As some of Britain’s top cartoonists have been gathering for a festival celebrating their skills, the casual observer might be surprised to learn of its setting – Shrewsbury. So just how has an English market town near the Welsh border become the unofficial capital of the UK cartoon industry?
It has hosted the festival for 13 years but its connection with comics and cartoons does not stop there – in fact Shrewsbury is home to some of the most celebrated cartoonists working in Britain today.
Charlie Adlard, one of the artists behind the internationally successful series, The Walking Dead, is perhaps the most high profile.
In 2010, The Walking Dead was translated into a hit TV series. The post-apocalyptic zombie drama has amassed record-breaking viewing figures in the US, according to Nielsen ratings.
Adlard said the catalyst for his life-long drawing hobby was his dad buying him Marvel comics in 1972.
“I don’t know why Shrewsbury seems to be a hotspot for comic talent. But I was born and raised here so I can claim heritage,” he said.
In a 20-year career he has been involved in The X-Files, X-Men, Superman and most recently Savage.
“Thirteen years ago there was nothing like The Walking Dead. Horror comics are a niche within the niche of comics.
“We were lucky. Nobody would think non-superheroes in black and white would be a winning combination,” he said.
When asked if Shropshire inspired him, he said: “It’s ironic – I’m sat in my conservatory office overlooking a lush field on a glorious spring day here in leafy Shrewsbury suburbia, drawing dark stuff.
“I briefly considered moving to America but with computers and the internet, there is no need. Living in Shrewsbury is a great get-out clause to avoid Hollywood.”
But the cartoon industry in the town by no means begins and ends with Adlard.
Robbie Morrison, who worked on 2000 AD and co-created Nikolai Dante with Simon Fraser, is also based there.
Originally from Glasgow, he arrived in Shropshire via London. His most recent projects include Doctor Who.
Morrison’s partner Deborah Tate, who met him when she worked for Marvel in London, is another of the town’s cartoon mafia.
“I found myself in a male-dominated world but it didn’t stop me from making a difference,” she said.
“I read comics as a child but I soon grew out of them. When I joined Marvel, the managing director, Robert Sutherland, preferred non-comic fans who wouldn’t drool over art and would get the job done.”
Tate, who became an editor at Marvel, worked on Sonic the Comic, where she was instrumental in shaping his female sidekick, Amy, from a damsel in distress to a significant character in her own right.
“When Robert left Marvel and moved to Shrewsbury he offered me a job. At first I rejected it but it seemed like a really nice town; everyone we knew here was having a great time, so we moved too,” she said.
Another member of the town’s comic book glitterati is John Wagner.
He is the creator of Judge Dredd, the comic character who has been the star of two sci-fi action films: the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone and the 2012 Dredd with Karl Urban in the lead.
Wagner was born in the USA and, like Tate and Morrison, called London home before heading to Shropshire.
His weekly comic 2000 AD, which he co-developed with Pat Mills in 1977, gave birth to characters including Strontium Dog and Button Man, as well as Judge Dredd.
During the making of the 2012 movie Dredd, one Shrewsbury landmark found itself immortalised on the silver screen, much to the delight of locals.
The plot of Dredd revolves around a 200-storey building called Peach Trees Tower – named after Shrewsbury’s Peach Tree Restaurant.
Restaurant director Chris Burt said Wagner and his associates visited the restaurant a number of times while discussing the film.
“They enjoyed it so much that they named the main building in the film after us. We’ve had lots of comic enthusiasts visiting in the last two or three years who get very excited when they see The Peach Tree,” he said.
But the story of Shrewsbury’s success as a centre of cartoon excellence doesn’t end there.
Also based in the town are James Hodgkins, who has worked for both DC Comics’ Batman and Catwoman, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Get Kraven and Daredevil.
So too is Redan Publishing. Established by Robert Sutherland after he left Marvel Comics, it produces Disney’s US magazine offering.
“The company was set up in London but Robert, who was originally from Shrewsbury, decided to move back here 15 years ago and brought the work with him,” explains marketing manager Emily Bell.
“Apart from rents being cheaper here in Shropshire, it makes little difference where you work because of the internet.”
As more of the country’s cartoon talent sets up in Shropshire, so others are encouraged to follow, for both professional and personal reasons.
For instance, John Wagner’s partner, Jenny O’Connor, moved from Marvel Comics to Redan Publishing.
It all helps explain why the Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival, the brainchild of cartoonist Roger Penwill, is now an established event.
“It started as an exhibition and is now in its 13th year. It has a cartoon trail around the town, three exhibitions and live cartooning in the Square,” said Bill McCabe, one of the festival committee organisers.
“The main focus of the festival is to gather professional cartoonists and showcase the highest level of art.”
Adlard, who has himself participated in the past, said: “Some people thought cartooning was not comic books, something I strongly disagree with. We are all cartoonists.”
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