For someone who regularly depicts the horror and stupidity of the human condition, for publications such as The Guardian and Independent, Martin Rowson is a surprisingly chipper, cheery and upbeat chap. He’s also fiercely intelligent and, occasionally, I find myself trying to catch up with his allusions and references, which is appropriate as that’s exactly what his work is like. We’ll come to that later, but I begin by carrying on from the earlier discussion about how Rob Davis used different colour palettes in Don Quixote to indicate shifts in tone. In his adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, Rowson has given each of the four books a distinct style, and I wondered what feeling he was trying to evoke with them.
“There are different reasons for using the different styles. One is very mundane. Lilliput took me the longest because it involved drawing lots and lots and lots of tiny little people, which is very time-consuming, but I also wanted to establish the kind of sub-Hogarthian/Rowsonian cross-hatching methods to establish the time, to give a sort of 18th-century heft to it, and when I’d finished doing Lilliput it had taken me so long I thought: ‘I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got to speed up a bit!’ Then I thought: ‘No, let’s make a virtue out of this, I’ll do Brobdingnag differently and I’ll do it in wash and I’ll do it in a spattery way.’ Because Brobdingnag is full of spatters [there are a lot of bodily functions on display] but it’s almost pointillist because he’s so small it’s actually meant to be the molecules, the particulates he can see in the air.
“Nicely, you know when you’re dealing with a good publisher when you see the book and look at the endpapers and see they’re covered in little tiny blots which have been taken from the pages of Brobdingnag. The art director had put them there without even being asked to. I thanked the art director at the launch and he said, ‘Oh, you noticed, nobody else has!’ It was just lovely.
It also meant I could get through Brobdingnag quite quickly, but then when I came to Blefuscu, I got back to crosshatchy style, but a different kind.”
It’s more like the kind of grim, editorial-cartoon-on-war style
“Because that’s the nature of the third book. In the Land of the Houyhnhnm it’s a combination of the two.”
Very square, very regular
“Because it’s the land of pure rationality.”
As with all his work, there is much in the background of each panel: the central narrative may be saying one thing, but the imagery behind will often contradict it. Is it fair to say that you consciously make people work hard to understand what’s really going on?
“Absolutely. I do that deliberately because it makes it more interesting to me and people like it. The stuff I’ve been doing for The Guardian since the coalition came in is markedly different to what I was doing previously. It is far more complicated and there’s far more information in each of them. Twice a week there’s a sort of comic strip going on. It is a narrative, a broken narrative, with the same characters occurring, little clues here and there. If you come to it blind and you don’t know what’s going on perhaps you might be a bit confused but you should get the main message.
“That’s something cartoonists always do, they always have, it’s like a catchphrase, a titbit, a bon-bon to give to the reader. They love it. Giles used to do vignettes in the back of his cartoons of Rupert Bear being tortured to death because he hated Rupert. Oliphant would have his little penguin at the bottom making some sort of political gag to the main figure being caricatured. It’s in there in Gillray and Hogarth.”
I think political cartoons often credit the audience with a lot more intelligence than much of the reporting that surrounds them.
“I think they should get the overall drift, so if the majority can’t understand what it’s about that’s a problem. It is a very, very sophisticated medium. I think we as a nation are one of the most visually literate on Earth but we don’t talk about it because we’re British. If you look at a tabloid newspaper you need to have a massive visual vocabulary just to work out what the hell’s going on. Look at American newspapers, they’re incredibly staid and old-fashioned. British newspapers are wonderful, it’s all over the place. Workers on building sites reading The Sun will work out this incredibly complicated barrage of visual information.”
Do you think that’s maybe part of the heritage of the strong comics culture, where people have grown up reading a lot of comics and cartoons? Do you think that might tail off in a few years?
“Yes. I think it’s the wonderful British hypocrisy. One of the reasons I did Gulliver’s Travels is because of my love/hate relationship with the 18th century. It’s this weird time that’s ‘the beginning of us’, predicated on the Lockeian dispensation, this wonderful new age of reason, the Enlightenment is blooming … but the thing about Locke – ‘he gave us empiricism, he gave us liberal democracy, he gave us the Glorious Revolution‘ – is that he had a massive suspicion of the visual and the humorous. He didn’t trust them; he couldn’t pin them down.”
You can’t quantify or measure a joke.
“And how do we understand the Age of Reason? Through Gulliver’s Travels. Which is not reasonable. Through Gin Lane and through A Rake’s Progress, which ends up in madness. Through all these visual interrogations of reality which twist it again to make it funny. Darkly humorous, but it is funny.”
We always think of George IV as Prince Regent as Gillray’s idle, fat version, that’s the way we all know him.
“Exactly. How do we know Charles James Fox? We know him through Gillray.
[I nod and smile. I’m drawing a blank, but I don’t want to look like an idiot.]
“How do we know Pitt the Younger? We know him through Gillray.
[Safer ground. Phew.]
“There was a great book written a few years ago by Nicholas Robinson [Edmund Burke: a Life in Caricature] about cartoonists’ treatment of Burke. It starts off with a portrait of Burke and then the way Gillray and other cartoonists dealt with him. He’s always wearing his Jesuit biretta, his glasses and he ends up looking nothing like his portrait.”
But there’s still the essence there.
“Yes, but anyone who knows who Burke is, apart from obsessive Tories, will probably only know him through the caricature.”
I move on to something he mentioned when he was signing my copy of Tristram Shandy, which is the 1996 Macmillan edition that came with an erratum plate. I’d always presumed it was a very clever metatextual joke, but apparently not. The printers printed four of the pages in the wrong order and because the publishers weren’t too happy with having to deal with the book in the first place (he mentioned earlier that they described it as a “folly”), he didn’t want to risk kicking up a fuss because they might all have been pulped and not reprinted at all.
“I said: ‘This is the only book in the history of publishing where you can make a virtue out of this, let’s put in an erratum slip.’ It looks like a deliberate joke. What makes it an even better joke is that it wasn’t!”
I tell him I’ve owned the book for 17 years and only today did I find this out. He seems pleased. We move on to The Waste Land. As it’s so dense with allusions to TS Eliot, I can’t believe it would be possible to read it at all without knowing what’s going on.
“People have told me that you can, if you screw your eyes up and just read the talk bubbles, it reads as a narrative. It’s a guy who’s been told by a dame to go and look for something, meets another dame, gets slugged on the head, ends up somewhere else, other people slug him on the head, he finds this thing, the dame comes back, the dame gets arrested, The End.
“The template for it absolutely was The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but particularly The Big Sleep because I must have seen The Big Sleep — one of my father’s favourite films and one of mine for as long as I can remember — 40 or 50 times and I still can’t tell you how it ends. I don’t view it as a sequential narrative; I view it as a series of vignettes. I think of scenes.”
Which suits The Waste Land perfectly
“Yes. It was my third book after Lower Than Vermin: An Anatomy of Thatcher’s Britain. I said to my agent, ‘I’ve done politics, I’d really like to take a kick at this ghastly poem.’ He said, ‘go away and think about it,’ and I thought about a colouring book – ‘colour this rock red, colour Mr Eliot’s mood black’ – and then sitting on the toilet one morning I connected ‘Phlebas the Phoenician a fortnight dead’ with that scene in The Big Sleep where they’re dredging the Packard out of the bay with the Sternwood’s butler at the wheel.
“Then I remembered that story about how Bogart said to Howard Hawks ‘what the hell has this got to do with the rest of the plot?’ and Hawks turned to the scriptwriters and asked the same and they rang Chandler … and he said he’d forgotten.”
Which is perfect because if anyone asked Eliot what it was about he’d be like, “Well, y’know… ”
I have since recalled the story that someone once asked Eliot of the marginally less impenetrable Ash Wednesday: “What do you mean by the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’?” He replied: “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.””
“Then I reread The Long Goodbye and found two wonderful quotes which feature TS Eliot… and Chandler and Eliot were born in the same year and never photographed together … and it just suddenly made complete coherent sense that it was a Chandleresque film noir.”
I recall my joy at having happened across his version of The Waste Land just after my A-levels and seeing how his notes, echoing Eliot’s, utterly destroyed the arguments I’d spent so long justifying. Particularly the note about rockhopper penguins in relation to The Rape of Philomela. I won’t spoil it, go and buy it. “Read ‘burnt tuber’ throughout” is also a favourite.
“I loved doing those notes because originally in the American edition they said ‘this is so difficult, perhaps you should provide notes because of all the visual references’ and I said ‘no, let’s do it all for laughs’. I had enormous fun. It was pulped after 18 months but through word of mouth it became this samizdat and was used as a teaching aid. I get letters from American professors asking ‘can you provide me with a new copy because my photocopy is falling to pieces’. So what started out as just taking the piss has become a reference book and treated as an homage. It was intended to say ‘NEVER read this poem again!’ It’s truly weird.”
I’m afraid I can’t give you a flavour of any of this in pictures as all three copies I’ve bought in the past have either been stolen or permanently borrowed.
Finally, his Silly Season strip is coming to an end (I told you to read it, have you not done your homework?). I got the Summer Holiday gags early, but I’d completely missed the reason the wok keeps chirping “I’m free” is that it’s a “workfare wok” – an example of how much you have to work at his strips, even the silly ones. What’s the story behind it? Are readers getting it? At this point he becomes very happy and proud.
“People are loving it – ‘Goo! I’m free!’ – they said to me ‘Doonesbury and Bell are away, let’s just do this’ and I thought: ‘What can I do? I’ve got five weeks so it’s completely self-contained.’ And I woke up one morning and I had the whole thing. It does end on an extraordinarily bad pun. I had a lot of fun, it’s just stupid. People are reading things into it which aren’t there, it’s really nice. That’s one of the things I like.”
He then describes a single panel from his The Waste Land pastiching Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858,’ by William Dyce that crams in several other allusions.
“It was being deliberately obscure. It’s like Masquerade: if you get it, you get it … Someone reviewed the book saying: ‘It’s like a literary Where’s Wally. There is one frame that contains references to seven different artworks and cultural artefacts.’ I looked at this very nice review and thought: ‘I can only get six!‘”
You had to play Where’s Wally with your own book?
“I wrote to him and said: ‘What’s the seventh?’ he never replied. Wonderful.”