For almost 40 years the successes, trials and tribulations of investment banker Alex Masterley – drawn by Charles and mostly written by Russell – have chronicled and satirised the Square Mile, its people, its institutions and its businesses.
The pair created Alex in 1987 as a strip in The London Daily News – a newspaper owned by press baron Robert Maxwell. The paper closed after just a few months and that same year Alex then appeared in The Independent before moving to his current home in The Daily Telegraph in 1992 – a transfer heralded with nationwide billboards.
In conversation with our host Adam Batstone, Russell and Charles discuss the longevity of the strip, its Yuppie satire origins, the real-time ageing of the characters and how the type of jokes have had to change in the last four decades.
Charles said both he and Russell were quite politically correct but they still found it funny for Alex to be snobbish and materialistic and they had always been careful about the themes and content of the strip.
“I think of the strip as being a document of life as it goes on in a particular segment of society but also spreading wider…and there isn’t a lot of that around in terms of narratives in popular culture,” he said.
Russell and Charles discuss AI and whether it poses challenges for cartoonists. Charles suggests it raises exciting prospects in the area of animation, but has limitations when used for cartoon strips.
Russell said: ”AI can do pictures of Alex, although they are not quite right, but I have asked AI to write Alex jokes, but it doesn’t really understand what humour is!”
The pair admit they have never really explained what Alex’s job is and say they have heard of bankers giving interns copies of Alex books to read with the comment, ‘this is how the City works’.
Russell said sometimes they could run stories in the strip that for various reasons journalist on the paper couldn’t, citing the example of a real banking merger reflected in the gossipy strip as Mega Bank taking over Metro Bank.
‘We made up the name Metro Bank, and then they stole the name,’ said Charles referring to the high street banking challenger Metro Bank which was founded in 2010.
‘To be fair the guy who started it did buy me lunch once to apologise,’ said Russell.
A popular theme in recent years has been working from home – 128 jokes and counting – but a current theme is bosses wanting a return to office. Something the pair have some sympathy with.
Despite both working from home to produce the strip, Charles said: ‘Russell and I always said after a while with any job the most interesting thing about it is what’s for lunch and salacious gossip about other people in office.’
Now ensconced in his own financial boutique, Alex is not contemplating retirement any time soon. “But could we write jokes about him in retirement? Yes!’ said Russell.