Hatching the Idea

Hatching the Idea

In 2003, at the age of 49, Alan finished an 8-year term as a lawmaker in the Parliament of New South Wales in Australia. Together with his wife, he then moved to a permaculture community near Maleny in Queensland, called Crystal Waters.

He hoped its clean environment would help his wife, who had for some years suffered the consequences of several accidental chemical exposures.

One of the by-laws of living in Crystal Waters was a strict ‘no dogs or cats’ policy, but you could keep chickens. Having always had pets in the past, Alan decided to give chickens a go and, with the help and encouragement of other community members, a chicken coop was built and fenced.

He then obtained an Australian Langshan rooster named Nobby and three Langshan pullets which were just old enough to lay eggs. Alan’s journey with backyard poultry had begun.

But what started the cartoon drawing?

It was one of those days when the business of living makes you wonder what life is really all about. It was 2004 and Alan was glad to be home from a shopping trip. He went to his bedroom to change and there he found an egg on his bed, with a hen fast asleep partly on top of it. That was it!

Alan had put up with the early morning crowing of roosters and the destruction of his wife’s veggie garden and he still carried injuries caused by a broody hen, but enough was enough!

He couldn’t take any more and something kind of snapped in Alan’s head and it all just came flooding out. On paper. Lots of paper. He knew then that cartoons were the way!

The result was his first self-published book on chickens, Chook Tails: Free Range Eggs, which included over a hundred of Alan’s cartoons, some in colour but mostly black and white.

From a sales perspective, it was a flop. In retrospect, not because it wasn’t funny, but because the title, cover, and contents were amateurish and Alan didn’t market the book. It just sat there like a spaced-out broody hen on a website called Lulu.

Fourteen years later Alan decided to finish what he had begun. He took the best of the cartoons and had each one redrawn by a professional cartoonist, Mark Lynch. Mark had done some previous cartoon work for Alan on the behaviour of journalists.

As Alan worked on the cartoons, he thought of completing the circle and publishing another chicken book. Mark advised that he would need at least 50 cartoons.

Only 28 had been redrawn, hence he had to come up with at least another 22 ideas for cartoons.

Generating new ideas turned out to be a relatively easy and enjoyable task, as Alan’s mind can work in mysterious and quite productive ways, provided he has had his afternoon nap!

Where Did the Idea Come From?

There are two main types of cartoons in this book, those that illustrate a behaviour that Alan has observed as a backyard chicken-keeper and those where he has taken a chicken- related expression and drawn a cartoon to illustrate or describe it.

He didn’t find it difficult to generate ideas. Chickens are naturally funny and he was either studiously observing them or in close contact with them throughout the day.

He would let the chickens out of their hen-house in the morning, collect any eggs, perform housekeeping chores like changing the water and topping up the feed, do some maintenance of the coop and the fence-line, oversee the chickens’ free-range activities, monitor their health, and then put them to bed in the evening.

Each part of this routine was repeated daily and lent itself to humorous illustration, hence there was plenty of material to play with.

Inspiration was also provided by other chicken-keepers recounting their experiences of chicken mayhem and hilarity. More recently, Alan has often been inspired by YouTube videos of funny chickens.

As for chicken-related language, terms like ‘hens’ night’ and ‘playing chicken’ are part of our everyday language, while others, like ‘the chicken dance’ and ‘chicken wings’, are embedded in our cultural life. The latter two are both familiar to the Tik Tok audience!

The Process of Making a Cartoon

Some of these cartoons are simply professionally redrawn copies of ones that appeared in Alan’s first book, Chook Tails. Alan has included some of these old ones at the back of Chicken Nibbles.

However, many of these cartoons are new, because about fifty cartoons would be needed for a decent-size cartoon book. Hence, Alan had to come up with some new ideas.

The actual time it took, from coming up with an idea to finishing the ‘draft’ and ‘explanation’ ready for the cartoonist to draw, varied considerably. Sometimes, it was just minutes.

This was the fun part for Alan. Taking an idea and bringing it alive on paper was always an interesting challenge.

He would start with some behaviour he had observed, e.g. a chicken trying to escape by flying over a fence. A not unusual antic for a hen, but nevertheless always amusing to watch ‘live’.

The question then was, how could the author make this behaviour seem funny or, as the case may be, even funnier?

Well, those who have dealt with chickens ‘flying the coop’ know that clipping the primary feathers of one wing can help, because it reduces that wing’s capacity to generate lift and makes any flight somewhat unstable.

So, which wing will be clipped? The left or the right?

This choice reminded Alan of the political divide between conservatives and progressives, so he came up with a caption where a farmer commented on a hen whose right wing had been clipped that she had ‘right-leaning tendencies’.

Let’s follow another thought process.

Take the cartoon about a snake that got itself caught in fencing wire, something the author had observed in his backyard, a relatively simple scenario for him to draw.

But what should the caption say?

Well, snakes, like humans, can eat ‘to excess’ and that is why they get stuck. A full snake can end up too fat to get out of the same fence hole it came in by.

‘Excess’ … hmm, this word reminded Alan of humans drinking too much alcohol and the explanation many people give when asked to explain their erratic behaviour.

“I think I had one too many last night.”

Which is exactly what the snake said.

Hatching Future Plans

Making a 2022 Calendar featuring ‘the best of’ Chicken Nibbles, with 12 cartoons and a pack of 10 blank greeting cards with selected cartoons on their covers.

Republishing Chook Tails: Free Range Eggs.

A ‘colouring in’ book featuring selected cartoons so children can share the ‘ Chicken Nibbles’ experience with their family.

The Cluck