Back in 2007 I did a bunch of stuff. I graduated from a uni degree in animation, I worked my arse off on creating work that I thought would get me into “the cartoon industry” and I put together a portfolio of witty and smart comic strips to get me onto an Illustration MA in Falmouth.
It actually turned out that none of that stuff was anywhere near as important as what I did next.
I had a collapsed lung.
It wasn’t something I planned to do. If you are tall, male, slim under 30, then your lung can just collapse on you at any time for no good reason. It’s called a spontaneous pneumothorax. A bunch of people have since asked me what it feels like to have a collapsed lung, but trying to describe it is like trying to describe a colour to a blind person – you can use all the pretty words you want, but it isn’t really going to help them understand. These days, I’ve just resorted to saying it tasted like chicken and ask if we can talk about something else.
Right up until this point in my life I was spectacularly determined to become a cartoonist for magazines and/or daily newspapers. I felt a constant pressure to keep coming up with funny, Family Guy/Simpsons type of work and I would become a whirlwind success. As far as I was concerned, my work was always brilliant and hilarious, and anyone who thought it wasn’t was either a. a cretin who didn’t get it or b. just being a git.
However, upon having a collapsed lung, I got sat in a hospital for 3 days with a tube in the side of my chest, and suddenly, knowing that I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to impress, I didn’t feel the need to try and produce flash, fancy cartoons that would make people laugh. I sat there and I did something I’d not done in years: I drew like I was a kid again.
I didn’t care when I got the lines in the wrong place. It didn’t matter if the proportions looked odd: I was just letting my mind come up with whatever the hell it liked, and after a day or so, it became apparent my mind wanted to draw pictures that weren’t loaded with jokes or witty asides, but instead contained heart.
In total, I drew half a dozen pictures whilst I was in hospital. And every single one was a radical departure from the way I used to draw before. The characters looked massively different – they were very minimalist, and barely had any sort of facial expressions at all. Some of the stories and pictures weren’t funny in the traditional sense, but by heck they were interesting to look at.
It was only because I had this 3 day window of hospitlally goodness that I could say “Stuff it!” to the pressure I felt outside in the real world and, for the first time since I was in primary school, draw things just because they made me happy. The characters I developed, The Balloon Babies, are the characters I’m still drawing now. They’re the characters that I developed and honed on my degree and they’re the characters that I developed into picture books that retailed locally in Waterstones of Hull and they also managed to get me a literary agent in London. The flashy, “look at me, I’m so funny” stuff I felt I had to do when I was a young adult is long gone and in it’s place I’m drawing things that really me feel good inside and make me smile. I hope that one day I can say The Balloon Babies were the characters that got me my first book published.
Of all the things I drew in that 3-day hospital stay, this one picture is the one that I like the most. It may come across as very sentimental, but as you may have gathered from this blog post, I feel sentimentality is a good thing. My family came to visit me every day in hospital, and my parents in particular were both so caring, patient and loving. It was then that I realised, it didn’t matter to them whether or not I became a world famous cartoonist, they’d love me just as much if I didn’t.
This picture was my reflection of that moment and ever since then I’ve found that the most important thing about telling stories through illustration isn’t about trying to make other people smile: it’s about making yourself smile and if anyone else can relate that’s a bonus.