Sunday, 3 January 2021

Definitely not the Morrissey of comics - An Interview with Steve Marchant from the Cartoon Museum

I have known Steve Marchant since the 90s when I used to frequent Quality Comics in New Cross before it transmogrified and moved down the road to Lewisham, newly spawned as Skinny Melink’s Comics & Books.  Comics provided an enduring and indeed, sometimes vital life for a slightly shy, insecure kid who has grown into a slightly shy, insecure yet knowing adult (i.e. me).  The comic community, those devotees who pop into their local comic shops once a week around delivery day to obtain their bounty of inspirational, mythical fare are still a source of fond memory for me.  The endless recommendations of all forms of culture from fellow collectors.  I may have been considered a ‘geek’ in current parlance but to be a ‘geek’ in the company of friends was worth the price of admission alone.

Anyhow, enough of my digression, Steve Marchant has had a long and varied career within the comic industry and educational sector.  Now also working within the Cartoon Museum as Learning Officer/Comic Art Consultant.  So where to begin?

Steve, please can you tell me when your love of comics and sequential art began?  Do you remember the first comic you bought or that was bought for you?

When I was about 2-3 years old, my dad bought me various nursery comics every week, Playhour, Bimbo, Pippin and suchlike. A bit later I started getting TV Comic, and TV21 – being more expensive – was an occasional treat. Around that time, the Batman TV series began and I loved it. Dad bought me some Batman comics for my birthday and that led me onto US comics. You know, the hard stuff.

As to why I liked comics so much, without intensive psychiatric analysis I can’t really tell you.

What do you remember of your time either as a customer or as a member of staff at Quality Comics?  What can you tell me about your memories of Quality Communications too (publishers of ‘Warrior’ magazine that introduced the world to the likes of ‘V for Vendetta’)?  Was it based in Quality Comics?

After I left art college I moved to London in autumn 1986, living with a friend on Kirby Estate in Bermondsey (Alan Moore: “Does everyone walk around with their legs 4 feet apart?”). Quality Comics was nearby so I began going there fairly regularly. Dez Skinn was gone by then, having sold the shop to an American guy called Bruce Paley – lovely bloke. We’d always chat, and after a year or so he offered me a part-time job. There was nothing left from the Warrior days except an Alan Moore V script on the wall priced £40. Stupidly, I never bought it.

So yeah, I stayed there through the move to Lewisham. Bruce sold up sometime in the mid-90s, to the mother of one of his customers, and I left not long after that.

Bruce was a great raconteur, he told me a lot of funny stories of his days in New York; eventually he put some of them together in a graphic novel with his partner Carol Swain. It’s called Giraffes In My Hair, a great read.

When did you begin to create your own comics?  What was your motivation for creating them?  I have read ‘Fantastic Life’ and ‘Stupidface’.  Were these semi-autobiographical explorations of events and feelings that you were experiencing within your own life?  Also which artists and movements have influenced your work and/or style?

The first comic I ever did was a 3 issue, 4 page giveaway featuring The Bad Dream Chasers. In summer 1986, between leaving college and moving to London, I worked with some friends in a performance art group in Sheffield on a street theatre thing that toured all areas of the city, and the comic was given away to onlookers. I made us into Marvel-style characters for the comic, chasing bad dreams that had escaped into our reality. Drugs were not involved, I assure you.

When I moved to London I was unemployed for a few months and I didn’t have a TV, so to while away the time I began doing random 1 or 2 page Stupidface strips that I’d just show to friends. Some of them were pretty autobiographical, some less so. I’d just take a memory and twist it around to make it funny, with my character the butt of the joke. Anyway, people began asking me for photocopies to stick on their fridge or whatever so I thought ‘why not put them together in a small-press comic?’ By then I was a youth worker so I used to print them on the office photocopier while no-one was looking. And there my soar-away career in comics began.

Influence-wise, at that time it was mainly Eddie Campbell’s Alec strips, Robert Crumb’s autobiographical stuff, and The Smiths. I suppose I wanted to be the Morrissey of comics, but looking at the way he behaves these days I’m glad that that didn’t quite pan out. Style-wise, no artist in particular, I’ve never tried to ape anyone’s style. Perhaps I should have, some of those early strips of mine look terrible. 

Please can you talk to me a bit about your educational work (your teaching work and your classes showing students how to produce comics) over the years?

The teaching came out of youth work where I mostly worked with special needs kids, assisting with Life Skills classes – catching the bus, cooking, etc – and eventually I got to teach my own classes at Lewisham College. Nothing comic-y though, it was a whole separate part of my life at that time.

I suppose my big break was getting a job at the London Cartoon Centre in late 1991. It was a training school for aspiring comic artists, and I’d been going to evening classes there for a few years. Me and the director, Eve Stickler, had always got on really well so when her assistant left she offered me the job. About 3 months later Eve got moved to a different department in the parent company and I was running it by myself. As well as doing tedious admin I used to sit in on classes of all different types: action, humour, colouring, writing, etc. I learned a lot, not just in terms of art skills but also different teaching methods. That meant that if a tutor couldn’t make it, I could step in and kind of bluff my way through. Eventually I developed my own classes and also began teaching in libraries and schools and City University, where I taught for 16 years. When the London Cartoon Centre closed down in 1995 I sold my services to what is now The Cartoon Museum. And here we are…

Also I remember once that you told me that you had interviewed the comic creator and author, Alan Moore.  Was this for your own publication or for some other purpose?  Have you met many of the creators that you admire?  Also linked to this please can you tell me how you became involved in the ‘Worm’ project and tell people a little bit more about it (I bought the graphic novel collection the other day and look forward to reading it)?

I’ve met Alan a few times. I can’t say we’re mates but we’ve always got on, he’s a really nice, really funny bloke. In 1986 I had a friend that worked on Sanity, the CND magazine, and he asked me to interview him. So at the big London convention that year I had a brief chat with Alan and he gave me his address, and I went round a couple of weeks later. We talked for hours, he was very generous with his time. I transcribed almost every word from the tape, but annoyingly Sanity only ran a small part. Dunno what happened to the transcript, which is annoying; I still have the tape but I’ve got nothing to play it on these days. The last time I saw Alan was about six years ago, we both ran some workshops with ne’er-do-well teenagers in Northampton Library.

As to other favourite creators, I’ve met quite a few. If I tried to name them all I’d sound like Mr Namedrop, but I’m pleased that some have wound up being proper friends.

The Worm was initiated by David Lloyd to raise money for the London Cartoon Centre in 1991. The idea was to create the longest comic strip in the world, 250 feet if I remember right, a bit similar to the Bayeux Tapestry. Alan Moore plotted it, Garth Ennis and others scripted each chapter, and David designed The Worm – a kind of eternal cartoonist appearing in various points in history. 125 artists – big names and up-and-comers (including me) - were given two 12” square panels to work on at a live event in central London. After it was finished it was exhibited at a posh gallery and visitors’ admission fees were donated to the Cartoon Centre. Then we got a grant to release The Worm as a fund-raising book but by the time it was ready for publication the plug was pulled on the LCC, so we decided to partner with the Cartoon Art Trust – which had recently set up what would eventually become the Cartoon Museum. Funds from the book went toward running classes through them.

You are currently working at the Cartoon Museum in London.  I have visited the museum twice, once in its previous location and more recently in Wells Street.  Please can you tell me more about the museum and your work as Learning Officer/Comic Art Consultant?

The Cartoon Museum is run by a charity, the Cartoon Art Trust, which is comprised of cartoon enthusiasts and creators. The museum gradually evolved from a series of limited-lease galleries in office block foyers and empty shops to its first ‘proper’ site in Little Russell St, near the British Museum, in 2006. That was when it really took off, and with 3 separate galleries it could finally show a wider selection of the artwork the trustees had amassed. Plus, the museum began borrowing artwork from artists, publishers and collectors for temporary exhibitions devoted to a specific artist, title, or theme. Highlights for me from that time are the exhibitions of Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, Viz, The Beano, and 2000 AD. The thing is though that the museum’s increasing success didn’t escape the attention of the landlords, who pushed up the rent year by year, by eye-watering amounts. By 2018 staying in the building became financially untenable so the trustees decided to look elsewhere. By wonderful serendipity we discovered there was a major redevelopment going on in Wells St that required the owners to offer a significant amount of space to a charitable cause, for minimal rent. So that’s where we are now.

I should use this opportunity to clear something up: I am not, nor have ever been, the Curator of the museum, which I’ve seen reported several times. Paul Gravett was its first curator, from around 1993 to 1999; Anita O’Brien was curator from 2001 to 2018, and since January 2020 our curator has been Emma Stirling-Middleton – heroes all. My work there has mostly been coordinating the educational visits from schools and teaching children how to draw badly. However, for the duration of our National Lottery funded Comic Creators Project – when the museum received a grant of £100,000 to buy comic art – I was the Project Curator – which we changed to Comic Art Curator as the other title was meaningless out of context. In that role I bought comic art from online auctions, collectors, and artists, and chose what to put on display. Basically, if you bought a lottery ticket and didn’t win, I got your money.

I believe that you also still teach within the museum.  What have you learnt from the students that you have imparted your love of comics and skills to?

It’s mostly kids that I teach there, and I learn from them what comics are currently popular with the 5-16 age group. The Beano, Asterix, and Tintin are always popular, as are DC and Marvel comics – increasingly so with all the TV shows and movies that have come out over the last 20 years. And manga, that’s very popular now, but not the stuff I like – gritty social realism by people like Tatsumi – being children, all they’re into is unicorns and kids with big fucking eyes.

To return to the subject of comic reading and collecting, are you still a collector and if so, which titles do you most enjoy and why?

Until 2017 I had a massive comic collection, it practically filled a whole room in our flat. Marvels, DCs, independents, undergrounds, UK titles and loads of magazines and books about the history of comics. To cut a very long and horrible story short, I was forced to move to a much smaller place and had to dispose of about 80% of my collection. I donated 600+ comic history books, graphic novels, etc to Staffordshire University, and sold roughly 2000 comics and magazines for peanuts to a friend’s comic shop. I discovered that the back issue business is on its arse due to people’s ongoing financial woes and the availability of reprint volumes these days. Nowadays I rarely buy comics, I haven’t the heart, or the space to keep them.

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed many people’s worldviews.  Rather inappropriately, I am constantly reminded of Dogwelder from DC Comics, ‘Hitman’ comic every time I see a visor.  But seriously, although the pandemic has been catastrophic, do you feel that on a personal level, it has taught you anything about yourself and others?  How has the situation influenced your work?

Our various periods of lockdown have taught me that I can actually drink far more than I ever knew. And in terms of other people, I think it has brought out the best in some. We’ve all seen heart-warming stories on the news about folks delivering groceries to pensioners or working at food banks, and my hat is off to them, it really is. And the owner of my local off license has done me some very good deals on nice bottles of wine. He’s a star.

But we’ve also been assaulted by ‘inspirational’ shit on TV, sponsored by banks and suchlike, where people are all having a laugh during lockdown in their big houses and gardens – really rubbing it in for people like me and my partner squashed into a tiny studio flat, or even worse, for people locked-in alone. All of that has really annoyed me.

Work-wise, obviously the Cartoon Museum’s been closed off and on which has meant I haven’t done much there, and I was furloughed for most of 2020 so technically I’m not supposed to be working although I have been compiling reports and stuff that’ll be useful one day. As for my personal work, if I was living in my old place where we had four rooms then I could have got loads done but now I’m in a 15 foot-square box, with my girlfriend working by phone six feet away from my left and/or watching TV six feet away from my right, it’s a non-starter. I need peace and quiet to craft comic stories that no-one will like.

On a lighter note and because it is customary in talks and interviews within the comic industry to broach such pressing issues, who would win in a fight between Groo the Wanderer and Superman?  Also what are your future plans?  Any projects in the pipeline?

Groo v Superman? Superman. Future plans and projects? I’m not sure at this time of writing (Dec 2020) that anyone can make future plans, although having said that I am looking forward to the bottle of Merlot that I bought earlier. At a very reasonable price.

Thanks for letting me interview you, Steve and I hope that the Cartoon Museum continues to flourish.

                                                                                                Barry Watt - 3rd January 2021.


All of the intellectual properties above are copyright to their respective owners.  I can list them all if you want but I recommend everything and suggest never mixing Merlot with Superman.  I will however promote 'Giraffes In My Hair', 'V For Vendetta', 'Hitman' and 'Groo The Wanderer' because they are good reads:

'Giraffes In My Hair: A Rock 'N' Roll Life' by Bruce Paley and Carol Swain is published by Fantagraphics and a quick look on the internet reveals that it is available from lots of lovely bookshops etc:

'V For Vendetta' is a classic read published by DC Comics (originally published in the 'Warrior' magazine by Quality Communications in installments.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd really pulled out all the stops for this one.  The fact that it has entered myriad subcultures and protest movements proves the point that regardless of the form, if the message is there, it will prevail:

'Hitman' was created by Garth Ennis and John McCrea.  It's just a bleeding good laugh at times.  It was an ongoing series that span out of a DC annual crossover event called 'Bloodlines'.  Dogwelder appeared in this series (and also in various spin-off series) and is possibly one of the craziest characters you will ever encounter in mainstream comics.  Please see the second link for an article based on Dogwelder and what would have been a truly memorable appearance in the 'Suicide Squad' film:

'Groo the Wanderer' was created by Sergio Aragones and is basically a version of Cerventes' 'Don Quixote' in comic form.  Also a take on the numerous fantasy, sword and sorcery sagas.  The character has been published by most publishers over the years except DC Comics (I guess he lacks a cape and cowl):

The Cartoon Museum is an excellent place to visit.  They have a website you can check out whilst they are temporarily closed.  Support them and any museums that take your fancy when they reopen!  Don't let your local museums go the way of the dinosaurs and many much lamented libraries!


Photographs and Steve's work (Kindly provided by Steve Marchant.  Copyright to him and to anyone who commissioned his work at the time)

Steve Marchant

A page from 'Stupidface'

Road Safety Strip - Remember Kids, Be Seen!

'Teenage Kicks' - Cover of an advice comic for teenagers

The Cartoon Museum.


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