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The sit-down comic

Johnny Bean cartoon strip from the Beano

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Work doesn't have to be a chore. For the fourth, and last, in our series on dream children's careers, Lucy Rodgers meets a woman who as a child fell in love with reading comics - and now draws them.

Open the pages of The Beano and you will see the fruits of Laura Howell's labour.

The 32-year-old cartoonist is behind the deceptively-named strip Johnny Bean from Happy Bunny Green, which she describes as "Asbos come to Trumpton", and has earned the title of the comic's first ever regular female artist.

Laura, working from her Birmingham dining room, has the enviable daily task of thinking up, writing and drawing madcap adventures for Johnny and a host of other characters for a number of British comics, newspapers and magazines.

So, is life as a cartoonist as much fun as it sounds?

Laura can't disguise her obvious love of her job.

Page from the DFC
Laura's work also appears in the weekly DFC comic

"There is nothing like sitting down to draw a small boy catapulting hedgehogs over a road," she laughs. "You think to yourself 'Someone's paying me to draw this."

But although Laura has had a passion for comics since she was a child, earning a living as a cartoonist never entered her head back then, thinking such publications just "miraculously appeared" on shop shelves.

Instead, she decided on a career in writing and, after studying English Literature at university, spent her days in children's publishing, writing non-fiction books.

However, Laura never stopped drawing in her spare time and two years ago she realised she still had "a creative itch to scratch".

"I have always drawn. I have never been able to stop myself from drawing cartoons. So I thought if I can get paid for it, then that is great," she says.

She decided to quit her day job and successfully applied for a Birmingham-based scheme called StripSearch, which aims to prepare amateur artists for a career in comics.

'Biggest buzz'

From that moment, Laura has never looked back.

In 2006 she was awarded Best Comic Strip at the International Manga and Anime Festival and now, alongside Johnny Bean, she creates Robin Hoodie for Toxic magazine and The Mighty M for the DFC comic, a strip about the trials and tribulations of a trio of aspiring rock-star teens.

Laura Howell
I am not sure I can picture myself doing anything else that would make me so happy
Laura Howell

Even after two years as a professional cartoonist, the biggest buzz of the job remains seeing her work in print.

"I still wander into WH Smiths and pick up a Beano and open it and think, 'I drew that'," Laura enthuses.

On the down side, she warns, life as a cartoonist is not only about drawing and other such pleasurable pastimes. Like other self-employed workers, she also has other more serious demands on her working hours.

"It is never just the fun stuff you get to do - you have to put time in for admin, to work on things to send on spec and you need time for being creative," she says, adding that being freelance also means work can be erratic.

CARTOONIST
Salary: Fluctuates
Numbers: An estimated 250 in the UK
Breaking in: Qualifications in graphics or fine art, attend conventions with portfolio of work
Source: Professional Cartoonists' Organisation/Careers Advice

"When I have a lot of deadlines the hours can be quite long. I can work 14 hours a day for six or seven days a week. But then some weeks you only have a couple of pages."

Working from home makes it harder for Laura to switch off in the evenings and she has also been forced to develop coping strategies for those "difficult" days when she feels isolated from colleagues and friends.

"I have found the internet to be helpful in that way," she says. "I am a Facebook-aholic and can keep in contact with people, even if not in a physical capacity."

Practice, practice...

So, if aspiring artists fancy following Laura' into the comic industry, how should they go about it?

A background in graphics or fine art would help, she says, because it gives drawers an understanding of perspective and anatomy.

Johnny Bean cartoon strip from the Beano
Johnny Bean is the first regular Beano strip by a female artist

Although Laura says no two stories about breaking into the industry are the same, she stresses one piece of essential advice: "Never stop drawing". This will enable budding cartoonists to produce a portfolio of work that they can show editors at comic conventions or elsewhere.

Wannabes should also be ready to take on board the inevitable negative feedback.

"They will see the flaws and weaknesses in your work, but be prepared to take criticism. You have to have a thick skin," Laura says. Persistence is the key.

"It is a hard industry for people who are naturally shy."

So, with the highs and lows as a jobbing cartoonist, is Laura earning a living in her perfect job?

"I never dreamed I would be making comics. All of my e-mail list is now full of people creating the comics I was reading when I was a child," she says.

With perceivable joy, she adds: "I am not sure I can picture myself doing anything else that would make me so happy. I do love it."

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