Comic Commentators

Robert Phiddian and Haydon Manning (eds)
Network Books
ISBN 9781920845483, $34.95

In recent times, academics have been turning to the subject of Australian editorial cartoons for research, thesis subjects, or published projects. Two academics, Robert Phiddian and Haydon Manning, have compiled fourteen essays of contemporary cartooning in Australia, five of which are written by practicing artists.



After a fine summary of the book’s contents, the first essay, by Geoff Pryor, is a thoughtful piece of writing on his views, attitude, and experience as a graphics political commentator.

Cartoonist Ward O’Neill, recipient of three Walkley Awards, documents the influences of cartoonists on both the Sydney and Melbourne Fairfax press especially the work of Les Tanner, John Spooner and Bruce Petty. O’Neill is concerned for the future of the printed newspaper ‘struggling to adapt to the challenge of the internet and its colonisation of newspapers’ traditional source of revenue – display and classified advertising’. The effect has been to reduce staff and to pursue cost reductions in production.

The aches and pains of the freelance cartoonist are aired by Fiona Katauskas who questions why there are so few female political cartoonists despite insisting ‘it is not a matter of sexism’. Kataukas concludes that because there are few staff positions nationwide it is no wonder cartoonists stay in their jobs for decades and freelancers wait around. There is simply no room for anybody new.


Ian Mathews, one time editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times, discusses the recent fury over the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. He argues that both the initial publication and ‘their reprinting in the name of free speech ring as hollow as does the subsequent call in Iran to publish anti-holocaust cartoons. Gratuitous insults are not free speech. They are simply provocation’. Mathews discusses his understanding of the cartoonists he employed. He concludes, ‘There is no substitute for that direct, immediate and often explosive reader reaction to the well crafted and opposite cartoon. Publishing them is a joy’.

Cartoonist Alan Moir discusses censorship with examples of attempts to muzzle him. Moir cites how David Low had secured a ‘complete freedom’ clause in his contract with the London Evening Standard, although several of his cartoons did not make it to the second edition. Low grew to sense what the owner Lord Beaverbrook may not approve of.


Elizabeth Handsby and Robert Phiddian discuss the ramifications of defamation, litigation, slander and the arbitration of company lawyers for cartoons to be deemed ‘over the top’.

‘The Power of Cartoons’ is a brief essay on whether cartoons influence people’s opinions. Michael Hogan, author and lecturer in Australian politics states, ‘when it comes to cartoons, I suspect that, rather than any question of cause and effect, what we see most often is the striking of sympathetic chords; I enjoy this cartoon very much because it resonates with my own point of view, or I don’t like other one because it cuts across some of my deeply held beliefs.’

Marian Sawer, who leads the Democratic Audit of Australia at ANU outlines the hostile depiction of women by male, professional cartoonists initially at the time of what is often the ‘first wave’ of the women’s movement in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. She cites the hostile themes developed by London Punch cartoonists, and by the Australian Bulletin Livingston (no E please) Hopkins and, more recently, by Patrick Cook, Ron Tandberg and Bruce Petty.

It is worth recalling the 1890s period with the Chinese, Aborigines, anti-Semitism and women as the ‘butt of the joke’ was not the Golden Age of Australian cartooning, rather, the 1890s period was the Genesis – the Golden Age developed a decade of two later.

One can only wonder at what the strength of the fury would be if cartoonists totally ignored women, particularly those in politics. If women, rightly, are to have equality, then they can expect to share with men the slings and arrow that are part and parcel of politics.

Hayden Manning examines the interpretations of cartoonists during Australian Federal elections from 1983 to 2004. Manning collected political cartoons from the principle broadsheets, the Australian, Age and Sydney Morning Herald and regional newspapers. Manning argues that his choice of cartoons demonstrates ‘one of the great and persistent luxuries of Australian democracy’.

Guy Hansen, the Senior Curator of the Collections Development Unit at the National Museum of Australia is a specialist in mounting cartoon exhibitions. He views the cartoon in the gallery as fundamentally different from one in a newspaper. A gallery elevates the cartoon to the status of art demanding closer attention. Hansen thinks it is important to remember that cartoons are not produced as art objects. Cartoons have been distinguished by Daumier, Gulbransson, Steinlen, Forain, Grosz and Will Dyson. Hansen’s contribution is concerned with contemporary Australian cartoonists. He describes the ‘pocket cartoon’, the ‘editorial’, the ‘portrait caricature’ and the ‘illustration’.

The longest essay is an appraisal of cartoonist, film animator, multi award winner, Bruce Petty and his early work during the 1960s and the early 1970s. Robert Phiddian has selected twenty-one of the artist’s cartoons accompanying his text.

Lindsay Foyle has produced a history of the comings and goings of the cartoonists who worked as temporary, short fill in, or staff members of the Australian newspaper, the owners and various editors, and, in the latter case their personal likes and dislikes of cartoonists.


The last essayist, Mark Thomas, compares the cartoons, both newspaper and in the published books of Bruce Petty, to those of Patrick Cook. ‘If each’ he writes ‘could be summed up in one word alone, than “humanist” might be the noun of choice for Petty, whilst “ironist” might better suit Cook’. Curiously, no graphic examples accompany the text.

This book offers for the first time a published contribution to the understanding of the conception and the production of the editorial cartoon.

(Images all taken from Comic Commentators: ‘Howard’s newly forged allies’, Mark Knight, Herald Sun, 7 October 2004; ‘Child prodigy’, Fiona Katauskas, , ‘Round Peg’, Rod Clement, Australian Financial Review, 2004; ‘Girls can do anything boys can do …’. Jenny Coopes, Sun-Herald, 4 September 1994.)

Vane Lindesay

Vane Lindesay is a Melbourne artist, writer and designer involved with Overland since its early days.

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