Meet the man who creates our iconic Mint Sauce cartoon strip
MBUK shares its 30th birthday with its very own mountain biking sheep Mint Sauce - we catch up with its creator Jo Burt to find out exactly where he gets his inspiration from over the years and just what his real relationship is with that sheep……
In the same year that MBUK hits its third decade, Mint Sauce – the cartoon sheep with a passion for mountain biking – is also celebrating its 30th birthday.
While Mint didn't make an appearance in MBUK until 1990, he's still been a huge part of our journey so far. We visited Mint creator Jo Burt to find out more about the man behind the cartoon strip, exactly where the inspiration for this ovine icon came from and why it's survived way longer than any sheep has any right to…
MBUK: So tell us, who is Jo Burt?
JB: I have no idea, really. You best ask my friends for a frank answer. Anyway, any of these during a day; introvert, loud, particular, messy, kind, judgemental, giving, cynical, romantic, stay at home, traveller, road, cyclo-cross, mountain bike, fixed, singlespeed, shopper, scared, self-assured, busy, lazy, daydreaming, race, tea and cake, shaved, hungry, poor, tired. Or “That bloke what does the sheep” for short.
Illustrator, cartoonist, writer, cat owner.
What are your hobbies/interests?
Um, riding my bike. Luckily I can separate riding a bike from work when needs be and it becomes my escape.
I’ve never really been a going-out type and busy places have always made me anxious, it took me a while and a lot of teenage angst (which extended well into 20s’ angst) to realise that I didn’t fit in where other people like to congregate, and then time to figure out that it was okay not to. Put me away from everyone and at the top of the hill and I'm happiest.
I guess music could be a keen interest, I’ve been sitting at a desk, on my own, for over half my life so I listen to A LOT of music. All sorts of everything, no jazz though.
Oh, peanut-butter, does that count as a hobby? I should go to the cinema more, I do like a film but it needs to be on a big screen for the full immersive experience, so I can’t do Netflix.
How did you get into art/illustration?
Wanky though it sounds I was born into it. I spent my childhood just drawing because it was fun. My parents encouraged it by just giving me pens and endless pads of paper, and if it wasn’t drawing it was Airfix kits.
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These were the days before 24hr television, video games and the internet so activities were limited. Then I went to school and always enjoyed the art class and it seamlessly progressed from there, I had no real idea you could actually do drawings as a living though.
A teacher at the college I was in through my formative years realised that while I was fine academically I was wasting my time there if I wanted to do anything arty and suggested I moved to another school that could help that blossom.
This helped me eventually get into art college where I did a foundation course and then a three year degree in Graphic Design and Illustration, specialising in illustration – quite a cartoony one at that – which the tutors never really came to terms with.
When I started getting (not very well) paying illustration jobs in my final year they suddenly became more understanding.
Do you have future aspirations with work, cycling, other?
Keep drawing, keep riding my bike, keep travelling, that’s it. That’ll do. I’m writing and illustrating a book right now, which is pretty bloody amazing. I’ve never had any real plans or goals, I’ve just muddled along; worked hard, tried my best, been a bit lucky, winged it.
Tell us a little about your cycling history?
Quite simple really, I never stopped riding a bike. Learnt when I was about five I guess, in the car-park of my grand-parents pub, had a succession of second-hand bikes for playing out on as kids, it’s just what you did.
Never had a Chopper or a Grifter or a BMX. Got a bit more into it with a green Dawes light tourer sports bike thing, I lived in the far-reaches of the suburbs so it was simply a way of getting around and seeing friends, it’s what you did.
I was starting to cycle more as a hobby rather than just pratting about and saw an advert for a mountain bike in a cycling magazine and just knew I absolutely had to have one of these new fangled machines.
About the same time my Dad gave me £500 for my 18th birthday and whilst I expect he was hoping I’d invest it wisely I spunked most all of it on a for then top of the range Saracen mountainbike.
Took him a while to get over that – thanks for the bike Dad!
Whilst mountain biking has been a massive part of my life I’ve always had a road bike and happily swapped between the two without any of the tribalism that some people harbour.
I ride a cyclo-cross bike more than is healthy as well, a proper one with thin tyres and shit brakes. I’ve ridden all these bikes all over different parts of the world, crossed countries, mountain ranges and continents, raced each of these disciplines with varying degrees of success, stood on some podiums even, had my arsed handed to me far more regularly.
Currently wandering down the long-distance ultra-endurance road but use a bike most often to pop up the shops for some milk and cat food.
Do you get recognised when out riding?
Never, I am after all a fairly anonymous face behind a sheep! I’ve been nervously approached a few times in a field full of mountain bikers and it’s always nice to have a chat with a man of a certain age about back when the cartoon was funny, but I certainly don’t get mobbed going down the local singletrack. (Although I did get recognised outside the Co-Op once but that was for a road bike thing, which freaked me out more than a little bit.)
Are you a comic book reader/art enthusiast yourself?
It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday but yes. I don’t necessarily want to spend my spare time looking at art or comics after spending all day beating a bit of paper into submission but it’s always good for the soul and frequently inspiring.
If I’m having a bit of a struggle with the pencils I’ll pick something off the shelf and have a flick through. I should go down the comic book shop more often.
What are your first memories of Mint Sauce?
His beginnings are fuzzy and yet a snapshot specific moment. At about the same time that I was drawing general mountain bike cartoons for fun and trying to come up with a specific character that could do stuff, I was doing a lot of work with a friend that involved drawing the South Downs and a lot of sheep. As a consequence we started drawing sheep absolutely everywhere else, and a Mint Sauce-like sheep even appeared in a mountain bike cartoon I drew chucking tacks on the trail.
Then one day, just before lunch, it might have been a Thursday, I casually scribbled a sheep on a mountain bike and that was it.
It seems so obvious now. I used to have the scrap of paper that cartoon was on but I lost it somewhere along the way, I have a suspicion it was carelessly left on a wall in Bath.
Mint Sauce was the “that’ll do for now” name that just stuck. When they called the sheep “Shaun” in Wallace and Gromit’s “A Close Shave” I let out a cry of anguish.
I do remember the first proper Mint Sauce strip that I drew, I had no idea about Process White (a posh Tippex for artists) so had to redraw it all when I made a mistake.
It was scary, it was exciting, there was a little bit inside that thought it would be amazing if I could make a living out of this, I had no idea that it would blunder along for the next 30 years. And now I’m wondering when it will end, be careful what you wish for.
How did a mountain biking sheep find its way into a magazine?
Oooooh, way back in the depths of time I was doing cartoons for the Mountain Bike Club, a nationwide organisation that sent out a photocopied newsletter (yes, that long ago) and ran races for the then fledgling UK mountain bike scene.
I sent them some cartoons on the off chance and they liked them and printed them, so I did some more and it continued like this for some time.
Then I asked co-organiser Max Glaskin if he knew any “proper” magazines that might like a cartoon about a mountain biking sheep and he did and Mint Sauce appeared in Bicycle Action in March 1988.
It made the jump to Mountain Biking UK about 18 months later.
The style of the cartoon appears to have evolved over time, is this due to your illustration style evolving or are there any external influence?
It’s just generally evolved over time, it would be a worry if it had stayed the same over those 30 years.
And looking back it’s a good job it has, it wasn’t very good. How did I ever get the job?!
There hasn’t been any real conscious decision to change things, I do try and draw it better each time though. Ideas and styles come and go, some things work, some don’t stick, it’s not obvious from strip to strip but take two cartoons a few years apart and you’ll certainly see the difference.
The detail that flooded the earlier strips has definitely been cut back on, that’s a time and money issue really; as it is drawing the strip is a labour intensive job - not hard work just labour intensive. On top of this there are definitely external influences, it could be a film, a piece of art, a photograph or a cartoon, it all gets absorbed, processed and regurgitated.
How does the illustration process happen?
It starts with the idea and the words, and they both have to be sorted, working on a cartoon without either finalised only leads to trouble, and the fewer of the words there are the harder it can be as they each have to be spot on perfect.
Then there’s the panels to lay out, there are certain ways that I like these to sit but how they’re placed and where the speech bubbles go within them dictates the pace of the story and how the reader works their way through the strip.
That done, it’s working out what to put in the panels, this can have a massive effect on how the page feels, it’s a bit like being a film director; are the characters big in the frame or small, is it a head shot, all of that.
This bit can take a while and I usually forget how to draw, at some point it will all be going okay and then five minutes later it will all be total rubbish.
There’s a lot of rubbing’s out, more than there should be for someone that’s been doing this for over half their life. Everything done in pencil, it’s then inked in and then the colouring-in starts.
Use of colour is another thing that can have an effect on how the strip feels but there are certain colours that I use habitually, it’s what gives the strip its thing.
If I’m doing a page with singletrack in it this bit can take ages, trees are a lot of work and whole days are spent doing just brown or green, it’s a glamourous life.
Cartoons when they’re riding along the top of the South Downs where it’s basically broad brush strokes of blue sky and green grass are a lot swifter.
There’s a reason why I live here.
Once all the colouring’s done we’re on the home straight and it’s time to ink all the outlines and get that life-saving Process White out and tidy up any mistakes. Do the panel sides with ruler and pen, rummage around in the Book Of Things for any pithy comments to write in small round the edges. Done.
Each Mint is hand drawn, no computers, no fancy fun and games, just fingers and spit, and done at A3 size (396x264 to be exact) which surprises some people. It makes it easier to work on and once it’s shrunk to MBUK page size the detail sharpens up and the colours saturate.
That can all take anything up to a week, multiply that by 12 months and 30 years and you can work out how much of my life that is. And that doesn’t include all the extra Mint stuff I’ve done. I’m going to have a cry now.
How have you managed to keep finding inspiration for 30 years of Mint Sauce?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve always said that if I stop coming up with good ideas I’ll stop and that hasn’t happened yet (others may disagree).
Ideas come from all over the place, there’s no real rhyme or reason and I like it like that. The surprise can still excite me.
Quite often something that happens on a ride will trigger an idea (and friends might recognise it when it appears in print months later and demand payment), but it can be a song lyric that fires the synapses in my head, some words in a book, or actually nothing at all and for reasons best known to the way my brain is wired an idea will appear full formed and wonderful in the echoey corridors of my head.
A lot come during the washing up or when I’m brushing my teeth, something about a mundane repetitive task frees the brain. I’ve had dreams of ideas and woken up laughing before… that’s when I take the day off because my work is already done.
Thanks to the creative freedom I’m given and the way the cartoon has evolved it has lurched clumsily into the personal/self-indulgent in the past and has dealt with the broader subjects of life, death, love, loss, biplanes and celery which is handy as there are only so many jokes about mountain biking, and a lot of whatever euphoria or turmoil I’ve been going through at the time has spilled out onto the page, if you know where to look.
Sometimes it’s not especially hard to find, it’ll be the black bit. All ideas and half thoughts are written down in a notebook I have that’s full of random crap and it might not necessarily be used right away, it could be season specific so will have to wait to when it’s relevant, or it might not just feel ‘right’. I’ve thumbed back through the book and used ideas that are years old that suddenly feel appropriate. Or I’m just in a last minute panic.
Have your thoughts/ideas of Mint sauce changed over the years?
Hmm, I don’t know, there are a handful of common threads that have weaved there way through the years and I think they cover the universal experiences of mountain biking like riding singletrack, crashing, getting fed up with the weather and looking forward to sunnier days.
Then there are the ones that might be a nothing much conversation you’ll have on the trail. But as I’ve got older they do seem to have calmed down a lot and become more reflective, I have to remind myself every month that’s it’s meant to be funny, at least sometimes.
In the MTB world you’re famous for Mint Sauce, but what can you tell us about your work outside of Mint Sauce.
Aside from all the other illustration work inside and outside of the bike industry I’ve also done a lot of writing for a variety of cycle magazines and websites, I won an award for it once, something I’ve never managed with my drawings, that’s four years of high level art-school education well spent.
I’ve worked in bike shops, helped organise bike races and events, been a part in the design of bike parts and clothes, reviewed literally shed loads of bike product, been a bike riding model for articles, adverts and videos, and I’m a bike guide now and again. In more random work I once appeared in a Range Rover advert and I jumped off Bognor pier with some sex-dolls tied to me for an article that never got printed. I’ve kept one, as a memento.
Will we have seen other works of yours published anywhere?
Technically I’m a freelance illustrator so over the years I’ve done illustrations for just about every magazine and subject matter you could imagine. The backbone of this has been cycling related but I’ve done work for publications covering amongst other things jet-skis, car hi-fi, what’s on listings magazines, oil rigs, horoscopes, computer software, green issues, lots of outdoorsy stuff, and even some top-shelf material. Those were good years. I’ve also illustrated books, drawn posters, scribbled t-shirt designs, and drawn logos for bike bits, and a driving instructor.
The themes often highlight issues of modern life. Is this philosophical outlook a reflection of your views of the world?
I guess so, I wouldn’t put down something I don’t agree with, it’s got my name attached to it after all. It’s a very skimming the surface pub-philosophy though, it’s never been overtly political (I’m not a political person at all) or making any great point, it’s just flippant observations found on the trail. And it’s a cartoon sheep.
Mint Sauce doesn’t care for the changing trends in mountain biking, just the next ride. Are these a reflection of your views?
Oh, I don’t know, there are enough pictures of me in some questionable clothing trends, but as a rule, yeah, pretty much. I ride a bike that matches my mindset, my kind of riding and that suits the hills I scamper across rather than subscribing to the latest whatever the latest thing is.
Trends are just trends, one thing I’ve learnt over the years is that if you sit still long enough fashion will always come round to meet you.
The bum-bag I was wearing 30 years ago is now an EnduroHipPack, same colour too. Also, trends are a rich vein from which to gently take the piss out of in cartoon form.
Is there anything the readers should know about yourself or Mint Sauce?
I’m older than you think and I ride a road bike more than you know or might like.
Anything you would like to add about yourself or work?
It’s an incredibly odd profession drawing cartoons, sat within a dim cone of light in a dark dust and rubber swarf thick corner of the spare room, I work best in the hush of night, doodling away and somehow putting a lifetime into a magazine page.
It is a job that relies very much on self-reliance and hope, that what you do is any good, and that people might enjoy it. This aside from the endless internal monologue of appraisal that whispers from brilliant to okay to shit to passable, to great and then shouting get this out of my sight and then back again over the course of a cartoon.
You have to doggedly trust that sticking to your gut instinct is better than staring out the window trying to predict what might be popular. Keeping punting it out month after month with very little feedback and no editorial control (both a curse and an incredibly rare privilege) can often feel a bit aimless and akin to throwing paper airplanes of artwork into the fiery cavernous void. If this all starts to gently crush me, which it frequently does, I sneak out on the bike on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to remind myself why I do this.
There’s a tremendous amount of old-fashioned personal pride poured into each cartoon and I’ve worked hard not to take the easy option and roll out a bunch of old tat with little care or effort (and from time to time I’ve had to fight hard to stop other people rolling out tat under Mint’s name, it’s not always been successful), and I have tried each month to make it better than the last. It’s not always been successful.
If I’m struggling with creativity I usually go out on the bike on a sunny Thursday afternoon to see if I can find some inspiration rather than just staring out the window looking for it. Flicking through the back catalogue there have been enough misses and too many times when the cartoon has frankly disappeared up its own arse and I see some old strips now and wince a little bit. Actually quite a lot. Sorry you had to read those.
But I look at strips I’ve not seen for years with fresh eyes and reluctantly concede that I might just be okay and enough people seem to have enjoyed it over the years for Mint Sauce to last three decades, a length of time that is incredible for a cartoon strip, any cartoon strip, and three times longer than any sheep has the right to live.
So I must be doing something right (haters gonna hate) somewhere. I’m still not sure what that is but thank you. Thank you for letting me go ride my bike on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.