Straight after Ilya and Oscar Zarate’s event at Stoke Newington Literary Festival last month came cartoonists Steven Appleby and Martin Rowson. I’ve had a previous encounter with Rowson but despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed Steven Appleby’s work since first encountering it in the mid-1980s in the NME, I knew very little about him*.
His work usually has a slightly surreal edge, turning mundane or domestic situations into something familiar yet at one remove from reality, such as the ‘Husband Flap’. And instantly we run into the biggest problem with reporting on this event: most of it revolved around both cartoonists talking about their work projected behind them. It really was one of those “you had to be there” events, and if you do get the chance to see them, you really should.
Appleby ran through some of his “obsessions” as, he said, “my kind of cartooning comes out of my subconscious, unconscious… whatever”. First up was “the whole trans thing” (including ‘A Man Dressed as a Woman Dressed as a Man’.
“In nearly every book there’s something in there somewhere, such as the ‘Transvestite Family’ from Miserable Families, which was an interesting book as it sold really badly, so they tried to rename it as Happy Families and it sold a bit better.
Another related obsession is “things that are not what they appear to be”, as is nudity: “I’m not actually a nudist but nudity crops up loads in my cartoons. [‘Nude Man Lying Face Down on a Saab’ -you really don’t want to Google that, by the way] is one of those ideas that just popped into my head completely out of the blue when I was walking down the street to buy some milk.”
Another obsession is sex, which prompted this digression: “Normal Sex was the first book I did. Bloomsbury published about 20 books over a long period. the most ridiculous thing is that the reason all my books are published by Bloomsbury came about because I happened to be standing next to Liz Calder who was one of the founders, a senior editor. I’d delivered a drawing to Richard Ingrams at The Oldie, who said, ‘It’s my birthday, if you wait half an hour we’ll have a few drinks in the office.’ So I stayed, had a glass of wine and was standing next to Liz Calder and Richard Ingrams said, ‘Liz, you really should publish Steven.’ She looked at me over her glasses and said, ‘Should I?’ And I said, ‘That would be very nice.’
“It’s that thing of standing in the right place at the right time.”
Thoughts and how they occur, how creativity works, ‘pointless stuff’, and death were quickly jogged through with plenty of cartoons before he noted being a big fan of Ronald Searle. “I like it if a cartoon hasn’t really got a punchline, but resonates in some way, it feels inconclusive and, hopefully, it can be looked at more than once and thought about.
“I think that a lot of my work still comes from being a kid, kid’s stuff. A lot of my work comes from messing about. If I sit and try to work it’s not so good; it’s much better if I can play around or mess about.”
He described how Captain Star for the NME was originally conceived as a single panel of the captain doing something mundane juxtaposed with a cliffhanger SF line. They didn’t like it, but at an exhibition of them David Quantick suggested putting them together into a strip, so he did, fairly randomly with “no punchline, no narrative, no story”. Which is exactly why they caught my eye at the time.
This led into working with Pixies, doing art for Trompe Le Monde, and eventually his latest project, illustrating Frank Black and Josh Frank’s book The Good Inn. (There’s quite a nice picture of Appleby and Black over here.) Again, without access to the illustrations the examples he gave are hard to describe, but what was striking was the variety of styles used, that aren’t often seen in his cartoons.
Then it was Martin Rowson’s turn. After, he said “the comforting realm of Steven’s id, we’re into the horrific realm of the Coalition government”. This is because his collection The Coalition is out in September from Self-Made Hero.
As promised the chat contained “disturbing imagery and extraordinarily strong language”. The very first section dealt with the difficulty of capturing Nick Clegg, “a man with a face like a balloon full of sick”. After a while trying to get him right, a Damascene moment came during the general election debates: “He was a weird combination of Private Pike from Dad’s Army and Pinocchio… a little wooden boy who wants to be a real politician.”
Just in case anyone hadn’t seen his work before, he clarified: “This is without question the most loathsome, odious, repulsive government I’ve seen in my lifetime. I’m 55 years old and I’ve seen some shockers. They’re callous, they’re incompetent, they’re cruel, they’re complacent, they don’t know what they’re doing. I would be happy if they were led off to a dungeon in The Hague and have their heads bolted to the dungeon floor for the rest of their misbegotten lives…
“However, I absolutely love drawing them. It’s Stockholm Syndrome in reverse: we’ve fallen in love with our victims.”
Apparently when John Major was kicked out, Steve Bell said to Rowson: “I’ve lost my reason for living.”
An exuberant run-through of the Cabinet and a disintegrating Clegg culminated in Chris Grayling, now Justice Minister, who is “without question one of the most truly unworthy people to hold public office in this country for the last 300 years”.
It’s hard to do justice to just how gleeful, funny and passionate Rowson is. The incredulity in his description of how Nick Robinson wrote to him complaining his cartoon was unfair, and his retort about Robinson (I don’t think we can reproduce it, but it involves tongues, bodily orifices and Nigel Farage), betrays a righteous anger that he pours into the cartoons.
Farage himself then makes an appearance in the cartoons, and he notes that “Ukip were so excited about being in the news that they buy every single cartoon about them. Last year they bought so many cartoons from me that they paid for me and my wife to go to Romania on holiday. I emailed them to say ‘can I bring back 8,500 Romanians just to say thank you?'”
There followed a brief diversion into dead Steve Jobs, a dead pope, Richard Dawkins and Wonga the loan shark before one of the best cartoons of the past decade, which The Guardian refused to publish, of Tony Blair’s resignation. Go and look at it. It’s an object lesson in how to torture puns.
They then addressed the question Rowson had asked at the start: “How it is we both call ourselves cartoonists when we do things that are wholly different and incompatible.”
MR: “I think it’s really interesting that we both work in the same medium where I’m dealing with the world and there’s nothing of me in this, where you are dealing entirely with yourself.”
SA: “It is interesting, I’m dealing with the world, but completely through me. I was reading Martin’s autobiography to see whether, as a lot of my stuff comes from childhood, there was something in there.”
MR: “The reason why I’m a cartoonist is because when I was about ten I got hold of my sister’s history textbook, which was illustrated throughout with cartoons by Gillray, Hogarth, Cruickshank and on to Tenniel, and I thought these were the most wonderful things I’d ever seen in my life, and I remember going to my father’s old desk and getting out some steel nibs and trying to draw like Gillray had etched, but where the politics came from I don’t know.
“I’ve always had this idea that politics is inherently funny, whereas you think, quite rightly, that neurosis is inherently funny.”
SA: “I guess I’m political in a broader sense in that I’ll think about how I think the country is unfair, very unfair and getting more unfair. Global businesses where every bookshop becomes Amazon. I think that’s pretty wrong but I don’t think in a way that I can make a comment on that, so I just do my personal thing.
“I’m not being very articulate. Maybe doing the drawing, that’s where it comes from.”
MR: “So when did you start drawing?”
SA: “My grandfather got Punch and I used to cut out cartoons I liked. I don’t quite remember wanting to be a cartoonist as such, but I loved St Trinian’s. I worked out eventually that cartoonists had their own world, like Charles Addams, and I really liked the idea of inventing your own world, or reinventing his world in a cosy way, without the horror.”
MR: “I always thought that my job would be a cartoonist. The purpose of satire is to make people laugh because laughter is a great redemption, but even seeing a stupid drawing of someone who thinks they have your destiny in their hands is sort of revolution, it evens up the score. So me doing a stupid drawing of George Osborne is a political act. In caricatures…
SA: “I can’t do those.”
MR: “I was drawing Alastair Campbell in 2002 and he spent the entire session over his lunch glowering, hating every single second of what I was doing. I realised what I was doing was a kind of shamanism or voodoo because I was filtering the way he was feeling to the rest of the world, through my consciousness but shapeshifting him and taking control. That’s what this is: doing a stupid drawing of Tony Blair, I’m taking control of him. It’s simple and basic, where what you’re doing , I think, is you’re taking control of what’s going on in there [your head].
SA: “Maybe. or maybe not taking that much control. I like that I can be fairly instinctive and then shape it by conscious thought afterwards. I remember yaesr ago when I was doing Captain Star and it was being run in Die Zeit in Germany. They sent a photographer and most of what he did was go to war zones. So he’d come back from the former Yugoslavia, and the next job he had was to photograph me.
“He said, ‘Your work’s nice but there’s nothing about reality, it’s sort of your own little world. You should go to Bosnia, spend a week there and do some drawings.’
“I thought that was really interesting but I didn’t do it, because it was so scary. The things he told me, bodies impaled on spikes and so on, I thought, ‘I don’t want to see that because that would probably damage my work.'”
MR: “It’s interesting you should mention Ronald Searle, as all cartoonists sit at the feet of Ronald Searle. Searle was a Japanese prisoner of war and suffered hideous deprivation, things we cannot begin to imagine, but he recorded all that as a witness to the atrocities, and he hid the pictures underneath the beds of people dying of cholera or typhus so the Japanese guards wouldn’t go there. A lot of these images of people working on the Burma railway, or of people beheaded by guards are exactly the same composition, the same drawing as he created in St Trinian’s drawings. But they were cartooned-up so you’d have the St Trinian’s girls chopping people’s heads off.
“Just like Spike Milligan saw things in the Second World War which drove him mad but went off to produce The Goon Show, there is something about the idea of cartoons, which may become funny in some way, that there is something redemptive in the art.”
SA: “I never set out to be funny, initially. I wanted to say something about life and the world and I ended up being a cartoonist kind of by accident. It turned out that it was the perfect place, in a newspaper or wherever, that it was completely yours, and you can have your own thought that day.”
In the Q&A session I asked whether Nigel Farage, who looks to me like a Ronald Searle cartoon come to life, is likely to be glad of the fact so that no-one can really do anything worse to him.
Rowson said: “The thing about Farage is he’s like Boris Johnson, he is self-consciously a cartoon. The BBC have gone overboard on Farage because he’s funny. One of the reasons I had to turn Clegg into Pinocchio is because he had no heft.
“We live in such a debauched polity that they have branded themselves to a point where they think they will be digestible. So you’ve got to create a new reality for them, but Farage comes ready packaged, which makes it easier for lazy journalists. I turned him into a snake. Charlie Brooker described him as ‘harrumphing around like an overexcited Aquaphibian in a dodgem car’.”
Appleby was then asked how he ‘morphed’ into a cartoonist.
“I think I always wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write stories, so when I was at college I always had titles for drawings which were captions underneath them, and then thought somebody would gave me the opportunity to do that. I thought maybe I’d be an illustrator, so I lucked into it when I got illustration jobs for City Limits and the NME and I used to write stuff in the drawings to make them say things. Then I got a regular slot and eventually someone put me in The Guardian.”
After a brief discussion of works that never saw the light of day, including Alice in Wonderland (Rowson) and an illustrated Bible (Appleby) the event wrapped up as (as was so often the case over the weekend) it had overrun.
A very enjoyable and funny hour, and if you want to catch something similar, Rowson’s one-off Fringe show next month.
*I’ve worried a little about settling on how to refer to Steven, who clearly identifies as a woman, so I’d normally respect that and say “she”. However, everyone else seemed to be comfortably using “he” so — until someone can correct me about what Steven prefers (please do) — so have I.