David Squires is a cartoonist for the Guardian drawing the weekly shenanigans in football. You can enjoy his work here, follow him on Twitter, and also check out his World Cup comic strips on his website.
David, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I studied illustration at university in the mid-90s, then when I graduated I quickly realised how competitive the world of print illustration is, so fell into part-time jobs here and there. Fairly soon the illustration stuff fell by the wayside – I was still getting the occasional commission, but I’d probably given up actually. I had a real crisis of confidence about six or seven years ago, and basically jacked it in. I left it about a year before even picking up a pencil, but my partner encouraged me to just do an hour a day. When it’s a hobby it’s relaxing, and when things are going well you almost get into a trance-like state, which is probably why colouring in books are so popular.
I decided to start drawing stuff – with no intention of finding commercial work with it – that I was passionate or angry about, and it really took me back to the very earliest cartoons I’d done for fanzines in the 1990s. I did some stuff for some Swindon Town fanzines – that’s where I’m from – which I should probably stop mentioning because someone might find them and they might be awful. I was always drawing stuff for my friends’ amusement, and it was completely different from the commercial stuff I was pursuing. I went back to those more ‘cartoony’ roots, then starting sticking them up on a blog, and had a small but loyal fanbase – fanbase sounds a bit pretentious, but people who enjoyed them.
It was when I joined Twitter that things really took off, and around the time of the last World Cup I decided to draw a new cartoon every day during the tournament. Again, I was a bit lucky because I live in Australia, so I had the benefit of the time difference: I’d be watching games at around 4/5am, would go to work then come home and draw a cartoon in an hour or so. By the time I’d stuck it online, it’d be around the time that people in the UK were getting up, so they’d have watched the match the previous evening, wake up and there’d be a cartoon there. People seemed to really respond to them, and it grew from there – I was staggered by it really. When the next football season started, I continued doing that and then the Guardian got in touch, and that’s where we are now.
Presumably you were just doing that for the enjoyment rather than with any career advancement in mind?
I didn’t spy a gap in the market – it’s just the thing I know best, and the only thing that would make me get up at 4/5am to watch. Football is just the stuff I cared most about and I got most passionate about, and would inspire the most comic material. If I was into angling or collecting model teapots or something…well, angling might be full of hilarity, but it doesn’t really have the same public attention.
One of the hardest things to do in football writing is to be funny, partly because jokes can become quite obvious. But you seem to nail that – do you think it’s easier to do that in a cartoon than an article?
Yeah, totally. I have the benefit of being able to use images. I think when people read a match report, or go to the Guardian to read a piece, they don’t necessarily want something that’s packed with zingers. I’m lucky in that respect that it’s completely separate and different. The Guardian do comedy stuff, with things like the Fiver – it amazes me that writers like Scott Murray manage to craft 500 words a day, when some days absolutely bugger all has happened. I’ve got a whole week to think of my ideas and I sometimes struggle.
Without wanting to sound too pretentious, what is your ‘process’ like? What comes first – a joke? A line? A particular idea for a drawing?
I have a notepad with me at all times, and I’ll often scribble down ideas. I set aside Monday as the day I’m going to sit down and draw the cartoon – hopefully by that point in the football world somebody has done or said something awful or there’s a theme – this week it was Aston Villa. I’ve been wanting to do something on Villa for a while, so I’d been jotting down ideas over the last few weeks on scraps of paper.
— David Squires (@squires_david) April 12, 2016
That can backfire, though: a few weeks ago I wanted to do something about Louis van Gaal, and I was trying to think of a term he’d use to express his frustration, and I spent a while thinking about this, and I was in a meeting when the idea came to me. I scribbled that down on a piece of paper, put it in my pocket, forgot about it, went to the cafe at lunchtime to get a sandwich, and when I pulled out my wallet the scrap of paper fell out and at a woman’s feet. She picked it up, handed it to me, I put my hand out just as we both looked down, and saw a scrap of paper that simply contained the words ‘shit a windmill’. Since then I’ve made more of an effort to put notes on my phone.
I’ll come up with some ideas, then on Monday I’ll sit down and write a script, with bullet points of about eight ideas, and on a good week it comes easily. The dream scenario will be a week like when John Terry announced he was leaving Chelsea, suddenly I had about 12 ideas for jokes, and then it was a case of whittling that down. Sometimes when I’m writing down the jokes something visual will drop into my head, and I take it from there.
I start with that loose script, and then as I’m working through, drawing it panel-by-panel, a better idea or image will come to me. So for example in the Villa piece, I wanted to do something about Villa dropping down to the Football League and never being able to escape again, and the idea about the twins from The Shining came into my head. It was only as I was drawing them that I thought it would be better if Steve Evans was one of the twins.
Yeah, that was terrifying – thanks for that.
A few people had that reaction, which I was pleased about. He’s a fairly terrifying man anyway – part of me does wish someone would give him a Premier League job because I’d just be in heaven for material. Part of it is, not quite making it up as I go along, but the final piece rarely has any resemblance to the initial script. The Guardian have been absolutely great with me. Every week they give me free rein; occasionally they come back and say the lawyers have a slight problem with something but I can only think of three or four times that’s happened, and they do fight my corner. I always know when I’m skating on thin ice – part of me expects that email back, but it’s pretty rare. I’ve got away with a fair bit, I think.
It’s the eyes in your drawings – you have a particular way of drawing eyes that seems quite haunting in a way.
It’s not a conscious thing. I use the eyes to express emotion, and often the people in the cartoons are surprised and horrified. I suppose part of the medium is that you have to accentuate all emotion, so all of those expressions are heightened. In the past I’ve made things a bit too subtle, and people haven’t quite picked up on it. If it was on television it would be awful – far too overdramatic.
Is being funny your first priority? Or has ‘making a point’ ever taken over that?
Being funny is the first priority, but it depends on the subject. If it’s something that’s outrageous or I feel angry about, I’ll try to use humour but also try to use the text more to express what I feel about the subject, without trying to be too sanctimonious about things. I don’t want it to be too soapboxy, and occasionally I think I am guilty of that. I sometimes look back on some of the old ones and think I could have done things differently. On a regular week, I just want to put in some jokes – this week part of me wanted to cheer up some Villa fans as well – but on a practical level I want to make people laugh.
I’ve come to learn some of the things I know will get a bit of a laugh. Some of this will be football people in a context we’re not expecting to see them in, and also football mascots, which I find endlessly amusing. I love to stick one of those in – I always seem to get a good laugh when I put Gunnersaurus in. You can usually tell when I’m short of a bit of material and I need a laugh, I’ll stick in a mascot.
— Throwback Arsenal (@ThrowbackAFC) March 30, 2016
This might be a stupid question, but do you consider what you do as satire?
Some of the more serious ones I would. Some of the stuff around Fifa, and around the proposed restructuring of the Champions League or the Football League – stuff where I don’t want to get big belly laughs, where I want to pick holes and expose the hypocrisy and self-interest. I probably would call those sorts of things satire, if you’re allowed to describe yourself in those terms without sounding like too much of a wanker.
Is there any topic or person you’ve thought of doing, but the reality is actually just much funnier than anything you could come up with?
I don’t know about that, but say when a big story breaks on a Friday, when my cartoon isn’t published until Tuesday, every possible joke or angle has been covered somewhere. That’s not easy. I think I struggle more when something incredibly serious happens, and it can’t be ignored, I have to tread incredibly carefully. In those instances I have to be respectful and I don’t want to offend people, but I do still want to make people smile if I can.
Say something like when England played France in November, a couple of days after the Paris terrorist attacks – there was nothing else going on in the football world, so if I suddenly went off subject, it would be a bit of a cop-out. That cartoon took two days, and I was really careful. And when Johan Cruyff died too – I had a few ideas, but it didn’t seem to strike the right tone, and while I don’t consider my work reverential, with something like that I wanted to play it fairly straight, and not put any jokes in it. I did a recreation of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and about three hours in I thought ‘What the hell have I done, this is going to take a week’. In the end I was happy with the result, though.
Living in Australia – is there a benefit to being physically detached from what you’re largely drawing about?
In some ways. The time difference helps – as I said before, if today I decided to do a cartoon about a game last night, I would have the whole day to draw, then people [in England] wake up and there’s a cartoon there. To them, it might look like I’ve worked through the night to do that.
It is hard sometimes to get a sense of what people are talking about in the UK, and some of those cultural reference points are tricky. I moved to Australia in 2009, and I’ve only been back for one holiday – even in that short time it’s so different: shops have changed, people on TV have changed, politics has changed – everything is different. So some of the cultural references I make, I worry they might not quite hit the mark, because apart from anything else most of the people I like seem to be dying off. Twitter helps, but there’s the danger of viewing things through the prism of the few people you follow. The stuff I do for Guardian Australia is a bit easier, because I can hear what people are saying at bus stops and in life in general, so that makes it a bit easier.