Cartoonist Nick Brennan

Tammy Moore takes a walk with the acclaimed cartoonist at the Void Gallery

Nick Brennan has been a professional artist for over 20 years, working for The Dandy and The Beano, and creating the weekly adventures of 'Blinky', 'The Sneaker', and, more recently, the iconic 'Billy Whizz'.

'The Dandy wanted a new artist and they picked me!' he enthuses while setting up an exhibition of his work at Derry's Void Gallery. 'That was nice.'

Yet despite having a career many artists would kill for, Brennan never had any formal training. He drew cartoons when he was younger (‘all the kids did’) but when he grew up he became an engineer. The world of arts' loss would have been engineering’s gain except for Brennan’s wife.

‘She looked at some of my drawings and wanted to know why I wasn’t doing this for a living,’ he says. ‘So I packed in my job.’

It wasn’t only encouragement that Brennan’s wife provided either. For years she coloured the sketches once he finished them.

‘I’m colour blind,’ Brennan explains cheerfully. ‘My first attempts at colouring the pages in were less than successful.’

Success didn’t arrive over night for Brennan. He spent ‘a few years on the dole' until he saw a note in the Writers and Artists Yearbook that said The Dandy ‘encouraged new artists'. At the time he lived near Dundee, where The Dandy was based, so he called them up.

One short test strip later (the never to be published and before its time 'Young Merlin') and The Dandy contacted Brennan to tell him: ‘This is rubbish. Go and have another look at The Dandy, you have to be a lot better than that.’

Brennan did and next time he was accepted and started drawing strips. He revived 'Peter Piper' from The Magic Comic and created the still-going character of Blinky, nephew of Colonel Blink from The Beezer.

He started off short-sighted, Magoo like but he’s developed to just be nuts!’

A strip with Blinky’s original green and orange colouring can be seen at the gallery. ‘The editor made us change it. The green doesn’t show up well against green and brown backgrounds like grass and dirt.’

Five years ago the then newly opened Void gallery approached Brennan to be its cartoonist-in-residence. For every exhibition, Brennan draws an edition of Void Comix to accompany it.

‘The plot's pretty much the same for all of them,’ Brennan says, squinting at one of the mounted pages. ‘Arty goes to an exhibition at the Void and tries to emulate it and do his own thing. Inevitably something goes wrong, usually for his dad.’

Unlike Arty’s efforts the Void Comix have been anything but disastrous, engaging the attention of many school children.

‘We wanted to break down contemporary art into an easy form that children can understand, and that’s also really fun,’ explains Maolíosa Boyle, manager at the Void.

‘Nick really enjoys his job because he’s fallen into something he loves. He's always emphasising that through the comics, that they should try new things out. The children love that element of it.’

Although the Void uses Brennan’s cartoons to encourage children to get involved with contemporary art their exhibition openings are usually aimed at adults.

'But this one is geared towards children,’ Boyle explains. ‘It’s got interactive elements so the children can take part. That’s important.'

And not just the children.

‘Adults too, I hope,’ Brennan grins enthusiastically. ‘That’s what always happens at workshops. The parents come in all grumpy and fed up, then you see their hand sneaking out for a bit of paper so they can have a go themselves.’

Nick Brennan's exhibition at the Void Gallery can be seen from February 5-26. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/cultureni) to see a demonstration of How to Draw Billy Whizz.