(Garry Trudeau being supplied with beer by Steve Bell at the signing after an extremely well attended talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday evening)
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Steve Bell in conversation with the celebrated cartoonist and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Despite irregular outbursts of rain (yes the wee rubber ducks were floating in a puddle in Charlotte Square gardens once more, they enjoy our unpredictable Scottish weather) the venue was totally packed with a pretty broad range of readers and I have to say Trudeau was fascinating to listen to,starting with talking about his early days as an undergrad at college doing cartoons for the student paper (also involving running a cartoon about a scandal involving bizarre fraternity house initiation ceremonies for a frat house where one George W Bush was one of the big cheeses. As Garry said, it’s almost like fate…).
The conversation ranged over a number of subjects, from the rapid changes the traditional newspaper (and so paper cartoonists) are trying to deal with (or sadly often failing to deal with) to Trudeau’s earliest days, as a young 20 something trying to secure syndication (when some older editors refused to take the strip his syndication contacts said don’t worry, these guys all die. And guess what, they did and the younger editors who replaced them took the strip) to developing his unique style – Bell was particularly interested in the way Trudeau can depict major political figures without actually depicting them. As Bell pointed out his form of political cartooning relies on him studying those characters then trying to recreate a recognisable caricature of them, but Trudeau often uses something far more abstract to represent someone, such as a floating feather for Dan Quayle back when he was vice president (which I seem to recall was more than Bush Snr got in the same era!). Apparently with Quayle junior now running for office in the US and having his father’s same unique command of the English language he’s going for a smaller feather – the family franchise is renewed! Such characters appearing on the political scene are, as Trudeau said to Bell, a gift for people in their line of work.
The most powerful part of the evening, however, came when Trudeau talked about his depiction of the soldier’s point of view in strips dealing with the War On Terror in Doonesbury, most notably with long-time character DB losing a leg during the Iraq war. I didn’t know Doonesbury had been carried in the American military paper Stars and Stripes for years and this gave Trudeau some serious fans in the forces. He recounted how when he pondered killing BD off in the line of duty he decided that giving him this terrible injury was the better course – the injury and the huge implications it had for the character and those around him when he came home were a good way of showing readers the human cost of conflict and just what dreadful cost young men and women are paying for the decisions of their political masters. Trudeau talked about being invited to meet some of the badly injured and maimed troops (‘to make sure he got it right’ as he put it) and when he recounted meeting a young woman soldier who had lost an arm you could have heard a pin drop. It was disturbing, emotional stuff and he was obviously affected hugely by it and trying his best to do justice to the suffering of the soldiers while still maintaining his own personal anti-war stance.
Earlier yesterday I was also lucky enough to attend another of Steve Bell’s events (the Guardian cartoonist was given his own mini strand at the Book Fest this year and has several guests), this time with his fellow Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. Again a very interesting event, with Rowson wryly noting that this particular event was made possible in part by sponsorship from the Times, which amused him hugely given that several years before the Times had fired him. While he spoke he had some of his work being projected on a screen, including one cartoon depicting Rupert Murdoch leaning over a toilet bowl with the tagline “I’m just watching Fox News”. Discussing the Times, though, did give a good excuse to show some of the very Hogarth style, incredibly detailed drawings Rowson did during that time and he took much delight in walking us through one densely populated cartoon of a political get together of politicians and various journalists. After he had pointed out various figures he then started to explain that if we looked at this person (a depiction of Steve Bell, as it happened) you could see the arms made a shape, and the person next along made a rough shape of a letter also and so on. Until, he explained, you could see that hidden in this mass of figures carefully arranged you could discern a message saying ‘fuck’ to the then Times editor. It had to be visible after looking for a while but obviously not aparrent at first glance otherwise it would never have been allowed to run (their fault for giving him a couple of weeks notice, he said). Once it had run safely in the Times he gleefully informed Francise Wheen and Private Eye, Lord Gnome doubtless chortling to himself, happily ran the story of the hidden fuck you message so all the world knew. It rarely pays to be mean to satirists…
Bell was also fascinated by Rowson’s ‘other’ professional life as a creator of graphic novels, from his version of The Wasteland (more an interpretation/pastiche than literary adaptation as he was denied the right to use the original text) to his version of Sterne’s classic Tristram Shandy, which was just recently reprinted by SelfMadeHero (talking briefly to him later he said he thought the new SMH edition was a lovely edition and seemed very pleased with how they had done it, considering it to be nicer than the original version). He also revealed that he is working on a new graphic novel literary adaptation, this time of Swift’s immortal classic Gulliver’s Travels, a very appropriate choice for Rowson given that it is one of the greatest satires of human nature, politics, beliefs and morals every penned. I think he said that work would be coming from Grove Atlantic at some point (he’s still working to a deadline which has already had to be pushed back). One to watch for, methinks.
The pair also discussed issues such as censorship and editorial interference, although both seemed to share the opinion that although they did sometimes get questioned by their editor they were also quite often allowed to get away with a lot too (and in the case of Rowson who also provides cartoons to the Morning Star free of charge he has no editorial problems there since that’s part of the unspoken rule of him supplying them his work gratis). Asked about what some of the politicians thought about the way both depicted them, they seemed generally unfazed – Rowson talked about then chancellor Brown bumping into him at a function, he took him to task for how he could run the policies he espoused yet still claim to be a Labour politician. Brown in return just grumpily asked him why he was always drawn so fat. Naturally Rowson told him because he was. But the general consensus was that they were drawing on a centuries old tradition going back to Gilray and beyond whereby the great British cartoonist had a duty to satirise and lampoon the great and the powerful, to help keep them in their place and remind them that they’re being watched. Amen to that. (pics from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)