Dear, dear readers and thinkers, I write to tell you about someone I think is a remarkably talented life form, human and carbon-based, living amongst us on this planet.
On one of my many adventures into London, I fell in with a wonderful assemblage of characters and tatterdemalions. Yes, artists, musical types, writers, and uncommon people. And a few colorful scoundrels! As Jack Kerouac wrote in “On The Road”: “people who never yawn, never say an uncommon thing…”.
And I had wonderful adventures with Lucinda Seiger, and a galaxy of wonderful artists and venues that were in orbit around her… and one of the most interesting is the subject of this piece: Mark Stafford.
I was referred to Mark when we were looking for a unique poster for our Earthday Event. What he produced was visually exciting, quirky, and had a bit of danger in it… we loved it.
As a unique and practicing visual explorer, Mark is best at telling his story:
I grew up through the 70’s and eighties in Dorset in the South of England; my mum painted a bit, and sewed and made her own bread and wine and grew her own vegetables; Dad was a carpenter, and we had a workshop full of tools and lumber. We lived in a house that made stuff. And read stuff.
As a kid I devoured everything. A lot of books and magazines and music began to pile up in my room. I think a lot of my sense of humor and aesthetics came from the sleeves of Dead Kennedy’s and Cramps albums. I had phases of loving the Surrealists and Francis Bacon paintings and Monty Python and all manner of strange cinema.
My own experience with the comic universe began with M.A.D. Magazine which was all we could get at the base exchange; but it was enough to get me started.
There was Don Martin and his insane characters who had funny shoes and quirky situations… and then there was the pantheon of the best of the best of caricature cartoonery: Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, and Jack Davis…
While this nonsense was going on at MAD, on the West Coast, in San Francisco, Bill Graham was hatching his double-super-groovy plan to take over the known universe beginning with The Fillmore West. And having a rock-groove venue required the appropriate rock-groove poster strategy: enter The Family Dog.
The Family Dog was a collection of poster artists (Stanley Mouse, Alton Helm, Wes Wilson, Vic Moscoso, Rick Griffin) who defined an entire generation of music and how music was communicated to the record and ticket-buying public using the humble handbill and rock poster mediums.
And the most outstanding of these cartoonists and illustrators was Rick Griffin. Like Mark Stafford, he had very humble beginnings, and then went on to create the logos and posters that defined his – and the music – universe: The Grateful Dead owes its defining visual imagery to Rick, as does It’s a Beautiful Day, Poco, Quicksilver Messenger Service and so many others.
And Janis Joplin, too. Her iconic breakthrough record “Cheap Thrills” used another rising start to do the cover illustration: R. Crumb! By the way, a record is a 12″ diameter disc made of cheap polycarbonate, generally in black with a hole in the center and… wait a minute – you think you’re the smartest tool in the shed? Ok, riddle me this: how many grooves does a record have? Yeah, now you’re thinkin’…
And then a whole crop of Super Hero Comix exploded onto the scene – The Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and on and on… After a while, they lost their luster and their literary way. And the really sad thing was when you looked at them carefully, you could see they were poorly drawn. And they looked cheap and destined to be fish wrappers. Part of that was low-budget press time. The colors never seemed to quite line up. And the combination of low-grade newsprint and 58 dot line screen didn’t add a lot of additional commercial value. Consequently, they held little interest both visually and intellectually.
What did happen, at the same time, was the solidification of the comic strip as a valuable cultural item. It was now firmly in place in the US as a respectable medium which enhanced, even more, the cultural and historical roots of its ascendency: the British cartoonists of the previous centuries.
And then Roy Lichenstein engineered the cross-pollination jump of the era. Roy took it from the cheap paper and 58 dot line screen to New York Pop Art iconography with his huge canvas versions of comic strip panels.
Compared to the remarkable talents MAD had assembled, cartooning seemed to be slipping away, and the artistry with it. But it looks like that artistry and the attention to detail it requires has returned.
In comics I read the usual Beano and Buster and stuff that filled UK newsagents at the time, but really got into 2000AD as a teen, and loved that mix of dark humour and action that involved an insane body count. And at the same time my friends were seeking out whatever copies we could find of Heavy Metal and any undergound comics we could sneak past our parents, so Moebius and Druillet and Corben and Shelton and Crumb were entering the picture.
The 2000AD crowd got poached by DC comics in the mid-80’s so I followed them there, and put up with them making superhero comics for a bit, which was/is a genre I’ve never really loved. Whenever I’d read an interview with 2000AD types like Moore or Bolland or whomever they would always mention creators and comics they liked, which would introduce you to Love and Rockets and RAW and Dan Clowes, and Lynda Barry, who would then in turn make you aware of other creators and other comics…
What makes The Cartoonistry of Mark Stafford so appealing is his talent for skating on the very thin edge of the entertainment and editorial reportage worlds, and skillfully avoiding the black hole of in-your-face political commentary.
After years of toiling in the small press salt mines, he co-created the Dark Horse graphic novel Cherubs! with Bryan Talbot, and since then he has made beer labels, theatre posters, graphics, record covers, and gallery showpieces, as well as a steady stream of self-penned strips for various anthologies.
His fruitful partnership with the writer David Hine has so far produced, amongst other things, three books; a BCA short-listed Victor Hugo adaptation The Man Who Laughs, the ‘tale of rural unease’ Lip Hook, (both for publisher Self Made Hero) and their creepy serial ‘The Bad Bad Place‘ running in Meanwhile magazine which was collected into a hardcover by Soaring Penguin.
The early 2000s changed everything, I got a call from Bryan Talbot, whose work I had long loved, asking if I wanted to create the art for Cherubs!, a book he was putting together, and, whilst I was working on that I started working for the Cartoon Museum, in what became my loosely defined role as cartoonist in residence. Cherubs! Gave me 200 pages of storytelling boot camp, the museum gave me a base to work for and from.
They have hundreds of years of British cartooning on the walls, from Gillray and Hogarth to the present day, which introduced me to another round of influences and got me in the gallery of too many great exhibitions to list, glugging wine at the launch of a Ralph Steadman show rubbing shoulders with an older generation of satirists is a good place to be…
A project in collaboration with the British Council/Arts council Korea in Busan has resulted in the short book Kangkangee Blues, a love story, of sorts, printed by the LICAF fund for the 2019 Lakes Festival.
So, dear reader, this ought to give a little insight into exactly where the cartoonistry of Mark Stafford came from, comes from and is going, a sort of breach-birth of ink spattered papers, fully formed, then re-forming again, and again…
Papers strewn helter-skelter across the visual landscape where, if you look closely, you can just see a bearded figure chasing after them. Running hard, trying to add one more dash of color, reaching out to catch them as the wind moves them along, just out of reach.
He’s still chasing after them, running towards his beautiful creations as they disappear just over the hill… into the far horizon.
“If there’s a place for musical perfection, it’s wherever you’ll find Eric Sommer. A blistering acoustic style, plus a variety of slide and open tuning formats, will knock you for a loop…” wrote Studdie Burns, New Melody Maker/UK in 2013.
“How one guy can do this so well is remarkable. Look a little deeper, and there’s a batch of road miles around this lad… and it all makes sense.”
Eric started his musical career in the Boston area under the eye of legendary promoter Don Law. Eric was onstage at The Paradise Theatre in Boston for a record 40 appearances. He has been a regular player on many national and international tours and showcases. He worked in Europe for two years with Nick Lowe and acts Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric. Dduring this period Eric worked on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston, and formed The Atomics.
As a founding member of Boston’s legendary pop/new wave cult trio “The Atomics”, who toured non-stop with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedy’s and were on the leading edge of several musical transformations, Eric never lost sight of his acoustic roots, returning to his heroes and mentors often: David Bromberg, Steve Howe(YES), Duane Allman (Allman Bros.), Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Robert Johnson. Mr. Sommer’s current project with power trio “The Solar Flares” shake up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg’s influences with those of Randy Travis and British Rocker Elvis Costello – a remarkable mix.
And to keep track of it all, Eric started keeping notes, which evolved from napkin scribbles to paper and pen efforts, writing stories, making poetry and capturing the roads and bridges as they went by, plus people, places and… more people which become his notes, then become characters for songs, stories, and prose.
Eric currently has four volumes of verse, 5 studio albums, a LIVE in AUSTIN DVD as well as an electronica project titled “The Smallest Particle” and more on the way… this blog is an attempt to keep track of it all…
You can reach Eric directly at ericATericsommer.com and see more of his projects here on this website. Red Chairs, Black Pancake and Blue Turtle are all available here, as well as all current releases. Please share and comment below.
Singer/songwriter Eric Sommer is an unbelievable intersection of improbable influences and experiences channeled into an amazingly diverse catalog and a résumé that reads more like a musical adventure novel than a series of career bullet points.