Top drawers

Cartoons can be as ephemeral as the subjects they lampoon, but the best exponents of the art spend a lifetime learning how to communicate a moment. Two new books and an exhibition give some idea how they do it, says Steve Way

Two recent publications have cartooning in common, but they are at opposite ends of the caricature spectrum. Scarfe on The Wall, a limited edition, boxed set of prints, is unquestionably ‘art’, whereas An Independent Line, a book tied in with an exhibition of the same name, is a handsome record of the daily grind of political cartooning. As such it shows how high is the entrance standard – of basic drawing, catching likenesses, and geopolitical GBH – for any cartoonist.

On a less positive note, the latter book (and the show too, no doubt) reveals how quickly politicians come and go, and how little they save the world – freeing up a thousand sketch pads for their follies, fumbles and, most scary of all, policy mistakes. With newspaper cartooning, it’s not just about being good enough to point these out. It’s about being the first to point them out. Exclusives. Your Tony Blair has to stand there, electrodes attached (rendered by Peter Schrank, in this instance), smirking, with next morning’s cornflakes, coffee and burnt toast, as the story breaks. There’s a type of cartoonist who loves that journalistic rush. The clock ticking, the editor saying, ‘That’s not quite right, more roughs’. Or – more fun, mid the final-drawing stride – a new story breaking and having to start again. I once had the Berlin Wall fall when I was at a Sunday paper and about to walk out the door, the cartoon already gone down to repro. Selfishly, I cursed, though it is obvious now that a whole nation getting its freedom takes priority over a cartoonist’s weekend travel plans.

It is, of course, true that good news is harder to do than bad, and the book has that weakness of making life seem like a beautifully recorded rainy parade. Another curse of topical cartooning is that some stories fade fast. Even if they loomed large on the world stage once, they slip from our memories. As a result, the images in the book need footnotes, not titles. I like that. I salute the design. I like the fact that the editorial, all the op-eds and features in that day’s paper, have been boiled down to a paragraph, and, if anything, the cartoons are bigger than they appeared in the paper. Good work, Messrs Brown, Sanders, Schrank.

Gerald Scarfe works big and is box office. The Wall was his collaboration with Pink Floyd, which, if you remember, were bigger than Coldplay in their day. It does what it says on the box but – I think inadvertently – Scarfe sums it up when he says, ‘Whenever anybody shows their work, it’s difficult, because they’ve put so much into it. Your reaction is going to be inadequate unless you throw your arms around them’. I’m sorry to be a bit shruggy, Gerald, but I agree. The prints look a little flat to me. What lights up on-screen, back-lit on the DVD and in animation, is still ever so slightly postcard-of-a-Rothko-painting in comparison. This is a souvenir on a grand scale, utterly bankable and collectable. Cartoonists don’t get to work on this scale any more. Banksy would get the Floyd call today.

The box comes with a book, and it is fascinating. It’s explicit about the frustrations with the film, as Alan Parker strove to direct it. It is clear that passive-aggression was the least of it. Luckily, Scarfe’s ego and humour survive. In fact, you have to love a man who can say he was ‘top of the tree’ with such justified certainty.

Is this grandeur a problem in general for caricaturists/cartoonists? No. Ultimately, I think that there have always been giants at the top. Established cartoon careers tend to be long, and you can grow middle-aged waiting to usurp.

As you run into fellow cartoonists at signings or at the Big Draw festival you see, as Pink Floyd would say, ‘time ticking away’. We always look more raddled, more like those caricatured than those doing the drawing. It is, and always has been, hard to get a regular niche on a paper.

Berths in broadsheets are rare and a redesign can cull that space at any moment. Monday is the day to check on the grass shoots of satirical cartooning. Those contracted try not to do Sunday afternoon. Conveniently for skiving, Sunday is usually a slow news day so there isn’t always the best palette of topics to work with. Yet Iain Greensay, a distant third or fourth in the queue at The Guardian, has recently done good, bouncy, vulnerable Gordon Browns in wheelie bins that you could imagine floating past a disused Battersea Power Station. Will he go on to do rock operas? Who knows.

The exhibition An Independent Line is at the Political Cartoon Gallery, 32 Store Street, London WC1, until 18 October. The accompanying book, An Independent Line: Political Cartoons from The Independent, is published by The Political Cartoon Society this month, priced £19.99. Scarfe on The Wall will be published by Gloria in July, priced £1195.
The ninth Big Draw festival runs this October

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