Monday, August 12, 2013

The longest running character no-one's heard of.

Ask someone which Beano characters they know and I reckon they'll say Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids. Ask for a few more and you'll probably get Billy Whizz, and Roger the Dodger. All these strips have been appearing continuously since at least the 60's. There's one other character who has appeared continuously since 1975, can you name him?

Yeah, 'course you can. It's Ball Boy. Created by Billy Whizz artist Malcolm Judge, he's been drawn and written by a handful of people over the last (almost) 40 years. Yikes. He's actually 20 days older than me, and I try not to dwell on my impending 40th birthday. The thing that always struck me about Ball Boy from the time I was young was that despite reading countless strips, I had no real idea about Ball Boy's character other than that he's obsessed with footie. Is he good at football, or is he bad at football? Is he selfish and scheming, or is he gregarious and helpful? Is he naughty or a do-gooder? Clearly something has been lost since he was created. Even his curious haircut has morphed into something a bit more acceptable.

John Dallas' Ball Boy. 

Dave Eastbury's version.

I first started thinking of a different version of Ball Boy a year or so ago, and produced a sketch in a sort of Leo Baxendale/Tom Paterson style. I was just practicing my Beano artist styles at the time (which is helpful in getting work) so I hadn't fleshed out any idea for a new direction for the strip, but I sent it to the editor anyway. Well, it transpired that a new approach for the character must have been in mind for the revamped 75th anniversary Beano, because not so long ago the editor asked me to have a crack at him.
You can see how my sketch was very close to Dave Eastbury's version.

So, when I was given the go-ahead there were a few things that needed working on. The look of the character was one, but more important was to give him a personality. I also decided to expand the cast of characters. One of the problems with writing my last Beano strip 'Big Time Charlie' was that he was just sort of talking to himself; He has no foil to inspire jokes. I decided to make Ball Boy an arrogant idiot, a parody of the perception of footballers, who are in actual fact well read, intellectual characters with the souls of poets and vocabularies to match. Ball Boy now believes himself to be as important as a premiership footballer, often confusing reality with this fantasy. To help him along his best friend Benji has been transformed into his put-upon agent, there's a kid reporter out to get a soundbite called Jeff, there's two sofa-bound pundits called Alan and Alan, there's his Dad, and soon you will see the first appearance of Ball Boy's brand-new arch nemesis. Stay tuned for that one. 

So to his appearance. I decided very early on to junk a retro-style design for two reasons. First, I thought that would be a bit incongruous with my new approach-he needed to have more of a modern footballer's look. Hence the earring, the pink boots, the ludicrous mullet. (Mullets are always worn by archly ironic berks or fashion-incompetent eastern europeans so they are always amusing). Second, if you draw in a style that's more natural, rather than ghosting a style, the drawing can be more fluid because you're creating the model as you go along. In other words, it's quicker. 

A couple of early sketches: 

In the first one you can see he looks way too old. I though the character would work more logically as an arrogant teenager, but it becomes more surreal (and therefore funnier) when he's of the traditional indeterminate Beano age. 

I decided that these ones were a little too knowing and mischievous. What I needed was to make him more absurd and daft and to that end I gave him less of a square jaw and a much longer nose. That way he also gets a good silhouette, markedly different from the other regular Beano characters. This is the final design: 

So there you have it. So far the strip seems to be popular, and I think that's because my love of football and the absurdities that go along with it come through. The new look is perhaps not so popular with people because they like the Beano characters to remain as they are, but as Ball Boy was never a much-loved character I think I was right to take such liberties with him. 

Oh, and just so you know, he's GOOD at football. 

1 comment:

WizzKid97 said...

Ball Boy was my favourite character for a long time, I always liked Dave Eastbury's older Ball Boy strips (but much preferred his second character design) and was sad to see he was quietly dropped and then soon replaced by John Dallas reprints around mid-2009. However, as much as I hated admitting it, Ball Boy was becoming weaker and weaker and was always being ignored - I'm amazed he lasted so long to be honest!

Your Ball Boy version is a brilliant breath of fresh air. I love the new changes and I'm glad that Ball Boy is now definitely good at football - it never worked when he was inconsistent and he came across as a confusing character. Now you've ironed out the creases and have left us with the best Ball Boy revamp there has been yet - although I would like to see his old team back (Benji (although I like the manager idea), Titch, Dimmy and Goalie) but make sure Ball Boy receives centre attention. The problem with Dave's Ball Boy was that Benji, Chandra and Coach always tended to share the spotlight so the reader could never familiarise themselves with Ball Boy (if that were even possible).

- Harry Rickard