his days involve a trip to The Climbing Station in Loughborough where son Joe trains four nights a week. That’s not time off from the comics though. “It’s actually the source of 90% of my material.” He pulls out a notebook and flips through the pages. “I have to take this with me to the wall in case I need to jot down ideas.” He turns to a later page and shows me a list of twenty planned comics for the coming months. Having started the strip just over a year ago, Ed has settled into a routine that now sees him producing a new comic every week.
“Normally I start with a punchline and work backwards. There’s a lot of consideration that goes into choosing the number of frames. Mostly they’re two or four frames and I have to work out how they’re best filled to make the gag function. The actual drawing takes the most time and I’m still struggling to find a way of representing falls well on the page. The easiest bit comes last when I write in all of the text. Even doing it by hand, this normally only takes about half an hour. However, the true final stage is having my wife Cath give it the once over. Mistakes have only ever gotten through when she wasn’t there to proof read!”
The work doesn’t always come off first time however. “If I’m worried about an element of the comic, I run it past my mate Tim. He’s a master of puns and I have to admit, responsible for a lot of the gags that end up in the strip. Generally I already know why something doesn’t work, but it’s nice to hear someone else say it and offer suggestions.”
As his audience has grown, Ed’s pool of feedback has increased rapidly, whether he wants it to or not. “Mostly it’s really positive, but some people have commented on the lack of female characters. In all honesty though, I find women harder to draw. I’m working on it, but I’d like female characters to be natural rather than tokenistic.” He’s nervous of profanity too. With Facebook sharing being what it is he’s worried about the eyes his work could end up in front of. “I’m quite a sweary chap, but I steer away from it in the comics. Betamonkeys is about sharing a bit of silliness, not alienating people.”
His work has begun to reach far and wide and Ed explains how he’d been shown a Facebook post from Jule Wurm, the current Bouldering World Champion, in which she shared one of his comics. I’m interested to know if he has any intention of monetizing Betamonkeys after this recent success. While there are plans for a t-shirt range in 2015, Ed insists that he has a “terrible head for anything business related.” This self-deprecation, another way in which you can be sure that Ed’s a climber to his core is, I’m sure, misplaced. After all, he’s the type of person who berates himself for being unable to draw falling properly. “It’s not like I want to make a fortune from it, but wouldn’t it be great to make enough to get by doing what you love?” he asks.
This simple desire suits Ed perfectly and mirrors the attitude of many in the climbing community. A lot of us are prepared to live with less, live simply even, provided it means time for our passion. Happily for Ed he has found a place where his two passions meet. How lucky for us that we can also share in it.