The first name I recognised in comics was Leo Baxendale, who signed his name on the front cover of WHAM! In 1964 introducing me to the astonishing fact that comics were actually drawn by real people. Until Sunday, he was still my favourite living cartoonist.
He was adept at drawing detailed swarming crowd scenes just as much as close-ups of fear, greed, horror, joy or loathing-ridden faces and everything in between. No one could draw comics like Bax. And it seems odd to say it in the past tense, even though his last major published periodical work was in The Guardian in the 1990s.
In the 1950s he gave us Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids and The Banana Bunch, still amongst the very top drawer of comic creations, two of them have been continually produced every week in The Beano and probably always will be.
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Leo was a larger than life character (the stories of his brief reign as kingof comics at the Beano are legion, exciting and possibly true) and his self-taught tremendous energy and vitality made all his strips as hilarious as anything ever published. To this very (sad) day, he’s the only comic artist to have made me laugh out loud. I have only three pictures on my walls. One is a print from 1966 by Leo, the others are original art-size prints of pages from WHAM! that Leo coloured by hand.
In WHAM! And SMASH! He introduced possibly his greatest and funniest character, the slimily evil Grimly Feendish and the one picture he did that inspired and thrilled me beyond everything was his cover of Bad Penny on SMASH! Number 3. I kept that comic with me every day from February 1966 until now, the only comic I ever salvaged from my mum’s eternal spring cleaning drives. In 1994 I was able to tell Leo himself. He said he remembered being very pleased with the way it turned out.
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Leo ought quite rightly to be pleased with the way everything he drew turned out. There'll never be another.
Even if you haven't knowingly seen any of Leo's work, you have seen the work of those of us directly inspired by him, like David Sutherland, Mike Lacey, Ron Spencer, Martin Baxendale (no surprise there!) Tom Paterson, Steve Bell, Lew Stringer, me (of course!) to name only a very few.
Yesterday (Tuesday) I had the considerable pleasure of attending to the tricky problem of helping to select the winners in a country-wide cartoon competition for British Gas, in a top secret London location (it was near the pub). I can't tell all the details yet but I can inform you we all worked hard (especially Sinead!) and were very impressed by the entrants. Anyway, stay tuned for the big news soon!