More widely know as the mind behind the winningly inventive self destruction of lapins in the hugely popular Bunny Suicides, Andy Riley also charted the minutia and obsessions of the world as it stumbled blearily into the early noughties in the weekly comic strip Roasted and the venomous wit of reluctant Barista, Karl. On cold Sunday mornings delivering papers (good lord!) it was the one strip I’d read, before eventually chancing upon the neat little collected hardback. It’s an overlooked gem that I’d been looking for an excuse to write about for a while now. Riley’s new book and a recent craving for cereal finally gave me the perfect one!
Originally running in the Observer Magazine for a whopping eight years, Roasted follows the lives of three “coffee shop wasters”. Karl, sardonic, beleaguered and firmly on the wrong side of his thirties and his long suffering co-workers the dim but amiable Nev and the overly anxious Lottie. All three work, or more accurately, have found themselves stuck in a boring but comfortable Coffee Shop gig as they work their way through the early 2000’s zeitgeist with it’s complicated coffee, charity wristbands and iPod inadequacy.
The excuse for this little look back at Roasted is the main reason I finally got around to writing it. It’s funny, I mean really funny. Going out for cereal recently I was encouraged by a health conscious husband to buy Muesli, Bran Flakes or Weetabix, basically anything that wasn’t “choconut choc frosted sugar nut choc loops” in reference to Lottie’s shocking choice of breakfast foods and my own struggle to stay on course and act like an adult in the cereal aisle. It’s unsurprising really, with Riley having worked on Black Books and a number of comedies that Roasted has all the punch of a great sitcom and the same instantly memorable, laugh out loud quotability. For me at least they have wormed their way into my brain alongside all the TV, film and pop culture references and after years of living on my coffee table a lot have become in jokes with friends whenever confronted with similar situations as Riley’s trio.
While it’s only been a scant six years since Roasted ended a lot of the strips are almost cringe inducingly perfect time capsules. “It looks like some mind control device from some nightmare future society” comments Karl on Nev’s Bluetooth headset “It makes you look like an agent from the Matrix” and he’s right. Looking back on these strips in particular it was particularly hard to remember a time before all of these devices became ubiquitous and became socially accepted rather than looking, you know, weird? Ultimately it’s the reliability of the characters and their situations from the bad jobs, terrible life choices and bewilderment at popular culture that still makes it so funny and darkly humorous.
While working on screenplays, pilots as well as his second book in the more kid friendly and brilliantly titled, King Flashy Pants and the Creature from Crong, Andy found time to answer a few questions on the days of Roasted.
Are you ever tempted to revisit the Roasted cast and see what they are up too, or do you think it’s better to leave things rather then revisiting them?
I have drawn them for my own amusement once in awhile, but after the strip ended, I never considered carrying them on somewhere else. I decided I would leave them there, still in that coffee shop. However! I have adapted the face of Karl for the villain in my new children’s book, King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor. It’s an entirely different character though. But you’d recognise the beard.
Reading Roasted back a few of the strips are almost time capsules. The mention of flash mobs made me visibly cringe! Are there any strips in particular looking back that make you despair at the early 00’s?
When you look back at a different time period, it’s always interesting to see how quickly an amazing new thing becomes an accepted part of life. Maybe the second or third strip that I did – So this would be 2002 – was about camera phones. The observation was to do with how sending pictures around really meant that we were all expected to be CCTV cameras aimed at each other, so we would inevitably sacrifice our privacy. And that is more or less what has happened since.
It was the decade when digital technology became something which surrounded us, rather than something which you turned on and off as and when you needed it. I’m still not quite comfortable with that fluffy digital cocoon. Mostly if I look back at these strips, I keep thinking: why didn’t you draw that one better? It took me about two years to really get the hang of drawing the characters. Even then I seemed to get Lottie wrong more times then I got her right. To my eyes anyway. If I cringe its at my own line work when it gets shonky.
The larger strips not included in the book is one of my favorites, what brought about the idea of doing something more epic in terms of the story and the layout with that one?
The Observer magazine gave me extra pages for Christmas and I jumped at it. This happened a few times over the years, but the first one, where Karl goes home for Christmas and meets an ex-girlfriend, then nearly gets hit by a train, is my favourite. They were too big to fit in the compiled book though, sadly.
Do you still prefer to “kick it old school” now in terms of your comics work or do you find yourself using technology in your art since Roasted finished. Why do you think inking and painting works more for you and why did you choose it for Roasted?
I only got a tablet at the beginning of last year. Until then I had never drawn anything on a computer at all. At a young age I learned to draw with pen and ink – the kind of spidery nib which you dip into a pot of Indian ink. I enjoyed it so much, I just couldn’t understand the impulse to draw on a screen. As time went on I rationalised it in a couple more ways: I noticed that The technology was de-skilling parts of the cartoon business. You know, the kind of web comics where people draw the head of the main character, and then just paste that same picture file in again and again with different speech bubbles. That drives me up the wall. Some people won’t even draw heads any more, just letting the machine draw a circle for them. Ugh. So, I thought: I will carry on drawing by hand, and my characters will continue to be expressive from frame to frame, thank you very much. Anyway, i’m not drawing manga where everything must be smooth: I like my style to be a bit blotchy and rough around the edges. software will militate towards making things clean looking, so blotchy stuff actually takes longer on a tablet because you have to add it in on purpose.
At the beginning of last year I made a concerted effort to learn how to draw using Manga Studio, but in the end real pens and paints were getting me the effects I wanted quicker. And here’s the thing I discovered: digital is not necessarily quicker. When I am doing the grey wash on the cartoons for my children’s book, I just use a single number five brush, and I can get so many different effects with just a split second flick of the wrist. On a computer, I would have to scroll through lots of brushes to get all these variations. Drawing on a computer means you can keep taking back what you do. So it opens up a terrible vista of fiddling, fussing, adjusting. I like drawing in a decisive way where you really commit with each line. It’s more visceral. So I don’t use the tablet much. Except for cleaning up the artwork. Removing unwanted smudges, adjusting a tiny line in the wrong place, that sort of thing: infinitely quicker on a computer. Saves me a lot of time with tippex and white paint.
I’m 46, so old enough to have learnt about drawing when digital drawing didn’t really exist. I was just drawing, using physical tools, the way that people had since the dawn of time. It’s how I learnt, and I like it. Back then it wasn’t something I had to justify. In The 21st-century, just carrying on like that has become a stylistic decision as far as the world is concerned. I knew I was out of step when, a few years ago, I did an email interview for a Belgian comics website which asked me, regarding the Bunny Suicides: “do you draw the whole thing on the tablet, or do you sketch with pencil, then scan it in and just do the inking on the tablet?” The idea that I did the entire thing on a sheet of paper, with no tablet involved, simply hadn’t occurred to this person.
You’ve also worked on Black Books and mentioned the similarities between Bernard and Karl. Why do you think audiences are drawn to characters with such “poisonous negativity” or a more dour outlook?
It always feels a bit naughty, to have a character which is anti-stuff to the point where they are socially malfunctioning. They are good for comedy because they can criticise anything and everything. When writing a character like that, it’s important to give them a bit of depth though. For both Karl and Bernard, I saw it that the flinty carapace was there to defend a much softer inner core. The negativity was produced, at least in part, by injured hope.
Did you ever have any strips that didn’t work or didn’t make it in the Observer magazine for other reasons?
A few, early on, which the magazine didn’t like because they weren’t hitting the right tone for them. Once I figured out what they wouldn’t go for, I never had anything turned down. There also would have been some strips which I aborted halfway through drawing them, because I had decided they were rubbish – but I can’t remember what any of those were. I wouldn’t have bothered keeping those
What do you think Karl would think that it’s 2016 and people still haven’t realised their not on the set of Friends?
Karl (who in the strip is the perpetually 30) worked that out when he was about 25. He would be irked by it, like he’s irked by most things. But if he was around now he would have an extra layer of irritation from the rise of independent hipster coffee outlets. He would be pretty dismissive of those.
How do you feel about “third Pint Statistics” being another bit of the pub experience obliterated by google now we can easily check. What was the best one you ever heard?
I feel very sorry about that. Part of the fun of pub conversation used to be spouting nonsense, or hearing other people spouting it, and whether you questioned it or went along with it for the fun it all made for good pub chat. Now any dispute can be settled with the phone, and as soon as people start looking at the phone, they check their Twitter and their Facebook and they’ve taken themselves out of the moment. And the artistic bullshitters have had their wings clipped. Perhaps it’s also why I haven’t heard any good ones recently that I can now relate to you.
I have noticed that in television series, in the last 10 or 15 years, there has emerged a deep hankering for a world without digital connection. Or at least a recurring interest in what it might be like. Writers love this of course, because it means that the characters must rely on their own judgement rather than always using this giant web of knowledge and communication as a crutch. There are two ways it comes across. Firstly in throwing real people or fictional characters from the contemporary world into situations where that digital safety net has suddenly gone. Lost, last man on Earth, Big Brother, Eden, The walking dead. Works for both fiction and reality shows.
The other way is to set things in a past or a fictionalised fantasy past where the same thing applies. Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street, Mad Men, say. And what’s the single hottest thing as I write this? stranger things, set in 1983. Now you COULD set that series in 2016. 1983 is partly a stylistic decision, because then it can feel a bit like Poltergeist or ET or an early Stephen King. But it isn’t just that, I feel. it’s because if you were alone in the woods in 1983, facing some terrifying monster, you were truly alone. Now, you might be broadcasting it to everyone on periscope. The secret installation in the show – nowadays, you could find dozens of conspiracy theories about it within seconds. The characters would read those before they did anything. But in 1983, they have to do all the detective work for themselves. That’s much more interesting for the viewer.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Cartoon wise, the second King Flashypants book, and also a new humour book for grown-ups, which will come out in time for Christmas 2017. In script writing, Kevin Cecil and me have two sitcom pilots to write, and we are writing a live action feature for universal pictures via Point Grey, which is Seth Rogen’s film company. I have two careers running simultaneously, which is sometimes difficult to handle. But I love writing, and I love drawing, and I don’t want to stop doing either one.