The Reckless Pen

I was born against my wishes.

Well, that’s assuming I was able to express an opinion before I was born. If I wasn’t, then the idea of life after death must be thrown into some doubt: I mean, most things in nature are cyclical, right, so at some point life after death must become life before death. Either that or life after death is a…er, dead-end, with no exit strategy and you have to wonder if your wishes count for nothing in this cul-de-sac so even if you do get to such a place as heaven, chances are, your desires will be ignored – so what’s the point of even going there then, eh?

Now, where was I? Oh yes, being born.

Many years after being born I remember travelling in a car along an unfamiliar road and passing a nice house with a beautiful woman tending the garden and the phrase Life and How to Live It entered my head.

I had a mate I’d met at art school who loved to draw cartoons in an underground style not dissimilar to Robert Crumb and I told him about my idea of illustrating aspects of life as if giving advice for young kids. I asked him if he’d be prepared to draw some bubblegum cartoons if I supplied him with the text. He said, sure and together we produced the cartoon strip.

As soon as I had a small collection I sent it off to Sounds. I can’t remember why I chose that national paper over any of the others but within a week of sending it off I got a phone call from Alan Lewis the editor of the paper at the time. He wanted to commission the strip for a weekly slot. During my conversation with him he told me that all the unsolicited submissions he receives has to pass his critical eye first. Then if any of them do, he passes the submission around the office to see what reaction it produces from the other members of his staff: Life and How to Live It got an immediate and unequivocal thumbs up from all of them.

The rest of that day was probably one of the most exciting days of my life: I was as high as a weather balloon – I was going to get paid to take the piss out of society.

While the strip was running, a collection of the cartoons got printed in a book that was distributed by WH Smith and thereby hangs a contemporaneous tale.

A schoolmate of mine, (who also was and still is a loose cannon) saw the strip published in Sounds and contacted me. He said he thought it would make a handsome book and would I allow him to publish it? Sure, I said, why not.

Now, at this time my mate was not involved in any way with the publishing industry– he was working at various jobs, most of them sales orientated and either the jobs or his lifestyle often left him financially embarrassed but he had the gift of the gab.

News on the book was progressing well; my mate had created a publishing entity so he could generate the crucial ISBN that all commercial books required and he’d negotiated a distribution deal with WH Smith for two thousand copies. There was one big problem though: WH Smith would only take the books on a sale-or-return basis and my mate didn’t have the financial resources to fund the printing costs so he told me he would reluctantly have to drop the project.

This was a heavy blow and after much thought I decided I didn’t want the project to die, especially as he’d gone to so much trouble to set up the deal so I organised the funds myself and got the book printed.

The reason I tell this story is because my schoolmate subsequently went through many dramatic career changes (even more violent than mine) before becoming a novelist. He now works under the pen name of Jack D McLean. (Notice the circles at work here my friends: the weird cyclical nature of life and death – yeah, I’ve thought about this shit – I don’t just make it up as I go along).

The strip ran for just over two years. It stopped when a new editor was appointed and his first act in his new role was to sack all the freelancers regardless of their contributions. It was another valuable lesson about how the world works.

And that’s where the story should have ended however, there was something timeless about the bubblegum cards and every so often when I was having a clear out I’d come across them again and think: damn, this is still relevant.

Then recently, I noticed that the Ladybird books et al were reinventing themselves as ironic piss-takes of social trends. Where had I seen that concept before – why, only in Life and How to Live It forty fucking years earlier!

So that was when I decided to have one last shot at getting a bigger audience for the concept and contact some publishers.

The first publisher I sent it to was BAD PRESS INK. As you’re reading this on a website owned by that publisher you’d be right in thinking they immediately spotted the potential in the concept and secured the rights to it.

And let’s face it; if any era needed crucial advice about how to thrive in it, that time would be now.

The Reckless Pen author
Nev - The Reckless Pen Illustrator

Neville Stanikk - the other half of The Reckless Pen

My mother always said that she could tell I could draw when I started cutting my spam into shapes. I think after that I was given anything that would make a mark but not necessarily paper. That was still expensive when I was little and our family had no money, so lots of my drawings were on scraps of cardboard and insides of greetings cards. We had one ancient rubber, worn down to the nub, so I knew I had to keep mistakes to an absolute minimum. We never had decent crayons and sometimes I’d have to wait until a visit to my grandmother’s to get the colour I needed. A few years later I discovered the range of thick and thin Platignum felt pens. I got through hundreds of these and then the satisfying thing was, when they were exhausted, the interior fabric reservoir of ink would still colour pints and pints of water – not to draw or paint with, just to look at, a dozen milk bottles lined up along the window sill, a rainbow of colours.

99% of my drawing was science fiction. At the time most boys drew war, war, war but the Gerry Anderson TV series Fireball XL5 set me on a different course. I can’t really explain why the idea of other worlds appealed to me so much. I didn’t dislike the real world but I was always selective of it – which bits fitted into my romantic science fiction view of things? It’s not ancient history, it’s how I still see things.

So I drew Fireball XL5, then Stingray, then Thunderbirds, then Captain Scarlet. I created Earth Space Force for my brother and me to imagine ourselves into. Our Action Men were the heroes of it and I drew the comics to go with it. Then, I announced that I was a Martian disguised as a human on a secret mission to Earth because my best friend Brett announced that he was an alien called Tekan Kureit from the planet Krana. Two years’ worth of drawings illustrating life on Mars and its technology then followed.

But then I discovered comics. Overwhelmingly Marvel but also Batman and Green Lantern. I couldn’t get enough of them and, of course, my drawing reflected this, and I decided I’d become a comic artist. There was no way of doing it at college so it looked like Fine Art was the most promising avenue. During the process of applying, I discovered there were courses in filmmaking and this seemed terribly exciting because I thought why create things in static two dimensions when you could create them in moving three dimensions?

The Fine Art (Filmmaking) course that I did at Portsmouth Polytechnic between 1976 and 1979 was an utter disaster except for two things – I discovered a love of landscape photography and I met my friend Ivor. We were both cynical about the preciousness and pretentiousness of art and, at the same time, saw the humour in it. Humour and real art are not comfortable bedfellows so we never really fitted in. Other artists can take a concept into a rarefied metaphysical plane where you have to read an essay that explains the essay about the artwork before you have a chance to understand it. Any ‘concept’ Ivor and I discussed soon exposed the contradictions between artistic aspiration and real life and ended up with the joke content being the final value of it. As Ivor and I agreed many years ago, ‘real art’ has to have no practical purpose whatsoever. As soon as it becomes ‘clever’ and ‘humorous’ it gains a purpose and loses its value as art.

After college and an abortive short-lived period in the Special Effects industry, Ivor came up with the concept of Life and How to Live It which combined his cynical view of the world with my cartoon artwork. It was always, in my mind, meant to look like slick Marvel comic artwork but it always came out as underground style. Oh well.

After wasting my time in the Civil Service for a few years I decided that I simply had to do something with my artistic ability and got my first job as a graphic artist. To my surprise, there was more to graphic art than simply drawing but there was often wit and cleverness in it and I liked that.

As time went on though, my real ambition became to be a landscape photographer and when I moved to Devon in 2001 this proved possible. I had four books of landscape photographs published and did lots of work for magazines and businesses. Was it an abandonment of real art? I’ve never thought so. In my mind, all my landscapes are locations in a better world where something amazing is going to happen. So I’ve never really moved on from Fireball XL5.

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