Saturday, 22 February 2014

The origin of Tom Thug!


One day in 1984, while visiting Bob Paynter, the Group Editor of the IPC humour comics, up at Kings Reach Tower on London's South Bank, he told me of a new comic that was in development. This was to be something different, more anarchic and unpredictable than Whizzer and Chips, Whoopee, and the rest. It was the brainchild of cartoonists and writers based in Manchester and although they'd already presented Bob with a rough dummy issue, Bob wanted to bring in more artists for variety. 

The comic was then called Rrassp! as I recall, although it would soon evolve into Oink! as the project got under way. Bob Paynter told me he saw the venture as an ideal opportunity for people who were either stylistically different to IPC's usual look, or were keen to become comic artists and not yet ready for the company's other publications. IPC were going to invest in a dummy issue of the new comic, and would be putting a lot of money into a launch if it went ahead. Therefore Bob didn't want any time wasters, and was only inviting people who were genuinely interested in drawing for them. I was already producing cartoons for Marvel UK and had 'ghosted' a lot of children's books for Mike Higgs, so this was a great opportunity to do something for IPC, who were the main British comics publisher at the time. 

Bob asked me if I had any ideas that might be suitable. I mentioned a "dim skinhead bully character" I'd been developing, which he seemed to like. (Bullies are always useful in slapstick strips.) "Perhaps his dad could be pushing him to be a bully to follow the family tradition, to inherit his boots" suggested Bob. I liked that twist to it, and, filled with enthusiasm, went home to develop it further. 

The name 'Tom Thug - What a Mug' came to my mind because I knew IPC liked puns on existing concepts and it sounded a bit like Tom Thumb. At the top of this post are my initial rough sketches of the character from 30 years ago that no one has seen before. Brand new characters often take a while to get right and Tom looked more like Frankenstein's monster in this concept than a school bully!

Anyway, after a few more sketches, I eventually gave Tom a rounder look and something I felt comfortable submitting. Bob only wanted to see the strip in a pencil stage at this point, and here's the actual artwork I sent him...



Bob liked the idea but sent me a rewritten script for a new version. Initially I was a little disappointed that some of the energy seemed to have been taken out of it, but in retrospect Bob's rewrite was a much tighter script and was a better build-up to the punchline. Here's the new version, scanned from the original art...



That's the version which appeared in the 'dummy' issue and was printed in the Oink! Preview issue that was bagged with several IPC titles in May 1986, a week before Oink! No.1 was published. Yes, it took about 18 months or more for IPC to do their market research, tweak the comic, and finally give it the green light. 

Tom Thug became one of Oink's regulars from the outset, with me on scripts and art every issue (with some rewritten by the editor, the late Mark Rogers). When Oink! merged into Buster in late 1988, Tom Thug had proven popular enough to transfer over. 



I was pleased to find that Tom Thug had become one of Buster's most popular strips when the editor Allen Cummings informed me in this letter in the early 1990s...



Tom became even more popular as the weeks went on, leading to him being featured on the cover of Buster a few times. A rare honour, of which I was very proud. (John Burns, the regular cover colourist, added the colours.)...



He even featured in a couple of free gifts, such as this Tom Thug badge I designed. (Dunno who decided to give Tom such a suntan!) 



Buster folded at the end of 1999, with Tom Thug ending a run of 13 years and 8 months (although the last three years were reprints). I really enjoyed writing/drawing the exploits of the brainless bully, and it all started with that sketch at the top of the page. 

17 comments:

Peter Gray said...

-Great seeing these early thoughts...
Interesting about Bob who has some good ideas about the father...

You made the Buster of the 90's a lot more fun..

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks Peter. Bob was good at setting up a strip like that. Problem was, some IPC strips just stuck to the initial premise and became a bit restricted. I brought in a few supporting characters later to vary it, with Tom's fussy mum, school genius Wayne Brayne, Satan the Cat, Mr.Turnip the teacher, etc.

Tiniebras said...

Tom Thug was never my favorite strip when I as younger. Not because it wasn't well drawn or funny, just because I didn't feel I could cheer on the hero, since Tom was a bad guy. I guess I was just a bit straight laced growing up. I enjoy Tom much more now days.
Out of curiosity, the sketches seem to be on the back of a page which reads "Future Fables" and "Eternal Man". Is that Zardi the Eternal Man? and what was Future Fables? :)

Lew Stringer said...

Future Fables was an idea I had that I was either going to self-publish or send as a script idea to 2000AD. I can't remember much about it now as I abandoned the concept. I think 'The Eternal Man' was going to be a time traveller trapped between future and present like a ghost.

I take your point about Tom Thug. The intention of making him the villain of the story was act as some contrast to all the goody-goody characters in IPC comics. The idea being that the reader would be laughing AT the character, rather than with him, - and more importantly to act as some form of catharsis for readers who had been bullied in real life.

That said, I remember meeting some guy at a Frank Sidebottom concert who thought Tom was the hero! Then again, a few people also thought Number Six in 'The Prisoner' was the bad guy for not conforming!

Phil Boyce said...

After working through Oink! I may have to start investing in some Busters at this rate! You're gonna cost me a fortune Mr Stringer!

Peter Gray said...

-Did you do a Frankie stein spoof using Tom Thug? Maybe in a halloween Buster special..

I love the layers and sometimes fantasy you put into your pages..

Lew Stringer said...

Ha! I had to tone Tom down a little for his transfer to Buster, so no Satan the Cat, and he became a schoolboy again. The first six months or so of the move to Buster also featured Pete and his Pimple (no longer allowed to show pus though) and Mike Gteen's 'Weedy Willie' character. No other Oink characters made the transition.

Lew Stringer said...

No Frankie Stein spoof but Frankie did cameo in a thought balloon in one Tom Thug Oink strip. Also, Tom visited Monsterland in a Buster/Monster Fun Holiday Special.

Peter Gray said...

That would be good to see..Monsterland..;0)

I remember it had the cloak in the thought balloon and other top old characters..

Manic Man said...

Speaking of Tom Thug.. When Buster ended, it did the page of one panels 'what happened to' thing. some of that I didn't like as it just didn't seam right.. I'm not sure who did it (writer or artist) but I remember someplace, you saying you wouldn't have ended Tom Thug that way it did (with him passing an exam and becoming a brainy bully).. And ideas how you might have ended it?

Andy Luke said...

Not seen since 2006, the Luke-Tomlompomlinkinson Award was conceived in a Wetherspoons by placing a CD back to front in a wooden holder. Comics blogger of the Year Lew.

Andy Luke said...

ps Number Six knocked over cups and saucers every week. He was a very rude man.

Lew Stringer said...

That's right. Much as I admired Jack Oliver's fantastic talents (he really was one of the best writers and humour artists British comics have seen) I wasn't keen on his ending for Tom, which went against everything that had gone before.

I did have a definite ending in mind, and one day I think I'll draw it up just for fun and post it here.

Lew Stringer said...

Well that is true.

DoctorDeath said...

Love the fact that the cat in panel one has a skinhead!

Lew Stringer said...

That's the first appearance of Satan the Cat, who often wandered into Tom's strip. He also had his own mini-strip in Oink from time to time. I dropped the cat when Tom moved over to Buster because I knew parents of that comic's traditionally younger readers would object to him.

DoctorDeath said...

I'm almost tempted to go out and get a cat now, just so I can name him Satan!