A brief history of cartooning – and my small part in it
Adapted and updated from my article Stop Laughing – this is serious, published in Student Update in The Age on 3 August 1992.
Warning: Long read
When media guru Marshall McLuhan prophesied about the death of the written word and the rise of the electronic media, he forgot about the cartoon.
In some ways, the cartoon was an important aid in the survival of the print media and is one of the few print images that has not only survived the audio-visual take over, but also thrived.
Perhaps this is because of its simplicity, its brevity and immediacy. In the modern world of information saturation, mediums that demand less of the view or reader by communicating in visual shorthand have become the most effective.
Effective communication, rather than beautiful drawing, has become the key, so that today, even a non-draughtswoman can succeed.
Since the growth of advertising, symbols have become an international trade language, so it is not surprising that in its evolution the cartoon has become more symbolic than illustrative.
From the balloon bubble representing thought, to the light globe, representing ideas, cartoons have relied heavily on symbols and on a symbol-literate audience.
In the face of the electronic media takeover, the cartoon has also been part of the print-media’s survival kit. As newspapers had to compete with the more visual mediums of television and film, they needed a variety of images to dress up their pages.
The long grey columns of type that filled the early newspapers are now broken with photographs, illustrations, pocket cartoons, strap lines, bold and light headings, graphs, dropped caps, precedes, picture bylines, – a whole smorgasbord of visual delights that help display the page and engage the reader, and which are still used in digital media today.
Along with the growth of the pocket cartoon, the art of traditional caricature and illustration has been maintained and developed.
The pocket cartoon is the sidekick to the story, but the illustration may be its equal. Like the photograph, the illustration may stand alone, whereas the pocket cartoon and the story are usually symbiotic.
This brings me to another important feature of the cartoon. Cartoons, like all humour, rely heavily on cultural references. An alien arriving on earth, no matter how well developed her sense of humour, would probably never understand a modern cartoon. You need to know what’s going on in the world, to get the joke, but you also need to understand the local culture.
This means that cartoons are necessarily fleeting. Its purpose is immediacy rather than pleasing posterity.
As the America writer and humorist Nick Meglin said in The Art of Humourous Illustration, “Humour is of its own time and age, reflecting life in its own environment and current situation. If it holds up through the years, so much the better. But pleasing prosperity, it should be remembered, is not its purpose. Its purpose is immediacy.”
Although cartoons may not please prosperity, they do reflect history. Australian graphic designer Mimmo Cozzolino says in his popular book of the 70s Symbols of Australia, that trademarks are a symbol of culture and a piece of distilled history. So, too, are cartoons.
According to Jonathon King, in Stop laughing, this is serious! A social history of Australian cartoons Cassell Australia, 1978) the cartoonist’s version of history is very different from other versions,
“For no matter what their political colour, the artists are usually critically minded individuals,” King says.
“Traditionally, their cartoons take the side of the little man (or woman or person) against public hypocrisy, deceit or corruption. Because they enjoy more freedom than those tied to the printed word, they have been able to expose public scandals and blundering, and cut the politicians of the day down to size.”
Changing social mores
True, but while cartoons may challenge social mores, they also reflect them. When these change, the cartoonist may suddenly find they are accused of racism or sexism, or many other isms.
Take the famous and now censored story of Little Black Sambo, which was a reflection of less enlightened times.
The Pancake Parlor in the Melbourne once had an amended illustrated version of this children’s favourite on its walls, amended because we now recognise that the language in the book is harmful and derogatory.
The same goes about jokes about women. The stereotypical cartoons of the past, which depicted women as buxom, stupid or shrewish, are no longer acceptable.
In a climate where governments and the community are trying to raise the status of these vulnerable groups and prevent discrimination, such images are considered not only insulting, but also dangerous.
These changes in social mores have made cartooning in modern times a potentially dangerous and destructive art –for the subject and the cartoonist.
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy, in January 2015 where gunmen forced their way into the French offices of the satirical newspaper and killed 12 people and injured 11 others is one example.
Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing, blaming the satirical cartoons that the magazine had published that made jokes against Islamic leaders and the prophet Mohammad.
More recently, cartoonist Johannes Leak, cartooning for The Australian newspaper, was criticised for referencing the remark “little brown girl”, made by Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden in his speech about Senator Kamala Harris.
Biden’s intention was to highlight how Harris’s candidacy would inspire the children of black and brown heritage. Leak explained that his intention was to simply reference Biden’s speech, but it was not taken like that.
Put-down and pull-down humour
One reason for this difference in interpration may be that Leak was seen to be using “put-down” humour.
Traditionally, cartoonists have focused on two types of humour: pull down and put down. Put-down humour further suppresses those who are already down, while pull-down humour aims to debunk all sorts of puffery and authority.
Cartoons that may be interpeted as putting down the already oppressed are considered damaging, not funny.
The rise of the female cartoonist had brought a subtle change in the subjects of cartoons and the type of humour.
Despite the fact that cartooning has traditionally been the preserve of men, women cartoonists have gradually arrived, often through the back door, to take their place in newspapers and magazines.
Walkley award-winning Australian cartoonists Cathy Wilcox and Jenny Coopes, and independent cartoonists Judy Horacak, Kaz Cooke and myself are just a few.
Art historian Juliette Peers believed traditional female conditioning might be one reason for this delay.
“Women have always been conditioned to be meek and polite. A cartoonist needs to have a sense of irreverence.”
My own journey to becoming a cartoonist was largely the result of being in the right place at the right time. I was already working as a reporter: adding cartoons became a natural extension of storytelling.
It was also handy to be able to slot in a cartoon at the last minute when the story fell short.
Writing for Accent, the feminist page in The Age made us vulnerable to criticism as well as viewed with suspicion by the male editors, so the cartoons were also useful tool to defend ourselves and diffuse tension.
However, sometimes, they created more tension as feminist humour was not always appreciated or even understood. A cartoon to go with a story about the relevance of beauty contests was regarded as “bad taste” by the male editor.
It showed three male contestants in their underwear at a beauty contest, with the female judge announcing: “And now for the vital statistics: six inches, eight inches, nine inches.”
As Juliette Peers noted, the cartoonist is a fool, not in the literal sense, but like King Lear’s Fool, the cartoonist may expose the King – and keep his head. “Doest thou call me a fool, boy?” asks Lear, and the Fool replies: “All other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.”
As any fool knows, it also pays to laugh at oneself.
Nick Meglin quotes the late New York artist Allen M. Hart, who writes: “To caricature life well, the artist must be a caricature himself. Through his own eyes, he can perceive elements of his own existence that tend to make him appear ridiculous in the eyes of others, but because others see him as such (ridiculous), he is free to parody their existence, feeling justified in a sense of alienation.”
This, says Hart, is an important motivation in becoming an artist.
So the cartoonist, once again, must be the fool before he can expose the foolishness of others.
Cartoonists, like writers, draw from experience and from the perspective of gender, class and race.
Thus, while men have mainly focused on the political cartoon –commenting on public life – female cartoonists have tended to focus on the private life of the home and family, or the problems facing women living in a man’s world.
Australian artist Mary Leunig’s cartoons of the back side of domestic life, of women trapped and often attacked by domestic objects, which are usually seen to bring comfort and security, show the home not from the prospective of the one whom it serves, but form the one who traditionally provides the service.
They also show the inner life of the prisoner of the home, and her own personal methods of escape – the woman fanstasising about sex while washing the dishes, the child reaching up to paint a smiling red mouth on the face of the depressed mother, the handsome prince making love to the woman as she cleans up the family mess.
By contrast, her brother Michael Leunig draws the vulnerability of man. His beloved character, Mr Curly, safe in his curly world, is a creature of sweet optimism. This optimism is also reflected in the use of angels and other more earthly companions, such as ducks.
The isolation and loneliness of Michael Leunig’s characters is relieved by the silent companionship of ducks and other animals.
But this interpretation is mine. Often a cartoonist sees his or her work very differently. She may intend one message and the reader may interpret quite another, as Jonathan Leak’s recent experience shows.
Michael Leunig once said of his work: “The cartoons of mine which I like the most do not have a specific message or meaning. I like to imagine instead that they provoke the viewer to find their own meaning to find something within themselves as a result of contemplating the cartoon.”
In another interview in The Age, he said, “I think humour has something to do with goodness to me. I mean I think a thing can’t be funny unless it’s got some element or motivation of goodness in it.”
By goodness, he explained later that he meant without sarcasm or malice.
Goodness? To me a cartoon is about badness, but permissible badness. You can point out the bad things, the hypocrisy, the contradictions, the double standards, you can poke fun – and get away with it.
Cartooning therefore, is about the very thing that most journalists must avoid: ridicule.
Of course there is such a thing as bad taste. The cartoon that attacks the defenceless is I believe indefensible. An element of truth and fair comment must be there.
This brings us to the question of ethics. Should a cartoonist be subject to the same formal code of ethics that a journalist must abide by?
They should and are. My really unethical cartoons once formed a private gallery on the wall behind the sub-editors desk at The Age, along with all those outrageous headings and captions that our gentle readers never see.
The unacceptable cartoon must be purged first before I can knuckle down to the more difficult task of not letting the lawyers have the last laugh.
Personally, I think a cartoonist has probably gone too far when she finds herself sitting at the end of that very long dole queue that the late and great Ron Tandberg used to draw so well in The Age.
Until then, I believe it is up toe a cartoonist to go to far, to try and push the boundaries, to challenge, to upset. That is the difference between cartooning and illustration
Cartoonists see things as larger than life. They are masters of exaggeration. Curtailing that is curtailing the very essence of cartooning. The spontaneity of line depends on not having to be careful about your subject. There must be no icons or sacred cows.
This poses an ethical dilemma in today’s world, where the aim is to protect vulnerable groups from hate and discrimination. Cartoons are comment, so they are necessarily biased and potentially unfair. One way around this is not to make these groups the subject of cartoons, but this is counterintuitive to the nature of cartooning
Even the things I hold dearest I find the cartoonist in me tearing to shreds. Sometimes, an uncomfortable truth, which may be buried in the story, is exposed in the cartoon.
The cartoonist takes a view on a subject and presents it with no apology or justification, often in an exaggerated manner.
The difference between cartoon comment and written comment is that cartoons offer no argument to persuade the reader to their point of view, and usually poke fun at the person or institution they are commenting on.
In Australia, the proliferation of cartoonists has been attributed o the fact that thumbing our noses at authority is a particularly Australian characteristic, born out of our convict heritage.
The early settlers were mostly the oppressed, not the oppressors and ridicule was a powerful weapon and safety valve. Those who could not afford to laugh in the face of authority could at least laugh behind its back.
In Stop Laughing, this is serious! A cartoon history of Australia, Jonathan King synthesises Australia’s cartoon history into five schools. (He doesn’t mention the sixth school, which is female cartoonists)
The first mainstream school began in 1855 with the publication of ‘Melbourne Punch’.
Then in 1880, a national idiom was established with The Bulletin magazine, where artists like Livingston Hopkins and Phil May, Norman Lindsay and David Low ushered in a golden age of cartooning between 1883 and 1919.
Simultaneously, a third school was evolving through the growth of the Labor Movement from the 1980s, writes King, giving the Left a new and effective voice.
After World War 1, Smith’s Weekly brought a new school, celebrating the myth of the digger and bush culture. But, according to King, it wasn’t until The Australian was founded in 1964 that the most recent school of cartoonist coalesced around the free line drawings of Bruce Petty.
With the different schools came different styles, and a trend away from the traditional draughtsmanship, which was sometimes lamented by those of the old school.
And eventually, there came the women, like me.
The first question that anybody asked if you admitted to being a cartoonist published in The Age in the 1990s was “How did you get to be a cartoonist?” The second question was always “Do know Tandberg?”
Ron Tandberg’s award-winning pocket cartoons were a daily front-page staple for Age readers from 1972 until his death in 2018 at the age of 75.
The second question was always a lot easier to answer than the first. And the answer was that I used to stand beside him in the canteen occasionally, so I knew that he liked to eat chips for inspiration. But that was as intimate as we got.
Few people set out to be cartoonists. Even Tandberg started out as an art teacher, not a cartoonist. It is usually something that evolves.
Like many cartoonists, I happily call myself a cartoonist, but I do not call myself an artist, because I can’t draw for nuts. By drawing, I mean still life with fruit, faces that look normal, etc. I can do recognisable figures and the bare outlines of background, but that’s about my limit. I am not a caricaturist.
A cartoon is simply a drawing with a message, and I admit to being a better messenger than drawer.
It would be great to be able to draw well, but that is not the essential ingredient for a good cartoonist.
A sense of the absurd
The essential ingredient for a modern cartoonist is not just a sense of humour, but also a sense of the absurd, and a keen interest in the social and political values of the day.
This was not always so. If you look back at the history of the cartoon, the ability to draw well was always the first requirement. Originally, as you are probably aware, it was a full-sized preparatory drawing for a wall painting, a tapestry or sometimes a mosaic.
The word comes from “cartone” the past board the Italians used for such drawings in the 14-15th Centuries, according to fellow cartoonist Steve Whitaker, in ‘The Encyclopedia of Cartooning Techniques’ (Sterling Publishing, NY, 2006) Whitaker says that it wasn’t until about 250 years ago that satirical drawings and humorous caricatures began to be called cartoons.
These days, cartoonists are idiosyncratic in their styles and choices of materials.
However, commercial cartoonists do not always enjoy the same freedom.
After I left The Age in 1995 to start my own freelance business, I aimed to please the commissioning editor rather than posterity.
At that time, most of my cartooning was done for journals that required a specific point to be made. This was not always easy, particularly as I was often asked to illustrate sensitive issues, such Mabo or battered wife syndrome for the Alternative Law Journal or the Redfern Legal Service, or to illustrate on the effect of lightening on barbed wire for New Scientist.
As a journalist, cartooning has been a helpful additional skill and sometimes a replacement.
Once, after spending weeks on an expose of a weight-loss company that went broke, I dashed off a last-minute cartoon to go with the story – of a fat woman with a purse, followed by the same fat woman without her purse.
“Well you get forget the story now,” the sub-editor said – which proves the old adage: the pen is mightier than the sword.