Interview with Australian artist Steve Cakebread
Steve Cakebread has been a graphic designer and cartoonist for twenty years. His off-kilter cartoons, which are a wry comment on human condition, have been published in newspapers and surf titles like The Bulletin, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Good Weekend, The Melbourne Age, Australian Surfing Life, Fleur (Brazilian Surf Magazine). When I asked why he doesn’t take his cartoons to job interviews, he told me he thinks they might just be an acquired taste, and wouldn’t want to upset any delicate palates. I’m starting to understand what he was getting at.
Mark: When someone you’ve never met before asks you to describe your comics, how do you explain them?
Steve: Edgy, dark and often right down in the gutter.
M: What’s the relationship between your cartoons and your work as a graphic designer? Which came first?
S: I’ve always done the cartoons. The graphic design came along a fair bit later, almost by accident in some ways.
M: How did you get your work published? When was it? What’s the story?
S: I’ve always drawn cartoons. I was a regular contributor to the University magazine where I attended and continued drawing when I travelled overseas. I’d been painting in a communal studio in Adelaide when I returned and the cartoons were just something I kept doing. One day I sent half a dozen single panel cartoons to the Bulletin magazine and to my surprise the editor loved them and bought all six. It went from there and I managed to become a regular contributor for about 6 years.
M: Did it become a regular gig right away?
S: Once I got published with the Bulletin, things really began to roll for me. It opened up a national audience and because the editor liked my style so much, he published almost everything I sent him. This then lead to the gig with The Melbourne Age where I got a regular daily spot, which continued for about 3 years. A lot of illustration and graphic work spun off from this.
M: When it did become an ongoing exercise, did it change the way you created the work? I mean when you were writing, did the knowledge that it would be read by a regular audience have any bearing on your content?
S: I had to produce 5 cartoons a week. They were essentially comments on the human condition. I tried to maintain a certain edge to the work I created. The fact that I had much wider audience meant that I was very conscious of keeping up a high standard of the work.
M: What do you consider to be the main influences in the development of your comic style?
S: I was a child of the late 70s punk generation so a lot of my influences grew out of that aesthetic. British Illustrator Ralph Steadman was a huge influence as well.
M: Oh I can see that connection just looking at some of his work. It’s really quite unnerving. Your comics are intended for adults. Do you ever feel the need to self-censor or do you let it fly exactly as it comes to you?
S: No I create stuff as it comes to me. The censorship normally comes from the editor but in my case this was extremely rare. In the six years of publishing I only had one story pulled because the subject was a high profile surfer and the mag got nervous about being sued.
M: Do you like to stir the pot? Do you like the idea that some people will get it and appreciate it and others might be offended?
S: I definitely love stirring the pot. The comic I published with Australian Surfing Life did upset a lot of people, even the senior members of the editorial team tried to have it shelved. They argued that it wasn’t in the true spirit of surf culture in Australia. To the credit of my Editor, Derek Reilly, he ignored the criticism and continued to publish the cartoon. It ended up running for 5 years and developed a huge fan base. I ended up selling it to a Brazilian surf mag as well. The comic did get its fair share of complaint letters though. A lot of parents were upset by the rampant drug taking, drinking, stealing, swearing, blasphemy and rubber doll shagging. I couldn’t understand why…
M: Did the publishing of your work have any affect on continuity? Did you start writing story lines or does each strip stand alone?
S: The comic strip evolved over time. The more I wrote and drew it, the more I got to understand my characters. The fucked up nature of certain characters would often drive the storylines. They were all stupid and really didn’t give a shit about anything apart from going surfing. There’s got to be a fair amount of humour in that premise alone. The stories more or less stand alone but there were times when I didn’t know how to end a particular episode. That’s where “to be continued..” came in very handy.
M: Can an artist expect to earn a living from publishing comics? I know that’s sort of a “how long is a piece of string question”…
S: It’s a very tough way to make a living. Cartoonists don’t receive the respect or recognition the way they do in Europe. Getting a regular spot in a major newspaper is really difficult. I think I got lucky, but I had a style that the editors seemed to like at that time. There are great spin-offs from being published though. I picked up quite a bit of freelance work in advertising and Illustration more or less off the back of the published cartoons. I don’t think its a career you would take on thinking it will make you a lot of money, but there are plenty of cartoonists who do, mainly in editorial.
M: As well as designing sportswear, you mentioned some TV concepts you were working on? Are you allowed to talk about that?
S: I have numerous projects on the go in various stages of development. For the past 5 years I’ve been working on an animated concept called “The Daisy Cutters” with David Webster at Ambience/Omnilab. It’s the story of a dysfunctional power pop band based in the suburbs of LA. It is unashamedly pitched into the American market. We have completed a 3 minute storyboard/animatic with a full voiced soundtrack and looking to go to pilot soon. Ambience has funded us over this period and we’ve also managed to record 2 music tracks, which I also co-wrote. We are currently looking for a second partner to finance a 13 part series.
Prior to that I worked on 13 X 1 minute downloadable animations for the Mobile 3G network, creating characters and co-writing scripts.
I also have a kids animation concept called “Boy Germz” currently in development as well. I’m also working on a range of T-shirt designs under the name of “Inkriminate”. I’ve done about 20 designs all up.
M: I’m noticing a lot of multi-discipline when I’m talking to creative people. Do you enjoy working across all these different mediums and having a bunch of projects to focus on at the same time?
S: Yeah I do, but I must say I’m not the world’s greatest multi-tasker. I like devoting time to one thing at a time and seeing it though to some kind of resolution.
M: You’ve definitely got a lot on your plate. How did you get into graphic design? Did you study? What was your entry point to the industry?
S: I got into graphic design after I scored a job with Hot Tuna Surfwear. I was employed on the strength of my cartoons so I had to learn the programs on the job. Thinking back on it, that was a tough entry into that world. I had no formal training as a graphic designer, I actually studied painting. I learned the programs and it more or less went from there.
M: Sometime being thrown in the deep end is the best way to learn though don’t you think? Do you have any future plans for your comics?
S: I have an idea that I’ve thinking about for a while. I’ve done some initial character designs and roughed out a few basic storylines. The working title is “Spakkfilla”. The basic premise is about a character that inhabits a modern day hell, like a sort of suburban Dante Inferno. He lives in a soulless concrete apartment with his partially skeletal dog on a diet of heroin and icy poles and a television that can never be switched off. It’s a horror story really. Spakkfilla is a character that lives in the gaps of life, his existence is barely acknowledged. He’s a metaphor for the dislocated life much of the modern world embraces as normal…mmm, that sounds kinda fucked up doesn’t it?
I want to create something that is dark but funny and reflective of a modern dystopian life. I am drawn to totalitarian regimes like North Korea and Burma whose governments mind fuck their citizens. I think this is great subject matter for art and comics.
M: I can understand that. Humour speaks the loudest truth after all.