NOT RAPIERS BUT MISSILES
Nicholas Garland reveals
the political cartoonist's tactical weaponry
THERE are a number of questions that all cartoonists are asked about their work: how do you get your ideas? Are some people more difficult to draw than others? Does your editor censor what you do? How long does it take to draw a cartoon? Even, what else do you do? — as if knocking off light-hearted sketches could not occupy a grown man for very long. Why is it that political cartoons, these ephemeral, inevitably quickly conceived and executed comic drawings, are so highly valued by newspaper editors and readers? Part of the answer lies in the tradition (here in Britain at least) that the views of the cartoonist may differ wildly from those expressed more formally elsewhere in the newspaper. From this particular freedom given to, or seized by, the cartoonist, whether or not on a particular day it is used, derives a large part of their strength. Politically, cartoons may be a safety valve undermining dogma and pomposity as much in their own newspapers as in the world outside. Intellectually, they repre- sent the freedom to play with ideas — to contradict oneself, to follow a thought to an absurd conclusion, to change one's mind.
In fact, political cartoons are not so much rapier thrusts (a popular image) as they are missiles, which although quite small, carry at least three explosive war- heads. First, caricature — the humorously or maliciously distorted representation of politicians; second, the actual political comment, criticism or stance communi- cated in the drawing; and third, the vehicle or image chosen to convey the political point. When brought together, at its best the effect is formidable. The apparent joke can contain a reverberating, subversive power.
Firstly then, caricature. For everyone, there is a kind of magic involved in putting down lines on paper that give so vivid an impression of someone's actual presence that for a second they might be in the room with you. As a child I carefully copied caricatures from newspapers and found to my utter delight that by borrowing the devices of another artist I could work the spell myself. The reduction of a familiar human being, a schoolmaster perhaps, or a politician, or a film star, to a comical little drawing fascinated me. I was well aware, even then, that by creating this form of likeness, you had stolen something from an individual and in an odd way gained a kind of power over him.
We all have an image of ourselves that we try to maintain, and we work quite hard to get other people to believe in it too. Caricaturists work even harder directly against this effort. Even when exercised without any intention to wound, good caricature has the power to reduce the dignity, and therefore the authority, of those represented. Just as it is always a bit of a shock unexpectedly to catch sight of oneself reflected in a shop window or wandering moronically across a television security screen, so it is disturbing to see oneself caricatured. In just the same way no one likes to be mimicked, which is why we reach for mimicry in the course of rows.
How do caricatures become established? They are not static but grow and evolve in the cartoonist's work, taking the readers with them. When a new political figure takes his or her place on the stage the cartoonists, first of all carefully produce fairly academically accurate likenesses of the newcomer. Gradually certain features become established as standing for the individual. Mr Kinnock's freckles, for ex- ample, or Mrs Thatcher's bouffant hair and pointy nose, or Mr Heath's wide smile. The fact that when you meet Mr Heath you notice that his mouth is rather small and pursed or that Mrs Thatcher's hair is no longer all fluffed out is neither here nor there. They have been reinvented by the cartoonist and are perfectly recognisable in their transmogrified form. Politicians do not really begin to look like the cartoons we draw of them. What happens is that we create a kind of distorting glass through which they are seen.
Sometimes an individual makes this pro- cess very easy. General de Gaulle's great height was a gift to cartoonists, as are Mr Healey's bushy eyebrows. Sometimes politicians craftily invent props such as umbrellas, pipes, bow ties and eccentric hair styles; and very grateful we are too. In the process of developing one of these hieroglyphs, I study the work of other cartoonists very closely. Vicky, the famous left-wing cartoonist, who worked for Lord Beaverbrook for many years, always said he got pretty irritated when he saw another artist making use of solutions that had cost him much labour to invent. I frankly long for the day when I see that I have influenced someone in this way and would like to take this opportunity of gratefully thanking Vicky's shade for the thousands of times I have made use of his powers of observation. In fact, I consider him to be the greatest political cartoonist of this century. He was heavily influenced by David Low early in his career, but, like the wren launched from the back of a soaring eagle, in the end he flew a little higher.
In its directness and simplicity, carica- ture does not allow for fine degrees of criticism. It has an awful bluntness. It strikes at the most vulnerable and private side of its targets. Writers can elaborate clear distinctions between various aspects of a man's life, finding some much more attractive than others; • so and so is an absolute swine to his colleagues but a devoted father and husband. Caricaturists cannot go in for such fine degrees of criticism even if they wish to. They pursue a different kind of truth.
Annibale Carracci, who in the 16th century first practised this subversive form of portraiture, observed: Is not the caricaturist's task exactly the same as the classical artist's? Both see the lasting truth beneath the surface of mere outward appearance. Both try to help nature success- fully accomplish its plan. The one may strive to visualise the perfect form and to realise it in his work; the other to grasp the perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality. A good caricature, like every other work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.
The truth that caricature reaches for has to do with the transitory nature of all political power, and the vulnerability of even the most mighty. Caricatures can therefore even be oddly comforting as well as very funny. A monster such as Hitler or Stalin is suddenly less terrifying; fear, anxiety and a sense of paralysing hatred cannot easily co-exist with laughter. I imagine that is why Pravda does not feature daily caricatures of the members of the Russian governing class.
`The most perfect caricature', says Max Beerbohm, and he should know, 'is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, In the most beautiful manner.' The last phrase of that charming definition is parti- cularly important. A perfect caricature must be well drawn. Cartoonists some- times seem to think that the more grotesquely they distort a figure, the more meaning they pack into the drawing; or even that the more crudely and violently they dash down their lines, the more devastating the effect of their work. The opposite is true.
Caricature thus lies at the heart of political cartooning. From their success in creating lively, vivid caricatures that begin to develop an existence of their own, cartoonists derive much of what power or influence they have. But there is more to it than that. The characters form part of the dramatisation of the idea itself, the point the cartoon is making — the reason for its existence.
The saying `a drawing is worth a "VERY WELL ALONE " (See following page) thousand words' is, of course, extremely gratifying to cartoonists. Although a poli- tical cartoon may contain only a very simple political notion easily conveyed in half a dozen words, the bare statement of the idea does not begin to do justice to the force of the cartoon. That derives from the vehicle itself which, besides caricature, requires some or all of a mixture of caricature, metaphor, distortion, surreal- ism, deliberate misunderstanding and mockery.
In some ways, the comment or attitude underpinning the cartoon is the simplest part of the whole. The cartoonist notices that the government is heading for a showdown with the unions, or that the current East/West talks are going frightful- ly well, or that, say, unemployment is the main issue in a coming by-election. This much most of us can do, and it is a necessary part of the creation of any political cartoon. But it is not sufficient. The invention or discovery of a scene or tableau that will convey and illuminate the political point of a cartoon is the most difficult part of the process. I am talking as though 'the idea' were somehow separate from the vehicle, or image that carries it, whereas, of course, they are inseparable. (This is why I grind my teeth when I am asked, `Do you write the captions as well as do the drawing?') Let me try to illustrate what I mean.
Because politics are about an endless circular battle against age-old problems, cartoons often feature politicians engaged in some sort of contest. Boxing matches, horse races and jousting are all popular, and successive generations of ministers are drawn fighting it out with inflation, unem- ployment, economic crises, scandal and so on. But all kinds of other unlikely situa- tions are devised to try to get across the complications of political reality. Cartoon- ists may cast their leaders in the role of almost anything, from a guttering candle to a nuclear blast. The point is that the choice of candle as opposed to nuclear blast is the idea, an integral part of it; it says 'weak and providing little illumination' as opposed to 'powerful and deadly'.
`Getting an idea' is finding the right vehicle for an opinion, one which simul- taneously expresses and illuminates it. On good days an 'idea' pops up complete with cast, props, setting and, if necessary, cap- tion, as if someone had put a slide into a projector and in my mind's eye I study it and can make appropriate changes. But although I have done this for 20 years or so, at its heart it remains an essentially mysterious process and each day I do not know whether it will work or not, or how smoothly.
On a difficult day, the political thought has to be struggled with in order to find the right image to convey it. It has to be looked for, which involves a search for analogies. Analogies for political dramas can be found in famous events from history, liter- ature or mythology. Some events lodge in our minds because they vividly illustrate familiar human traits or predicaments. Thus a politician ignoring the unhappy consequences of some act claps a telescope to a blind eye. A minister dithering be- tween several options will appear as Ham- let gazing at an appropriately labelled skull. Overweening ambition in one of our leaders may have him flying too close to the sun, and plunging from the sky like Icarus.
It is an amusing game to list references of this sort that would be instantly under- stood by any reasonably well-educated person. It would contain, all of Alice in Michael Foot as King Lear, see above Wonderland, many Victorian paintings such as 'The Monarch of the Glen' and `Bubbles': certain famous posters (`Your Country Needs You', 'My Goodness My Guinness'), a great number of films and children's books and much of Kipling. In 20 years' time, the stock of common references may have changed altogether, of course. James Bond conveys more to my children than Kipling.
Nursery rhymes are a particularly good source. You can practically see the car- toons forming in your mind's eye: 'Where are you going to, my pretty maid?' Hump- ty Dumpty had a great fall.' When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.' Shakespeare may always head the list, but the single line most frequently quoted in this way is, I am sure: 'Please sir, I want some more.'
Gradually one learns, in the hunt for ideas of this kind, to engage in a process of highly deliberate wool-gathering. When the Labour Party was walloped by Mrs Thatcher in June 1983, I thought it would never recover. Thoughts of death merged in my mind with the personality of the elderly leader of the party. The fact that Michael Foot carried a heavy responsibility for his party's plight was made more poignant by his obviously profound love for the party. An old man and a dying thing. An old man and his ailing child. A dead daughter. King Lear speaking:
I know when one is dead and when one lives; She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass If that her breath will mist or stain the stone Why then she lives.
Lear, and perhaps even the audience, are unwilling for a moment to believe that Cordelia is quite dead. Was the Labour Party dead? Is this a real tragedy? Won't all the actors survive and stand before us taking their bow? The scene contains all these possibilities and expressed my own attitude pretty well; that is, 'The Labour Party has probably had it — but I hope not.'
Put together, all this means that the best cartoons, the most striking, can be read at a glance. It probably requires that the idea contained in a political cartoon must not only be easily understood but even already widely established before the cartoonist uses it. It could reasonably be argued that political cartoons are merely telling people what they already know in a highly simpli- fied form. Take David Low's wartime cartoons. On the fall of France in 1940 he drew a British Tommy standing on a rocky shore, shaking his fist at an advancing wave of Nazi bombers and crying out defiantly, `Very well, alone.'
Everyone who saw this cartoon on the day it was published already knew perfectly well that Britain now stood alone against a fearful enemy. Yet Low's representation of Britain's peril says infinitely more than a mere statement of the fact. There is something about the way the lightly armed soldier is shown standing his ground against the bombers, which emerge like sinister little crosses from the black sky, which sets the mind racing through a hundred tales of undaunted heroes facing dreadful odds. David slew Goliath; Hora- tius held the bridge; Nelson ignored the signal ordering him back into line; bullies must be stood up to sooner or later; the resonance of the cartoon rolls on and on to this day.
The paradox is therefore that cartoons express very simple ideas or attitudes through the use of a medium that allows them to be extremely complex.
In another example, Vicky summed up his view of the nuclear deterrent in one witty drawing. He drew Duncan Sandys, then Minister of Defence, facing a Russian bear. Clasping a revolver marked H-bomb to his own temple, he warns the bear, 'One step and I shoot.'
Fantasy, nonsense and preposterous over-simplification are cheerfully jumbled up in this cartoon. But the bold statement of a truth we already know comes power- fully through: if we use our nuclear
"One step, and I shoot!"
weapons, we die.
But then just begin to list the tangled associations one has with a menacing bear. From Goldilocks through to Daniel Boone, the way is long and intricate, yet all this is the potential contained in Vicky's 'H I THERE, FELLER HIYA,GUYS,.."
brilliant scratchy lines. That and much more if we continue. For what horrors the Image of a man blowing his own brains out sends shuddering through our imagination, and what anger is summoned up from our unconscious against a suicide who is pre- pared to take us with him?
In fact, there is also something out- rageously unfair about this cartoon, for in real life the whole point is that the bear too Is threatened with annihilation. We know that, and the Defence Minister knows that; the cartoon raises the chilling question, does the shambling bear know it? We do not often analyse cartoons consciously in this way. But as we relish the joke and take the point, the imagery works on us never- theless. It is this unobtrusive density that gives the best political cartoons their strength.
It took me a long time to realise this essential point about political cartoons. They are not manifestoes or in any way suited to the presentation of subtle argu- ments. They are fancies or free associa- tions shared by the artist with the readers. Just as the cartoonist may play, as it were, on the unconscious mind of the reader, his own unconscious is also at work. Recently I did a drawing of Mr Kinnock on a visit to the USA. I showed him to be very small surrounded by a forest of huge, striding legs. He was trying in vain to attract the attention of the towering, busy Americans by calling out in a friendly way: 'Hi there, fellers . . . Hiya guys . . . I meant to show that the Americans were not all that interested in him. But a friend interpreted the cartoon back to me. He said, 'I liked your Reagan/Julius Caesar cartoon'. I didn't know what he was talking about. He said, 'The one that showed Kinnock in the States — you know, "We petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves." ' I had not meant to express the view that the USA is a bit too big and influential or that Mr Kinnock, Cassius-like, was chal- lenging the President's omnipotence. Yet that meaning was there too and I was delighted to have it pointed out to me. The problems that face cartoonists are con- cerned with how to simplify the comment and then how to draw it in a way that allows free-association to enrich it. For this reason I never like editorial conferences about cartoons and never show roughs to my editors as some cartoonists do, because conferences and discussions will tend to elaborate views and opinions instead of paring them down. When readers write in with suggestions for cartoons they are invariably too compli- cated. They say . . . 'I'd like to see a cartoon based on the famous game of bowls played by Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth. The bowls could be marked unemployed, economic crisis, inner city decay, and Drake, shown as the Minister of Defence, should have just thrown a bowl marked "defence cuts" at his opponent who is the shadow minister, who is . . and so on. It would take a week to draw, take up a whole page and need an hour to read.
This is what all my first efforts were like. Luckily, round about this time, as I strug- gled each day to encapsulate short histories of the world in a space about four and a half inches deep across four columns. I was given some advice by Colin Welch, who was then Deputy Editor of the pally Telegraph where I worked. Twenty years later the sense of what he said still guides every drawing I do. 'Your work is too earthbound,' he said. 'In the world created by cartoons there is no need to obey the rules of perspective, logic or gravity; no need to be historically accurate or consistent — absolutely anything can happen . . . I felt I'd been told to go out and play, and in the paradoxical way in which something may be achieved once you stop trying too hard to do it, I began to find cartooning easier.
The notion that a cartoon might have a fantastical element to it, could be based on the logic of dreams, and could even gain from it, at once began to affect the actual drawing. I saw that each representation of a politician did not have to be a portrait or even in any ordinary sense a likeness. Caricatures could be pared down, could evolve into a sophisticated hieroglyph.
Herbert Morrison once asked Vicky `Why do you always draw me with such thin legs?' Vicky replied, 'To save ink.'
But the way to a good hieroglyph is hard. Artists frequently experience the frustration of being unable to recapture in a finished work the vigour and accuracy of the preparatory sketches. I always prefer the sketches in my notepad to the com- pleted art work. I try to solve the problem by drawing fast. The catch is the faster you draw the less accurate you become.
Likenesses go, hands look like bunches of bananas, objects and figures begin to merge with one another into an incoherent mess. Nevertheless a line drawn fast seems to contain and express some of the vigour put into its execution and I am prepared to lose a little coherence in the pursuit of a degree of liveliness. Just as the cartoon ideas must be simplified in the interest of achieving impact so must the drawing.
There are many influences on my draw- ing but perhaps it is obvious that there have been none as consistent as Vicky's; and the quality I admire above all is his ability to sustain this liveliness. His figures seem to jump and rush about on the page.
The scratchy broken lines were apparently swiped across the paper as a boy switches nettles in a country lane. But the carefree execution is deceptive. Mysteriously there is no chaos; each line is doing its job perfectly. Every likeness is unmistakable, every action exactly expressed. For me it is this masterly synthesis of deadly accuracy with dashing vivacity which makes his work outstanding.
Both Low and Vicky were superb simpli- fiers. The props and settings of their cartoons are masterpieces of economy which the most laid back Japanese Zen master would be proud of. (If Zen masters ever allow themselves to feel proud.) Both make brilliant use of broad areas of black. This may be used to gain two objectives at once. A figure in a black suit or conversely a white figure against a black background stands out stark and clear. At the same time the cartoon as a whole will, if it contains bold black areas, hold its own against the busy headlines and vivid photo- graphs of a modern newspaper.
I still have not quite answered the question of how one 'gets' ideas for car- toons, in that I have described instead how to put oneself in the way of an idea once one becomes aware, in Jonathan Miller's delightful phrase, that there is a joke scurrying around somewhere behind the skirting-board of one's mind.
The trick is each day to feed in as much information about current events as you can comfortably retain. This information comes from daily newspapers, radio news bulletins and sometimes from fellow jour- nalists. At the same time as you are accumulating possible subjects you are winnowing out as many as you can: this theme has been dealt with too recently; that one is still too fluid to risk commen- tary on; yet another is too little established for many readers to easily comprehend. Eventually only one or two remain. What happens then is that the sensible, practical, observable gathering of information ceases, and the imagination must be allowed to slip its moorings and take off. It is the moment that James Thurber said was the most difficult part of his job — that is persuading his wife that he was working when he was just sitting there gazing out of the window.
Of course I have learnt a few tricks for those times when visibility is bad and flying conditions poor. Political cartoonists can- not stockpile ideas because they are tied to current news, but they can stockpile ideas for ideas. That is, I have in my office a great number of picture books, collections of cartoons and encyclopaedias that I can flick through in search of inspiration. I buy postcards of famous pictures that may be useful and cut pictures from magazines. I pin my own abandoned sketches on the wall in case they can be recycled and I have cutting books and can re-use old ideas. I think of this as cobbling together a car- toon. It sometimes feels as if I am hammer- ing a resisting idea into shape.
I labour this point a little in order to make another. It is sometimes mistakenly believed that cartoonists range, Jove-like, over the political world, thunderbolts in hand, coolly choosing targets. It is not quite like that when you're doing a cartoon every day. In quiet desperation we are down on the ground scrabbling for ideas and pathetically relieved when one comes along.
From time to time in this description of the work of a political cartoonist, I have used the words comic, humorous, joke, light-hearted and so on. It may have given the impression that we are forever trying to be funny. In fact, in holding up their particular kind of mirror, cartoonists are quite as likely to be reflecting the anger, dismay or grief their fellow citizens are feeling, as indulging a taste for disrespect- ful frivolity. They may be dealing with themes of death and loss and pain as well as more cheerful aspects of contemporary life. It is partly for this reason that I do not like the distinction between fine and comic art that we in Britain are inclined to draw. If both may be concerned with the same themes, and both constitute a search after some form of truth, as Carracci made clear, we should regard them both as art. We might then be able to make a more rewarding and proper distinction between good art and bad art.
I ought to confess that, in common with most political cartoonists I know, I studied painting at art school. And if I am asked, as I often am, how do you become a political cartoonist, the answer is quite clear. It is to go to art school and learn to draw.