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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.

Knokke Heist 2017/8 cartoon festival

June 27, 2019 in Events, General

Des Buckley writes:

“It’s all doves with laurels flying over a tank.CCGB doyenLes Lilley.

The Knokke-Heist Cartoon Festival sets up camp on a Belgium beach promenade each Summer. On display are two major exhibitions including their International Competition. Knokke & Heist are conjoined seaside towns on the sandy channel coast. In recent years Ive dropped by their shiny plastic tent to dawdle & gawp. Last year, perhaps unsurprisingly no Union Jacks adorned the flag poles outside. Indeed in the last two years only two UK Cartoons were on show, both from the same artist. I’m genuinely unsure whether this reflects recent spats with FECO, indifference or nothing in particular. Alas I’ll miss this years 58th show as my annual road trip falls after it closes. A couple of visits to Cartoon Fest does not a critic make, I’m no Brian Sewell, though I do have a red face & talk bollocks…

The Festival features 2 x shows. A selection of Belgian editorial cartoons & the International Gouden Hoed’ (Golden HatCartoon Exhibition. Facsimiles of the cartoons are interned within the fabric of plastic panels in the marquee.

1. Belgian Cartoon Exhibition

The Belgium press cartoons are helpfully translated into English, French & Flemish. Our European pals across the Channel share our liberal sensibilities & disdain for authority. In the wake of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ & outrages in Brussels Belgian Cartoonists seem less ‘sensitive’ in their representations of terrorism, terrorists & sexual politics. I’m aware there are fault lines between Belgium’s French & Walloon populations but lacked the nous to spot evidence of this in this display. The Politico-Social Cartoons were lively & vibrant. The impudent pocket cartoons almost poke you in the eye. Whilst I can’t be sure, my impression is the cartoonists aren’t entirely on the same page. I found this refreshing & imagine them (perhaps unfairly) as dysfunctional hissing cats. The general direction was ‘look at what those prat politicians are doing’ but, there were a couple taking wicked potshots at demented demonstrators. The sexual quotient was more muted than I anticipated but in the shop there were postcards that would have Donald McGill gagging on his little stick of Blackpool rock.

2. Gouden Hoed’ (Golden Hat) Int. Cartoon Exhibition

Linguistic gymnastics are almost superfluous in the larger International show. Most artwork carries no captions and little text. In attempting to reach out to all, artists opt for high visual impact and political caricature.

Cartoon by © Kanar (Belgium)

We in the West seem to be indulging in bouts of self flagellation & unseemly flirtations with shameless snake-oil salesmen. I like Rich Hall (Melty faced US Comedian) but don’t agree with his tirade against Political Cartoons. Much on display at Knokke-Heist is absolutely glorious. But however gorgeous the artwork or compelling the theme, viewing multiple Donald Trumps somewhat dulls approbation.Some International Contributors whilst happy to take a swipe at his Orangenessmay be transmitting more nuanced messagesabout repression. In the UK our ability to lampoon without fear of grim consequence was hard won.

Cartoon by © Josef Parchal (Spain)

It’s foolish to draw conclusions about a show chosen by panel from global Cartoon submissions. One embarrassing anomaly being the Brazilian cartoon that appeared inthe 2017& 201catalogue! It is remarkable however, that so much content comes from countries that might euphemistically be considered to haveauthoritarian regimes.Whilst Mr Putin was another predictable ‘aunt Sally’ other obvious brigands & despots were noticeable by their absence. My prejudice on this was informed by remarks made at a recent PCO hosted event. The fear of giving offence is not just about personal safety but genuine anxiety about the implications for family members, even if that cartoonist is exiled. Cartoonists elsewhere may live with harsher sanctions than an ugly Twitter-storm.

Cartoon by © Nicola Listes (Croatia)

Visiting this exhibition is a rewarding & enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Humour is subjective & was not entirely obligatory. The artworks went from animated squiggles to epilepsy inducing tapestries of colour. There were a sprinkling of earnest graphic statements but most works had humorous intent. Cartoonists from Iran & Turkey were especially numerous with an exquisite variety of work. We all understand that an apparently tossed off doodle can take hours! Some of the carefully crafted Iranian Artwork was Herculean in ambition & execution. I loved the exhibition.

Les Lilley’s quote (above) was made in jest but there is truth in it. Perhaps a lack of embarrassment when illustrating occasionally naive political statements confers gravitas. If a cartoon dares to be serious it may persuade viewers to take cartoons seriously. This could explain why Continental Cartoonists can be afforded respect as artists & why ruthless regimes harass them. Me, I prefer cartoons to be funny too!

Name check: The singular British contributor was Jason McClarnin, top marks to him.

Information

The Knokke-Heist Festival’s event is popular & well resourced. The coastal towns heavily promote it on the web, in their literature & tourist office. Cartoons seems to enjoy a cultural prestige which is absent in the UK. Belgium has surrealism ‘form’ and a fine cartoon legacy from Herge (Tin Tin) through Peyo (Smurfs) to Bob de Groot. For those grumbling about lack of markets, check out the cash prizes & consider entering by December 2019 in time for 2020!

Web: myknokke-heist.be. Address: Strand ter hoogte van het Heldenplein

Exhibition: 29 June – 1 September 2019 

Opening times: 10am to 7pm Entry: Free

Prizes: 1. Gold €10,000 2. Silver €5,000 3. Bronze €1,000.

All photos by © Des Buckley

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.

 

Round-up: What the Bloghorn saw

October 21, 2011 in News

Rob Murray writes:

The BBC reports on the appropriation by protest groups of the Guy Fawkes mask featured in V For Vendetta – designed by David Lloyd for the 1980s comic strip he co-created with Alan Moore, which was turned into a Hollywood film in 2006. You can read the article here, while elsewhere the Forbidden Planet blog has responded to the report with its own interpretation.

Ahead of the imminent release of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s Tintin movie, Scottish newspaper The Daily Record reports that Hergé’s intrepid young reporter owes his success to Scotland – or, more specifically, to his adventure north of the border.

John Ryan, the creator of Captain Pugwash, is the subject of a retrospective exhibition in his hometown of Rye, opening on 19 November. Pugwash is best known as a children’s animated TV show, but in fact debuted in the very first issue of long-running comic The Eagle. downthetubes.net has more, as does the Rye Art Gallery.

Finally, The Onion’s A.V. Club has an interview with acclaimed US cartoonist Daniel Clowes, in which he looks back on his work in comics over the last few years and discusses his future projects.

The Bloghorn is made on behalf of the UK’s Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation

Round up – What the Bloghorn saw

October 7, 2011 in News

Hergé’s most controversial Tintin book, the infamous Tintin in the Congo, has come under fire again, with a Belgian court being asked to ban the comic bookon the grounds of racism.

Political cartoonist and PCO member Steve Bell has been busy on the party conference circuit over the past few weeks for the Guardian, which has posted a selection of his sketches from this week’s Tory get-together in Manchester.

Maus, the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel by underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman, is 25 years old. In a new book, MetaMaus, he tells the story of how he created his epic Holocaust allegory. NPR has a 30-minute interview with Spiegelman here.

US satirical cartoonist Peter Bagge – who received advice from Spiegelman early in his career – has been interviewed by Reason, the libertarian magazine for which he has been a contributor since 2003. Bagge talks about his political views and how they have affected his comics work – watch the video here.

Ahead of an exhibition of magazine illustrations by Edward Sorel at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the cartoonist and illustrator has been interviewed by The Atlantic about his long career. You can read the article here.

The Bloghorn is made on behalf of the UK Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation

World's Largest Comic revealed

May 20, 2009 in Comment

p_moers_-_balloide_photos_-_bge_1

The world’s largest comic page was unveiled earlier this month as part of the Brussels 2009 BD Comic Strip Festival (BD being short for bande dessinée). The 672 m² image was a page from Hergé‘s Tintin (specifically, page 42 from Destination Moon) and was also chosen to tie in with the forthcoming release of the big screen adaptation of Belgium’s most famous comic export, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Sadly, the page was only there between 7-10th May, but the comic festival continues all year, and includes this comic strip tour (map) around Brussels featuring 31 comic-based murals – of which there are many pictures on the Birmingham Mail Speech Balloons blog.