Practitioners 54: Paul Cemmick

The trouble with Paul Cemmick is it’s too easy to overstate his talent. It’s not that it’s not present – in fact the scale of it is incredible – but it wouldn’t be English to express too enthusiastically just how exciting and impressive a full page of Cemmick’s work truly is. And that wouldn’t suit Cemmick. His is the stuff of England. Lunacy and silliness so inherent in his linework that it’s hard to explain. The physicality of any character in a Cemmick page is height, width, facial features and stupidness. His basis as an incredible caricaturist blends perfectly – communicating precisely everything you know about every character the moment you take a look at it – whether it’s the small, strident figure of girl-ahead-of-her-time Maid Marian, leader of a band of rebels, the handsome, lanky and innately cowardly gangle of Robin of Kensington or the Face of Bo in a recent Doctor Who poster – it’s always a massive joy to behold.

Paul Cemmick is a cartoonist and caricaturist whose designs and work have been seen in many different media, most prominently animation, (British) comics and book covers. According to the website ChildrensIllustrators.com, Mr Cemmick “started drawing cartoons as a child by copying Popeye, Tom and Jerry and Yogi Bear from his gran’s TV.”

He is a jobbing artist – certainly not working on the scale of Coipel or Quitely, nor as famous as Bisley or (Jeff) Smith however this is because he is happily entrenched inside the British industry – by choice one would guess – with a distinctly English artistic style his work is rarely seen outside of the British Isles. This has led to working on the most english of titles – something he’s clearly enthusiastic about – including the Funday Times children’s supplement of the Sunday Times and more prominently, in the 90s the work of classic comic book art that was the set of eight Maid Marian and Her Merry Men comic adaptations of the popular Children’s BBC series.

Providing the artwork for the closing credits of the popular kid’s show, which ran between 1989 and 1993 – the adaptation to comic book, adapted by the lead writer, creator and star Tony Robinson (better known as Blackadder’s Baldrick) it wasn’t long before an adaptation was in the offing. Hard to imagine the final title sequence was finished before saw the wisdom of using Cemmick for the series of books. Seemingly blending the cartoon work of Jim Patterson of the Beano, anarchic Looney Tunes physicality and perfectly observed caricature of the existing cast the books were a ball thanks to Cemmick.

Doctor Who Poster (2011) - part of Cemmick's continued work with the BBC.

Robinson’s ideas were meticulously realised but no one was concentrating on that. Whether it was the gormless expressions of King John’s Guards Gary and Graeme as the dialogue was revealed or the deliberate miniaturisation of Tony Robinson’s Sheriff in relation to every other character, Cemmick added quirks, gimmicks, character ticks and details that were never present in the original while still putting across the personalities of each one of the distinctive cast.

It’s impossible to sail through a Cemmick page – his attention to detail and his joy in leaving prizes to those willing to take a longer, closer look pushed the value of the books well above what they might have been with a less enthused artist. In 2006-2007 he produced four all-new mini-comics which were included in the each of the four series DVD releases from Eureka Entertainment.

Mr Cemmick’s best-known cover artwork adorns several of the later covers of Tom Holt’s comic-fantasy novels, published by Orbit Books in the UK. Mr Cemmick was the third regular Holt cover-artist, following in the footsteps of Josh Kirby and Steve Lee. Mr Holt explained the transition from Lee to Cemmick being due to “some sort of falling-out between and the Orbit people” after his novel “Open Sesame.”

Cemmick’s cartoons and caricatures appear regularly in the UK Sci-Fi magazine SFX, and publications including “Take a Break” magazine. He co-created “N.U.T.S. Investigations” with Spitting Image and 2DTV alumnus Giles Pilbrow for The Sunday Times, and has produced full comicstrip artwork for several BBC magazines, including “Girl Talk” and “It’s Hot”. These official BBC comicstrips include adaptations of EastEnders, adventures of the Blue Peter pets, and most recently (as an interesting semi-follow-up to his work on MM&HMM), the latest BBC One version of Robin Hood (2006) in ‘Robin Hood Adventures’ issue 1 (BBC Magazines, 10–23 October 2007). Cemmick is currently producing 2 comic strips in the weekly BBC publication Match of the Day. As well as a double page comic strip in a new magazine based on the massively successful TV show Top Gear. The mag is called Top Gear Turbo.

In television, he has worked on anarchic rubber faced satire series Spitting Image as well as the afore-mentioned Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. He was also one of the designers and three main artists on the ITV television series 2DTV (2001), working on that programme for all of its five series’. He recently designed the logo for the revamped ITV animated series Emu (2007) starring Emu, Rod Hull’s famous sidekick – minus Rod Hull himself.

Impossible to ignore, Cemmick’s work is illustrative and only finds his way into the Practitioners list for his work on the Maid Marian Books – although his new work remains incredibly high in standard nothing has quite matched that work for sheer exuberance – understandably securing hgim such a long tenure with the BBC.

Most importantly from one person’s perspective, Cemmick is probably the most influential artist in my personal history. While others such as Jim Patterson, Geoff Senior, Liam Sharp, Adam Kubert, Simon Bisley and Frank Quitely have informed me and developed my interests away from where they started (Masters of the Universe), Cemmick revolutionised my thinking and made me really understand the liberties that could be taken with an empty page. Cartoonishness, characterisation, layout, panel filling, use of colours and humour in such an apparent anarchy that belies the actual work that has been sunk into it. The natural line work, the placement of a finger and a foot to add greater humour to proceeding makes the page look as though it could never be any other way. Paul Cemmick is both a world class artist and – I suspect – a great British secret. But without his influence, I and many other artists of the same age might not understand the true shape of funny on a page. Bridging that gap perfectly between the simple, straightforward comic pages of the Beano, Dandy, Buster and Whizzer and Chips and more adult fare like 2000AD, Oink and Viz. But more than that – he captured the timeless, spotless and universal moments better than the television series loaded with exactly the same material and made the themes last 20 years – and well beyond.

Typically answering a question you didn't need answered - here's Nicolas Cage in a much better casting - Paul Cemmick (2011)

Personal thanks to Paul Cemmick for inspiring me to always look for the silly in any page – and in the serious – just look at a blank page and understand that between the words on the page and the final page there is a perpetual gap that artists get to fill and make their own.

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Lost Jedi: Early Sketches

As the idea of the Lost Jedi developed some of the characters grew increasingly interesting story lines. As a hypothetical plot it was great experience in tying together multiple character plots. As each disparate character finds another (or doesn’t in some cases) the plot forms itself. I realise there’s a bunch of ways that you can write, however, to begin with at least – if I ever get the chance to write – it’ll start with the characters and bleed outwards.

Practitioners 41: Erik Larsen

If Simon Bisley is the Heavy Metal and Neil Gaiman the careful lyricism, Erik Larsen is the rock and roll of comic books. Bold colours, flash bang visuals, heavy weaponry, implausible chicks, nasty ass comic book violence and a great hero rising through the pile of body parts and big boobs. Creating a middle ground for those becoming disillusioned with the ‘big ones’ homogenised, careful storytelling, Larsen grinds the pulpish, the extreme and the deliberately silly and offensive together in a cathartic throw back to comics pulp heyday in an unapologetic, hedonistic and ultimately downright fun experience. Recognising that a page is an empty space, pregnant with possibilities, the only limitation – the edges of the artist and writers’ imagination.

Even in the boom days of the nineties, the average comic book geek was under the age of 12 or most likely a social pariah. To these people, escapism was characters that did what they wanted, represented ideals they believed in, got the busty girl and were never intimidated by a sky full of Martian space ships. These readers had a well developed silly bone and an understanding of pulp humour. The readership wasn’t frightened of a book that revelled in random events in the name of kitsch entertainment. This escapism saw heroes appear that were bright, bold, unremitting and smart mouthed. Cartoon heroes for Saturday morning television, made untransmittable before 10PM EST. Erik Larsen was the king of this. A master of crazy, bombastic pulp.

Larsen was born in middle America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child growing up in Bellingham, Washington and Albion, California he created several versions of a character named ‘The Dragon’, a batman like character, driving a car copied from Speed Racer’s Mach 5. Producing a fanzine with a friend which featured ‘The Dragon’ the character was developed into a character able to change using a magic word like Captain Marvel.

Taking his first paid work, working on Megaton, co-creating and illustrating a feature called ‘Vanguard’ with publisher Gary Carlson. The Dragon appeared, slightly revised in the second edition. Larsen went on to work on the Sentinels of Justice for AC Comics and DNAgents for Eclipse Comics.

His work at DC included The Outsiders, Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman and Doom Patrol. For Marvel he completed a The Amazing Spider-man fill-in story and 5 issues of the Punisher. Frankly Larsen made it look easy. Wandering from company to company, first working on incredibly diverse titles for DC and ultimately extremely high end titles for Marvel. Aside from a Nova storyline cancelled for Marvel Comics presents, his flight up the ladder at Marvel was unstoppable. Alongside his master work, as writer and artist on Savage Dragon, Larsen has found an occasional home with Marvel, returning to write and illustrate on Fantastic Four, The Defenders, Wolverine and Nova. He briefly returned to DC to write Aquaman.

Just a selection of the alternate Dragons from the incredibly wild Larsen Universe (by Art Adams)

In 1990, Todd McFarlane was leaving the title Amazing Spider-man, a title he had visually revolutionised and Larsen took over the reigns as of 329, having previously pencilled issues 287, 324 and 327. With writer David Michelinie and Larsen, the series experienced increased sales, with stories such as ‘ The Cosmic Spider-man’, ‘The Return of the Sinster Six’ and ‘The Powerless Spider-man’ that deliberately took off the gloves Spider-man had been treated with. Larsen kept pace with the extreme nature of the story lines, Mary Jane never looking sexier, the character numbers and speed and occurrence of events break neck.

It was during ‘The Return of the Sinister Six’ and before ‘The Dragon’ found his place among the comic book elite that Larsen cemented his place as a true Practitioner. During the production of the book his house was destroyed by flood. While trying to deal with this situation he never missed a page, or reduced the quality of his work – instead accepting an offer by Marvel to reduce the page numbers for two months and fill with back stories. Larsen’s enthusiasm and strength of character bled through here as the rendering of the characters and storylines never missed a beat. Doc Oc swung menacingly into view and epic conflict between multiple characters played out across page after page. Had it not been mentioned in the collected graphic novel, no one would have ever have guessed what was taken place. Not only that, but the faith and help offered by Marvel, a large corporate company, was willing to move mountains to see Larsen complete the project – such was his popularity at the time. His influence on one of the most popular books in comics history, exceptional even in a field of high selling books, places him retrospectively among the greats. But the best was still yet to come. A bawdy, violent, crazy and personally driven comic, seeing his childhood creation fall into the hands of millions of readers around the world. Image had been born under McFarlane and Larsen was going to prove a true linchpin and the very epitomy of the companies ethos. Creator owned and creator driven books were to be given an icon. And that icon was the absurdly named Savage Dragon.

Shedding ideas like an enthusiastic 8 year old, completely unafraid of running out of original material, Larsen took readers on a roller coaster ride experience. Pneumatic vixens and wild mutant monsters crowded the streets of Savage Dragon’s home town Chicago, while Larsen was the man to pull back together the Sinister Six (a combination of all the worst enemies of Spider-man) in New York for Marvel. Artist, script writer, plot and character designer – Larsen could barely contain his ideas on the page. This was what Image had been formed for and Larsen was about to take it by storm.

Seeking greater control and profit over the work they created, Larsen and six other illustrators abandoned Marvel to form Image Comics, where Larsen finally gave his childhood creation life in the form of the fin-headed, green super-cop, The Savage Dragon. This time a massively-muscled green amnesiac who joins the Chicago Police Department after being found in a burning field with no memory of how he ended up there. After a series of self-published redesigns of the character, the stripped down version of the Dragon was given a three issue limited series in 1993, expanding to a full length ongoing series completely under the control of Larsen. Astonishingly, in self-publishing, Larsen has maintained a reasonably consistent monthly schedule (excluding a couple of occasional lapses) in comparison to the other Image titles. Larsen describes Dragon as the missing like between Marvel and Vertigo, aimed at older Marvel readers ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. And in this he has pitched it perfectly. With a much more adult view, the Savage Dragon bridges the gap neatly between the teen orientated Marvel and the devoutly adult Vertigo titles.

If in any doubt as to why Larsen belongs among the hall of Practitioners, here it is. One of the brave and the bold to leave the relative safety of Marvel behind in order to self publish, Larsen’s title, The Savage Dragon, is the only title in the original line-up (besides Spawn) to still continue to exist and the only one still created by its creator. Image was built on Larsen’s ideals and he has proven that he always intended to see his dream through – marking him out as perhaps the most diligent, determined and honest creator to have left Marvel in the ’90s. Add to that his unnatural talent, enthusiasm and sense of humour and you have a natural comics talent with no time for the limitations of modern books. Larsen will continue to do it his way. Exotic women, massive guns and superheroes with Chicken heads prevail and the day Larsen stops doing that, a little light on an era that harks back to the beginning of comics will go out. Until someone finds a copy of Savage Dragon….