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A Cartoon Review of 2002

by Martin Plimmer

From the editorial cartoonist’s perspective, 2002 was the year in which nothing happened. Osama hid, Saddam obfuscated and huffed and puffed, England didn’t win the World Cup, Paul Burrell wasn’t sent to the Tower, trains failed to arrive, Steven Byers failed to depart, and the Conservative Party scratched what passes for its head. None of this matters, for in cartoons, unlike news, dramatic events are not entirely necessary. It is the minutiae of human behaviour that tickles the funny bone. This explains how perhaps the most popular cartoon victim of the year was the man who did the least. He was certainly the easiest target. Poor Iain Duncan Smith, with his baby head and fearful Pekingese eyes, alone and friendless in the spotlight of expectation, was lampooned to one inch of his life. As I leafed through a pile of newspapers a year high, I almost felt sorry for him.

Gillray portrayed his political masters as grotesquely evil, a tradition taken up with such relish by Steadman and Scarfe that today’s cartoonists seem to regard it as an axiomatic style point, whether the character has shown any inclination to evil or not. Except in the case of poor little IDS. Though he would probably pay good money for a little misrepresentation, IDS didn’t even make the evil starting blocks. He was ever the wide-eyed nothing in the corner – sometimes, to add insult to injury, dressed as a clown.

Things did happen in 2002, of course, but though they featured heavily on the news pages, they were not to the taste of the editorial cartoonists. Bali was bombed, a sniper haunted Washington’s car parks, Slobodan Milosevic was arraigned for war crimes at the United Nations tribunal in the Hague. Such events were the subjects of reflective cartoons in the US and Canada, where newspapers are often region-based monopolies that must cater to audiences of every political hue, but over here, where newspapers have partisan readerships, character excoriation is favoured. Hence the dominance of caricature.

In order to qualify for cartoon depiction here, a subject has to involve personalities, and the cast of personalities is strictly limited. It includes most cabinet ministers, a few members of the opposition, certain readily identifiable foreign statesman (friendly and axis), the higher Royals, and one or two others. Introducing new characters to this list is risky. This is because caricature is a difficult art to do well. You only have to look at the cartoons to see that. Certain cartoonists have a ready genius for it. Gerald Scarfe’s characters, whatever his cruel and unusual distortions, are always incontrovertibly themselves. Scarfe regularly displays that apparently effortless facility in his Times slot, though perhaps as a result of eating too much Asher torte, his wit has lost the bite it once had.

Cartoonists work hard to identify and then represent the facial characteristics, props and mannerisms of a subject and boil them down into a refined form that they use over and over again, training their audience to understand them as they go. Some people, like Tony Blair with his ears and Alfred E. Neuman What-Me-Worry smile for instance, and Cherie with her God-given grin, come easy; others take an awful lot of boiling. New characters that suddenly spring into the media firing line are a challenge both to the artist and to the readers, who may not know them well enough to recognise them, even if the likeness is good. This explains why such characters as Paul Burrell, who had the run of the news pages, was strangely absent from editorial cartoons. Also missing was Gunther von Hagens, whose Body Worlds Exhibition, which turned the corpses of human beings into embalmed caricatures of themselves, haunted the 2002 zeitgeist. At their best, cartoons giver insights into complex issues with a hard-edged immediacy that writers rarely achieve, and from an ethical and philosophical, not to mention absurd point of view, von Hagens was a great loss.

I’m talking about the broadsheet papers now, which sometimes behave like the judge who had never heard of the Beatles. Even the World Cup barely got a look in. There’s snobbery at work here. You get a wider variety of story in the tabloids and also a lower class of celebrity. The Daily Express’s Paul Thomas happily takes on personalities such as Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder, Tony Blackburn and the instant stars of Big Brother and Pop Idol, with a wit and vivaciousness that shows him to be a worthy rival to MAC (Stan McMurtry) of the Daily Mail.

It wasn’t hard to find enough inspired cartoons to fill a collection such as this, but what became clear while trawling through the year’s papers was how hard it is to be inspired every day. Occasionally, the strain showed in a cheap jibe or a visual metaphor that hadn’t been thought through; most often in a tired symbol. Tradition dies too hard in cartooning, even though our tastes change all the time. The dove of peace, the skull of doom, the octopus of multifarious evil, the precipice of crisis, the iron shackle of inevitability, the dark spectre of impending doom, the four horseman of the Apocalypse… all are alive and thriving in the age of the emoticon. It would be wring to banish them outright, though a long holiday might cheer us all up.

In the face of this, it was refreshing to discover the meticulous modern style of American artist Clay Bennett, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoons in the Boston based Christian Science Monitor. Bennett’s work is heavily symbolic, but he uses everyday objects to signify weightier things. His figures are naïve, his designs neutral and childlike, yet ingeniously telling. The Independent’s Tom Lubbock, who can depict a political issue in a simple abstract pattern, is the closest we come to him in this country.

If there is a contemporary stylistic tendency it may be detected in the work of Dave Brown and Peter Shrank (Independent and IOS), Martin Rowson (Independent and Guardian) and Chris Riddell (Observer), who all employ a busy manner with clean, precise lines, tending towards the grotesque. Their work is impressive but not consistently funny. In contrast, the work of the Daily Telegraph cartoonist Nick Garland, now 67, is so carelessly executed it sometimes looks slipshod, yet Garland manages to hit the spot more often than not.

Ploughing his own furrow and improving all the time is the Guardian’s Steve Bell, whose work is becoming ever more painterly. Though Bell has not been shy in the past to portray politicians as hideously evil monsters, and still dips his pen in vitriol from time to time, his aim nowadays is to ridicule rather than vilify – usually a funnier option anyway, and much more effective with the grinning Blair Brigade (as Sir David Low put it, “Malice clouds the judgement”).

Though a fine judge and consistent provider of humour, Bell will often dispense with the joke altogether in order to concentrate on mood. Note his masterful portrait of Ariel Sharon contemplating his bloodstained hands. It is a bloody image, yet there is no evil horror here, and no obvious monster; just a profound sense of weariness and futility. This fits Bell’s own definition of the cartoon as “a work of art with an ulterior motive”.

So far I’ve been talking about the big editorial cartoons, which hog the leader page. For light relief we should look at that other species of topical newspaper gag: the pocket cartoon. These irreverent little one-column theatres of the absurd have saved many a stranded commuter from an act of extreme violence. Matt (Telegraph), Newman (Times), Austin (Guardian), Tim (Independent), Robert Thompson (Observer), Jonathan Pugh (Times), and others, have a wider subject brief, and are released from the onus of art and profundity. Their spontaneity and spirit are a joy, and every day they teach their big brothers a lesson: lighten up.

Martin Plimmer is the author of ‘King of the Castle’, published by Ebury Press, priced £9.99.