If you’ve been a fan of Gary Northfield’s all-ages comics output over the years (and we’ve certainly reviewed lots of it including The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! and Gary’s Garden) then, no doubt, you will be well aware of his Bog Eyed Books publishing venture, which doesn’t just publish Northfield’s own wacky sequential art oeuvre but a number of other deserving UK cartoonists as well. Over the last couple of years they’ve included such luminaries as Jim Medway (Sgt. Chip Charlton and Mister Woofles of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Tor Freeman (Welcome to Oddleigh). Northfield has also put out two volumes of his Derek the Sheep strips, some of his earliest work which first saw print in the pages of The Beano and BeanoMAX between 2004 and 2011, bringing these timeless classics to a whole new audience of younger readers.
The first edition, Derek the Sheep: Let’s Bee Friends, introduces us to Derek’s farmyard world where he lives with his ovine pals and a wider animal community of oddball characters. Derek’s exploits often revolve around his stomach or his own vanity, with his self-obsessed silliness leading him into a variety of scrapes and mishaps. In this collection of stories (each lasting a few pages rather than the one/two-page strips that were a staple of the era in humour comics) we follow Derek and pals Lenny the Sheep, and latterly Cecil the Bee, as they get themselves in trouble in a number of ways – foraging through campers’ leftovers, trapped in trees, plagued by swarms of flies, and causing friction at the farm football match.
Northfield’s tales, with their combination of sophisticated presentation (brilliantly paced 12-panel grids), out-and-out slapstick (there’s plenty of cartoon violence, poo-based disasters and fart jokes), and some moments of quite morbid humour (the bleak fate of Daphne the Sheep in the first story, above, provides a grimly funny sight gag) will genuinely appeal to all ages, with his frenetic cartooning and witty visual characterisation providing added layers to the madcap antics herein
It’s that odd feeling of existential angst, however, that will most draw in the older readers. Amongst all the animal oneupmanship and rural rivalries, Derek’s life can feel like a metaphor for something far more recognisable; his aspirations for a self-improvement (generally defined by a better quality of grass to eat) and recognition often cruelly dashed by his own stupidity. Whether the reader wants to read something very human in microcosm into Derek the Sheep or just see it as a splendidly silly, jokey romp, though, there’s no denying it remains some of the finest work of one of the most important cartoonists working in UK children’s comics post-millennium. A truly all-ages comic that can be appreciated on multiple levels, it’s pleasing indeed to see Derek’s misadventures back in print in multiple volumes.
Gary Nothfield (W/A) • Bog Eyed Books, £9.99
Review by Andy Oliver
Gary Northfield will also be a guest artist at this week’s Gosh! Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw. Full details here.