John Watson

Spy (Private Parts)

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!

11 Replies to “John Watson”

  1. …but the thing that comes to mind is some sort of controversy over an illustration JW did for the back of a cereal packet (crunchy nut cornflakes, maybe?) – there was some media coverage over customer complaints about a phallus somewhere in the drawings. I think it was actually an ambiguous coat-tail or somesuch!? This would have been around 1990 but can’t find a mention online

  2. Hi Kyran!

    Yes, I do remember the cereal packet incident. Best forgotten about, if you ask me. The tabloid press were just looking for trouble in a completely innocent drawing of John’s, I think depicting a Pied Piper figure, and he was utterly bemused by the whole affair. It never caused even the slightest blip in his career, of course.

    To this day, some people seem obsessed with finding the hidden image of a phallus in cartoons and comics. Just Google “Disney’s Little Mermaid” in this context and see for yourself…


  3. Just come across your site while trying to find out who was the illustrator for the famed crunchy nut ‘pied piper’. I was given an original packet back (with best before date Sept 1990) by someone who was working for Kellogg’s at the time. Apparently huge quantities were pulped but a few were ‘intercepted’ by the powers that be and became prized possessions amongst the management. The infamous coat-tail phallus is definitely there and I can’t see it being accidental with a person of John Watson’s skill, just a pity it was spotted so early. Wonderfully subversive stuff. It lives framed on my office wall as a reminder. Happy to scan it and send you a copy if you would like. Hadn’t heard he’d died though. Great shame.

  4. I also have an original 1990 500gr box with the “naughty” pied piper on the back.

    It really is a very graphical illusion, hard to see it as anything other than “man bits”.

  5. The porn flakes story was Kelloggs. I don’t remember how or why but John had done an illustration for the packaging. When I visited him in his flat around that time he told me the story about the media frenzy…with quiet pleasure. He presented the illustration, homed in on the offending component and said cheekily….’Look there George, sure enough, there’s his tackle! Wilfred, its been a number of years since you posted here but if you could send me a scan too I would be most grateful. I was at art school in Aberdeen with John and we all rejoice that we knew John up North.

  6. Hello. I was wondering if anyone has come across the actual picture on-line yet?
    Be interesting to see it, as I remember it being pulled from the shelves.

  7. My partner has one of the cereal packets, we are about to move abroad and he wants to sell it, does anyone want to make an offer. The box is unopened, so you could get a few breakfasts out of it too!! But you’ll have to be quick, we need to shift it this week! Many thanks

  8. I do mean the 1990 packet with the naughty Pied Piper on it the best before date is Sept 1990. When my partner read in the papers that it was being banned he went to his local supermarket and persuaded them to sell him 2 of those that they were taking off the shelves. He gave 1 to a friend and still has the other. He read many years later that a packaging museum in Holland has a copy on display, but we’ve never been to see it.

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