The children’s writer, illustrator and Observer cartoonist talks politics, creativity and British artistic identity.
Chris Riddell is explaining why he’s recently decided to only depict Theresa May as a pair of legs poking out of a bin. “I refuse to draw her anymore – she is basically this redundant figure at the head of a redundant party that is more interested in internal politics than anything for the country,” he says of the prime minister.
“So I draw her as two high-heeled shoes sticking out of a dustbin, and I’ve been doing that for weeks now. She shows no sign of any greater life.”
Admittedly Riddell, in his role as political cartoonist for The Observer, broke the rule recently to depict May as a zombie crawling in the snow – a direct comparison with the undead White Walker creatures seen in the recent series of Game of Thrones. It was an analogy he couldn’t resist making – and only a temporary change of tack in his sustained critique of the hapless PM.
“I upended the dustbin and had her zombie-like walking out, refusing to go,” he explains. “Her days are so palpably numbered, but until that day I will continue drawing her as two feet sticking out of a dustbin.”
Riddell is making hay during a golden age for satirists, when politics both at home and abroad has become so crisis-ridden as to be thoroughly ridiculous. Featuring sharp wit and his trademark flair for the fantastical, Riddell’s erudite, elegantly detailed drawings appear each Sunday as a commentary on the latest absurdities.
Despite this influential platform in a flagship newspaper, he is keen to distance himself from the role of a political mouthpiece. The illustrator and author has produced dozens of books – mostly for children – and recently completed a two-year term as the UK Children’s Laureate. His latest book, Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony, was published this month by Macmillan.
Riddell argues that for all their pointed satire, his political cartoons fit into the same creative process he has followed throughout his career. “What I never want to do is be a political cartoonist first – where that is my job,” he says.
“I don’t think that’s particularly relevant. All I want to do is be creative in my response to what I see around me, be true to the way I see things and put it out there.”
Inspiration and collaboration
Riddell trained at Brighton Polytechnic’s art college under the tutelage of Raymond Briggs, the illustrator and author behind such works as The Snowman and When the Wind Blows. He got his break in the early 80s illustrating a children’s book for a Walker Books series made for supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
A consistent feature of his career has been long-term collaboration – most notably with writer Paul Stewart, with whom Riddell has worked on various trilogies and other series of books. This includes as co-writer and illustrator of The Edge Chronicles, a children’s fantasy novel series set in the fictional world of The Edge, a vast cliff with no apparent bottom.
Riddell’s work gained something of a cult following in the 90s thanks to his collaborations with children’s author Philip Ridley on titles such as Kasper in the Glitter, Meteorite Spoon and Scribbleboy. These were dark, surreal and, at times, dystopian tales about neglected and disaffected children living in deteriorating urban environments.
The superb fusion of words and imagery gave these books an extra edge. They remain hugely popular with those who grew up reading them, including many young creative professionals now in their late 20s and 30s.
“I would say that working with Philip was for me a very seminal and influential part of my career,” confirms Riddell. “Philip had great humour in his books, but he had this extra twist of imagination. I think what worked so well was the contemporary feel to what he was doing – he was writing about inner cities.”
Riddell’s own works as an author, such as his Ottoline series and the Goth Girl books, incorporate some elements of this darkly gothic imagination – albeit with a greater degree of levity for their younger audiences of children aged around 6 to 10. Goth Girl, which won the Costa Children’s Book Award when the first title was published in 2013, follows the story of Ada Goth, an inquisitive and adventurous young girl who resides at Ghastly-Gorm Hall with her father, Lord Goth.
Sinister Symphony is the fourth title in the series and sees Riddell in typically playful form, including some not-so-subtle references to certain real-life people. This includes the character of Simon Scowl, a music impresario who wears his trousers high above his waist, and a visiting businessman with an orange face and peculiarly fluffy hairstyle named Donald Ear-Trumpet.
Riddell explains that such references are deliberate attempts to encourage parents and children to enjoy the books together – ultimately in the hope of prompting further discussion about the stories, characters and themes.
“At art school it was Raymond [Briggs] who really turned me onto the idea that children’s books don’t have to be childish – you can deal with really profound issues in the pages of a children’s book,” he notes.
“If I could sum up my career in any way it would be attempting to understand the world from a child’s perspective. That leads quite naturally into the work I do as a political cartoonist, because although my audience is older for those cartoons, it’s still an attempt to understand, rationalise and respond to the world in a visual way.”
Leading by example
Despite his move into solo authorship, Riddell still considers himself an illustrator at heart who dabbles with the occasional writing project. From his training under Briggs to the parallels between his work and other fantasy artists such as Paul Kidby, the long-time illustrator of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Riddell is part of an established tradition of world-renowned British illustration.
“In the British Isles there’s a literary culture but there’s also something that gives illustrators a wonderful wealth of material to work with, particularly in the realm of fantasy,” he says.
“There’s a whole generation of people working in graphic novels now who are doing wonderful work – my current favourite is Alexis Deacon, who I think is a magnificent illustrator. What I see is a wealth of voices and approaches, and I think that coalesces into what one might call a British style. It’s idiosyncratic and eclectic and has elements of street art and graphic novels, but it also has some of the classic golden age illustration influences.”
Riddell speaks with refreshing simplicity and clarity about his process, especially when advising other illustrators. For him, it all starts with the humble sketchbook.
“I advocate to all illustrators and designers that they use a sketchbook as just a place to pour your ideas out onto paper,” he says. “Don’t over-design anything, just keep it as your personal resource, because out of that will come ideas and thoughts for projects. Inconsequential things can turn into something – but you don’t know until you see it on paper.”
Riddell has spent the last two years imparting his advice and wisdom in his role as Children’s Laureate. The position is awarded in the UK once every two years to a “writer or illustrator of children’s books to celebrate outstanding achievement in their field”, with sponsorship currently provided by bookseller Waterstones.
During his time in the role, which was handed over to writer and artist Lauren Child in June, Riddell used the platform to advocate for a number of causes close to his heart. This included partnering with the School Library Association to protest the closure of local libraries, and working with Amnesty International to support the cause of child refugees. Earlier this year Riddell also released an illustrated book documenting his time as Children’s Laureate entitled Travels with My Sketchbook.
This activist spirit informs Riddell’s broader outlook on the world. He speaks enthusiastically about the burgeoning mood of defiance among young people disenchanted with the status quo, and the role of the internet in giving these people a mass platform for expression.
Indeed for all the foreboding imagery and searing satire of his political cartoons, Riddell is confident that change is afoot – both politically and creatively.
“We have this extraordinary resource now which is social media, where if you feel something strongly you can do something creative – paint, draw or write something, and then post it up for people to engage with and debate,” he says.
“I would say to any young person in the creative arts, that this is the new frontier – self-publishing and finding your audience using social media. The increased political engagement we’re seeing in these fairly desperate times gives me a sense of hope.”