One of MANY childhood Muppet drawings. 9 years.
When I told a colleague and friend I was going to quit drawing for Bamse – my main source of freelance work for the last 14 years – and that I was considering whether cartooning really should be my day job, he wisely suggested:
Why don’t you go back and ask yourself why you wanted to do this in the first place?
That’s the kind of question that gets you thinking. As I wrote in the last post, I tried to give up drawing a couple of times, but never succeeded. Just like I tried to be somebody else at times. Someone better and more interesting. Neither did I succeed in that. This is how I turned out, like it or not. I’m many things, among them a cartoonist. No matter how I earn my living, I’ll always have that special interest for design and strange creatures made up of shapes and lines. Just like I’ll always be a saxophone player, interested in music, even though it’s not my job. It doesn’t really matter if I’m good or bad.
I always loved the musicians in the orchestra pit of The Muppet Show.
Another artist friend said that being an artist isn’t about the work you do, but about your mindset. How you think about yourself and your art. What you are doesn’t equal what your job is. It’s not your total output that defines you. If you’ve got the eye of a cartoonist, you’re a cartoonist. If you’ve got the ear of a musician, you’re a musician. You can play one note on a piano and still be a piano player. You decide who and what you are. Others can label you whatever they like. They are not important.
But I want to try to answer my friend’s question. To be able to do that, I think we have to go back in time, and look at some childhood drawings.
JP Grosse, the owner of the Muppet theater. Note how Swinetrek (the space ship from Pigs in Space) is tearing down the theater.
Why did I want to do this in the first place?
One answer would be that someone once told me I was good at drawing. Back in the days, in class, I was “the one who could draw”. Well actually we were two, me and my drawing buddy Axel. He had this dark streak in his drawings, while mine was somehow more light weight. He works as a tattoo artist today, while I went into cartooning. Funny how things go.
Drawing buddy Axel’s rendering of Luke and Greedo. Mid-eighties.
Stormtrooper in some kind of tie-fighter. 9 years.
Another answer is that I’m on a search mission. For what I’m not sure. It could be something I lost. The way you used to be excited about stuff as a kid. You know, the magic. Or it could be the hope that something better comes along. Certainly there must be treasure at the end of the rainbow? I might be chasing shadows, but I know I have to keep looking whenever I’m in the sun, when I read, when I listen to music, when I see cool design, when I watch one of my favorite movies, when I’m on my way to see family and friends.
Best friends, Ernie & Bert, mid eighties. I’ve always loved buddy pictures.
As a kid I was excited about many things. And magic was to be found everywhere. I wasn’t the kind of child who “stayed inside while the others kids played outside”. I was pretty active in general, doing all kinds of stuff, alone or with friends. I get annoyed when artists say they were always loners who hated what everybody else did, so they chose art instead. To me there was never a contradiction between art and anything else. Art was just one of many things. I guess I was like any other kid, but slightly more obsessed with drawing.
Ever since I saw Rune Andréasson’s animated TV-films for the first time, I’ve been a Bamse fan. As a kid, getting the comic book in the mail was the excitement of the month. It made sense working for Bamse. I felt I was able to “give something back”.
TV, Comics and Toys
TV was always magic to me, and still is, even though I hardly watch it these days. I grew up in 1980s Sweden. There were only two public service channels, TV1 och TV2. Whatever came on, everybody watched. Cable TV was around, but it was kind of an exception. Series aired one episode a week, and since we had no video recorder, that specific time became sacred. No one was allowed to talk when The Muppet Show, Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock came on!
Three Henson TV-series that captured my imagination in the eighties.
In between episodes I wanted to stay in those worlds that so tickled the imagination, and spend some more time with those colorful characters. With no video recorder, the only way I knew was drawing. With pen and paper you can go anywhere, and the ticket is super cheap. To me that’s probably the greatest things about drawing.
Fraggles in space, why not?
We used to watch anything really, not only children’s shows. Me and Mum were avid fans of Dallas for example. We would watch TV side by side in the sofa, and if things got scary she would put a pillow in front of my eyes. Like when we watched V and the lizards got their masks removed, intentionally or in battle with Donovan and the rebels!
This scene from the first V episode haunted my dreams for many years. 9 years.
Usually I made comics and books about everything I saw on TV.
I also used other materials. Here’s a V lizard with a human mask, in fabric.
And here it is, without the mask. Anatomy was really my thing back in the mid eighties.
What got me in creative mode was usually TV in combination with merchandise or comics. Like if you watched Fraggle Rock on TV and you were lucky enough to get some Fraggle toys, or if you watched The Muppet Show and then you got the Muppet Show comic books. That always made me reach for my drawing pad. Thus you’ll find in my archives drawings of the Muppets, Bamse, Tintin, Star Wars, He-Man, V, G.I.Joe, Ghostbusters, Alf etc. all depending on what was on TV at the time, and what toys and comics were hot (and what my Mum found appropriate for her son).
Some pieces of merchandise and comics that inspired me to create:
And here are some of my responses to these:
We made up our own characters, of course. I should’ve sold Change Man to Mattel!
Here’s Cheating from 1988. Note that he’s often being called “Shit” by his comrades.
Ghostbusters was great because you were free to think up any kind of weird ghost for Egon, Peter and the others to battle.
I was so into action toys between ca 9-12 years, and I used every opportunity to indulge in my passion. Needlework was obligatory at school, so I made a Storm Shadow pillow case. I was such a bad ass those days.
When I had friends over to play, they had to put up with various projects, like making books, building “cities” (worlds or sets), putting on puppet shows, building clay characters etc. What made my drawings stand out wasn’t perhaps so much the quality, but the sheer amount of them.
But I did solo projects too, obviously, since I was always drawing. One of them was a Tintin book. I was spellbound by Tintin travelling to the moon for a couple of years. I used to watch the animated mini-series on TV, then read the graphic novels. We recorded the sound of the TV-series by hanging a microphone in front of the loudspeaker. Then I listened to the cassette and drew from memory. I ended up with a book 460 pages long. I was 8 at the time.
Page 85/460 of my insane book project. 1985.
My grandfather knew book binding and helped me make it into a hard cover. It’s a dear item in my bookshelf, and a nice memory of my grandfather.
My very first video game experience was probably playing Pong on my cousins’ classic Atari console. What got me hooked though was Game & watch. It became the thing at the schoolyard. We borrowed each others games, but damn you if you didn’t bring your own lithium batteries! I had Donkey Kong and Climber, the latter with a transparent screen, so you could vary your backgrounds. It even had a boss!
My friend Pato tells me these are worth some dollars today. Dude, they are not for sale!
Ca. 1986 Mum finally gave in to my nagging and got me a Nintendo Entertainment System. She’s said she never regretted it, maybe since it spawned so much creative energy. I joined the Nintendo club, I kept a journal about cheats and tricks I learned, keeping statistics over which games I completed and so on. And of course, the games inspired me to draw.
Mega Man 2, one of the greatest games of the NES era.
Some friends had the NES, some had the Commodore 64. These machines changed everything. We became the first gaming generation. What was so amazing with electronic games was that for the first time you could control what was happening on screen. As a player you became co-creator so to speak. After that, interactive art to me seemed to outconquer all other art forms. At least for some years.
There was certainly something magic about simple pixel graphics and crude sound effects. Those little squares and blip blop music forced you to use your imagination and “fill in the gaps”. Today with everything perfectly defined by high definition 3D and orchestrated soundtracks, you get everything served on a silver platter. I’m not saying games were better in the past, I’m just saying very little is left for the imagination.
To get into the early Zelda games you needed imagination, and a helluva lot of patience.
Also, playing those early games was a way to hang out with your friends. Since the games were fairly simple you didn’t have to spend 50 hours alone locked in a room with headphones to complete them. They didn’t consume your soul, merely an afternoon or so. I’d say some of my happiest childhood memories is gaming experiences with friends.
Super Mario Bros. 3, perhaps THE greatest game of the NES era?
The start of my cartooning becoming something more than a childhood hobby can be traced back to when I was 13. The family went to Florida for a two week vacation in Miami and Orlando. It was the summer of 1990. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were super hot. Or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles as they were renamed in Europe since “ninja” was considered too violent. Man, that was another era…
The coolest turtle was always the one with the sais. Why he’s dressed as a flasher is unclear. Thirteen years.
There simply has never been cooler enemies than these guys.
When we travelled by rental car from Miami to Florida, we stopped at this gas station and cantina called Roy Roger’s (for Swedes that’s kind of a remarkable coincidence). There in a corner was the TMNT arcade game… My head was completely blown off! I didn’t have enough quarters to get past Bebop and Rocksteady (which was fairly early on in the game), but it didn’t matter. I wanted to stay in that world forever.
Eastman and Laird’s Ninja Turtles comic books started out already in 1984. They had a more “undergroundish” and darker look.
The Turtles material that came to Sweden was the kid friendly version based on the TV-series. Didn’t matter, that’s the stuff we loved.
Then at MGM Studios, we saw the Turtles live! They came in their yellow Turtle mobile, stepped out and waved to the audience!
We’d had an amazing journey, visiting the Everglades, Kennedy Space Center, we’d gone fishing and I’d nearly caught a barracuda. We’d seen Sea World, Epcot Center, Magic Kingdom and more. I was excited by everything. From the advanced parades, roller coasters and shows in the parks, to watching the animated Super Mario Bros. Super Show on the hotel room TV, or just buying cereals at the super market (I always loved cereal boxes). Something about being there in that environment triggered something.
A wish or hope started to materialize in my young still highly impressionable mind. I wanted to “get behind it”. Getting to the producing side of things. Not just consume stuff. It wasn’t dreaming about fame and fortune, I just wanted to be part of the magic store.
I’m always reminded of that time when I’m in the sun. I once asked my Dad – a brave and relentless person – from where do you get your strength? He said “the sun”. I think I’m the same. I adore the sun. I’m generally a much more inspired person during spring and summer season in Sweden. As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to keep my spirits up during autumn and winter. No sun for six months, it’s just unbearable.
On our way back from Florida I learned that Jim Henson had just passed away, a month or so before we got there. I knew as I saw it on the cover of just about every magazine in the airport. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized the significance of this, for me. As a kid, Jim Henson was just a name for me. Later on I came to realize how much his work had inspired me. You can read more about this in a previous blog post.
I guess you could say the Florida trip marks the end of my childhood. When we got back, teenage life awaited, and things were never quite the same again. From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Teenage Real Life. But that’s another story…
So, why did I want to do this in the first place?
As a child, drawing became a way to stay in the fantastic worlds of the TV. Spending more time with all those lunatics and weirdos, reliving their stories, or creating new ones. Eventually I wished to be on the producing side, to be part of the magic store. Later on, I guess you could say there was an element of nostalgia. Drawing became a way to “go back there” when everything was greener and sunnier, and more fun and exciting. But it was never really about the pop cultural items themselves, it’s the friends and family I shared those experiences with, and the creativity they sparked.
From one particularly intriguing Fraggle episode, in which they went looking for the Echo Hole, to let the finger of light decide who’d be Ruler of the Rock. Ca. 1985.
Just like the sun stays in your skin after a great summer day, drawing for me became a way to stay in the sun, even during dark days. And I wish for my cartoons to bring some sunshine to whoever sees them. Not that they necessarily have to be happy, but luminous maybe?
Robin: Uncle Kermit, is this about how the Muppets really got started?
Kermit: Well, it’s sort of approximately how it happened.
Same thing could be said about my story. This is one version. There’s a zillion other ways to tell it. Most importantly, it’s a thing of the past. It’s really not that important. What makes me look ahead and keep me going at cartooning today are not necessarily the same things, but they’re part of it. Thanks for reading.
ALL DRAWINGS IN THIS POST ARE © ANDREAS QASSIM