Cartoons and Cartoonists single work   companion entry  
Issue Details: First known date: 2014 2014
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Notes

  • CARTOONS AND CARTOONISTS

    From the earliest times of European settlement, and especially since the gold rushes of the mid-19th century brought prosperity and many printing presses, cartoons and cartoonists have adorned many Australian magazines and newspapers. Cartoons have been one of the most prominent ways in which artists have tried to articulate a distinctive colonial or Australian voice and stance; in particular, they have played a crucial role in the development of the larrikin myth within Australian media and culture. At the centre of this tradition lies the raucous, masculine, Anglo-centric nationalism of the Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly cartoonists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their style of black and white drawing and egalitarian humour still influence 21st century cartooning in Australia.

    Cartoons have always been one of the immediately popular elements of newspapers and journals, with a good cartoonist commanding high wages and a loyal following. Some even develop cult-like status in particular markets: many discussions with Canberrans in the 1980s and 1990s turned to the topic of Geoff Pryor, and Michael Leunig’s following in Melbourne has an almost religious character.

    The first Australian-produced cartoons on record are woodcuts in the Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston) in 1836. It was not until the 1850s, however, that cartoons began to appear often in colonial publications. While there were some illustrations in pamphlets and broadsides that recall the savage vigour of Gillray and other British illustrators of the early 19th century, the dominant mode came from the more decorous London Punch. From 1857, the Melbourne Punch (1855–1925), which was soon imitated by Punches in Sydney, Adelaide, Ballarat, Hobart and Ipswich, brought to colonial politics and politicians the sort of detailed gag illustrations with elaborate captions that John Tenniel did in London. Tom Carrington (1843–1918) and S.T. Gill (1818–80) are among the more important and prolific comic illustrators of this period, and the technical sophistication of cartooning (both artistically and in printing processes) in colonial Australia was very high by world standards.

    The normal practice was for cartoonists to be given ideas to illustrate rather than originating them. They were primarily illustrators rather than commentators, but this gradually changed.

    The cartoons of Livingston Hopkins (‘Hop’, 1846–1927) and Phil May (1864–1903, though only briefly in Australia in the 1880s) played a crucial role in developing the character of the Bulletin. This avowedly nationalist weekly encouraged a vigorous cartooning tradition with a mix of gag cartoons (often focusing on bush life, like much of the poetry and prose in the journal) and political commentary on issues of national more than of provincial significance. While Hop was especially influential, as he was a member of the editorial team, the Bulletin only ever had a handful of staff cartoonists, but invited contributions from readers and published the work of illustrators from all over the nation. These images sought to give voice to a nascent Australian identity, based on egalitarianism, the White Australia policy and scepticism about the motives of imperial governors.

    Cartoons have seldom, if ever, changed the course of history, but this body of work certainly played a substantial role in the making of a distinctive cultural identity in the decades leading to and following Federation. Cartoons provided vernacular images to go with the vernacular voice being built for the new nation in the Bulletin and other public media. They also, it must be remembered, gave us (or at least reflected) the images of Asiatics and Indigenous Australians that underpinned the new nation’s European and British sense of identity, most notoriously illustrated in Phil May’s ‘Mongolian Octopus—His Grip on Australia’ (1886), with its sinister stereotype of Asiatic influence. To the extent that it is possible to characterise the tenor of an era’s work, however, these cartoons tended to be wryly hopeful about the opportunities (and limitations) of the new era.

    The dominant facts of the decades after Federation in the Australian experience were the two World Wars, the Depression that split them and the Cold War that followed them. This is reflected in the cartooning tradition in two directions: first, a darkening of the mood of satirical cartooning commenting on public affairs; and second, a substantial growth in humorous cartooning, including the development of a significant Australian tradition of strip cartoons, especially for Sunday newspapers. As the Bulletin increasingly came in thrall to a reactionary rural-based conservatism, the main impetus moved to another periodical, Smith’s Weekly (1919–50), and to metropolitan newspapers. The image of Australian identity was no longer a classical female figure or Hop’s ‘Little Boy from Manly’, but rather the laconic bushman, soldier, labourer or even suburb-dweller. The single most famous image of this era, ‘For gor- sake, stop laughing—this is serious!’ (5 August 1933), by Stan Cross (1888–1977), confirms all these images: two white male workers building a skyscraper, one hanging from a beam and the other hanging from the former’s pants, laughing in the face of imminent and ludicrous death.

    Some of the major satirical artists of these years include Norman Lindsay (1879–1969) and Ted Scorfield (1882–1965), whose dark renditions of the menacing Germans (during the wars) and the communist peril (especially after World War II) reflected the Bulletin’s drift towards reactionary politics. David Lowe (1891–1963) stopped off in Australia between 1911 and 1919 on his journey from New Zealand to lasting fame in London as the cartoonist who gained editorial independence for the craft; he left behind a caricature image of World War I prime minister William Hughes that has lived more clearly in historical memory than any mere photograph or painting. Will Dyson (1880–1938) was perhaps the most prominent of a left-wing cartooning tradition that thrived particularly in workers’ newspapers, though much of his fame came from cartoons published in London.

    There were also many graphic humourists, intent on distracting readers from wars (hot and cold) and the Depression. As well as gag cartoons like Cross’s, Smith’s Weekly consolidated a tradition of strip cartooning in Australia that rapidly spread to newspapers—especially the Sunday editions—and pictorial journals. Nearly all the long running local series began and thrived in this era—for example, Ginger Meggs (1921– , invented by Jimmy Bancks), Bluey and Curly (1939–75, Alex Gurney), Fatty Finn (1923–77, Syd Nicholls) and The Potts (1920–2001, main artist Jim Russell). With increasingly sophisticated printing technology and growing markets for readers, newspapers became graphically more impressive through these decades. ‘The funnies’ were a crucial way of attracting readers in a prosperous but increasingly crowded marketplace, so cartoonists became famous and even occasionally well paid.

    While George Molnar (1910–98) was well established with his elegant social and political comedy at the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1950s, this was not a great decade for the art. Newspapers tended to have much more comic illustration than satirical commentary during the Menzies years; the humour often lacked edge. As the 1960s unfolded, this situation changed rapidly, with an anti-establishment satire boom that surged through the Western world, and was particularly strong in Australian cartooning. The fabled first thing Donald Horne did when he took over as editor of the Bulletin in 1961 was to remove ‘Australia for the White Man’ from the masthead. Just as consequential was his decision to appoint Les Tanner (1927–2001) as staff cartoonist and cartoon editor (1961–67), because he ushered in a generation that has transformed editorial cartooning in Australian newspapers and given many readers the (historically false) impression that it is an intrinsically left-wing and progressive business. While Robert Menzies was never seriously troubled by organised ridicule in the press, it fair to say that (Sir) John Gorton and (Sir) William McMahon were hounded out of the Lodge in part by the cartoonists and other media satirists who hilariously impugned their competence.

    After the Bulletin revamp came Rupert Murdoch’s adventure in national quality journalism, the Australian, and with it Bruce Petty (1929– ). His visually and ethically challenging cartoons were prominent at the Australian in its first years as a crusading paper (1964–76), when it shook up the nation’s dormant broadsheet market. Then Tanner went to the Melbourne Age in 1967; the paper built up an extraordinary stable of cartoonists—such as Ron Tandberg (1943– ), Michael Leunig (1945– ), Petty from 1976, John Spooner (1946– ) and Peter Nicholson (1946– ) —who constituted one of the most prominent elements of the Graham Perkin era at that paper. Those holding regular places in daily newspapers were just the most prominent exponents of a boom in comic and satirical illustration that pervaded mass and alternative media in the late 20th century. Advances in print and film technology allowed cartoons to spread into all sorts of shows and publications.

    Quite suddenly, in the 1960s, it became necessary for every metropolitan newspaper (and many regionals) to have a prominent editorial cartoonist or two, whose job it was to comment satirically on the passing parade of political and social life. This played out differently in different markets, and a cartoonist in a tabloid newspaper (for example, Jenny Coopes in the Sun-Herald, Warren Brown in the Daily Telegraph and Mark Knight in the Herald Sun) is required to fulfil different expectations from one working in broadsheets (for example, Larry Pickering or Bill Leak in the Australian, and Alan Moir or Cathy Wilcox in the Sydney Morning Herald). As successful cartoonists tend to have long tenures, those working in cities like Adelaide (Michael Atchison in the Advertiser), Perth (Dean Alston in the West Australian) and Brisbane (Sean Leahy in the Courier-Mail), which have become one-news- paper towns, have faced particular challenges in cartooning to wide demographics. The luxury British cartoonists enjoy of working for a paper that carves out a socially and culturally defined segment of a large national market does not exist in Australia—here a cartoon has to make sense to readers of all levels of education and engagement, which puts limits on experimentation with style and content.

    Cartooning did not just track the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and beyond in daily newspapers. As the technologies of reproduction have become more available, comic art has flourished in commercial and underground venues, in journals and comic books, and increasingly in animation (which is beyond the scope of this entry). While the newspaper roles have tended to be dominated by a particularly fine generation of artists born just before or in the vanguard of the baby boomers, comic art in the late 20th century was more various in the experiences it explored. No longer could one talk of a dominant national larrikin style, though many cartoonists maintained various forms of oppositional stance that earlier practitioners of their art might have recognised. Cartooning has a habit of sharply delineating the tensions and contradictions in the stories a culture tells to itself.

    The introduction of colour in all media has meant that, in a literal sense, the Australian tradition of black and white art ended more or less with the 20th century. In some ways, this rupture is more than just a technical one. Cartooning for the first two centuries in Australia sought to speak to a wide public, and now digital media is fragmenting audiences into many different (if overlapping) publics. Cartooning continues to thrive in this crisis of mass media—in zines, animations, graphic novels, photo-montages and so on—but the rules of the game are changing. Cartoons drawn on electronic tablets with access to photoshopped photographs look different from cartoons drawn in pen and ink, then transferred to the page by woodcut or photolithography. More importantly, the nature of the audiences they can reach has also changed, as the notion of a single metropolitan or national audience dissolves, and cartoons on the web tend to seek more specialised (if potentially international) demographics. Australia has a particularly robust, often satirical tradition of cartooning that is living in interesting times.

    REFs: J. King, The Other Side of the Coin (1976); M. Mahood, The Loaded Line (1973); A. Turner, In Their Image (2000); http://www.daao.org.au.

    ROBERT PHIDDIAN

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Last amended 9 Sep 2016 15:28:12
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