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The Story of a Cartoon and Satire in the 90s Feature

Alan James discusses the inspiration for a cartoon that proved to be a catalyst for many things and became part of 1990s climbing satire, with some fresh drawings on the current scene and its personalities thrown in too...


Back in 1990, I was at Buoux standing under the Frank Zappa wall with my mate Paul Dearden. We started a bizarre conversation where we spoofed the Monty Python four Yorkshireman sketch, only about climbers. It was one of those conversations that gathers momentum and you end up inspiring each other onwards and in the end, we were in hysterics.

Coincidentally at the same time, I had been doing a lot of drawing and had also read some stuff by Gerald Scarfe, the renown cartoonist. He described how you could distil a person's facial characteristics down to a simple few lines and, once you had those lines, you could basically exaggerate them up to grotesque levels. He was a master at it and I had been trying with some politicians (it was the time of Spitting Image on the telly so there were finished results to compare with). I decided to try my hand with our Buoux script and a few of the current top climbers to create a cartoon.

It turned out well, better than expected, and better than I realised for many years. Looking back at it there were some good lines but credit for the best line - "I had to sprag a quark on Gonads" - has to go to Paul Dearden (and luck that Simon Nadin had a very hard route called Gonads!)

The top climbing mag of the time was On The Edge edited by Gill Kent and Gill gladly accepted my cartoon and published it in OTE 24 of June 1991. This led quickly to a meeting with Mick Ryan who asked me to produce cartoons for the second Rockfax guide to North Wales Limestone. This led to me authoring the third Rockfax guide to Peak Limestone and then producing the fourth when Mick left for America, then the fifth and so on to the 57th, with UKC a by-product after involvement with Andy Hyslop at Rock and Run. So that is a logarithmically-accelerated potted history of how Rockfax/UKC started with a conversation at a crag in France.

Going back to the cartoons, I called them Pokketz. This was a singularly inappropriate name and a stupid marketing ploy based on the fact I had another product I was trying at the time - some homemade climbing trousers with different coloured pockets, which I called Pokketz. When those failed I went on to printed Pokketz t-shirts but they sank into the swamp as well and in the end, the only enduring legacy is the cartoons.

Another of my inspirations at the time was Gary Larson and the Far Side (recently re-launched after 25-year gap). He was a great artist but one thing I noticed about his cartoons is a lot of them were so much funnier because of the text. It wasn't just that the text was great, it was that the text was usually a bit unexpected. It often was the line after the obvious punch line or straight comment as if the situation wasn't ridiculous. He seemed to be able to apply Gerald Scarfe's theory about caricatures to the text. Find something with a bit of truth in it and you could basically exaggerate it as far as you want for humour.

Sit-down start cartoon

On the Facebook thread that prompted this article, Niall Grimes wrote something about this, "sometimes, in the darkness, if you want to see a dim object you don't stare right at it, but off to the side. Rods and cones and all that. Humour is staring to the side, that's how it sees so well." That sums it up well. Look at a situation that could be funny, imagine the obvious line, ditch that, then come up with a line that gets to the truth and takes the piss out of that.

Yet another of my inspirations was my father. A climber of a different generation but someone who showed that he can move with the times on our regular family birthday cards.

Extreme Bouldering by Mike James  © Alan James
Cartoon by Mike James

The Thing collection  © Vertebrate
The Thing
The Pokketz series ran for 5 years most months in OTE. The full set is here on the Rockfax site. The discussion on the Facebook thread made observations about the 1990s as a time when climbing politics was very different. Pokketz cartoons were far from the only satire around. There was a full mini-magazine called The Thing which featured a strip cartoon figure Boring Marv but in reality, the whole magazine was satire. Put together by Paul Evans, Jon Barton and Simon Norris, the Thing was at least as acerbic as Pokketz cartoons and easily as sharp. The mini-graphic novel November which came out of the fertile minds of The Thing trio remains a beautiful classic with a moving story that also manages to take the piss out of the irreverent and trivial obsession of the climbers it features.

November Cover (faded cover)  © Vertebrate
November
Following on from my stint as OTE cartoonist, Duncan Bourne picked up the baton with his nicely illustrated but slightly less cutting series. Going further back into the Crags mag years of the '70s, there too satire was prevalent in the editorial, with jokey pieces and the odd cartoon.

The question this asks is where is the satire now? We don't get sent anything at UKC although there is obviously plenty of satirical cartoonists' work around. Maybe a lot of it has moved to social media where timelines are filled with comic stories, graphic jokes and video clips - much of which is indeed very funny.

Maybe we are too sensitive. When people discuss the Pokketz cartoons these days I often get asked how the climbers who were featured took it. Well at the time I didn't really notice any comeback since I was an unknown Sheffield climber. However, it has become clear that most of them had no problem and retrospectively have even begun to wear their appearances as a badge of honour. Johnny Dawes and Andy Pollitt both included one in their auto-biographies, in fact, Andy asked me to do a new one for his but more of that later. Simon Nadin jokingly quipped that "being featured in Pokketz was his proudest achievement"! (For those who aren't aware, Simon 'accidentally became world champion in 1989'). That's the thing, good satire shouldn't insult, it should just gently ridicule and we tend to all be fine with that in the long run. Political satirists can afford to be more cutting since they are unlikely to want Christmas cards from their prey, but even in that case the best always include a foundation of truth under their observations.

There is also the question of what is acceptable in the '90s might not be now. Mostly the stuff I produced in the Pokketz cartoons was fine. There was a joke in one where I wrote 'Dim Welshio' on Paul Williams' sweatshirt (a play on 'dim parcio' meaning no parking). Gill Kent decided that we had better change that to D.I.M.M which, to be fair, also works well without offending a nation.

Trivial Pursuits Pokketz cartoon from 1991  © Alan James
Trivial Pursuits - restored for historical accuracy

A later call to alter the last line of the John Dunne cartoon where I allowed a personal financial grievance to filter into the narrative I was less happy with. However, since then I have realised that in business it is easy for many people to run up little debts from time to time and, once again, Gill was probably correct.

Probably the most difficult of the cartoons to justify these days is the one where I had a go at the then-current set of female climbers for their eating habits. This was a later one and by this time I knew personally most of the people involved - in fact Fliss Butler and I were regular climbing partners. There was no animosity though, but time has shown that this is perhaps too complex an issue for simple satire.

25 Lentils Cartoon from 1994  © Alan James
25 Lentils as published

As mentioned, Andy Pollitt asked me to do a new cartoon for his autobiography. I was tempted but the well was a bit dry and it is a lot easier to throw stones if you don't live in a glass house. The Pokketz series reflected a time for me and let me assure you that they took ages. Each one had hours of thinking behind it, twisting the text to best effect. Drawing was usually a trivial exercise at the end.

If anyone's inspired then don't underestimate the work, but please be encouraged to go for it. We would love to feature such stuff on UKC. For my part, we now have a bit of self-isolation lockdown time so I will have a go at a few characters here but I can assure you this is a one-off.

...and to turn it on ourselves...



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1 Apr

Love the size of Rob’s head, and how Niff looks like Blofeld.

1 Apr

Thanks, interesting history and the cartoons are still amusing over 20 years later!

How were the female climbers, other than Fliss Butler, Lucy Creamer and Airlie Anderson?

In the John Dunne cartoon, were the two blokes Gresham and Emmett or just random?

Oh and the little guy in the quizz?

Ruth Jenkins, Naomi Guy (who had just come back from Aus) and Gill Kent at the end.

Just random although missed a trick there.

Trivial Pursuits Quiz? That is Johnny Dawes. He was in most of the cartoons but I think he had odd hair at that time I did that one.

Alan

1 Apr

Brilliant. Cheered my day. Thanks

1 Apr

Serious blast from the past. Brilliant.

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