I’ve had some more self-penned Harry Hill strips out in The Dandy Comic recently and, seeing as I’ve been asked on occasion about the strip-writing process, it seems like a good opportunity to reveal a little bit about my approach. You can check out Nigel Parkinson’s site (see links, right) to glean a few secrets about his prodigious penmanship. I’m regularly gobsmacked by how quickly, deftly and hilariously he produces his work, but I’m guessing that thirty years of creating top-drawer art on a weekly basis may have something to do with this!
I usually start with a theme that grabs me; one that can be stretched over 2 (sometimes 4) pages, incorporating many frames. The Harry strip is rather different from many comic strips in that it isn’t just a single-page sequence building up to a theme-related pay-off. It carries its premise across as many detailed sight or pun-related gags as possible, often with diversions. A good example is the recently published 4 page Bubbles strip. What inspired it was simply the thought that bubbles provide great scope; what with bubble baths, perms and cars, ‘bubbly’ TV personalities and speech bubbles etc.
Nigel regularly has Harry visiting a whole range of bizarre factories so I thought it’d be good if he and Knitted Character visited the location where all the Dandy speech bubbles end up. It was great fun playing with some of the established symbols of comics and I was delighted with the end result. Nigel absolutely nailed the script and, as usual, improved it with his choices. Gifted cartoonist Paul Cemmick once told me that drawing strips is like directing a film. You have to make exactly the right choices within the frame to convey the story successfully and Nigel is an expert at this, to the point where he makes it look easy.
Here are a couple of examples of my Bubbles script with Nigel’s finished work beneath.
5. Large panel. Harry and KC walk between massive stacks of speech balloons, piled up like Pringles. A few speech balloons lie around containing recognisable Dandyisms etc. A couple of others contain expressions such as YEOWWCH!! GLUURRGH!! OOF!! & AAARRRGGGHHH!!!
A few smaller balloons whiz up to the ceiling. Caption: Helium Balloons
On the floor a couple of balloons with arms and legs drink and dance, dizzily. Caption: Party Balloons.
Elsewhere, a couple walk around with rain and lightning coming out from beneath them. Caption: Weather balloons.
Nearby, a balloon jabs another balloon in its stomach.
Balloon 1: Oi, are you ‘avin an affair with my missus?
Balloon 2: Leave it aht!
Caption: ‘Soap’ bubbles
HH: This where all the balloons and speech bubbles are stored after being used in The Dandy!
- Tossing the other speech balloon over his shoulder, Harry picks up a pile of smaller speech balloons.
HH: You’ve been a bit quiet, Knitted Character! I’ll soon fix that!
2. Harry holds out the small balloons like he’s performing a card trick.
HH: Let’s play ‘balloon fish!’ Pick a balloon. Any Balloon!
3. KC leans forward and grabs one that says.
Balloon: I’ll have this one please, Harry.
HH: That’s a bit boring! Choose another!
In KC’s other hand is a smaller bubble that just says:
I tend to over-write my scripts, throwing in as many gags or detail as I’m inspired to – which leaves Nigel free reign to cherry-pick as much as he wishes. The bonus here is that some of the unused jokes can be used in later strips. Nigel writes the majority of the Harry strips and I’m happy to let him take away or add as much as he likes to mine. He always sticks to the original structure and includes most of my material. Occasionally the strip is barely altered with only a few minor additions/deletions, like Bubbles.
Sometimes, as with the recent popular Highland Games story, some of the page’s content will be radically restructured by Nigel. In my original draft, Harry was walking in the Scottish Highlands where he meets Michael Caine and David Cameron via a William Wallace digression. None of these characters actually made it to print. On page 2 he hears about the Games via an old guy in a small, pun-laden shop and then cycles there on a ‘wild’ mountain bike. Nigel moved the shop to an urban area, killed the bike idea (perhaps figuring it was superfluous because of the later action-based panels) and made the proprietor Gordon Brown! Perfect.
Earlier in the year, I felt as though I’d hit the ground running with my first submission, which had a theme of ‘Lords’. Plenty of scope with one simple theme there, I felt. I had Harry on the Thames and then in the House of Lords where he encountered Susan Boyle, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Golem, a Little Britain character, Sir Alan Sugar and all eleven incarnations of Doctor Who! He then visits the jungle and encounters quite a few ‘I’m a Celebrities’. Before I knew it, Nigel and Harry had decided to develop the idea and somehow my first ever published comic strip had expanded from 4 pages into a 12 page special where Harry does all of the above via some doctor-related shenanigans and a trip into space!
After writing several Harry stories I realised that I was subconsciously channeling the Cheeky strips that I loved as a kid. A brilliant creation that started life in Krazy comic, Cheeky was an odd-looking cove (mostly drawn by the indefatigable Frank McDiarmid) who amused himself on his many jaunts by relentlessly wise-cracking gags and entertaining/infuriating as many characters as possible. Sound familiar?
One of the things I love about writing for the strip is that the premise is completely flexible and largely without constraint. Of course, there must be a character journey of sorts and some interaction between celebrities at theirs or Harry’s expense. Like its parent telly programme, TV Burp, there are plenty of juicy opportunities to go off at ridiculous tangents. Finally, in true comics-tradition, there’ll usually be an upbeat ending that incorporates a play on words relating to the theme. Even if this involves the character’s ‘downfall’ it should still feel EXUBERANT!