Editorial cartoons do not seem fair. On any day, a metropolitan newspaper’s columns and homepages are carefully negotiated leaderboards for those whose business is attention. A footballer’s girlfriend who has launched a fashion label jostles for space with a politician desperate to sell a policy, an advocate for law reform, or a gangster hooked on fame.
Countless phone calls are made from spin doctors to journalists before and after publication to debate wording, placement and pictures. Photographs do not lie, but their prominence and timing can mislead. Headlines are not everything, but a bad one can make or break someone’s image, if only for a day. The battle spills to opinion pages and talkback radio, and continues for days as something resembling fairness and balance is thrashed out.
Then there is the cartoon, which breaks every rule that came before it. A premier or minister might spend months preparing a policy and hours negotiating an exclusive story, only to be drawn as a clown, or a devil, or a fat oaf. While other journalists are bound by their code of conduct to come as close to fairness as possible, the cartoonist goes as far as possible in the other direction.
How strange, that for so long this unfair, unflattering, inky and witty ritual has been sacred. It is far from an irrelevant rant from a news-junkie artist with a bent sense of humour, although that description is a safe haven for egos bruised by the cartoonist’s pen. Through the cartoonist, the reader breaks loose from the rigidity of news and finds vicarious freedom. The cartoonist’s freedom is their freedom; the freedom to find one’s own viewpoint and to express it, even if it might cause offence.
No cartoonist has been more comfortable or effective in such a mindset as John Spooner. For more than 40 years at The Age he was the sort of cartoonist with whom nobody was entirely comfortable. If he had been printed in The Australian, its audience would have called him a lefty who was sometimes okay. If he were in The Guardian he would have been a fascist who was sometimes okay, although there never would have been an admission he was okay.
At The Age he became the sort of internalised outsider every cartoonist strives to be. His book What The Hell Was He Thinking? John Spooner’s Guide To The 21st Century reprints a selection of cartoons, illustrations and caricatures from the latter part of his lengthy career and accompanies them with Spooner’s thoughts about how they came into being. A climate sceptic who laments the death of the local car industry, a proponent of Western freedom in the Middle East who decries the overreach of free trade and liberal economics, Spooner’s mixed-bag views were a unique presence.
Between the lines of this hilarious and meditative anthology is Spooner’s exit from cartooning, and the industry and societal changes that have made the profession more dangerous than ever.
A brief salute to the late cartoonist Bill Leak and an insistence cartooning should remain an editorial area cordoned off to reality, and a notion universal fairness points to something that should be at the forefront of the reader’s mind: freedom of speech and widespread acceptance of that freedom is something that might only be valued when it has gone.
As alluded to in the foreword by Gideon Haigh, Spooner’s exit also might have to do with the changing nature of The Age—from a serious paper to a “flimsy throwaway and clickbait corner”. But however one views the newspaper, Spooner was for so long a constantly inconsistent, stable instability that brought vibrance to otherwise dull issues. No issue was hotter than climate change. In a cartoon showing one side of warming proponent Tim Flannery’s dialogue with then PM Julia Gillard, Spooner’s masterful melding of text and draughtsmanship gives life to an alternative reality perhaps truer than the real thing. In another, a simple picture of a ship labelled ‘IPCC’ stuck in an ice sheet needed no further explanation.
In some, humour is in the foreground. In others, such as a banker toasting his retirement after a long career of “ruinous theory”, juxtaposed against a manufacturing worker sacked after a career of “actually making something”, laughter is permissible but not the primary reaction.
At various points in this unordered but captivating collection, the thoughts and circumstances behind individual cartoons are explained with a grace and patience not even possessed by most modern feature writers. A cartoon of Kevin Rudd slowly losing parts of his imported shirt, as a critique of runaway free trade, was prompted by a chance meeting between Rudd and Spooner in The Age’s office. Another—drawn after the death of Osama bin Laden and showing a group of lawyers running forth from a military helicopter to spread litigation on a foreign battle field—was made in direct response to a claim by Geoffrey Robertson QC that the slaying of the terrorist mastermind had been a perversion of justice.
While Spooner has never been backward in putting his views forward, those views are shown to have a flexibility that is often absent in his columnist colleagues. A particularly provocative cartoon shows a Muslim woman with bloody stumps for legs being shown a sign that reads, “The peace movement wishes to inform you that it is not terribly upset by your torture and abuse unless it’s caused by Americans”. Another shows George W Bush holding a dog leash in the manner of the infamous and immortalised images of Abu Ghraib prison. On the end of the leash is a languishing Statue of Liberty.
The development of Spooner’s ideas and views grew alongside the readers’, at least a reminder and at most imprimatur for the public to access and take part in contentious discussion. In such a way, his editorial cartoons remain a symbol of the reader’s final destination when the dry entrée of news has been read: the need to be equipped for opinion.
Whether on foreign or domestic matters, nobody was safe from criticism and it could strike without warning. The thoughts, attitudes and experiences that prompted those strikes are fleshed out with personal paintings, etchings, illustrations and caricatures that celebrate the talent and technical skill of an artist who switched from law to become a Melbourne household name.
This book is not, however, a successful summary or substitute for the vast body of work Spooner created and published. A collection of 21st century work, it summarises barely half the cartoons Spooner did for The Age. That 40-year-long degustation of cartoons, printed each on the day when their impact was greatest, could only be experienced once in real time and in a way that could never be replicated.
It was ingested by a grateful group of readers who now lament Spooner’s exit from print, the changing nature of newspapers and online distribution, and the venom of social media that seeks to establish only one type of vitriolic dissent at the expense of nuance and diversity. John Spooner’s best legacy is perhaps the residual scepticism and tenacity for freedom of expression he left with each of those readers, who will no longer be able to consume a news story, watch a press conference or international summit without imagining Spooner’s view. In the absence of Spooner from the daily news, What The Hell Was He Thinking? is the next best thing.
Mitchell Toy is a Melbourne artist, Sunday Herald Sun cartoonist and former Herald Sun journalist.
STOP PRESS In great news, new cartoons from John can be seen in the business section of The Australian, accompanying commentator John Durie’s column. Don’t miss them!