Bob McMahon worked in Otago from 1971 as a graphic artist for over twenty years. With a lifelong interest in comics and cartoons inspired by DC Thompson titles in his native Scotland, McMahon has kept his hand in cartooning alongside his professional work for Allied Press Newspapers. In 2007 McMahon published a collection of strips of his cadet reporter from a privileged background Claire Melody. Following the publication of Claire Melody's initial black and white adventures McMahon has produced two unpublished follow up books in full colour. I spoke with him about the various projects he has worked on and the influences upon his work.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Glasgow in Scotland in 1935...So I'm a bit long in the tooth (laughs).
You grew up in Glasgow?
I did until my late teens and then I had to go and do my two year national service in Singapore. So that got me out of the place. On and off I've always been scratching away at doing cartoons and that but you know what it's like you just can't sell them there's too many on the market. When I came to New Zealand in '71 I worked for the local newspaper, The Otago Daily Times, as a graphic artist, did that for twenty-three years. At Allied Press I had a couple of strips going , but it's one of those sad sorry tales, one of the strips I was doing for The Evening Star and course when The Star closed that was it. The strip goes along with it. Put it this way I'd never be able to get rich with it.
(At this point I told Bob a bit about my cartooning background which led to him talking about his artistic background)
My career for all intents and purposes has been self taught. I did do a couple nights at Glasgow School of Art and when I moved out to England I did a few nights at the Polytech. I've never done a formal sort of thing.
Panels from Sir Chancelot - Kidzone #1
What comics did you first read?
Mostly it was DC Thompson comics you know The Beano, The Dandy, The Beezer, The Topper, and that sort of thing. My role model was always Dudley Watkins, he was a very prolific brilliant artist. He not only did pages for DC Thompson but he also illustrated classic books like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon's Mines, the guy was a machine. He was only 62 when he died of a heart attack at his desk. He must have been absolutely burnt out. They're the people they were my role models. At the moment you've got the American dreadfuls, all these Marvel comics they churn them out like all these monsters and transformers and other rubbish, I wouldn't bother with that sort of thing.
Did you read comics as an adult?
Not really. I passed by all the strips in the newspaper right now, the syndicated stuff, more like a curiosity than anything else like you know. I did know for a fact that in the case of The Mail only the cream of the strips come out, three get out of maybe ten-thousand (laughs) that's an exaggeration. The thing to some degree it's amazing how those people when they look at a cartoon, a new strip, the first thing they ask is, "What's its commercial potential? Can you make it into the cover of kid's lunchboxes or tea cups?" That's what they look at. The likes of Garfield which I wouldn't call it very good draughtsmenship, but look at the stuff that does. It's just amazing.
Incidentally I don't know if you know, the syndicates they sell for peanuts, they sell a strip to a newspaper for about ten bucks and that's why they're in three hundred newspapers. Of course the artist gets a percentage of it. You know Charles Schulz that drew Peanuts? He was the first millionaire cartoonist. Of course he's been dead a long time but they still print his comics, still print his strips.
Code-0 from Kidzone #1
When did your cartoon Scat Cat run in The Evening Star?
That's right. That's the one that ran in the weekend. I did it in the paper cause I was already on salary at Allied Press and it ran for a few months. I've hit the cross bar a few times. I did send one of my strips over to The Canberra Press and they were very impressed with it and the asked me to send over three months supply. Which I did, sent over a few months drawings but I never heard from them again. Part of the reason it may have flopped...This was about the same time Garfield came out so they don't want another cat cartoon you know? Another one that almost scored the goal was a joker called Hall or Wall or something, he lived in Sydney, his idea was to do illustrated panels for Woman's Weekly, Australian Woman's Weekly, it was something along the lines of Ripley's Believe It Or Not? This guy he was sending over the copy, what it was supposed to be, and I would jack up the illustrations. Unfortunately the poor bugger got wiped out in a motorway crash. So that was it. (Laughs) It doesn't stop me drawing. I still keep on doing all that stuff.
Panel from Claire Melody
I understand you did some comics for Funtime Comics? (Long running New Zealand comics collective in Christchurch)
Ah, yeah again that's hit and miss you know, I think they only publish when they have enough loot, enough material, again it's just a labour of love.
How did you get in touch with Funtime?
Good question. I think it was done through the Internet. The Editor (Darren Schroeder) he's no longer there, I think he took over to England. I think he's now in London or some place.
Can you talk about the genesis behind producing KIDZONE?
All the artists that worked at The Times, that I knew they all contributed to it. It was quite a fun thing really. The reason that worked, believe it or not, We got Gore Publishing to print it. It was just barely feeling it's way after about a couple of weeks, It was burning me out so I just flagged it, I realised that cause I was doing the whole thing. I was doing the colourations, chasing people up for their work, going down to Gore and literally printing it, printing it the way I wanted it. All this sort of thing and it was too much.
Sam's Son from Kidzone #1
You were working full time as well?
Yes, I was working fulltime as a graphic artist for The Times. There were a few times it was almost to the point of being sabotaged because The Times they had another thing called Jabberwocky (New Zealand children's magazine). That was being printed down in Gore as well and sometimes my work would get pushed aside and I'd have to go and chase it up (laughs). I thought nah I don't need this.
I thought Kidzone was impressive, it was like a New Zealand version of your typical DC Thompson comic. Right down to the paper and colours.
That's exactly what it was based on. The thing is, try and get sponsorship, it's like hitting your head against a brick wall. I approached Cadburys, the wee kids they're into this sort of thing, and he said to me, "We'll do that when you've been going for a year." That's the sort of rubbish you get you know.
Can you recall what the print run of Kidzone was?
Ah...I think it was just over a thousand, I'm not quite sure.
Panel from Mickey's Moa, Kidzone #1
Did the Kidzone distribution by Lyndsay Distributors cover the South and the North Island?
No. That was a mistake we made. It only went up as far as Christchurch. If we had have gotten sponsorship and backing I would have included Australia as well. As I was saying heartbreak all the way along the line.
Did you get any feedback from Kidzone? Did readers write to you?
Oh yeah, yes we did, a lot of letters from the kids. The kids loved it. I'm not sure, who knows, even just one big number to sponsor us, we would have pulled it off. As it was I was paying money out my own pocket for the printing the publication and the returns were just barely covering what I paid.
Did you start Claire Melody after you had retired?
Ah no, I think it was slowly I did in my spare time.
What inspired you to do an adventure strip which was perhaps more for adults than children?
I think it'd always been a thing of the fifties and sixties I was always very interested in...well I'll do my version of it. It was black and white. Most people don't like that they prefer colour. So I've got two lots done in colour to go to print if ever I win Lotto. After all is said and done I've enjoyed what I've been doing. I don't do as much now as I used to.
Panel from Claire Melody
Were any of the characters in Claire Melody based on colleagues?
Ah no. It's purely fictional. I'll tell you what if you want to see really good artwork that was done in the fifties and the sixties look up Garth that was done by Frank Bellamy.
I'm a big fan of Garth and Frank Bellamy in general. Another one that worked hard and passed away too early.
Another one that died fairly young was David Wright, he did the Carol Day strips in The Daily Mail. They're the sort of people as I say that were my role models. I'd never hope to get up to their standard but they were the sort of people I'd try to emulate.
Can you talk about your working process on Claire Melody?
I just do all the rudiments in pencil and ink it in later on. Originally it was designed to run as a daily strip in the newspaper but I couldn't get anybody interested so I just thought what the hang I'll put it altogether in a wee booklet. See what it looks like that way.
Panel from Claire Melody