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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.

A Peer at Herne Bay Cartoon Festival 2021

September 8, 2021 in Comment, Events, General

A carousel of cartoonists. Photo by © Ray Covey

Apologies for the late running of our usual photo gallery of the Herne Bay Cartoon Festival but pictures were delayed by the HGV lorry driver shortage…so blame Brexit/Covid.

Join me now as we take a not-so virtual tour up the pier…

Photo by © Jason Hollingsworth

The start of the traditional cartoonists’ parade, pencil led by Zoom and Ace Rockman who are also carrying the Steve Coombes Memorial Trilby. It was festival co-organiser Steve who instigated the annual musical ‘March of the Cartoonists’. Steve sadly passed away earlier in the year.

Board by © Zoom Rockman. Photo by © Jason Hollingsworth

Zoom’s was the first board you were greeted by on the pier. A splendid rendition of Boris Johnson’s bottom that you were invited to speak out of.

Board by © Zoom Rockman,

Martin Rowson demonstrating where Boris generally talks from.

Board by © Royston Robertson

I’ve often wondered how Royston constantly produces such a large volume of great gags…here’s your answer, he’s cloned himself!

Board by © Des Buckley. Photo by © Jason Hollingsworth

We had plenty of Covid at the festival this year, thankfully in the cartoons rather than in the cartoonists.

Here’s Des Buckley’s ‘JABS’ movie poster. Next year we’ll be expecting ‘JABS II – THE BOOSTER’.

Board by © James Mellor. Photo by © Karol Steele

A flotilla of topical cartoons from James Mellor.

Board by © The Surreal McCoy. Photo by © Karol Steele

I’m a huge fan of the absurdist humour of The Surreal McCoy.

Board by © Guy Veneables. Photo by © Karol Steele

Guy Venables – a man preparing himself for post big-board beer ownership.

Beachwear collection by © Glenn Marshall

Andy & Karol Steele before entering the ‘m a r s h a l l interactive plastic wave machine’.

Board by © Clive Goddard. Photo by © Karol Steele

Clive Goddard with his chief colourist Amy Amani.

Board by © Clive Goddard. Photo by © Karol Steele

Procartoonist Chairhuman Clive on the exulted PCO podium.

Board by © Rob Murray, Photo by © Ray Covey

Rob Murray about to launch his dating app for shingles.

Finished board by © Rob Murray

Board by © Chris Burke. Photo by © Ray Covey

A second wave of Boris cartoons. This one brushed up by Chris Burke.

Board by © Jeremy Banx. Photo by © Karol Steele

Banx draws a blank.

Board by © Jeremy Banx. Photo by © Karol Steele

Jeremy’s board with filling.

Board by © Martin Rowson. Photo by © Ray Covey

More Boris, this time from the venerable Martin Rowson. He’s left the best bit to last.

Board by © Kathryn Lamb. Photo by © Karol Steele

Finally at the end of the pier K J lamb has yet another Boris stranded out at sea in a ‘Lie Boat’. Surely a typo?

Photo by © Karol Steele

Alex Hughes manning (or should that be personing?) caricature corner.

There is also a great film record of the event by Dave Painter of HUTC productions. You can enjoy it here.

Plaudits to Sue Austen and the team for getting the festival together this year under such trying circumstances.

Thanks to festival regulars Karol Steele and Ray Covey plus festival coordinator Jason Hollingsworth for the photos in the absence of usual PCO snapper Kasia Kowalska.

Why does no one want to be a cartoonist any more? The lack of new blood doesn’t bode well for the industry’s future

July 25, 2020 in Comment, General

Written by Nick Newman for (and courtesy of) The Spectator with bonus cartoon content.

‘Nightmare!’ is how The Spectator’s cartoon editor Michael Heath has been describing cartooning for at least 30 years, but it’s truer now than ever. Eighty years ago, cartoonists were so celebrated that waxworks of Low, Strube and Poy were displayed in Madame Tussauds. Today, all that remains of Low is a pair of waxy hands in Kent University’s British Cartoon Archive. We are a vanishing species.

A © K.J. Lamb cartoon from Cherwell Magazine done during the time Kathryn was still at college.

There is a lack of new blood in the industry that doesn’t bode well for the future. When I was a student, getting published in Punch and Private Eyewas seen as the pinnacle of a career in humour. Many tried —and succeeded — from an early age. K.J. Lamb was selling gags to the Eyewhile still at Oxford. Ken Pyne was published in Punch when just 16 — as was Grizelda in Private Eye. The FT’s Banx was also a Punch stalwart by the time he was 20. That was then. Now we are all middle-aged and there are few youngsters snapping at our heels. The last time six cartoonists met at a Spectator party we had a combined age of over 350. In a recent photo of Eye cartoonists, featuring 45 of the top names, only one was under 30.

Punch cartoon from 1983 by a youthful © Jeremy Banks

Yet there’s every indication that cartoons are as loved by the public as ever. They are tweeted, shared, posted on Instagram; they go viral and get printed out and stuck on fridges. Pocket cartoons, pioneered by Sir Osbert Lancaster in the 1930s, are a particularly British art form and one that is still prized. Editors place topical gags on the front pages of newspapers, a practice rarely seen in France, Germany or America.

So why the dearth of new cartooning talent? The simple answer is that the opportunities have narrowed. Since the death of Punch, the main outlets for freelancers are Private Eye, The Spectator and the Oldie — and competition is fierce. Private Eye receives more than 500 submissions per issue and publishes up to 50. Every newspaper used to have regular pocket cartoonists — now only a handful survive. In straitened times for print media, the cartoons are often the first to go. Many of us lost work when lockdown was announced.

Another problem is financial. Some publications haven’t raised their rates since before the fall of the Berlin Wall, while others pay as little as £50 per cartoon. Compare that with the New Yorker, which is reported to pay between $700 and $1,400 per gag, depending on the artist’s ‘seniority’. One British publisher once asked me: ‘If we pay more, will the jokes be any funnier?’ I wish now I had said yes.

It isn’t just the lack of money that’s deterring new talent. There is also fear of failure. Rejection is a way of life for even seasoned cartoonists and today’s snowflakes can’t cope with it. I recently encouraged a promising young cartoonist to try The Spectator, which he did with immediate success. I still warned him: ‘You will get rejected. Everyone gets rejected.’ After two issues of ‘no thanks’ he has abandoned cartooning.

We veteran cartoonists do try to encourage the next generation, although it’s akin to committing professional suicide. The Cartoon Art Trust’s Young Cartoonist competition — judged by Fleet Street cartoonists — receives 1,000 entries a year. We joke that the objective is to identify the talent and then break their little fingers, but we stupidly don’t, and instead celebrate new stars and extra competition. Former winner Will McPhail is now a New Yorker regular; Rob Murray draws for Private Eye and the Sunday Times; Ella Baron for the TLS. All were in their twenties when they won, which suggests the talent is out there.

© Rob Murray’s first cartoon in Private Eye.

Oliver Preston, chairman of the Cartoon Art Trust, thinks alternative outlets distract comic artists. Graphic novels such as Kingsman, which was turned into a successful Hollywood movie franchise, are a more enticing means of earning aliving. Also, the ability to self-publish online cuts out editors who say, in the words of Heath: ‘You are not funny, Mr So-Called Funnyman.’ Ruby Elliot is a young illustrator better known as ‘rubyetc’ on Instagram, where she has 277,000 followers. Through her website, she sells merchandise, artwork and subscriptions to her cartoons.

Jon Harvey, the creator of Count Binface (who stood against Boris in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in the last election), is the sort of sharp-minded political gagster who in another era would have drawn up his ideas and sold them to publications. Instead, he puts his jokes on Twitter to boost his online profile. It’s quicker, the response is immediate and, as he quips: ‘The editor of my Twitter page is more likely to take it.’ The theory is that getting noticed online may lead to commissions for radio and TV. He describes the internet as a ‘Wild West’ of opportunities for those who know how to self-promote or nurture a following.

For those of us brought up on dead wood who still find magic in newsprint, it may be too late to grasp these opportunities. So we continue to live the ‘nightmare’. How long the nightmare continues remains to be seen.

With many thanks to The Spectator for allowing us to reproduce this piece.

You can see an item featuring Nick on this story from BBC Newsnight (around 37 mins in)

Not the 2020 Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival

April 24, 2020 in Events, General, News

Cancelled poster by © Roger Penwill

Glenn Marshall writes:

This weekend would have seen the main events of the Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival  but sadly, like so much else, it has had to be cancelled. One of the organisers, Roger Penwill, commented a few weeks ago when the postponement was announced “We felt that we had no choice as the nature of the event, encouraging many members of the public to come to an indoor space, ran contrary to the guidance on tackling virus spread. More importantly we did not want to put at risk the health of any member of the cartooning community or their families”

The theme was ‘twenty twenty vision’ so the organising committee should’ve been visionary and seen Covid 19 coming!

In the meantime, here for your edification and delight, is a selection of optical illusionary cartoons selected by Roger that would’ve been part of the the Bear Steps Gallery exhibition. All drawn from/by the PCO fraternity.

In alphabetical order:

Cartoon © Nathan Ariss

Cartoon © Jeremy Banx

Cartoon © Rupet Besley

Cartoon © Andy Davey

Cartoon © Ian Baker

Cartoon © Neil Dishington

Cartoon © Pete Dredge

Cartoon © Tat Effby

Cartoon © Clive Goddard

Cartoon © James Griffiths

Cartoon © Jonesy

Cartoon © Kathryn Lamb

Cartoon © Chris Madden

Cartoon © Roger Penwill

Cartoon © Glenn Marshall

Cartoon © Ken Pyne

Cartoon © Royston Robertson

Cartoon © The Surreal McCoy

Cartoon © Wilbur Dawbarn

Cartoon © Kipper Williams

Cartoon © Noel Ford

This final cartoon is by the great Noel Ford (who I should really rechristen Noel Zord to keep alphabetic consistency) Sadly Noel died last year. He had been very involved with the festival since its inception and part of this year’s events was to be a retrospective exhibition of his wonderful work.

Thanks to Roger and all the others who’d put a lot of effort into preparation for this year’s jamboree, including Sarah Knapp, Tim King, Tat Effby, Jonathan Cusick and Jill Wild. Hopefully the Shrewsbury cartoon spectacle will be able to be rescheduled in the near future.

On Saturday I’ll be off to do my self-isolated vision themed big board in the garden….