Works by four cartoonists hang on my study walls: Hogarth, Rowlandson, Minhinnick, and Emmerson.
Rod Emmerson has just marked twenty years on the New Zealand Herald, and he deserves his place in my mini gallery. He may be an adoptee from across the Tasman, but he ranks as one of the finest cartoonists this country has called its own. He has won awards internationally and in New Zealand and Australia, and his work has been published globally through the New York Times Syndicate.
He certainly deserved the double-page spread that the Weekend Herald devoted to his two decades of drawing for the newspaper. His work embodies in abundance the three attributes of an outstanding political cartoonist: graphic talent, keen perception, and wicked wit.
The English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley described caricatures as the most penetrating of criticisms. That is because they give the cartoonist multiple shots at the target.
Our appearance and postures tell people about us. Cartoonists were exploiting that fact long before anthropologists in the 1950s came up with ‘body language’, exaggerating features to characterise the subject in particular ways. Minhinnick’s persistent portrayal of Keith Holyoake in a morning suit pointed to pomposity. Emmerson’s exaggeration of Jacinda Ardern’s dental assets gave her a perpetual smile that symbolised her unassailable positivity. Significantly, the device was missing from cartoons of the Christchurch mosque attacks because, during those times of adversity, Emmerson was at pains to show her the respect the nation was affording her.
Circumstance is always to the fore in cartoons. Sometimes it calls for solemnity, such as in renowned New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low’s “Very well, alone” (a defiant British soldier standing on the south coast of England in 1940) or Emmerson’s “They Are Us” (a symbolic New Zealand Herald front page following the Christchurch massacre of 2019). At other times, the positions in which people find themselves – or too often put themselves – call for a different layer of ink. Rabbit holes have been a popular cartoon location ever since Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland, while swamps and desert islands also have enduring popularity.
What subjects say also comes back to haunt them: John Key’s lack of recall – “brain fade” – got him covered in critical ink, and Christopher Luxon’s over-repeated “coalition of chaos” may be a phrase he will live to regret.
And to top it all, the cartoonist makes the subject the butt of a joke.
The target can wind up riddled with bullet holes.
It is this synthesis of multiple facets of a subject that makes the political cartoon so powerful, and more enduring than most news stories on the matter.
Low’s cartoon after the invasion of Poland in the wake of the signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939 – “the scum of the earth” (Stalin) meeting the “bloody assassin of the workers” (Hitler) – is remembered while the newspaper stories that surrounded it have disappeared into dusty archives. We will remember Emmerson’s Prigozhin cartoon of last Friday (see above) while we struggle to recall one by-line from stories on the assassination.
Memorable cartoons have the same enduring impact as memorable photographs. They, too, are frozen moments that encapsulate an event, a personality, a strength, or a frailty. Yet cartoons have a dimension that few photographs possess – the acerbic power of satire. By transporting a subject to an imagined realm, the cartoonist gains a licence to push boundaries and to pass through some gates that would otherwise be locked.
There is probably no cartoonist worthy of the title who has not pushed through that gate and courted controversy. Emmerson’s 2016 caricature of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika in frilled costume and false red nose alongside the headline ‘Send in the Clowns’ incensed the rugby side, but the cartoonist was unrepentant. He responded: “Cheika may be pissed at the artwork, but he’ll be even more pissed when he realises I am Australian, and his cousin dated my sister.”
Nonetheless, there are boundaries. While there may be a degree of subjectivity in determining where those lines should be drawn, they do exist.
Most cartoonists are aware of the boundaries that society imposes, that there are exceptions to the right of free speech.
After the attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo following publication of the Muhammad cartoons, cartoonist Joe Sacco made a distinction between the right to free speech and the sensible use of it. His point was picked up by Tim Parkes, writing later in the New York Review of Books on the limits of satire:
Joe Sacco’s take on the tragedy in Paris is smart. In raising the question of the usefulness or otherwise of a cartoon, rather than remaining fixated on the question of freedom of speech, he reminds us of the essentially pragmatic nature of satire. However grotesque and provocative its comedy, its aim is to produce an enlightened perspective on events, not to start riots.
Boundaries are generally defined by our respect for our fellow humans. For example, as an editor, I would not allow the denigration of religion because I believed people had an inalienable right to practice their faith with dignity and social standing.
By setting and adhering to boundaries, newspapers provide their readers with a map of what we collectively stand for as a community. By sometimes pushing those boundaries, they reflect changes in society itself.
Rod Emmerson recognised both elements of this bounded environment in an interview several years ago on The Detail.
“You want people to think and you want to stimulate some sort of debate…to introduce a new perspective that people haven’t considered. You need to go out there and have a look at what people are actually thinking, [and] you have to have a reason why you are going down a particular line…I write the defence before I draw the cartoon. I need to sell it to all the people who I get to vet my work before it is published. By and large it’s a good system and it works.
The checks and balances that Emmerson employs each day – “The people who I get to vet my work each day know who they are” – recognise that cartoonists are not a law unto themselves. They are answerable both to the public they serve and to the publications in which their work is published. That work is a reflection on the mastheads that give it its authority.
Some have forgotten that pact and have paid a price.
The defiant ones claim they are victims of a previously unseen ‘woke-ism’ that now permeates society. That, however, suggests short memories. Cartoonists have been falling on their pens for decades over work that shocked or outraged. In a foreword to a history of British cartooning, the late Michael Cummings (a celebrated Daily Express cartoonist) lamented rising intolerance of his profession. That was more than fifty years ago.
Cummings’ successors continue to draw a fine line between the acceptable and unacceptable. The best of them unerringly place their pen just inside it – edgy but never gratuitously offensive.
I say pen, but that may be anachronistic. For years, Rod Emmerson has not put pen to paper but stylus to graphic tablet. The results have been some of the finest rendering I have seen. The downside is that, when I ask for an Emmerson original, I wind up with a file in my mail inbox.
It’s not quite the same thing as my Minhinnick original of Mussolini hanging off a cliff, with the Lion of Abyssinia towering over him. There I can see a pencil outline indicating the cartoonist changed his mind over which way the Italian dictator would face.
Mind you, my Hogarths and Rowlandsons are engraved prints. That, I suppose, makes them the eighteenth and nineteenth century equivalents of a digital image. No matter what format, I feel privileged to own all of them.