Derek The Sheep – Propaganda has your Christmas present right here….
by Gary Northfield
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
When it was published in the Beano, Derek The Sheep was the first creator owned strip to ever appear in that institution of British comicdom. This collection of thirteen of those Beano strips has already had a French release as Norbert Le Mouton and was released in this country in late September 2008 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Interestingly, the French version was a softcover collection whilst this Bloomsbury collection is a beautiful, oversized, hardback. It’s a great bit of packaging, kudos to whoever decided to go for the hardback as it fits in perfectly with the size of the Christmas staple; the Beano annual.
Of course, all the presentation in the world is immaterial if the contents aren’t up to scratch. But that’s certainly not a worry with Derek The Sheep. It’s an excellent strip that manages, through simple and controlled artwork and genuinely funny storylines, to do that most difficult and elusive of things; appeal to children and grown ups alike.
(Meet Derek The Sheep. Grass plays a big part in Derek’s life. From Derek The Sheep by Gary Northfield)
And just like many classic strips of the past, Derek The Sheep is so very good because Gary Northfield tells his simple story so well. The cleverest thing with any strip like this is to keep it as simple as possible. And with Derek, Gary Northfield spends a lot of time making this simple little strip work. It’s all about Derek, a slightly grumpy sheep, living on farmer Jack’s farm and spending his days looking for the best bits of grass. Like all great comic strips, it’s not the setup that counts so much, it’s what the cartoonist does with it. And Gary Northfield does some lovely things with Derek. The simplicity belies the skill involved in making something this funny and enjoyable. The strip starts off with just Derek and his sheep mates, on the lookout for the elusive greener grass, but Gary gradually introduces a large supporting cast in Derek, all there as foils for Derek’s various adventures around the farm. There’s the angry squirrel (you’d be angry to if Derek had landed on your TV aerial in a storm), Cecil the Bee who just wants a friend like all the other bees have (unfortunately for Derek, Cecil wants his friend to be a sheep) and many more. The cast of characters by the end of the book is large, but never overwhelming to the younger reader and they’re all there in service to the basic idea of being funny around Derek.
Personally I loved the touch of grumpiness and anarchy within Derek. And the simplicity of the artwork, usually based on a simple 3×4 grid of panels that masks some very confident and effective storytelling to keep the stories working as well as they do. Take this page and tell me you don’t find it funny:
(Do you think he’s in trouble again? pause, pause.Yeah, he’s in trouble. Great comic timing from Derek The Sheep by Gary Northfield))
Of course, this is meant to be a children’s book, so my enjoyment of it is just a bonus. To find out whether it works as a children’s book, I passed it on to my daughter Molly. She said it was really funny and she loved the way Derek was always on the lookout for more stuff to do and all of the stupid things he does. As usual, I bow to my daughter’s views of these things. If she loves it, it stays on her shelf. If she thinks it’s just okay, I find it back on my desk a few days later. Derek is definitely on her shelf. High praise from Molly indeed and proof, if were needed, that Derek is genuinely appealing to children.
With Derek The Sheep we have that rarest of things; a new British comedy strip that works on an incredibly simple level but manages to be a perfect experience for children and grown ups alike. If, like me, you have fond memories of getting your Beano annual every year, you’ll find Derek The Sheep the perfect replacement as a present for the Beano fan you may know. Heck, it’s perfect even if they aren’t. It’s even perfect as a great present to yourselves. Go on, treat yourselves. You deserve a sit down with a drink and a book that’s guaranteed to make you smile.