For the best part of two decades, Nigel Parkinson has been drawing some of the most familiar characters in British comics. His is the pen that draws the Beano’s Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx. But the road to Beanotown was long and paved with disappointment.
He began drawing when he was very young. “My mum’s dad was a stonemason and he was very interested in drawing. He showed me how to hold a pencil – he died when I was two so I must have been two or younger. I’ve been drawing since then. I’ve just never really known how to stop.”
Parkinson was fascinated by the way ideas popped up all the time in new publications. “I loved anything published; newspapers or comics or magazines, I loved the idea of something being new, coming out daily with a newspaper, weekly with a magazine, every so often with a book. All the time there is something new and new drawings needed.”
He was still at school when he decided he wanted a career in comics and cartoons, but his family and teachers were not exactly encouraging. There were fears around the job’s precarious nature, and as a career it wasn’t taken seriously. “I remember an aunt saying, ‘being in comics would be nice, but perhaps you could get a proper job, like a fashion designer?’” He was advised to teach, even become a miner, but not a cartoonist.
Parkinson’s description of his school is reminiscent of Beanotown’s Bash Street School: “It was one of these schools where the masters wore gowns and mortarboards, and even then in the 70s it was very out of date,” he says. “The careers teacher in school would say, ‘there are not a lot of jobs doing that’, and then everyone else would be saying, ‘can you draw me this poster?’ or ‘can you quickly do me a caricature of so and so?’. The idea that they were trying to foist on me that it wasn’t a good career was belied by the fact that everyone was asking me to draw for them.”
He almost “did the proper thing” and went to university, but changed his mind and began trying to find work in cartoons instead. Piles of rejection letters later, Parkinson decided he needed to get a “proper job” and worked for the county council for a year. The project he was working on came to an end and he was offered redundancy. He took the money – £300 – and ran, all the way to Paris, where he soaked up Bohemian life before returning home with a head full of ideas. “Paris was very artistic; you felt then that anything was possible in life. I came back and thought, ‘yeah, I’m energised’,” he says. “I sent off two parcels of artwork, with pages and stories and word balloons and my own characters. I sent one to DC Thomson [the Beano’s publisher] and one to the London publisher, IPC magazines.”
The next day he had positive responses from both. “We had a few goes at doing new original things for about 18 months, and it never really took off. Eventually, I was advised by one of the editors at IPC to try ghost artist work.” The job of a ghost artist is to step in when a regular cartoonist is unavailable – drawings should be indistinguishable from those drawn in other editions. “And that’s when it really took off and I started to actually, sort of, make a living out of it.”
Parkinson worked for the Dandy, among other publications, then in the late 80s there were two more big developments. He was taught to draw in a different way – using layout pads and marker pens instead of traditional Bristol board and Indian ink, which drastically improved his productivity. And he landed a regular slot drawing the Grange Hill cartoon strip in the now defunct Fast Forward magazine.
Parkinson was determined to get more regular work, and set his sights on the Beano. He would draw the characters of Dennis and his family, and send them with scenarios to the editor, who repeatedly said they were not quite right. So he kept trying. “That’s what you do. You just pester them until finally someone is sick and can’t do the job, or someone is late, and that’s your chance, and you have to grab it. And hopefully you get another piece of work later on. I spent 17 years asking the Beano editor for a job and eventually he relented.”
Parkinson was in his late 30s when he got his break at the Beano – his very first Dennis drawing was of the striped menace being shot from a cannon for the comic’s cover. He now works on the Dennis strip with writer Nigel Auchterlounie, who usually provides him with a scenario on a storyboard, which he will develop and illustrate in his way. “We used to have a set of writers, a set of cartoonists, a set of hand letterers and set of colourists and so on. Now we do a lot of multi-tasking. There are probably about 20 people in all doing every Beano,” he says.
The comic has been hauled up to date in recent years, and the artists have to keep things current. Parkinson recently penned a picture of Madonna on stage at the Brit Awards, with Dennis sneakily pulling her cape and causing her to tumble.
Parkinson has been drawing for the Beano for almost 20 years, but he is still a freelance artist and works from his Liverpool home. “Being freelance is good in one way and bad in many ways. You work how and when you want, and you are paid for every page you do. On the other hand, there are no benefits, no holiday, no pension at the end of it.”
The path into cartooning is different for everyone. Parkinson’s own approach was to learn on the job. He didn’t do formal courses, but researched his craft at the British Newspaper Archive, which was then in Colindale, London. “I spent a week looking at how other people had drawn comics over the years and soaking it in. That was like my Open University course.” He is not sure of the value of cartooning courses but says: “I suppose it might marshal someone’s thoughts and organise them, and that is always good. It took me a long time to figure out the short cuts and little tricks.”
Anyone hoping for a career as a cartoonist needs plenty of motivation: “If you don’t feel well, or don’t feel inspired, you’ve still got to do it.” And you must be relentlessly, unapologetically persistent. “This is what it’s like when you are a freelance cartoonist: you struggle for 17 years, then you consolidate it for 17 years, and that’s your career,” says Parkinson. And, of course, you need talent. “You’ve got to be able to draw the characters. That’s the main thing, and it’s easy to forget it.”