Art College, for me, began as an extension of sixth form at school. I attended as a visiting student, going to college and returning home in the evening as I lived further than an axe-swing but on a straight line, 4 stops down by train.
So immediately I felt a division between those students living in digs close to the campus and those commuting like me. My mental attitude was one of being a hard worker, eager to please. But also a student who, because of the immediate transition from school and still being mentally very young waited for intructions before acting. Every time.
It was only when I was in first and second year animation with the likes of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (DOA, Super Mario Brothers) blazing a blinding trail above me from the third (diploma) year that I realised I was supposed to figure everything out for myself.
Sure, there were some formal sessions with a great old guy from Hallas and Bachelor whose name escapes me, and lectures by Bob Godfrey who was our course 'figurehead'. And the atmosphere was fun and warm, with someone playing a vinyl by The Kinks every half hour on our record player. And even from our group in Year Two (and there were only about five of us then, being one of only two art schools in the country that offered animation as a course, albeit not even at degree level as apparently it was more 'vocational' than academic. Yet Graphics was degree level. Go figure that one) we had our stars. Michael Dudok du Wit, a lovely guy and friend, later went on to win a Bafta and Oscar for Best Short Animation, following in Godfrey's footsteps.
But I had some kind of emotional collapse. I got extremely depressed, probably because I was at a place for which I wouldn't be ready for another twenty years. I was a kid, waiting for instruction but with nobody telling me what to do.
So I left after three years just before the best bit, the time you get to make your own little film. I often thought many years later of seeing if I could go back and complete what I started, but by the time I was ready for study again I was thigh-deep in philosophy and getting my Honours degree from the University of London.
However, not wanting to get ahead of myself, back in 1997 I was twenty with no job. That was when, by a stroke of luck, I found out through my mother that Disney was recruiting. What was actually happening in truth was that over in LA the company was desperately trying to back-fill the gaps the Nine Old Men were about to create - way out of my league and ability level. But I could draw and I found an address in London to write to, so I did.
It turned out the London office was recruiting too! But the company wanted an artist to assist in The Character Merchandising Division (what later became known as Disney Consumer Products). Not animation. But that was cool for me - I had a nose for populist consumption. And now I had a job.
My time there was pleasant, and I learned quite a lot, particularly in terms of gouache work and 'inking' techniques (where a smooth thin brush outline is used around cartoon characters). And my draughtsmanship improved exponentially.
However, I began looking at comics as a way of telling a fuller story. For me it was a bit like story-boarding for film (when I was a kid I wanted to be a film director.)
So I found myself an agent (again through a stroke of luck. My old art teacher and friend often spoke of a pal of his who worked in comics, Patrick Wright, so I looked him up. He was drawing Modesty Blaise at the time and was kind enough to connect me with his late father's agent. His father had illustrated a beautifully drawn strip called Carol Day in the forties and fifties I believe, that ran for years and was very popular).
Jack Wall at Rogers and Co Artists Agents took me on and I drew my first strip, "Mum's Bargains" for Mandy, a DC Thompson title. I learned my comic 'craft' with Thompson (through Jack), who were based in Dundee. Jack was like the grandfather I never really had. As wide as he was tall, with the bluster of Rumpole and a dickie bow for every day of the week. I would roll up at his office near Fleet Street and he would offer me a whisky and water, no ice. At ten o'clock I was still digesting breakfast though so I tended to decline. "How are you, my boy?" he would ask in his very gravelly voice. He would show me how his pacemaker stuck out like a lump under the skin of his chest. Quite a character the like of which I've rarely seen since. It cost me 25% of my income but I never regretted it for a second.
Jump forward about seven years and I was now mostly on boys comics, working on "Robomachines" (Hasbro version of Mattell's Transformers), "Mask", "Starcom", and "Judge Dredd". I was never a regular on Dredd, although I loved the character. I was the 'go-to' holiday guy. If, say, Mike McMahon or Ron Smith wasn't available then they came to me. Also, I had a skill in drawing attractive women, so when the story called for a decent female figure and pretty face, like Judge Anderson of PSI Division, I was your man.
What is hilarious in my mind is that from that day to this, when fans discuss Dredd and his artists online, most guys think I'm a woman. Maybe they don't like the idea of women drawing Dredd, I don't know, but I come out pretty poor in the rankings most of the time. The reality was, that was 'me' as good as I could be 'at that time', and I was still feeling my way through styles I admired like Romero's and Jim Holdaway. If I touched Dredd now I would produce something, let us say, of an entirely different calibre. Darker, better drawn, brooding, and in my own more developed style now. Also, consider that I had a young family then, with a mortgage, and to make the money viable I had to draw one page per day. All I can say is I did the best I could in the time I had.
I ended my comic career by drawing two daily newspaper strips. One was called "Checkout Girl", that featured in The Daily Star. The other was "Roy of the Rovers", which migrated from the weekly boy's comic to the revolutionary Today newspaper founded by Eddie Shah. The first in the UK to feature colour print.
But in the eighties the shine was wearing thin on comics for me. They had become licensed goods in their own right. There was little original content, and the market was flooded with Care Bears comic, My Little Pony, Transformers - you name it. There was nothing wrong with them per se. But I suddenly though "hey, if I'm going to draw a licensed character, I may as well draw the best." So I returned to working on Disney products.
I did this by freelancing for a studio that was at the forefront of Disney character art at the time. Before too long I was their first choice artist and they kept me supplied with work on a pretty regular basis for several years. It was a fairly symbiotic relationship. I needed the regular work (they were virtually my only client), and they needed the regular supply of Disney character art. The family grew, the mortgage grew, and all was sweet.
Then, in 1992 there was a disagreement between my studio client and one of its managers who was being made redundant. I was on the periphery of this, but the manager stated she was going to set up her own business which kind of ticked off my client. To make absolutely sure she had nowhere to turn for art my client told me that if I were to supply its erstwhile employee then I was finished with them.
I have to say that, as I had no form of supply contract at all with my client, and they were not obliged to pay me holiday pay, pension, medical insurance etc. and certainly not compelled to give me work, I felt in a vulnerable position. But I am, by compulsion, a planner. I could see the risks I was taking for several years and so I stashed away as much cash as I could in case of need.
The truth was, I didn't know if I would supply the now independent manager, but I didn't like being told 'at gunpoint' that I couldn't, even though I was kept as freelance, with no employment rights at all.
So I called the bluff - if it was one, and the work dried up, the cheques slowed down, and it was a case of who would blink first.
I had money reserved for this kind of thing that would last me about 10 months.
The client blinked. I was their best supplier, their ace in the hole with Disney.
So things began to return to pseudo-normality, but I did not forget, and I don't forgive. I don't like threats to the wellbeing and security of my family. I gradually reduced the work I had outstanding with them, and then when I finally received the most up to date payment I immediately sent a fax stating that forthwith I was ceasing to trade with them.
That was when I set up Character Magic Ltd. A modest little studio that supplied Disney licensees in the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands and Austria with character art. I still wanted to work on Disney characters - a job I loved, and Disney, knowing it was me doing a lot of the art that they saw from my previous client, wanted me to continue too. It was the ideal fit.
I've been lucky in my professional life with the serendipity of change. At about the time I founded Character Magic, The Disney Company finally established a giant European Head Office in Paris. On one of the highest floors of a building in Avenue Montaigne that always reminded me of Charles Foster Kane's house at the end of Citizen Kane was a new department called the European Creative Centre, staffed by some very exceptional artists. It was headed by Carson Van Osten (a Disney Legend now.)
I immediately jumped on a plane and spent a week furthering my training in Disney character art amongst guys, some of whom became firm Disney friends, returning several times over the next few years for more. I was the first British artist to go there, and a lot of my industry colleagues followed suit later, all to good effect.
My personal relationship with Disney in the UK became close, remembering that in the nineties there were no character artists in the UK Disney office - the studio in which I once worked was closed in the previous decade. I helped them out with advice and some character quality control, and in turn they were keen to encourage licensees to use me in order to maintain Disney standards and values through the product development process. The business flourished.
At the end of the nineties though another development was in the air. A change in my personal life caused me to want to radically reduce the size of my business so that it was just me again (I previously had three wonderful people working with me). It was not a decision I took lightly, but was essential if I was to be able to move forward with some kind of financial security for my children.
Again, serendipity played a part. I was contacted in 1999 by The Disney Store Ltd in London, the head office of the European chain, and asked if I could help them out. I was the first artist to work in the Disney building again and began consulting for a few days a week. Before long though I was there full time and my licensee clients had to look elsewhere for supply. But again, change was afoot at Disney in the way it operated, pretty much at the same time I joined The Disney Store.
Whereas previously licensees did all their own product development and organised the creation of new character art and design by using the likes of me, now Disney decided, quite rightly I think, to control this crucial part of the process and employ its own artists (you need to remember that Disney Licensing and The Disney Store were/still are distinct entities that sit under the umbrella of Disney Consumer Products).
This meant that had I retained all my licensee clients the work would likely have dried up until I realised the true client is Disney Licensing. By then though I was in a business at Disney Store that was as 'direct to retail' as you could get, and loving it. I ended up producing a great deal of all the character art that went on the product in European Stores for the next 13 years, monitoring what was done by others, and building relations with my U.S. counterparts. The UK team grew, mostly in terms of designers, totalling around 22 until, in 2012 all product development was moved to the U.S.