A rare, intimate and candid conversation with the cartoonist, writer and musician Peter Plant
|DUDE: Who was your greatest influence in becoming a world-famous cartoonist?|
PETER: My dad. One day I went to him and said "Dad, where did I come from?" He tossed me a felt-tip and told me to go and draw something. The rest is history. Then there was George Feyer, an almost forgotten Canadian cartoonist who could draw as fast as you could talk, Artie Shaw, an American jazz musician and big band leader of the 1940s who settled for nothing less than perfection in the music he played, and David Ogilvy, the original adman who taught me everything there was to know about copywriting.
DUDE: Tell us about how you grew up.
PETER: We lived in an upper middle class area of Toronto. My parents, although not wealthy, wanted me to go to private school but realising it would be a waste of money enrolled me in the local high where the tough kids regularly beat the crap out of me until they saw I could draw funny caricatures of them and made me their hang-out buddy. Failing to make the football, basketball or hockey teams I learned to play drums and formed a seven-piece jazz combo called the Crazy 8 which eventually got good enough to play school proms and other local gigs around the city. Inspired by Artie Shaw's version of "Begin the Beguine" we made it our theme song although playing it like Artie did would've required a bit more practice [laughs]. I don’t remember too many girls getting hysterical over us either, so maybe we should’ve been a rock and roll band called The Rebel Dynamos or something.
DUDE: What happened after high school?
PETER: My dad convinced me cartooning wasn't a great career and that I should go to university and study architecture. I kind of liked the idea of being a student anyway, you know, being rebellious and radical and going to frat parties and drinking beer. Trouble was, I didn't have the grades to get into university so the old boy pulled a few strings in his home town and I soon found myself heading out to Winnipeg as a first year Architecture student at the University of Manitoba.
DUDE: How did it go?
PETER: Not great. When I found out "Architecture" [simulates quotation marks with forefingers] didn't mean just drawing pictures of exotic looking houses with lots of greenery around them all day I lost interest and started hanging out at an off-campus coffee house called the Fourth Dimension drinking coffee, watching up-and-coming folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and the Kingston Trio and performing comedy routines with my guitar on open mike night. Needless to say I flunked out of university big time which probably wasn't a great loss to the world of architecture.
DUDE: Where did you go from there?
PETER: I went back to Toronto and got a job in an advertising agency writing copy for brochures and leaflets on a old Smith Corona which, in case you didn’t know, is a typewriter. The agency was David Ogilvy’s renowned Ogilvy and Mather often referred to by aspiring creatives as advertising school.
It got pretty boring until one day someone threw a bottle of roll-on deodorant on my desk and told me to write a 30-second TV commercial for it which I did. I just happen to have a copy of it here [taps ipad].
DUDE: [laughs] Very good.
PETER: It came this close [holds up thumb and forefinger a millimetre apart] to winning a Binky.
DUDE: What’s a Binky?
PETER: Like an Oscar. Only for commercials.
PETER: Then they tossed me another chocolate bar and told me to write one for that. [taps ipad].
DUDE: “I like my coffee crisp!” [laughs] Very nice.
PETER: [shaking his head] It should’ve won a Binky. Then they tossed me another chocolate bar and I wrote one for that [taps ipad].
DUDE: I’ll bet that won a Dinky.
PETER: Binky. No, but it came this close [holds up thumb and forefinger].
DUDE: Then what happened?
PETER: I got fired.
DUDE: You got fired
PETER: Yeah. I’d also been working nights as a DJ in a discotheque which, along with a bit of after-hours partying with the go-go girl, was keeping me up till the wee-smalls and getting me into the agency in the mornings later and later. One morning I strolled in at noon and found a note on my desk from Fred, my boss, saying "If you aren’t looking for a job you should be because you’re fired. Best wishes, Fred". Fred had a twisted sense of humour.
DUDE: What did you do then?
PETER: I said sayonara to the discotheque, the go-go girl, Fred and Toronto and took off for London, England where amid red buses, black taxis, tube stations, pubs, bobbies, brollies, bowler hats and Big Ben I met two ditzy girls who were looking for someone to share their flat with and, after agreeing to disagree with their slightly miffed cat, moved in with them. I immediately bought a couple of felt-tips and a layout pad and started drawing cartoons of life around me. Eventually, when I began to miss the buzz of the advertising business I grabbed my portfolio, walked into an ad agency and asked them for a job. I soon found myself sitting in front of an old Smith Corona again, this time whacking out copy for a women’s depilatory cream ad. Little did I know life at D'Arcy MacManus and Masius was about to get a lot more interesting. [Peter pauses to take a sip of water then continues.] It was Friday afternoon. I was sitting at my desk doodling when when all of a sudden this guy in a suit burst through the door introducing himself as Ron the account director on Wilkinson Sword, one of the agency’s biggest clients, looking desperate. He said Wilkinson’s advertising manager is extremely displeased with the TV commercial we presented for their new Close and Easy disposable razor and threatening to fire the agency. Could I, he wondered, come up with a fresh idea by Monday morning. As he left I reached for my guitar and started strumming and scribbling down some disposable-razor-kind-of-lyrics that were running through my head. Then I grabbed a cassette recorder and recorded a demo, then drew a storyboard to fit the jingle and by the time I had finished presenting the idea to Wilkinson Sword on the Monday their ad manager was beaming brighter than the Eddystone Lighthouse. Ron slapped me on the back and we all went for a boozy lunch. It was the most fun I'd ever had on a Monday morning. Here’s the finished article [taps ipad].
After that I joined a music production company, Crocodile, and wrote more jingles. For beer, booze, bars (the chocolate kind), crisps, cosmetics, dips, magazines, newspapers. fast food restaurants, butcher shops, cars, more beer, peanut butter and motorcycles. And some very silly songs.
DUDE: Were you still cartooning while all this was going on?
PETER: As a matter of fact, I had just finished a new strip about two ditzy girls and a cat who share a flat together. (Guess where I got that idea.) I called it “Knickers” because the flat was usually a rainforest of ladies’ undies hanging up to dry which you had to fight your way through every time you wanted to go anywhere. Also, I thought the British word for panties was a great little title for a cartoon strip about girls. [Peter goes to the fridge and retrieves two beers placing one in front of the interviewer.] So while I was running all over the city getting the strip rejected by the national dailies one editor told me a newspaper in Scotland called the Daily Record was looking for a “lively strip cartoon with a Scottish flavour” [simulates quotation marks with forefingers]. Well hey, I thought, that’s “Knickers” to a “t”! So I nipped up to Scotland to show the strip to the editor acknowledging to him it wasn’t exactly dripping with Scottishness but suggesting it could easily be adjusted to do so. [Peter pauses to crack open his beer. The interviewer does the same.] He liked the idea and the strip but unfortunately not the title suggesting it be changed to “Roz”, one of the two girls in the strip he thought was sexy.
DUDE: Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
PETER: No, because my friend Gogi, the Goddess of Great Ideas (get it?) is always by my side. Like the rainy night we were walking home from the pub and a guy across the street flashed us just as a car went through a puddle drenching him from head to toe and giving me the idea for the cartoon book Flash Filstrup the Fastest Overcoat in Town. Or the morning she drew my attention to two pigeons sitting on top of the 07.22 to London as it pulled out of our local station and gave me the idea for a strip about a pair of ornithological commuters. Or the night we turned on the TV and watched a woman drop a cat into a wheelie bin on the ten o’clock news giving me the first gag for the book 101 Ways To Get Rid of a Cat. Or the afternoon at Wimbledon when we saw my girlfriend falling butt over brolly for a swarthy, good-looking tennis player called Ilie Nastase and I got the idea for the hit song "Game, Set and Match". Or the day in 2011 we were standing on the eastbound platform of Fulham Broadway tube station and saw a newspaper headline saying “Kate and William to marry!” prompting Gogi to nudge me and whisper “You should write a song about them!”. The result was Joe Bob Ritter’s BBC royal wedding record-of-the-week "A Letter to Kate".
DUDE: What's your hope for the future?
PETER: That someday, somehow, the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup and something I write wins a Binky.