From reading Tintin to cartooning in dailies and illustrating books

Art print entitled “Unfinished Business”, created by Steve Bonello in 2016. (source: Steve Bonello Art & Illustration Facebook page)

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Steve still remembers his earliest encounter with cartoons, back in the days when he stumbled upon some Tintin and Asterix books in the public library in Floriana. The combination of marvellous drawings and funny — and very clever — storylines quickly roped him into the world of cartoons. Steve Bonello, the mind behind Nobody’s Business, discusses his passion with Business Malta.

“In my teenage years, I discovered Nalizpelra’s cartoons in the local Sunday Times but my drawing at that time was still pretty morbid, morose stuff with huge influences from the likes of Edvard Munch. In 1984, when I was already dabbling with some cartoon stuff, I stumbled upon an exhibition of works by Ralph Steadman on London’s South Bank. I was gobsmacked and went to visit for a second time the next day and got the exhibition book, which is still one of my most prized possessions,” Steve describes how he went from a cartoon aficionado to a practitioner of drawing cartoons.

The exhibition and the book opened the doors for cartooning in a totally different style to what he had been exposed before. It was savage, meaningful, sometimes unfunny but invariably powerful. “I decided that I would adapt my style in that direction. A political party paper approached me in 1989 offering a weekly cartoon but after giving it some thought, I declined. Following a party line was never my style. When the opportunity to draw for the Sunday Times of Malta came by, I took it. The freedom to fire in all directions has been priceless,” the cartoonist says.

What gives cartoons so much of an edge that everybody who grapples onto a newspaper will surely at least skim through the imagery of a comic strip? “A cartoon is very much a hit and run thing. It can either work or it simply does not. When it does work, it can be as good as any written article — and in an age where attention spans are ever on the retreat, possibly it can be much more effective than the written word,” he tells about the power of a cartoon.

Steve thinks of cartoons as problem-solving, therefore the process of creating one basically includes thinking. “You focus on one or two issues and try to see the funny, ridiculous side of things. I believe there is a funny angle to — nearly — every situation. Grabbing that invisible fruit is not always easy, though,” he says.

Creating a cartoon is as much of an art as writing, painting or creating music, just to mention a few examples. Every artist has surely experienced writer’s — or in Steve’s case illustrator’s — block. “It happens and it can be painful when a deadline looms. Sometimes, I just move away from my workstation and take a long walk because the more you think of block the worse it is likely to get. Sometimes I look at older work of mine or others’ work and sometimes that inspires me. Sometimes it does not either. When the block hits my personal, exhibition-oriented work I just sketch and keep sketching characters without thinking of a subject — then if I sketch three or more characters which I like they usually ‘lead’ the way to a subject. If that sounds weird it is probably because it is,” the illustrator describes.

BIO: Steve Bonello is fifty-eight years old. He spent 30 years in the aviation industry, working for Air Malta in the previous stage of his career. When the opportunity for early retirement came he grabbed it and moved on to a transport company but that only lasted a year and a half until he was made redundant. Although a shock at the time, in retrospect he believes it was the push he needed to finally go freelance. He has freelanced for the past seven years and although it is not always easy it has brought him much more satisfaction than the 9-to-5 life, he admits. Highlights of the freelance life have been a number of book design projects and being chosen to represent Malta at a cartooning exhibition in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg a few years back. Last year he was also lucky to make a dream come true: he got his name on the cover of a book. No Man’s Land was co-authored with Dr Marie Briguglio and it is basically a light — yet well researched — environmental history of the Maltese islands during the past 30 years. “Marie did a wonderful job weaving the story around the 230 cartoons featured in the book,” Steve praises his co-author.