Drawn and quartered: cartoons keep the powerful humble
They are the 'little voice in the ear' of politicians, and we should be proud it hasn't been silenced
When I was eight, my teacher asked the class to produce written reports of our school sports day. I asked her if my report could take the form of a cartoon comic strip and she thought that was a lovely idea.
I chose to centre the narrative around a girl in our class who was remarkably overweight. My depiction of her struggling to heave her bulk down the running track generated a lot of amusement among my fellow classmates. Inevitably, the girl saw what I had done and burst into tears.
The teacher told me to stay behind for a telling off and her words have stayed with me ever since: “It’s clear to everyone that you have a talent for drawing. You must never, ever use that talent to make fun of other people.”
The statement only required four additional words to be entirely correct: “Unless they deserve it.”
Cartoonists are required to exercise careful judgment when selecting their targets. My teacher was right to chastise me for mocking the girl who couldn’t run. But the experience taught me a simple rule all cartoonists should live by: only punch upwards.
However, in truth the rules and nuances that determine whether a cartoon “works” are anything but simple. In 2005, a Danish newspaper published a set of cartoons depicting Muhammad which resulted in global controversy and violent demonstrations. In 2015, two Islamist extremists forced their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people.
Both of these instances generated an outpouring of support for cartoons. Then, a few days ago, Australian cartoonist Mark Knight drew Serena Williams as a spoilt baby having a tantrum and was immediately accused of racism. The debate quickly moved on from cartoon depictions of black people to asking whether we really need cartoons at all.
Drawings of Muhammad and Serena are not examples by which we should judge the medium. Aside from anything else, they are not political cartoons. Our politicians occupy positions of considerable power. To reach and maintain those positions requires an inflated sense of self-importance. Former British Liberal leader Nick Clegg once told a gathering of Britain’s political cartoonists: “You’re the little voice in our ear, reminding us that we’re not all that.”
He went on to call us a “bunch of bastards”. His first point was sound. Good political cartoons serve exactly this function: they let politicians know that just because they make serious decisions that doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously. Moreover, political cartoonists, believe it or not, do try to avoid targeting somebody’s personality. When I draw Theresa May looking awkward and feeble I am characterising her political position, not trying to hurt her feelings. There’s a subtle distinction people often misunderstand.
It only really works with politicians. If you try to apply the formula to prophets or tennis champions or obese schoolgirls, it all starts to go wrong.
It’s more important now than ever that we understand and value good cartooning. There are plenty of countries in the world where those in power have silenced the little voice in their ear. We should be proud not to be one of them.
• Bob Moran is a Daily Telegraph cartoonist.
– © The Sunday Telegraph