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Can cartoons be both funny – and diverse?

September 16, 2021 in Comment, General

Cartoon © Nick Newman

By Nick Newman and courtesy of The Spectator. 

Of the many challenges cartoonists face — rejection, money, drink, or lack of — one of the trickiest is the growing pressure to depict diversity. Nowadays readers often write to publications complaining about the dearth of ethnic minorities in our drawings and demand for cartoons to be more inclusive.

It’s like being trapped in a bad political cartoon, walking a tightrope above a minefield. A quick survey of my colleagues in the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation highlighted the following:

  1. Cartoons involve laughing at someone. If that person is black, you risk appearing racist; even including a BAME character in the background of drawing can lead to accusations of tokenism (‘background box-tickers’).
  2. Including any minority character in a cartoon can run the risk of implying that the cartoon is about race and so can inadvertently politicise the cartoon.
  3. At the end of the day, it’s safer to make the pale, male and stale the butt of the joke.

Gag cartoons are about speed and recognition. Stereotypes are a form of visual shorthand designed to get an idea across quickly. The French? Man in stripy shirt. Teacher? Mortarboard. German? Fat man with sausage. Cartoons amplify for comic effect, which runs the risk of promoting race hate when depicting BAME characters. ‘I draw a lot of idiots saying daft things and don’t want any accidental inference that it is because of their race,’ says PCO chairman Clive Goddard. ‘Better to stick to white idiots than be misunderstood.’ British newspaper and magazine cartoonists are predominantly white, which can make any joke about ethnicity feel awkward or patronising. Cartoonists may be cowards, but we are not afraid to admit to our cowardice in avoiding the issue.

Cartoonists’ drawing styles present another problem. Characters with big noses can lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. One political cartoonist has been told to reduce the size of all Middle Eastern noses. Attempts to make cartoon characters more diverse can be tricky. Kathryn Lamb likens ‘inking in’ her cartoon faces to ‘blacking up’.

For caricaturists whose stock-in-trade is exaggeration, the problem is, appropriately enough, exaggerated. Morten Morland, The Spectator’s cover artist, says that whenever he draws Diane Abbott or Priti Patel, someone always complains. ‘It’s usually because they disagree with the cartoon itself,’ he says, ‘and need something to hit back with. So by hinting that the caricature is racist they aim to discredit the whole cartoon.’

In 2018, a caricature of Serena Williams by the Australian cartoonist Mark Knight of the Herald Sun was reported to the Australian Press Council for depicting her with ‘large lips, a broad flat nose… and [being] positioned in an ape-like pose’ while throwing a tantrum on court. The National Association of Black Journalists said the caricature was ‘unnecessarily Sambo-like’ and even J.K. Rowling weighed in, tweeting: ‘Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes.’

Accusations of racism in cartoons stretch back to Gillray and beyond. The Georgian cartoonists depicted Africans as threatening and comical, with grotesque features and appetites. Cruikshank’s ‘The New Union Club’ (1818) is one of the most racist prints of the 19th century, depicting a debauched dinner held at the African Institution and attacking abolitionists such as Wilberforce. Two hundred years later the Commission for Racial Equality called for Hergé’s 1931 comic Tintin in the Congo to be withdrawn from sale because of its depiction of black Africans as simple, childlike and uncivilised. The New York Public Library locked its copy away. ‘Tintin in the Congo is a racist book,’ says the FT’s Jeremy Banx, ‘but Hergé was on a long journey, from King Leopold II to the Beatles, in which he ended up in a very different place to where he started.’ In later life Hergé himself referred to his early books as ‘youthful sins’.

There are lessons to be learned from history. In 1925 a glib cartoon by David Low portrayed England cricket’s run machine Jack Hobbs as a colossus compared with figures from history, including Caesar, Charlie Chaplin and a caricatured Muhammad. It led to rioting in Calcutta. As the staff of Charlie Hebdo found out, these days a cartoon of the Prophet is likely to get you cancelled — permanently.

We live in a sensitive age. Cartoonists agree on the need to promote diversity, but the complications are endless. Diversity itself is becoming a dirty word, suggesting ‘diverging from the white mean’. Meanwhile ‘inclusive’ is said to imply whites doing the including.

As the Sun’s Steve Bright says: ‘You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you don’t, you’re racist on the grounds of exclusion. If you do, unless there’s a perfect balance, you’re accused of tokenism, which is also racist. And if you achieve that mythical perfect balance — you’d have to draw 100 people in every cartoon, and colour them according to percentages of population — you’re obsessive, and quite possibly insane.’

Unfortunately, deconstructing cartoons also sucks all the fun out of them. As the great Barry Cryer says: ‘Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.’

This article first appeared in the 11 Sept 2021 issue of The Spectator

You can see Nick interviewed about this piece by Spectator TV here. Bonus points to Nick for sporting his PCO badge.

by Royston

Outrage! First Herne Bay Cartoon Festival exhibition opens

July 20, 2015 in Events, General, News

Outrage! A brief history of offensive cartoons -- poster

The exhibition Outrage! A brief history of offensive cartoons is now on at the Seaside Museum in Herne Bay, Kent, the first event in the third Herne Bay Cartoon Festival.

It includes works from the British Cartoon Archive in Canterbury and features David Low, the infamous Oz schoolkids’ edition, a cartoon Private Eye didn’t dare publish and a one that provoked a diplomatic incident. There is also a never-before-seen Ralph Steadman, his response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which is also a demonstration of the right to offend.

The museum is at 12 William Street, Herne Bay, open Tues-Sun, 10am-4pm. The show runs until 16 August.

The main festival exhibition, Lines in the Sand, will be held at Beach Creative from 28 July to 9 August. The gallery is in Beach Street and is open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm and Sun 11am-3pm.

There will also be an exhibition of cartoons by the late Martin Honeysett, who exhibited and appeared at the first two Herne Bay events. That will be at the Bay Art Gallery, William Street, from 28 July. The gallery is open Tues-Sun 10am-4pm.

The main day of live drawing at the Bandstand, featuring big boards, workshops, caricatures, and more, is Sunday 2 August, from 12pm-5pm. There will also be comic strip and cartoon workshops at Beach Creative on Saturday 1 August and at the Bandstand on the Sunday.

Jeremy Banx's poster for the Herne Bay Cartoon Festival, as seen in Private Eye

Jeremy Banx’s poster for the Herne Bay Cartoon Festival, as seen in Private Eye

The Herne Bay Cartoon Festival is sponsored by the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation and and supported using public funding by Arts Council England.

We’ll have more nearer the time. You can see lots more coverage of the previous two events, including videos by David Good, in our Herne Bay archive.

The Round-up

June 16, 2012 in General, Links, News

© Posy Simmonds

An exhibition dedicated to the work of Posy Simmonds, the creator of Tamara Drewe, has opened in Belgium. Forbidden Planet has further details here, and Paul Gravett, who co-curated the show with Simmonds, writes extensively about her life and work on his blog.

To coincide with the recent Jubilee celebrations, The Guardian looked back at a David Low cartoon published by the newspaper to widespread controversy 60 years ago. The paper observes that depictions of the Royal Family have changed dramatically since then. Read the article here. Forbidden Planet also looks at the Low cartoon, and the satire that came later, in this blog post.

Pieces of original cartoon artwork can fetch healthy sums at auction, as proven by the recent sales of these works by Hergé and Bill Watterson.

The first East London Comics and Arts Festival (ELCAF) takes place in Shoreditch this Sunday, June 17. The event will feature live drawing by established illustrators, panel discussions and interviews, portfolio critique sessions, and a free evening concert. See the website for more details. For a round-up of other dates for your diary, click here.

 

by Royston

101 reasons to visit Cartoon Museum

November 1, 2011 in Events

101 Cartoonists poster

An exhibition called One Hundred and One Cartoonists is at the Cartoon Museum in London from Thursday 3 November.

It features cartoons, comics and caricatures from the collection of Luke Gertler, who has been collecting original cartoon artwork for more than 50 years.

On display will be works by H.M. Bateman, Max Beerbohm, Giles, David Low, Donald McGill, Thomas Rowlandson, Ronald Searle, John Tenniel and Dudley D. Watkins, among many others.

Asked what drew him to the cartoons he chose for his collection of more than 800 images, Luke Gertler told the Cartoon Museum newsletter:

“With cartoons, it’s the picture I would buy, rather than the joke. I liked ones with people, with characters, and the style was very important to me. I preferred rather bold colour styles, firm outlines like in John Hassall, for instance. I liked also the cartoonists who drew in wonderful detail, like Thelwell and Heath Robinson.”

One Hundred and One Cartoonists runs until January 29. For more details, visit the Cartoon Museum website.

Cartooning on the Frontline

February 4, 2011 in News

Photograph: Antje Bormann

PCO member Martin Rowson delivered a talk on Caricatures and Commentary to the Frontline Club in London this week.

In discussion with Radio 4’s Laurie Taylor Martin spoke about subjects ranging from his caricatures of patrons at the Gay Hussar restaurant to the abolition of the Licensing Act in 1695 and taking in influences from William Hogarth, James Gillray and David Low on the way.

This was followed by a lively question and answer session where he fielded enquiries about how he deals with new political figures and the Danish Muhammed cartoons.

The talk can be seen in full (all one and a half hours of it) at the Frontline Club’s website.

by Royston

Cartoons on the radio

April 24, 2008 in General

Above: Low takes on Hitler and Mussolini. Click to enlarge

Cartoons were back in the spotlight this morning with an item on BBC Radio Four’s Today show about the David Low exhibition currently running at London’s Political Cartoon Gallery.

Tim Benson of the gallery appeared on the show to discuss the work with politicians Douglas Hurd and Ken Clarke. You can see a selection of the cartoons in an online gallery at the Today website.

The Best of Low is at the Political Cartoon Gallery until June 7. Low (1891–1963) is considered by many to be the greatest political cartoonist of the 20th Century. This exhibition of his work includes more than 60 original cartoons from before the First World War to the early 1960s. None of the cartoons on show have been exhibited before.

The Political Cartoon Gallery is at 32 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS, and is open Monday to Friday 9.30am – 5.30pm and on Saturdays between 11.30am – 5.30pm.

Click here for top British cartoonists that are still with us!

by Royston

Cartoon exhibition: The Best of Low

March 11, 2008 in General

Above: Low takes on Hitler and Mussolini

An exhibition showcasing the best of Sir David Low is at the Political Cartoon Gallery in London from April 23 until June 7.

Low (1891–1963) is considered by many to be the greatest political cartoonist of the 20th Century. This exhibition of his work includes more than 60 original cartoons from before the First World War to the early 1960s. None of the cartoons on show have been exhibited before and include a number that were censored before and during the Second World War.

Many of the originals on show include Low’s most famous creations Colonel Blimp and the TUC Carthorse. The exhibition will also coincide with the launch of a book entitled Low and the Dictators which features the almost private war Low fought against Hitler and Mussolini from the 1920s until the end of the Second World War.

The Political Cartoon Gallery is at 32 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS, and is open Monday to Friday 9.30am – 5.30pm and on Saturdays between 11.30am – 5.30pm.

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