Continuing the galleries for UK small press mini-comics, I’ve started a page for John Watson. 16 covers up so far; more to come from this exceptionally wonderful and talented illustrator. As an introduction to this artist, here’s an appreciation I wrote for him soon after his death in 2002. It was published, along with other tributes, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work.
John Watson (2002)
John Watson was an exceptional artist, and one with a quirky side which he exhibited in an extraordinary series of small publications. Between about 1986 and 1988, John produced at least 25 titles of these small-run pubs, most of them under the general title SPY. Other titles included HUMP, CUCKOO, OVO, FLY, MONSTER, NOSE, MOUTH and HUM. I helped to sell these through the Fast Fiction distribution system which I was operating at the time. John’s little publications were sold as mini-comics, although they weren’t strictly comics at all. Usually xeroxed onto sheets of A4 cream or blue paper, they unfolded to reveal – not a strip cartoon, but a huge sprawling imaginary landscape, peopled with weird semi-human creatures parading around bizarre, twisted cities and crazy ramshackle buildings. Characters spoke in word balloons, but that’s about the only concession to conventional comic strips John made. He never told a story and never had a recurring character.
Everyone bought the SPY series and came back hungry for more. No wonder. These tiny slices of oddness were addictive – I think that nobody (myself included) could quite figure out what was happening in them, and we just kept reading to try and get onto John’s wavelength. Sure, they promised plenty laughs. The characters looked superficially like ‘bigfoot’ cartoons; but a closer look revealed them as ingeniously delineated grotesques, positively reeking of ugliness. His one-liners promised conventional gag-joke hilarity; read them carefully, though, and they turned out to be absurdist utterances, each one operating with a bizarre, self-cancelling logic.
I’m looking again at the SPY comics now after some 12-13 years, and find they are steeped in fairly dark, bleak observations on the human condition. At the time I used the phrase ‘life seen as an energetic pageant of lunacy’. John wasn’t a bitter man. The callous indifference and casual selfishness of his characters is observed, not with a Swiftian despair, but with a complaisant shrug. John was preoccupied with the way human relations didn’t really work. All his characters fail to communicate; instead, they speak in twisted versions of well-known phrases, mostly to themselves (I can’t recall a single dialogue taking place in any SPY). Suicide is the life-option of many of them; usually they do it by leaping from one of Watson’s many bleak tower blocks, to the general indifference of the remaining populace, who either don’t notice, or don’t understand.
John couldn’t escape the physicality, the dirt and filth of human relations; most of his characters stink, and cheerfully discuss their smelliness with each other. If there isn’t any stink, John will find some to dig up; even his buildings proudly displayed their huge sewage pumps, spewing effluent onto the streets. Perhaps he found human behaviour too clinical; we all like to hide our feelings, but John’s SPY would dig them up and make us wallow in them. Maybe he used stink as a metaphor for real emotion. I think this also informed his totally idiosyncratic take on sexual relations. I can’t figure out if John found sex completely absurd, or dangerous and frightening, or all three. He stopped short of drawing it in a vulgar way, but he found other ways to really let fly. Never afraid of huge phallic symbols (or breast substitutes), he allowed his characters to develop enormous growths and protuberances which were little short of nightmarish. The nose was his favourite penis-substitute, but long worm-like necks and tentacles also abounded. These growths acquired a life of their own, literally. Lust In Space depicts a half-human, half dustbin-robot with the ubiquitous Watson condom on his nose, while his sex organ has grown a pair of feet and walks ahead of its owner, boasting ‘My mental capacity is as big as my sexual capacity’. There aren’t many artists short of Hieronymous Bosch who could pull off an image like this.
I always wondered if John was troubled by what he saw as a basic lack of compassion in the world – certainly nobody in SPY world exhibits much in the way of love. Rather, everyone seems motivated by need. Basic human needs – they’ll use each other for sex, but in the end will settle for anything they can get their hands on. ‘Can I have your tin of beans?’ they ask one prospective suicide. The most touching statement he ever made was on a visiting card. ‘Your heart doesn’t work properly until it’s been broken’.
John Watson – the Spy in the House of Lust!