Best Of British: The Wild, Wacky, Woolly Adventures Of Derek The Sheep Continue!

by Richard Bruton

Derek is a sheep. He’s grumpy, he’s constantly looking for the greener grass, and, as this second collection of his misadventures more than proves, seeing him blunder his way through life is a hilarious thing.

Inside Derek The Sheep: First Sheep In Space, you’ll find multiple storylines, all usually three pages, with a glorious sense of barely restrained chaos, courtesy of a Brit comics maker who ranks, for my money, up there with the greats of yesteryear.

Derek The Sheep first appeared in the pages of Beano, with his creator, Gary Northfield, becoming the very first creator in the history of the comic to have a creator-owned strip appear alongside the likes of Dennis The Menace and The Bash Street Kids. Northfield’s a superbly talented creator, who’s been making ridiculously funny comics for years now, working mostly with kids’ comics, with strips and books such as Gary’s Garden (in The Phoenix), Terrible Tales Of The Teenytinysaurs, Julius Zebra, and, of course, Derek The Sheep.

The one thing that fills Northfield’s work, including Derek The Sheep, is a sense of barely restrained chaos. You can see it in the artwork first, with Northfield a master of delivering a panel, an image with lines that seem on the verge of going all over the place, but somehow, miraculously, hold in place. His use of simple images belies just how expressive his art can be, almost an illusion of chaos that builds to something that reads so well, an incredibly clever thing to be able to pull off. It’s something that’s very easy to underestimate and doubly so given that his work is found in kids comics, always a genre that’s undervalued and oft overlooked.

But, just in the panels and images presented here, it’s plain to see that there’s such a mastery of what he’s doing, with a sense of timing worthy of a great stand-up comic…

There’s the set-up, Derek’s grumpy rant about Alan the horse, moan, moan, moan, life’s just unfair. And next, we get the payoff, the perfect switch-up in the strip, Northfield going utterly ridiculous, playing around with the ideas of the strip…

Because, of course, a sheep always has access to a pantomime horse outfit, yes?

There’s a gleeful sense of chaotic comedy in the writing and the situations he puts his characters into. In this, Northfield is a modern equivalent of someone like Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid, whose artistic genius was matched with the anarchistic ideas they developed through their comic strips.

Here, with Derek The Sheep, Northfield’s simple setup – sheep, field, farmer, grass – leads to some utterly farcical (in the very best sense of the word) misadventures, far beyond the limits of the strip. Whether it’s Derek and friend shrunk to the size of an ant, the barn floating away in the rain and Derek ending up a castaway, a magic pixie bottle, and much more, the comedy is always there, with Northfield managing so brilliantly to balance the comedy of the ridiculous situation with the laughs from Derek’s commentary and character.

Take this one, where Derek and the gang find themselves in, typically, rainy situation…

When they realise the barn is, actually, floating away, there’s a fabulous switch-up, once more, where Northfield just goes to the next level. Instead of going anywhere normal, Northfield takes it to the extreme, with Derek waking up thinking he’s now a castaway. Cue the sheep making friends with a carrot, called Dave. Funny situations done just perfectly, with Northfield putting so much funny in almost every panel, whether it’s ideas, images, or the words.

C’mon, those lines… funny!

‘Ere, lads! I’ve found Derek!
He’s dressed in a grass skirt and shouting at a carrot!

Frankly, Northfield is a modern master of the gag strip, and yes, he should be mentioned in the same breath as Baxendale and Reid. His ideas and wordplay is perfection, his artwork is a beautiful mix of incredible craft and wonderfully, only just restrained chaos. And, in Derek The Sheep, it all comes together so perfectly, with a funny, funny book you really do need to be reading.

To demonstrate, I’m going to pull a few panels from one story, where Derek gets conned by Rudolph (yes, THAT Rudolph) into taking his place on Santa’s sleigh. It is, simply, the perfect example of using panel-to-panel transitions in comics form to deliver a gag that should have you spitting your coffee out.

Now that, gentle readers, is just plain FUNNY.

Derek The Sheep: First Sheep In Space, by Gary Northfield, is the second Derek collection. You can find it, and the first, Derek The Sheep: Let’s Be Friends, at the Bog Eyed Books website and from good comic and book stores.

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