A “Four Corners” profile for North and South Magazine, September 2016

It’s probably not career advice Auckland cartoonist and comic artist Toby Morris would pass on to his two young sons. ‘There aren’t many young, political cartoonists around,’ says Morris, as four year-old Max shows off a not quite fully functioning transistor radio he’s just whipped at childcare. ‘I remember thinking when I was growing up, “I’ll take over from Tom Scott one day.” Only problem is, Tom Scott’s still going. In fact, most of them are.’

Morris instead developed a niche by combining comic drawing with social and political commentary. He’s still reeling from the unfathomable success of a comic he drew in May last year, illuminating some of the mechanics of social inequality. First published on The Wireless website (thewireless.co.nz), the comic follows the contrasting lives of two fictional children – one poor and one rich. It went viral, racking up millions of hits round the world, and has been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Thai and Korean. Why does Morris think it struck such a worldwide chord? ‘I think I just found a really basic and accessible way to explain it (privilege), without being too judgemental or preachy. And I think inequality is an issue for everybody, not just poor people.’

His regular strip for The Wireless is called Pencilsword. Recent subjects include the flag debate (‘I had a bad feeling about it right from the start’) tax avoidance and the TPPA. His style is never to ridicule or lampoon anyone, but rather to communicate important ideas gently, with unexpected visual analogies and warm humour. But the political is also the personal. A comic in March introduced his wife, Sonya, to the world, and pondered the question of how do you know whether someone is ‘the one.’

Morris quit the day job six months ago draw full time. He says he would have done it earlier if it wasn’t for financial stress of having to provide for two young children. He now has more work than he can handle. ‘I’m kind of a workaholic,’ he admits. Sonya solemnly nods.

In addition to Pencilsword he’s teamed up with journalist Toby Manhire to write and illustrate a weekly series for Radio New Zealand (radionz.co.nz), Toby and Toby, putting him in the bizarre situation of being a cartoonist for a radio station. He’s also written and illustrated a graphic novel, ‘Don’t Puke on Your Dad,’ inspired by his first year as a father, and has two children’s books coming out later in the year.

He’s says it’s not a life he planned. In the early 2000s Morris was the bass player in Wellington rock band Batrider. The band moved to Melbourne, where Morris started delving in comic journalism, mostly for music magazines. He also drew countless band and festival posters, something he still does. After leaving Batrider Morris and Sonya spent four years living in Amsterdam, before settling down in Auckland. His drawing room in their house a stone’s throw from Eden Park is dark and quiet. A blaring lamp lights up dozens of post-it notes – reminders of jobs coming up, ideas for new cartoons, invoices to chase up.

‘I know I’ll never be the greatest drawer of all time,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to blow anyone away with my technique. But if you think about the music that you love, it’s not always the guy who can play a million notes a minute. It’s going to be music that has a voice of its own; music that’s interesting.’