The Opinions of Tobias Grubbe, a multimedia web strip by Matt Buck and Michael Cross currently published in the online version of the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, is perhaps the first and indeed the most important cartoon character bridging the fields of political cartooning and digital media in British graphic journalism.
Through a clever juxtaposition of words, images and sound, Buck and Cross turn the Telegraph‘s site into a kind of Bell’s Life in London for today (Priego 2010). Their hybrid strip throws light on how 21st century Britain is more like the 18th century than one might think. Cross and Buck make satirical commentaries on current British affairs setting them in the 18th century, intentionally anchoring their work in a tradition of great British humorists and cartoonists, including Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson.
Thackeray's English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century (1911)
By combining the tradition of the periodical editorial cartoon with basic Schockwave Flash animation and music and dating each entry by substituting the actual publication date with its 1700s equivalent, Michael Cross and Matt Buck provide a fascinating (often depressing) historical perspective on the past and the present history of Britain. The audio in the strips can be turned off and the slideshow resembles old-style stop motion animation.
The content of the strip is topical and referential: interpretation of the episodes is dependent on the reader’s knowledge of British current affairs. As such Tobias Grubbe comments and documents the contemporary British public sphere in 21st century London not unlike William Hogarth’s pictographic depictions of British life (Bartual 2010). If the digital formats of Tobias Grubbe are preserved for the future, one can definitely imagine the historians of the 23d century studying it the way contemporary scholars study the “London Lives” of the centuries past.
It is remarkable how they have developed an engagement strategy that includes Twitter and their own web site, creating a coherent fictional persona, carefully and consistently developed through an archaic writing style loosely resembling the likes of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) or, curiously enough, more precisely the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), since Grubbe is said to have also been born in 1667.
The Opinions of Tobias Grubbe demonstrates how the juxtaposition of different media (words, pictures, sound, movement) using digital tools can go hand in hand with a comical/satirical juxtaposition of the past and the present, offering glimpses of what the future of comic art –and graphic journalism– might look like in a digital age.
Over email I asked Matt Buck some questions about Tobias Grubbe, and in his employment as engraver to the scrivener, he kindly offered the following replies.
A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775)
Ernesto Priego: Can you describe the project?
Matt Buck: I couldn’t do it any better than you have above but, for history’s sake, Tobias and his business started with two scriveners holding shared interests in the history of people, publishing and news. (Or, for visual interpretation, kindly review the image set immediately above this paragraph).
EP: How do you and Michael work together?
MB: Head-to head over a small table in a Coffee House at the Fleet Ditch. Each of us armed with paper, coffee and small sharpened sticks. Sometimes we use more contemporary technologies.
EP: Do you meet physically or is it all over the Internet?
MB: We write best when we meet so that tends to be our starting point each week.
EP: How important for you is the digital element of the strip, if we can call it a strip?
MB: Like you, I am rather cautious about categorising Tobias, he is what he does.
When making stories I try to think about the whole thing rather than component parts or even the likely form of delivery. If I get a good overall result then I find I have less need to look too closely at a work process. More generally, these methods tend to the organic rather than the mechanical.
EP: What technical constraints/possibilities define what you can do and can’t do in Tobias Grubbe?
MB: Our most significant limits are physical and financial – time and money. But, happily we are also an independent business so we do have some flexibility for commerce which is an asset. At present, we are contracted to The Telegraph on behalf of our patron The Media Standards Trust who make Journalisted and which we promote.
History actually shows our first six episodes were published at The Guardian immediately after the Election of, er, 1710 but the paper were not sure we could keep things going and so we were pleased to move our business to The Telegraph instead.
As independents, we can and do accept commission from people outside this weekly contract. These people like us to report on events and businesses for the benefit of their businesses. These activities aside, we try not to restrict ourselves in the way we write while trying to maintain the balance and proportion suitable for the characters.
EP: What is it that you have in mind by juxtaposing the 18th century with current events?
MB: I think interpretation belongs to the individual reader. Some people read it as a satire, others as simple observations of news events and social change. I am sure you’ll have your own idea of what each weekly story means and that is as it should be. Tobias is generally pleased to answer questions and chew the fat while on the street. Anything to avoid quality time spent with gristle.
EP: Why do you think graphic storytelling, or comic strips, or cartoons, work for this kind of project?
MB: Digital visual storytelling has great strength. It encourages the mixing of forms which makes delivering engagement, fun and knowledge easier than in any exclusive method. The lack of rules in digital media allows more of a self-determined context to be built and if the result is delivered with care, time can then be spent profitably hunting storylines and really good jokes.
EP: How do you conceive, in terms of genre and social function, the work you do with Tobias?
MB: Times is ‘ard but then they always wuz. I find it is worth remembering this.
EP: Finally, do you have any thoughts on graphic journalism?
MB: Yes but they are difficult to put in words alone so please continue watching these spaces. Thank you for your kind words and for getting in touch.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Bartual, R. (2010). “William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress: the beginnings of a purely pictographic sequential language”, Studies in Comics, Volume 1 Issue 1, April 2010, DOI: 10.1386/stic.1.1.83/1. <http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=9300/>. Accessed 9 January 2012.
Cunliffe, J. W. and Watt, H. A. (eds.) (1911). Thackeray’s English humorists of the eighteenth century. (Chicago, New York: Scott, Foresman and company). <http://www.archive.org/stream/thackeraysenglis00thac#page/n7/mode/2up>. Accessed 9 January 2012.
Hitchcock, T. (2007). Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. (London: Hambledon Continuum).
Maidment, B.E. ( (2007). “Scraps and Sketches: Miscellaneity, Commodity Culture and Comic Prints”, 1820-40 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 5 <http://19.bbk.ac.uk/index.php/19/issue/view/68>. Accessed 9 January 2012.
Priego, E. (2010). ““The Harlot’s Progress”: Bell’s Life in London and the Birth of the British Newspaper Cartoon”, a slideshow presentation at the London Lives Unconference, University of Hertfordshire, UK, 5 July 2010. <http://www.slideshare.net/neverneutral/the-harlots-progress-bells-life-in-london-and-the-birth-of-the-british-newspaper-cartoon>. Accessed 9 January 2012.