Ding dong…

… the witch is dead… Hey, right wingers hell-bent on canonising Thatcher as some modern political saint, protesters will stop buying Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to get it into the charts if you stop wasting millions of pounds of the tax-payer’s money on what is essentially a state funeral in all but name. Deal? No? Well if you can close down half of central London and waste millions on a politician who is still despised by half the population decades on then it is fine for people to protest in a witty and sarcastic manner by getting this song to the charts. In fact there is something delightfully, subversively British about the humour behind that, the sort of satire and humour which goes back to the days of Hogarth as a way for ordinary citizens to make their views on their ‘betters’ known and heard.

And on the related note of Hogarth, here’s a recent work from one of that esteemed artist and observer of society’s modern heirs, the excellent Martin Rowson on the whole nonsense surrounding Thatcher’s death (cartoon by and (c) Martin Rowson, published in the Guardian):

I’ve head the pleasure of hearing Martin speak twice now at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and he’s not only very knowledgeable about the history of editorial cartooning and illustration, he is passionate about using it to hold politicians and other public figures to account and letting them know we are watching the buggers, which is vital in any healthy democratic society.

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(Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2012, pic from my Flickr)

Edinburgh Book Festival: Martin Rowson

Second of the reports I penned from the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August for the Forbidden Planet blog:

One of the UK’s finest satirical cartoonists, Martin Rowson, paid a welcome return visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday, and was absolutely on top form. Comics and cartoons were discussed, politicians were skewered (deservedly), journalism, government and the role of cartoonists were all covered, along with personal tales, Martin’s work in graphic novels (including his new take on Gulliver’s Travels, one of the great satirical novels of all time), and all accompanied by a lot of humour and more swears than even Jamie Smart can fit into a whole chapter of Corporate Skull.

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(Martin Rowson in discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr, click for larger versions)

A busy day at the world’s biggest book festival, and the audience braves the humid heat to pack into one of the tent theatres in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square to hear Martin Rowson, frequent cartoonist for the Guardian among numerous other publications and creator of several graphic novels, discuss his craft. Interestingly, when discussing his work for the newspapers Martin said that he thought of himself more as a columnist, executing a sort of visual journalism, the (often very detailed) cartoons being the graphic equivalent of some of the regular text columns and editorials in the paper. His complete loathing for the current coalition government in power at the moment in the UK came to the forth, partly through some of his art on display on a screen above him (as he talked us through how he visualised certain politicians, from Cameron’s Little Lord Fauntleroy image to struggling with Nick Clegg before hitting on turning him into Pinocchio, which also allowed him to use his wooden boy as numerous other wooden images later on, part of a wheel, a pile of sawdust), partly through a pretty no-holds barred attack on the government, which he described as the worst in his lifetime (and that’s going up against some competition!). The attacks were laced with a lot of humour, but there was no mistaking the anger there too at a lot of inept fiddling while the rest of us suffer while Rome burns.

(“The World as it is or Bones & Bonuses”, by and (c) Martin Rowson)

Anger funnelled through his satirical cartoons was also noticeable in some of his work, as he admitted himself, especially one example, a cartoon ‘split screen’ image, one half a ragged survivor of the Haitian earthquake staggering through ruins clutching a child, the other half a fat cat banker staggering between canyons of enormous tower blocks clutching his bonus (see above). He said that it was driven by fury at the fact that the hideous suffering and vast death toll of the earthquake had been pushed a day later further down the running list on the news to make way for a story about banker’s moaning their bonuses were being cut, with him going on to discuss the disparity between just Wall Street bonuses alone and how much aid Western countries give. Not hard to see why anyone (other than senior bankers) would be driven to anger over that. And as Martin commented, for several centuries now, since the heyday of the great satirical print makers, it’s the role of the editorial cartoonists to hold up senior public figures and politicians to examination and ridicule to remind them they are not untouchable and above everyone else, and about the importance of such cartooning in a democratic world.

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(Martin Rowson with his new Gulliver’s Travels graphic novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pics from my Flickr, click for larger versions)

He also recounted a story about a cartooning exhibition of politicians where the guest was George Osborne, now Chancellor but back then in opposition years someone most of them had never heard of. He agreed to take part only if he could give a speech after the Tory politician, who remarked that there were no cartoons of him present. That’s because most of us had never heard of you or knew what you looked like, Rowson explains in his speech, before going on to serve him fair warning that if his party came into power and he into government he and his colleagues would be merciless in examining his every utterance and exaggerating every physical oddity, from his weak chin onwards, in depicting him, leaving the would be minister very upset and spluttering that he would never have come if he’d known what sort of people were there. Clearly, he added, no-one had ever talked to him like that, although he did apologise to his host of the evening if he had perhaps gone too far. No, his host replied, the boy needs toughening up if he’s to make it in politics… Asked by an audience member if he thought there was a role for cartoons praising positive work by politicians he said for the most part no. Although he would be delighted to see a world where his skills were not needed because everyone did their best for one another, openly, honestly, he didn’t see that happening and meantime doing too many positive cartoons as opposed to critical was too close to the work produced in totalitarian regimes; it was the job of the cartoonist and satirist to ever be on the offensive to make sure those in positions of authority are always aware of public scrutiny.

(“The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver” by Hogarth)

On the topic of his new graphic novel, a sort of sequel/modern interpretation of the classic Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, it was quite clear the huge esteem Rowson holds his predecessors in the fine and biting art of British satire, from the clever prose analogies of Swift to the astonishing prints of Gilray and Hogarth (he also mentioned something I’d never come across, a Hogarth work responding to Swift’s novel, “The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver”, which as he noted Swift could have probably sued him for, but actually he appreciated the work of his fellow satirist, leaving us to wonder what a partnership there might have been if the two had collaborated on a major project). That Rowson values his ancestral satirical spirits and endeavours not only to continue their fine tradition, but to honour it by doing the best work he can is quite clear, and quite commendable.

(a panel from Martin Rowson’s new interpretation of Gulliver’s Travels, (c) the artist, published by Atlantic Books)

With his Gulliver he has a Lilliput administered by a very Tony Blair-like leader and his descendant of the original Gulliver notices after a while among them that they produce nothing – no factories, no farms. In fact the only thing they produce, in large quantities, is human waste – they have a whole dome in which games of crappulence are played out, before a rather familiar looking media oligarch takes that crap to nearby Blefescu, where it is turned into material which is then sold back to the Lilliputians, a neat commentary on disposable culture and much of the media, rich meat for Rowson’s acid wit and famously detailed artwork. One is left with the impression that those mighty predecessors of his would heartily approve, laugh then take him for a fine meal and a pint of claret. An excellent event at the Book Fest and if you find an opportunity to hear Rowson speak at an even near you, I recommend you take it.


(thanks to Frances and the Book Fest press team for letting me attend the event)

Bell, Trudeau and Rowson at the Edinburgh Book Festival

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(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…).

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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.

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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…

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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)