Alphabet Soup Interview with Tommy Donbavand

Alphabet Soup logo by Paul Morton
Nick Cross writes:
Are you ready for the man with the coolest job in comics? Tommy Donbavand has written a ton of children’s books over the last ten years, including the massively popular Scream Street series (which has also recently been adapted as a CBBC TV show). But I’m here to talk to him today about his excellent sideline working for the Beano. While Tommy has written strips for Billy Whizz, Calamity James, and Gnasher and Gnipper, it’s the troublesome students of Class 2B who most interest me. Yes, please welcome the writer of The Bash Street Kids!

Tommy, it’s great to have you here on Words & Pictures. Can I look forward to any outrageous Bash-Street-style high jinks during our interview today?

I’ve got my peashooter and catapult at the ready, just in case the questions get a little too intrusive – but you should be safe!

You’re well known for being a writer of children’s books, but what prompted your move into comics?

I’ve always been comics fan; as a kid I read The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Topper and more every single week. I kept up with The Beano into adulthood and was thrilled when one of my ‘Fangs: Vampire Spy’ books was featured as the chosen title from Dennis the Menace’s book shelf for review a few years back.

I took the opportunity to email the person who had arranged the book promotion and asked if I could pitch a couple of ideas. She agreed and I began to write the occasional Basher (as they are known in the office!), along with strips for Gnasher, Calamity James and Billy Whizz. Then – around 18 months ago – I was asked to take over writing for Class 2B on a full-time basis. I’m still smiling about it!

The Bash Street Kids are one of the most iconic groups of characters in British comics, right up there with Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan. How did you approach the task of putting your own stamp on the stories, while maintaining respect for that history?

That can be a fine line to walk. I occasionally try to include ideas from the history of the strip that may be new for modern readers, such as The Bash Street Pups or Chunkee - Plug’s oft-forgotten pet monkey (luckily, I have a big collection of comics and annuals for reference!) But most of the time, I just write what makes me laugh and hope it does the same for the editorial team and, eventually, the readers.

The Bash Street Kids has been running since 1956, and long-running comic strips are, by their very nature, formulaic. Are there any tricks you use to keep things fresh?

It’s all about finding a balance – keeping things traditional, while introducing new ideas to Class 2B. I still have peashooter battles, and fisticuffs with the kids from Posh Street School – but I’ve also given Danny, Fatty & co. access to a 3D printer, and the chance to create a page for the Bash Street School website. Teacher may no longer be able to give the kids ‘six of the best’ with his cane, but he can confiscate their mobile ‘phones!

What’s the typical process of creating the strip? Do you collaborate with the illustrator in any way, or do you both work separately?

It’s all done completely separately. I come up with an idea and write a script, which is emailed to the Beano office for editing and approval – after which, it is sent to the legend that is David Sutherland. He’s been drawing The Bash Street Kids since 1962 – five years before I was born! From what I understand, he still paints everything by hand, and takes the artwork into the Dundee office on the bus!

He recently painted an exclusive piece for me in which Class 2B are looking forward to my next script! As you can imagine, that has pride of place on my office wall!

What’s it like trying to juggle the large regular cast of The Bash Street Kids, making sure everyone gets something to do?

I always make sure to split the action up between the gang and, after a while, you begin to notice their different personalities shining through. So, I’ll know that ‘this is a Danny line or ‘that would be better said by ‘Erbert’. Plus, I keep an eye on the artwork above my desk to make sure that no-one gets left out.

Who is your favourite Bash Street character to write for?

I shouldn’t really have a favourite, should I? But I do – and it’s Plug! Many years ago, Plug got his own spin-off comic for a short while, and I loved every issue. I frequently try to slip in characters and gags from that old spin-off – such as his sisters, Plugella and Plugena – and the fact that he once ran his own sports and social club. I don’t always get away with it but, when I do, I award myself a few extra biccies with my cup of tea!

You’ve done a lot of work aimed at reluctant readers, both specifically for Barrington Stoke, and through the direct, accessible style of your other books. Do you see comics as another way to entice reluctant readers?

Comics are a FANTASTIC way to engage reluctant and struggling readers – and writers, too. In fact, I now offer a Comic Capers theme for my school visits, in which I teach pupils how to develop a new comic character, and then lead them through writing and drawing their own strips. Amazingly, the workshops are a big hit in secondary schools with years 7 and 8.

Since the demise of The Dandy, The UK commercial comics market has been gradually thinning out, with only The Phoenix as a notable bright spot. Do you think there’s a future for kids’ printed comics? Or will they all inevitably move to the free online model?

The UK comics industry is suffering, but there are new titles coming onto the market – such as The Phoenix. Plus, even the TV-tie in magazines tend to have comic strips within them. I occasionally write the 12th Doctor strips for Doctor Who Adventures magazine and I’ve also penned stories for mags such as Thomas and Friends and Amazing!
The Beano has a digital version that can
be read on mobile phones and tablets

And finally, what’s next for your comic work? Would you like a comic strip/graphic novel of your very own, or are you happy with giving Teacher the run-around?

I’m delighted to announce that a strip of my own has recently launched in The Beano! Holly Wood is a wannabe superstar, but finds that the residents of Beanotown are often confused by her insistence that they should view her as a celebrity!

Holly is great fun to write – but it’s my weekly Basher that keeps my inner ten-year-old jumping up and down with excitement! Long live Class 2B!

Thank you Tommy, for your time, enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of obscure 1970s comics!


All Beano artwork and properties © DC Thompson

Next week on Alphabet Soup:

This may look like an entirely random picture of Tommy Donbavand and Tim Collins, but it's actually a cunning link to next week's article, in which Tim tells us about his long-term, long-distance collaboration with an illustrator he’s never met.

Nick Cross is an experienced word juggler, Undiscovered Voices winner and 2015 honours recipient of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.

Nick's most recent children's short story Todd Tempest Investigates can be found in issue 11 of Stew Magazine. He also blogs regularly for Notes from the Slushpile.

1 comment:

  1. excellent stuff Nick. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Well illustrated. I could have read on for longer if you've the stamina to write longer articles (and if the space permits)


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.