Tuesday 4 May 2010

Fans of Frank Bellamy: Steve McGarry

A while ago I read this blog entry  on Steve McGarry (whom I must confess I didn't know - you'll see why in a moment) and noticed that he mentions his favourite artist is Frank Bellamy. Once again on your behalf  I asked if he would be interested in adding to my series "Fans of Frank Bellamy" and the nice guy replied in the affirmative with the following story. Without sounding too sycophantic I also steer towards Steve's tastes in artists!

And before you go searching for the paucity of information on Trevillion, who Steve mentions a few times, he was the guy who did a brilliant job on the Munsters in TV21, for whom Bellamy did Thunderbirds of course.

Long before I knew who Frank Bellamy was, I was a huge Frank Bellamy fan.

Growing up in Manchester in the late 1950s and early 1960s, television was small, monochrome and limited to two basic channels that offered little programming designed to capture a youngster’s attention. So in those pre-videogame days, it was comics that fired our imaginations. We would graduate from The Beano and The Dandy, Topper or Beezer, to the adventure comics ... the girls to their Bunty or Princess and tales of ballerinas and gymkhanas, we boys to the likes of The Victor or The Hotspur. Each week, we would race to the newsagents on the day of publication, ready to devour the adventures of Alf Tupper or Gorgeous Gus and pocket the bonus swag – from football league ladders to cardboard gliders or contraptions that made noises - that was invariably included. Comics were printed in one or two colours on cheap, coarse paper, with one notable exception. In all its full colour, glossy glory, The Eagle was the undisputed king of comics. In addition, every Christmas there would be a football book and The Eagle Annual waiting for me under the tree.

By the early 1960s, I had moved on to the new Marvel comics that had begun to appear on a carousel rack at Fitton's newsagents. I can remember buying the first few issues of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Thor and sundry others that could have funded a retirement had they been carefully preserved, instead of consigned to a binbag destined for the corporation tip. But my two younger brothers were still loyal to the homegrown imprints, and The Eagle landed with great regularity at McGarry Towers. Having gown up with The Eagle, I'm sure I must have been familiar with the art of Frank Bellamy, but it was his work on Heros the Spartan that really grabbed me. I thought it was the greatest comic art I had ever seen ... and nearly 50 years later, my opinion hasn't changed.

Even so, I can't swear that the artist's name had registered with me, although I must have seen his signature. By the mid-1960s, my attention was fixed firmly on football, girls and pop music, and my appetite for comics had waned ... but I recall admiring the way Frank breathed life into the Anderson puppets in the TV21 comics my younger brothers avidly collected. And while I recognised his style instantly by then, I'm not sure at that point I could yet attach a name to that stunning artwork.

By my late teens, I was learning the ropes in an art studio and beginning to harbour thoughts of pursuing a career in illustration (on the off-chance that one of the many incarnations of my rock bands didn’t take off.) I was particularly interested in sports and music illustration. My inspiration came from the Daily Mirror that arrived on our mat each weekday morning and the assortment of Sunday papers we would take at the weekend. 

The Munsters drawn by Trevillion

By the early 1970s, Paul Trevillion was making a name for himself as the country's premier sports illustrator, and I was captivated by his bold depictions of footballers in the Sunday tabloids. It was around that same time that Frank Bellamy debuted on the Garth strip in The Daily Mirror, and the strip was instantly transformed. Dull, rudimentary line was suddenly replaced by the most vivid and exciting artwork ever to grace a newspaper comics page. I became a Frank Bellamy fanatic. I read the strip avidly for a couple of years, and finally could contain myself no more. Plucking up courage, I wrote to Frank, effusively praising his work and asking if he had any tips to pass on to an aspiring artist. He replied with a very gracious note, warning me that the business was tough but wishing me well. I saved that letter for years ... I even saved the envelope ... and was genuinely upset to discover I had mislaid it when we moved out to the U.S. many years later.

I sold my first illustrations, to the girls' comic Romeo in 1974 ( I was 21) and by 1977 I had taken the plunge and gone freelance. I did the occasional piece for comics, did some ad agency illustration work, and picked up a lot of work in the music business. I designed quite a few record sleeves, including album covers for the likes of Jilted John and Slaughter & The Dogs that showcased my illustration talents.

By then, of course, Frank was gone, having died of a heart attack in1976.

I was employing a linework approach heavily influenced by comic books, and although I was enjoying some success, I felt that I hadn't yet found my style. In those pre-Google days, most artists kept scrapbooks of reference material. Besides photos of interiors, cars, places and anything else I felt might prove useful down the line, I'd also clipped out illustrations from sundry publications, particularly sports and entertainment material. Leafing through one of those albums, probably in late 1980 or early 1981, I came across a Doctor Who cover illustration that Frank Bellamy had done for The Radio Times in 1972. I'm not sure why it hadn't registered with me up until that point, but it suddenly dawned on me that the stipple style he had employed to render Jon Pertwee was a natural fit for me. What if I employed that approach to render portraits of musicians for record sleeves? Better still, what if I tackled the kind of sports subjects that Trevillion covered with a similar stipple style?

In my spare moments, I began to experiment with the approach, using a rapidograph pen for the stipple and dip pen and brush for the hair. I was already a confirmed fan of CS10 line board, which was Frank’s preferred board of choice. The china clay surface accepts ink beautifully and mistakes can be scratched out with a razor blade without any feathering, so the art always looks pristine. Almost immediately, it felt perfect, and I was excited with the results I was getting over a period of a couple of weeks, I created a portfolio piece, a mock poster for Humphrey Bogart's "The Maltese Falcon" as I felt the "noir" subject matter was ideally suited to that style. The finished piece convinced me that I was now ready to try pitching. But who to approach?

The Daily Mirror used a lot of sports illustrations, but they already had Paul Trevillion and a great illustrator called Charles Dupont to call upon. (Which reminds me, I always suspected that Charles DuPont and another Mirror illustrator, Bob Williams, were one and the same. I’d love to know if that hunch was right!) I was a big admirer of Arthur Ranson, who was doing incredible things with biography strips of Abba and The Beatles for Look-In magazine, and I had seen his stuff in such papers as The Sunday Times. I was hesitant to approach any publication that was already working with such outstanding artists, figuring I probably wouldn't get the time of day. Then it struck me that The Daily Star, which had only launched a couple of years earlier, might be in the market for illustrations ... and it was the only national newspaper whose editorial offices were based in Manchester, not a mile away from my studio. The FA Cup Final was approaching and I knew that a lot of papers liked to do special pullouts, usually featuring illustrations. I stuck a photocopy of my ”Maltese Falcon" illustration and a brief note in the post and crossed my fingers.

A few days later I got a call from the paper's art editor, Mike Burnham, who invited me for a lunchtime drink and a chat. One liquid lunch later, I was being introduced to the Daily Star's sports editor, Arthur Lamb. He loved the "Maltese Falcon" sample and loved the idea of doing an FA Cup special. We agreed a very generous fee and shook hands on the deal. On Saturday, May 14, 1981, to commemorate my beloved Manchester City taking on Spurs in the FA Cup Final, I made my national newspaper debut with a giant centre-spread illustration featuring all 24 players and two managers ... all rendered in my new Bellamy-inspired stipple style.

I can honestly say, I've never looked back. Soon, I was illustrating a Steve Davis snooker series for The Daily Star. Then they gave me my own weekly sports illustration spot, as well as commissioning front page illustrations for general elections and such. In 1986, they launched my daily series The Diary of Rock & Pop. By then, I also had my own series each week in the soccer magazine "Match Weekly" and my clients included Look-In and The Daily Mirror. The syndication arm of Express Newspapers began to sell my soccer features worldwide.

United Media, the giant New York syndicate who gave us Peanuts and Garfield, spotted my work and I was invited to sign my first US syndication contract in 1989, the same year that my "Badlands" cartoon launched in The Sun. I moved my young family to California that summer.

At one point in the early 1990s, "Badlands" was appearing daily in The Sun, my "Pop Culture" strip was appearing daily in the Today newspaper and syndicated to 600 newspapers worldwide through NEA, I had a weekly series in the News of The World and a weekly series in "Shoot!' magazine, The Sun was running my daily soccer strip and I was supplying a monthly to SIForKids magazine
[Sports Illustrated for kids]. I've slowed down a little since then ... but I still make the majority of my income from drawing pop stars and footballers!

We've now lived in sunny California for 20 years and my work is still syndicated all over the world. I'm a two-term former President of the National Cartoonists Society and am the first artist to win Illustrator of the Year awards from both the NCS and the Australian Cartoonists Association. And I can honestly say that I owe all of my professional success to the inspiration that Frank Bellamy's genius provided.

As I write, I find myself occasionally glancing at the framed piece of art that hangs directly above my drawing board. It's a Frank Bellamy "Garth" strip (H105 from The Beast of Ultor series) that I bought from Frank's widow, Nancy, a few years after his death. It's one of my most- treasured possessions

Many, many thanks to Steve for this extensive romp through his contact with Bellamy and his own story. Take a look at Steve's site www.stevemcgarry.com My parents never bought a paper but a friend of the family kindly cut out the Garth strips for me, and we certainly didn't see the later Sun, Today, or News of the World - thus i missed Steve's excellent work until now. Steve, I hope you like the accompanying illustrations.

Now if any of you have an easy was for me to get to John Byrne or Al Williamson, I'd love to add them to my 'Fans of Frank' series

From Steve:
"Incidentally, Trevillion is currently appearing on The Guardian site each week with his long-running "You are the Ref" series, that now runs in The Observer:

Thanks Steve




Norman Boyd said...

Thanks for the comment John. Tell us more either here or via the email address (feedback_AT_frankbellamy_DOT_co_DOT_uk) hopefully that will fool the spammers!