Top of the class - meet the Irish cartoonist who is a Facebook sensation
Cartoonist Colm Cuffe set aside his sketch book when he became a teacher, but found new inspiration in classroom life. Then a meeting with 'Simpsons' creator Matt Groening changed everything, he tells our reporter
Colm Cuffe lives a double life - nice young primary schoolteacher by day, cartoonist whose mischievous wit and draftsmanship has made him a Facebook sensation the rest of the time.
Now there is a book, too, for those Luddites who missed the When's it Hometime? webcomics he's been posting on Facebook. We think you will like it - parents may even find it a bit of a scoop. And it's marketed on the cover as "the perfect thank you gift", so every teacher in Ireland is about to receive several copies.
The collection of cartoons, A Teacher's Life, is a bleakly comic portrayal of classroom life - the teasing, the bragging, the pretentious lunchboxes - and of the existential haplessness of those whose vocation is opening Frubes throughout little break. The bubble-eyed 'Teeeeacher' in the cartoons is a jaded figure besieged by requests and pointless banter from delightfully unreasonable and ungrateful little blighters, and the drawings range from simple to exquisite.
Cuffe would not agree he lives a double life. This internet emissary is modest to the point of evasive - a curious mixture of outgoing and deeply private, saying: "I'm keeping my drawings and schoolteaching separate". Which is ambitious, given his schoolteaching goes into all the drawings.
The 'Teeeeacher' in his cartoons is leaden-eyed, long-suffering and given to despair; Cuffe, on the other hand, is chipper to meet and blindingly positive about all aspects of his job. He gives the impression of being nothing but cool-headed in the face of anarchy.
'Teeeeacher' is not him, he says, though he does concede one truth: "It made me feel like I had an outlet." It turns out he found this outlet years earlier, when he was a schoolboy himself.
Growing up in Galway, Cuffe was "a bit of a perfectionist", and "the one at the back of the class doodling in the copybooks". Many hours were devoted to copying characters from his favourite shows - The Simpsons, Garfield, Denis the Menace and Batman. When Cuffe's mother put him in a Saturday art class at the Cruinniú Studio, his art teacher James Newell encouraged him to create his own characters. Herb and Chad - two schoolboys, shooting the breeze - were born.
He was 13 when he had his first newspaper slot, a comic strip published in both the Galway City Tribune and Galway First. Back then, print was the only platform for cartoons and comic strips, and Cuffe was aware of Matt Groening's Life in Hell. Every week he came up with new punchlines for Herb and Chad, enjoying the pocket money and the trip to the newsagent for the papers.
"They were just jokes more than anything," he says modestly. He even made an animated short that featured in the Galway Film Fleadh.
But he "outgrew" Herb and Chad, became a teacher and set aside his pencils and sketchbooks. Sometimes he sat at his desk, really wanting to draw but not knowing where to start. Until he realised that all the material was there before his eyes. "Children come out with very funny lines," he says. "After time, I realised this could be very funny material for a comic strip." Staffroom stories abounded, too, and Cuffe started jotting down the jokes and building up a bank of cartoon strips. But the cartoons would move from his desk to his shelf and then languish there. "I was just doing it for myself," he says. "I genuinely didn't think anyone would read them."
Colm, who teaches first class at a school in Greystones, Co Wicklow had always had the very niche dream of attending a table read of The Simpsons, and when he met one of the writers, Mike Reiss, at the Galway Comedy Festival, he engineered an invite, and soon found himself among a select audience in Fox Studios in LA.
Cuffe and his teacher wife Carol watched, rapt, as the voices behind Homer and Marge, Bart and Lisa landed their jokes. At the end, he approached his hero, Matt Groening, who said "follow me", and sat down with him to have a look at his cartoons.
"I had my little backpack and folder with poly-pockets. I told him, 'I'm a big fan, and I've come all the way from Ireland'. He said, 'You've a confident style and you're very funny. Do you have an online presence?'"
That was in March 2016 and that September, Cuffe put up his first comic strip, of a pupil begging for "hometime"; the next showing the mental processes of a teacher at the end of summer holidays - "splitting headache, fleeting panic attack, desperation, anxiety, despair, denial…".
The cartoons first caught the attention of a handful of teacher friends and soon there were strangers, everyone baying for more. His teen training with the local papers ensured nothing like drawer's block could get in the way of producing a weekly cartoon: "I have a lot of pencil mileage by now," he says.
These days, teachers from all over the world message him with anecdotes. Translators from Germany, France and Italy have been contacting him and just the other day, he came across his comic strips pirated in Mandarin Chinese. The need to produce has not caused him to scrimp on the punctilious detail of his classroom scenes. Every drawing is done by hand, using a lightbox, ruler and pens. He draws out the panels, then the first drawing, then traces each line in each new panel after that. Look closely and you'll find there is a slight curve to the lines, giving the drawings a special artisan quality. This is unusual when most illustrators use a stylus pen and tablet. "It's all fancy nowadays," Colm says.
That first cartoon strip he posted coincided with the arrival of his first child, Cian, who at 20 months now has his own sketchpad and pencil, too.
He credits his "great inspiration" Matt Groening with giving him the courage to follow his dream on a platform - Facebook - that was new to him. "Personally, I don't use social media," says the cartoonist, who now has a following of 22,800. It's one of many offbeat, curious statements he makes. He does not admit to any struggle in his working life as a teacher, and humour is kept strictly to the cartoons. Over the hour we meet, he doesn't say a single witty thing.
His pupils have been the first to say to him "You're famous". And how about when they doodle at the back of class? "I encourage them to doodle," he says.
He has given each of his pupils a sketchpad of their own to use during rainy break-times. "Children love watching cartoons and reading cartoons. Why shouldn't they be encouraged to draw their own?"
He hasn't posted a new cartoon since March: is he ready to outgrow his classroom characters? "I have stacks of sketchbooks at home, full of creations," he says and trails off, keeping his cards close to his chest.
To write a series would be "really a dream come true," he says, adding that he has no plans to ever leave teaching.
"It's such a privilege to be educating the next generation, to make a difference in their lives. And of course to hear their sense of humour."
A Teacher's Life: A When's it Hometime? Collection by Colm Cuffe is published by Gill Books