As a cartoonist myself, I have to say that Leo was an impossible act to follow. His drawings were always both very, very funny and sublimely well drawn – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling to my greetings card and gift book scribbles. He cast a long shadow which will be greatly missed now it’s gone.
The humour in Leo’s work for children’s comics and his later newspaper cartoons and books was always anarchic, anti the established order and pro fairness and justice in a generally unfair and unjust world, championing the underdog against the forces of oppression; a reflection of his strongly held left-wing, progressive political views.
In his comics pages he saw the child characters he created (most famously The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum) as the underdogs long controlled and oppressed by the adult world around them and he gave them a voice and actions with which to fight back in hilariously anarchic fashion, allowed them to step into the limelight and control their own destinies. Children of the time responded to that, writing fan letters of glee and appreciation that truly delighted him. The fan letters also came from grown up children, reading his pages with as much enjoyment as their offspring.
He crammed his drawings with masses of tiny comic details that the readers could pour over and come back to time and time again. He believed that children had “super-powerful eyeballs” with which they looked for that kind of tiny comic detail to become absorbed in, and he always wanted to give them more and more, pages that they could become lost in as they studied the detail. He never wanted to disappoint his fans.
In recent years it wasn’t the cancer that he fought for so long that really got him down, so much as the constant march ever more to the right in British politics – a depressing political march away from the principles of fairness, justice and standing up for the underdog that underpinned his life and his cartoons, towards a world built around fear, hatred and division. To the end he believed, despite all the evidence, that he could beat his illness and I’m sure he also believed that the forces of progressive politics could also still win, no matter how long a shadow their opponents might cast.
I will always be grateful that Leo taught me how to draw well enough to make a living from it. I’m equally grateful that his strongly progressive political views and activism rubbed off on me and my brothers and sisters (I vividly remember as a small child being taken on wet and cold CND marches as well as on exciting visits to the Beano offices in Dundee) and so helped to shape the adults we became, and it’s good to know that he also touched and in some small way perhaps influenced the lives of so many others of our generation brought up on his comic pages.