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An interview with The Doodle Boy

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Joe Whale has become an international superstar since ‘going viral’ doodling on the walls at Number Four restaurant. With book deals, TV appearances and a first solo exhibition at The Soden Collection in Shrewsbury, we ask – how does he fit it all in?

In just a couple of years, Joe Whale has become a beacon for creative children across the globe. His awesome talent lit up the global social media radar after a picture of him doodling on the walls of Number Four restaurant in Shrewsbury went viral in 2019.

Then, aged just nine years old, he found himself propelled into the spotlight as clips of his cartoons were shared on zeitgeisty platforms, including LADbible and Bored Panda, whose millions of followers shared the posts. The story was picked up by the world’s media, including US news channels ABC News and NBC TODAY. The US media love runaway success stories, especially in small packages, and Joe is big news over the pond.

“People in the US really want you to succeed,” says Joe’s dad Greg. “They love the idea that anything is possible if you follow your dream.”

Joe Whale: doodles collage
Joe Whale: doodles collage

Joe was flown out to California in January 2020 to doodle the backdrop for the set for NBC’s Little Big Shots, appearing on the show alongside presenter and actress Melissa McCarthy, best known for roles in comedy films including Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015). It was a lot to carry on his young shoulders, but Joe coped brilliantly.

He said: “It was quite tense before I went on. I was getting really worried when they were doing my makeup, and then I went on and saw the crowd!

“I just started drawing Cool Dog and Mr Pepperoni (two of his recurring characters). Art is very relaxing for me, it calms me down. Melissa was really funny; she told me she used to doodle on her own walls when she was younger.”

Joe’s characters spring fully formed from his imagination in black and white pen – Super Robot and Skater Skull are old favourites, but he has created new ones for some of his latest projects. The young artist has also appeared on ITV News, Blue Peter, CBBC Newsround and Sky Kids FYI. He has several different agents (creative, illustration and licensing!), a two-book deal with Scholastic publishing company, a range of merchandise, a licensing deal with Warner Music and a 96-page colouring book out in the UK in October 2021 (Dover Publications). It’s a tiny fraction of the offers he’s actually received, revealed Joe’s dad Greg, who shields Joe from negotiations, allowing him to lead a ‘normal’ (ish!) life.

“The thing about Joe is that he’d say yes to everything,” Greg says. “I have to think very carefully about whether it’s something he would wake up and feel excited about. “The last thing we would want is for Joe’s art to be dictated by other people. We have to be very careful that it isn’t a drain for him. I don’t want it to feel like a job. I want it to feel like he’s free to do whatever art he wants.”

The book project with Scholastic, Bad Food – Game of Scones, written by Eric Luper and due out in the UK in February 2022, was an easy yes: “Eric wrote it with Joe in mind, knowing his style,” Greg said. “The book is tailor-made for Joe.”

“It’s really funny,” Joe adds. “There’s lots of varieties of characters. It’s about a school called Belching Walrus Elementary. When all the teachers have gone home, the food and office supplies come to life. It’s a really fun topic to illustrate.”

The Doodle Boy's new books
The Doodle Boy’s new books

Joe is also looking forward to heading off to Boston for a ‘huge mural project’ that is in the pipeline: “This is something Joe is really looking forward to,” says dad Greg. “He loves large art pieces and can’t wait to get going.”

Joe is a sweet-looking, super engaging 11-year-old with a knockout talent (“he’s really good on camera,” says dad). Anyone who suspects his success is all media hype should watch the YouTube videos online of him doodling the Royal Train right out of his head (pictured here). It was a commission for Kate and Wills to mark their three-day tour by royal train last year. All Joe had to go on were some perspective lines – the rest was from his imagination.

Joe Whale: Royal Train
Joe Whale: Royal Train

Joe moves into Year 7 at Ellesmere College this autumn, where he is a recipient of the Charlie Adlard art scholarship. Greg says in a past school, Joe was told off for doodling during lessons. It’s a story that has been repeated many times since: “It was never about having a dig at the school,” Greg adds. “It was just the truth. We had highlighted something, and we wanted to see what we could do to make it better.” The experience has prompted the family motto: “Do What you Love”, and led Joe to accept a role as Changemaker ambassador at the Children’s Media Conference 2021, a gathering for everyone involved in kids’ entertainment across all media platforms. Joe said: “My message is that we should include kids in the creative development of shows.” “Kids have fresh minds,” Greg adds. “When they aren’t guide-lined, they come up with all sorts of things.

“All kids are creative – we have it slowly removed from us – then when you’re an adult, you wake up 20 years later realising you’re doing a job you hate! We’re asking how we can help make this better.”

Joe is lucky that he has champions at home who value his spark. His mum Ness almost became a professional ballet dancer and has a gift for cartoons, whilst dad Greg has a knack for realism, and Nan Jenny is also an illustrator. They all create together, just for fun and have built an art studio in the garden for creative projects: “We realise that not everyone has that support,” Greg says. Joe is now set on a path to be an artist when he’s older – he’s experimenting with melding doodling with abstract art.

Joe’s talent was encouraged by Kerry Jones of the Coleham-based Bloom art studio, who first posted his doodles on Instagram, securing his first commission at Number Four. Classes at Bloom exposed Joe to a variety of techniques and boosted his confidence: “If only all kids could have access to that kind of support,” Greg says.

For Greg, supporting his son nowadays often means staying up half the night, answering emails from the USA and running Joe’s social media. “It’s a tough gig, alongside his full-time job as a UK sales manager for a welding company, especially as the family has just welcomed a fourth sibling to the fold, a sister for Joe Marley. Joe has already created a first book for her!

Keeping a balance in family life is important too – Joe has an identical twin brother, Jesse, who’s also keen on art (representative, not doodles) and acting and a sister, Phoebe, 8. “The boys are fiercely competitive,” Greg reveals. “And Phoebe is already calling herself the Doodle Girl.” All the Whale children go to Stagecoach; the boys play lots of sports, such as football and Minecraft. Jesse’s also a talented guitarist and actor.

There are sponsorships on the horizon, too, and an animation deal with Pat Younge/Cardiff Productions, which could see Joe animate a whole series of characters for TV. With all this excitement, Joe still found time to doodle a front cover, especially for My Shrewsbury magazine.

“We like to support local – plus we think it’s a great magazine,” Greg says. The black and white design features all Joe’s favourite things about Shrewsbury: The River Severn, Theatre Severn, the castle and The Quarry – with an imaginative twist from Joe, of course. “There are a few monsters on Sabrina Boat,” Joe says. “Because I thought it would be cool.”

You can find out more about Joe’s amazing progress at thedoodleboy.com or see his work exhibited at The Soden Collection on Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury (Joe’s solo exhibition has been extended until November 6th, 2021), or pre-order Game of Scones.

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