Cartoon illustration: Funky 90s

As described elsewhere in this archive, the 90s were a creatively prolific period for me, and I developed simultaneously in many directions, and through many different media.  Most of my focus was on the four strands of esoteric art I was developing – Essence Portraits, Power Symbols, Personalised Mandalas & ‘cave paintings’ – but I continued freelancing as a cartoon illustrator, trying my hand at whatever came my way. 

One of my impressions of the 90s was that there seemed to be a cultural enthusiasm for all things ‘funky’, which very much appealed to and insinuated itself into my cartoonist mind. The cartoons I created for personal pleasure became more exploratory and experimental, following the flow of a line, with a preference for organic forms, the surreal and the psychedelic.  My painted cartoon artworks from this period were a confluence of influences from my childhood, especially the wacked-out rubbery distortions of early Tex Avery animations, and the surreal landscapes of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip. The series of 1995 paintings pictured below were painted with gauche onto A2-size Canson paper, mounted and framed, and all were sold privately to appreciative homes.  I also received a couple of private commissions in this style – one was a kind of tripped-out ‘group portrait’ of the staff of a Melbourne animation company – but unfortunately I don’t have any photos of them. The titles of the artworks below are as follows: ‘Please, Sir’, ‘Family Warp 9’, ‘Faster, Pussycat!’ and ‘Wha?’.

This approach was also well-suited to the cartoon-drawing workshops I had begun offering in schools – the spontaneous & surreal images I created on the whiteboard gave students the creative license to step outside preconceptions of what cartoon drawing ‘should’ be, while still teaching them sophisticated drawing skills.  Over the years, as I developed other workshops with more specific content, these original freewheeling workshops were defined in their own right (by student consensus) as the ‘Totally Random’ format: the workshop began with compiling a rapidfire list of random requests from the students, which I mashed together into some manner of surreal cartoon, modelled to the students as they drew. Curiously, it was often easier to teach them to draw if what they were drawing didn’t make sense…

My artistic life often seems a string of near-successes, almost-wins, opportunities that fell through or great ideas that never reached their potential, for one reason or other.  Consequently I have a large body of accumulated work that never found its rightful home, or only served a transient purpose. 

One case in point: In 1992 my father told me about a cover art competition being run by a Swiss entertainment magazine, Zuritip.  I was desperately poor and the prize money was inviting, but the deadline was tight; I worked hard and spent a sleepless night completing it so that my father could mail it to Switzerland in time – which he failed to do.  I was, understandably, less than pleased.

It’s been sitting quietly in various boxes all these years, but I’m still happy with how this piece stands as an artefact of the period, a document of the techniques I was refining for myself. These days I would probably use far less pink in it, and create a bit more contrast in the scene, but in those days I liked using muted colours – the effect reminded me of the aged pages of old comics from my childhood, comics that were already old then, printed in the 1940s and 50s. I usually painted on off-white or yellowed Canson paper to add to this aesthetic.

In 1994 I entered a poster design competition run by Dr Martens footwear, who were still enjoying popularity at the time. Another tight deadline, another sleepless night. This time my design made it into the final selections, which were exhibited for a couple of weeks in the foyer of some corporate temple or other in the Melbourne CBD – which was encouraging until I saw how bland the winning entry was. No accounting for corporate tasteā€¦

Still, I can see that my interpretation might not have captured the Docs image they were wanting to promote. My reference point for Docs as footwear in popular culture came initially from the punks & skinheads I knew in the early 80s, and as the decade progressed, the ‘girls in boots’ trend – ie the-big-Docs-with-a-summer-frock look. By the 90s, there was a cyberpunk and neo-Pagan (‘Goddess religion’) subculture, with extensions into the techno/doof/rave culture, so the beDocked technotribal ‘warrior woman’ in my poster design fit a certain cultural zeitgeist of the time. ‘Kick the system’ was a marketing slogan Dr Martens were using in those years.

Another aborted ‘opportunity’ was this series of T-shirt designs for a shortlived surfwear company in 1990 – they liked the designs but wanted something that would compete commercially with the ‘non-commercial’ artistry of Mambo (who I also approached years later, unsuccessfully – another case of Too THIS To Be THAT). The business folded anyway before we could progress any further ideas – one of many similar cul-de-sacs.

In the late 90s I dipped in & out of the vibrant techno / rave culture of the time.  I was drawn to the spacey electronic sounds, the flourescent psychedelia (already familiar from my ‘hippy’ childhood), its themes of ‘ancient future’ and interdimensional consciousness, and the sheer wealth of creative expression at the outdoor doofs I attended.  Ever the fringedweller, I never adopted the culture as my own, but I had a number of close friends for whom it was a lifestyle, and so I experienced the culture via those friendships.  My personal cartoons became even more abstract and psychedelic in that period, and I designed a series of characters (the ‘Funky Luv Tribe’) based on the characters I met in the rave culture.  In 2000 I published these characters and other cartoon art in an A5 b&w ‘colour-in comic’ called BUGOUT!, which I distributed at my cartooning workshops. I had vivid imaginings of them in their own hand-drawn animated cartoon series, complete with the psychedelic colour & electronic music of the time.