I have the opening Sargeant Pepper track in my head...
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This month marks 20 years of being a professional, self-employed cartoonist. Before that, I was working in the pharmaceutical industry in clinical drug trials. I should have known that an office job wasn't really me. Out of all of the temporary jobs I did as a student (working on a fruit farm, behind the bar of a pub, in a toyshop and delivering newspapers), the summer I spent in my dad’s office was the worst (sorry, Dad!). It was only the friends I made, the salary and the other perks that made six years of clinical research bearable.

But that came to an end working for Novartis in 1999. I took over a project management job from a gifted woman who had built up the position from scratch and knew it inside out. She managed trials all over the world and had designed spreadsheets that tracked every detail. Whenever there was a problem, she knew who to call and how to sort it out.
It didn't take long for things to unravel when I took over. My memory of that time is hazy, but I do remember a problem with drugs being supplied to patients in Mexico because the officials hadn't been bribed! The whole thing gave me nightmares. I worked longer and longer hours and three hours of commuting each day meant I had little time to do anything else to de-stress. I felt physically sick every Sunday afternoon thinking about the week ahead.

One Monday, I drove into work, turned on my computer and literally couldn't read a thing on it. My brain had shut down. I walked into my manager’s office and told him I was leaving. He wanted me to work out the week, but I knew I couldn't. I walked out without even clearing my desk.
Dominos Tomboy cartoon by Alex HallattI was lucky because I had a supportive boyfriend, family and friends. Plus, this was the UK and the NHS was wonderful. I took antidepressants for three months, though I think it was the counselling that was more help (I felt suicidal when I was a couple of weeks into drug treatment, which is now a known side-effect of the SSRI I was on). I was also lucky because my then boyfriend moved to the south coast to study. Moving somewhere cheap and being surrounded by students made it a lot easier to change career. I gained a place on a “multimedia” course (this was 1999) and I learned web design, photoshop and other things that would help my new career. As a cartoonist. I scored a job with Brighton’s local newspaper, The Argus, where I worked for four years.
BN1 cartoon by Alex Hallatt
I had to give it up when I moved to New Zealand in 2003, but by then I had picked up some other freelancing work and was illustrating books and magazine articles. And it was still cheap to live back then. In 2004, my flat and studio rent was NZ$170 a week! Now similar spaces are more than double that, if you can find them.

When I was syndicated by King Features to launch Arctic Circle in 2007 I thought this would be the big time.
It wasn't. Newspapers were dying. The very thing that meant I could live anywhere as a freelance cartoonist meant that the print market for cartoon strips was disappearing fast.

But though sales weren’t what I hoped, it was still my dream job and took away the fear of not paying the bills. I wasn’t earning as much as I did in Big Pharma, but I no longer had to do work I didn't like or take contracts that weren't in my interest. Newspapers may be declining, but the opportunities for self-publishing work are exploding. I try not to work at weekends, but I get excited on a Sunday evening, thinking about the week ahead.

So here I am, 20 years on, still a freelance cartoonist. Mum once said to me that people don't change as they get older, they only become more so. I think that is true of my work. I started out drawing cartoons for local news, or other people’s books or articles. Now, Arctic Circle reflects my interests and concerns about the world and I illustrate my own books (I'm on the home straight with Forget Kids — Get a Dog).
My really personal work began when I started doing autobiographical sketches with a small series of Lyttelton scenes in 2006.
That idea was expanded with an exhibition of drawings in 2014 that looked at my life in Somerset (I was back in Europe for a few years).
That style evolved further with my illustrations for A Basque Diary.
Coming back to New Zealand with what I've learned has allowed me to interpret things differently to the way I did for the 2006 series. Of course Lyttelton has changed a lot too since the earthquakes.
Next week, I'll be away, working on another personal project, the third and final Friends Against Bullying book. I don't know how it will turn out, but I'll be writing it to my 10-year-old self, as for the previous two. It will be what I would have liked to have read back when I was being bullied.

I may not earn the money I did 20 years ago, but my life is considerably better. The more your work reflects your own character, the happier you are to do it.

I hope whatever you do brings you happiness.

If not, it might be time for a change.
Ta ta for now

PS. If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it on.
PPS. Gosh, this was a long one, but it is hard to condense down 20 years. There's a lot I left out...and even more I can't remember/can't find on my 4th generation of Mac.

Copyright © 2019 Alex Hallatt's Cartoons and Writing, All rights reserved.

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