Tuesday, 14 April 2015


There’s dog people, and then there’s cat people. Your choice of pet could reveal hidden parts of your character that you wouldn’t  disclose to your best friend.

Dogs are commonly described as ‘best friends’ – ever reliable, ready at a moment to follow you and, no matter what, a dog will never leave you. Cats, on the other hand, are the embodiment of selfishness, arrogance, and a freedom that can never be restrained.

John and Jo’s house is run by Dennis, their cat. A silent witness to their lives, Dennis becomes vocal at a specific time of day: fifteen minutes before feeding time. If you own a cat, you know what I mean. That sensation of eyes boring into the back of your head, that silent, judgemental stare, questioning your ability to carry out the simplest tasks, like opening a can and pouring the contents into a bowl… this is the daily experience of every cat owner. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say ‘cat servant’. And who can fail to be baffled by the disdain and condescension with which Tiddles sniffs the food and then walks away, tail up and nose in the air?

If you can relate to this experience, then you can certainly connect with John and Jo. If you’re more of a dog person, well… what can I say? Enjoy the hardship of being at the end of a clawed paw.

If you’re undecided on the matter and find it difficult to choose between cat and dog, here’s a test:

Tuesday, 7 April 2015


Meet John Smith

British born and bred, John Smith, despite his name, is not your average Tom, Dick or Harry.
Behind his composure and concealed by his spectacles, he nurtures a less conventional nature. After years of having to deal with a doped-up Greatcoat, John is not easily shaken by the situations in which he finds himself.

Created by John Freeman and drawn by Nick Miller, John Smith could be considered an amalgamation of them both: behind their quiet exteriors, eccentric and original souls dwell. To my foreign eyes, John is the embodiment of Englishness: nothing can upset his stiff upper lip, but at the same time he is ready to embrace novelty and difference with the help of a strong cup of tea.

If I can easily relate to Jo, getting in touch with John’s soul is a trickier proposition. As a writer, I’ll need to do my homework. I hope I’ll be able to do justice to the neat creation that is John Smith.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


When I agreed to write SKID AVENUE, I was horribly aware of the mammoth task I had taken on. Nevertheless, I forged ahead.

One problem I was faced with was trying to understand the personalities of the two main characters. Who exactly ARE John and Jo Smith?

In any fictional character there is a bit of the author. Idiosyncrasies and habits peculiar to the writer are channeled onto the page and emerge in the characters who inhabit the story. All I knew was that John Smith was supposed to be a combination of strip creators John Freeman and Nick Miller (they look very similar to each other – they are often mistaken for one another and John Smith looks like them both!) and Jo was based on somebody Nick knew at art school, but that was it! In the original strip, TheReally Heavy Greatcoat, John and Jo were the ‘straight men’ for a doped-up, talking overcoat John found in a charity shop. Then the greatcoat was passed on to Kevin, John and Jo’s student lodger, and the Smiths gradually disappeared from the strip.

So here I am, the poor writer, expected to revive these two characters and give them new opportunities. Let me introduce you to the Smiths!

A Really Heavy Greatcoat strip from 2005. The New Orleans branch of Jo's family take shelter in the Smiths' home after Hurricaine Katrina. Note: captions were always added at a later stage and we don't have copies of the script!

Of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, Jo has a large family that only occasionally appears in her life but bring chaos whenever they do. Although she grew up in the go-get-‘em ‘Eighties, she felt more at ease living in an ‘alternative’ environment, running a knick-knack shop selling scented candles, ethnic paraphernalia and patchouli incense sticks. Having surfed the ups and downs of the housewares sector, Jo kept her little shop of trinkets going until the recession killed the market for annoyingly off-key wind chimes. Sadly, Jo closed down her business for good, leaving her with the daunting question: what next?

A strip from 2006, showing John and Jo in the future, mutated after years of exposure to illegal tipping.

Too young to retire, but old enough to be put off starting a new enterprise from scratch, Jo faces an unnerving challenge: working out how to turn over a new leaf when you’re fiftysomething.

As a woman, I can relate! But I know for sure that she’ll be able to come up with the answer eventually. Perhaps this is the time when she’ll finally be able to realise some of her dreams!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


When Nick and I came up with the idea of Skid Avenue, it wasn’t long before we wondered: who will read it? Who would be interested in the everyday lives of a middle-aged couple?

Looking back, there are plenty of examples couples-based strips throughout cartoon history. From famous Northerner Andy Capp:

 To former socialite Blondie Boopadoop, married to the upper-crust-but-disinherited Dagwood Bumstead:

And not forgetting the couple at the centre of Bringing up Father, Maggie and Jiggs, where nouveau-riche Jiggs still enjoys corned beef and cabbage, to the frustration of his social-climbing, rolling pin-brandishing wife:

The stories told in these strips find humor in family conflict, which sometimes even transcends into physical violence. Our parents and grandparents laughed at situations which today are a no-go area, but the point remains that without conflict there is no satire, and no humour.

John and Jo Smith, the stars of Skid Avenue, were originally created by John Freeman and Nick Miller for their long-running strip The Really Heavy Greatcoat. They are a mixed-race couple - Jo’s ancestry is Carribbean while John is white British. They were based on two people Nick and John both knew, although the ‘real’ John and Jo never lived as a couple and, as far as anybody knows, never actually met.

As with all the strips mentioned above, The Really Heavy Greatcoat was featured in newspapers and magazines. But now technology has changed the game. Prof. Naomi S Baron questioned whether computers, tablets and smartphones – the “new media” – are changing the way we read. We certainly had to take this into account when we launched the strip, which is why Skid Avenue is now available on the sharing platform Tapastic, and also has its own dedicated website and blog, in hopes of reaching a good number of readers.

And there’s the trouble: the strip finds humor the everyday problems of a middle-aged couple, including their struggle with new technology. If the strip’s typical readership is anything like John and Jo, they themselves will be struggling to get the hang of social media. And who’ll read our strip if they have difficulty finding it?

Are there any interested newspapers out there?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


I know, I know. The internet is full of webcomics. It seems that anyone who wants to get established as a comics creator draws a comic strip and shares it on the web.

Nick and I have enough experience between us to be aware that it doesn’t matter how good you think you are, your fortunes as a writer or artist lies in the hands of your readers, and with all those other strips already out there, it’s hard to get anybody’s attention. Having said that, we thought: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and decided to give it a go.

SKID AVENUE, as a spin-off strip from THE REALLY HEAVYGREATCOAT, was first conceived in the traditional 3-frame format. Originally devised to fit neatly into the ‘funnies’ pages of newspapers, the classic 3-frame format tells the story in three frames (duh), arranged horizontally left-to-right: the first frame sets up the story and the second develops it. The third frame is the tricky one: it supplies the punchline for the first two frames and at the same time provides a cliff-hanger. “To be continued…” In adventure strips, it’s the frame that will hook readers and bring them back to the strip, sometimes buying the newspaper just to read it!

Buck Rogers Daily Comic Strip #1020, 1939. Signed Dick Clakins pencil and ink

The 3-frame format also works as a self-contained story-telling format, where the last frame is the punchline. This is usually found in comedy strips:
Andy Capp. Mahoney, Goldsmith and Garnett.

All these strips traditionally are arranged horizontally. Nick’s original strip, THE REALLY HEAVY GREATCOAT, first drawn in 1989, follows this format. But when Nick and co-creator JOHN FREEMAN started publishing the Greatcoat archive on Tapastic, Nick soon realised there were problems with a horizontal strip. Although Scott McCloud theorised the internet could offer an infinite canvas, where the screen would act as a window and strips could move sequentially in any direction, platforms like Tapastic, designed to be readable on smartphones and tablets, more-or-less dictate a vertical format.

Nick was in a quandary. SKID AVENUE was a brand new strip, and we wanted it to be suitable for as many platforms as possible. Was it simply a matter of rearranging the frames to run vertically? (easily done in Photoshop). Would this affect the way the story unfolded? Would the story have more impact, or less? Would it be better to design the strip to run vertically, or stick with tradition and just rearrange it for certain platforms?

In the end, we did it all. Nick draws the strip in traditional horizontal format (“just in case we ever sell the strip to a newspaper” he says!) but rearranges it to be 3-frame vertical for the SKID AVENUE website and 4-frame vertical on Tapastic. It all seems to work equally well, no matter the format.
Ep. 4, reconfigured for mobile platforms.

...So technology pushed us to re-think what we believed was well-established. For once, you really can teach an old dog new tricks!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


ANTONELLA WRITES... It's never easy to stand in for another writer, especially when that writer is John Freeman. John and my partner Nick used to write and draw a strip called THE REALLY HEAVY GREATCOAT, about a young couple, John and Jo, and their daily dealings with a ex-hippie, permanently stoned, thinking talking greatcoat.

The strip ran for years and gained a cult following. John and Nick kept the strip running even as their careers developed, with John rising up the ladder of British comic publishing and Nick working as a successful freelance comic artist. John now runs the widely-followed DOWN THE TUBES comic news and resources blog and Nick is as busy as ever, with clients in five different countries.

As John and Nick grew older, so did the characters John and Jo, until finally the time came to pass on the Greatcoat to the next generation, in the form young layabout Kevin. The strip carried on with Kevin as the main character, and John and Jo bowed out, never to be seen again...

...OR SO EVERYBODY THOUGHT! Ten years later Nick had a nostalgic moment and came up with the idea of a spin-off strip, featuring a post-Greatcoat John and Jo, now older but unfortunately no wiser. Would I be interested, not to say brave enough to take up the baton from John Freeman and write a new version of the characters he developed? Since I lived in a different part of the world for most of the time the original strip was running and was blissfully unaware of what I was taking on, I agreed to give it a go.

So it was that Nick and I created the SKID AVENUE webcomic. Following the natural flow of life, John and Jo are older and are now part of the 'squeezed middle'. Jo's shop has gone out of business, and John's local government department is being downsized. Are they down? are they depressed? Well yes, a bit, but I'm confident they're more resourceful than they think...

...by the way, John and Jo now have a cat, name of Dennis, who's likely to become a star in his own right...