My drawing skills are so bad I once did a sketch of my girlfriend’s pretty face that was so grotesque it made her cry. So I guess I’ll never be a cartoonist. It’s a shame because we appear to be running out of them.
In March we lost both Bill Leak and Murray Ball. While Ball stayed out of politics and was universally loved, there were galaxies of despise for Leak. Cue the predictable howls for censorship whenever his cartoons took aim at easy targets: the poor, the suffering, inevitably the black. He broke the golden rule preached by the greatest of them all, Michael Leunig, which is that the responsibility of the cartoonist was to attack and satirise the rich and powerful, not the weak and dispossessed. It’s a commendable philosophy, even if it means you occasionally misidentify your target, as Leunig does when he gets heavy with topics like the Middle East and vaccination. But you can’t censor your way to peace. Every cartoonist would agree that freedom of expression is far more important than freedom from offence.
I confess to not knowing much about Leak outside of his recent provocative prints. I guess I blithely drifted with the prevailing wind in my circles that he was a loathsome, privileged bully with hatful audacity and a poisoned pen. But then Australia’s best feature writer, a man who’s painted from head to toe in love and compassion, Trent Dalton, wrote a heartfelt, gushing eulogy in The Australian. In fact, he wrote two of them; one hours after Leak’s passing, and one for the front page of the next day. Dalton: “Leak captured feeling because he felt so deeply. He’d seen the country from every vantage point, from the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory to the gutters of Kings Cross.” The difference between Dalton’s take and those who branded Leak racist was that Dalton actually knew the guy.
We have a tendency to personally attack people whose ideas and art we don’t agree with. Cartoonists often cop it. I suspect that even Mark Knight, whose simplistic cartoons appear in Melbourne’s Herald Sun and feature a little face that pokes its head up from the bottom corner with a speech bubble explaining to the readers why the joke is funny, is a nice guy.
Murray Ball was a great educator. I never realised how huge his Footrot Flats cartoons were in Australia until my girlfriend told me that when she was growing up everything she knew about New Zealand came from that strip.
In 1978 the magazine New Zealand Listener published an interview of Ball by another great cartoonist, Tom Scott. Ball isn’t much of a talker at first. Scott plies him with wine in Wellington then tails him to his farm near Gisborne. Ball is pissed off he didn’t make the All Blacks, and talks of hating his brief time as a reporter. “I would rather walk across town to find a clock than ask someone the time.” I understand. The interview was a wonderful piece of writing from a cartoonist, Scott, but that’s hardly a surprise because cartooning is as much about writing as drawing.
Last year I interviewed New Zealand cartoonist Toby Morris at his home in Auckland. Morris’s comic strip detailing the mechanisms of middle-class privilege went viral round the world. Morris leans more on words more than pictures, but his pictures helped simplify complex ideas. He encapsulates an issue and presents it in a way where the only possible reaction is to nod thoughtfully and say, “Yeah…right on, man.”
A good cartoonist’s brain is a thing of wonder, the way it whirls in oblique orbits round expressions of art, politics and life, with but one aim: to present a subjective truth. They give us snippets that can be hilarious, cutting, dull, patronising, weird, rude or just plain wrong. The only thing they ask for is freedom.