I may be alone in this, but I have looked at a Steve Bell cartoon most weekday mornings for over 20 years, and never once laughed, tittered or even smiled. Is it just me? George Bush looks like a monkey. Tony Blair has big eyes. John Major wears pants on the outside. Benjamin Netanyahu is a sinister puppet-master. What is funny about that?
Political cartoons are meant to distil grand events or personalities into a single memorable image. For example, at the end of the second world war, the Mirror’s Philip Zec offered us a wounded serviceman on a mound of rubble handing back a laurel of peace with the words ‘Here you are! Don’t lose it again.’ It appeared on the front page of the Mirror in the 1945 election campaign, and helped Labour win a landslide victory. It is possible that a future generation will look at Bell’s drawings of George Osborne in a gimp mask, or Martin Rowson’s endless depictions of turds, and consider them the apogee of political satire. But I doubt it.
The problem with most contemporary cartoonists is that they conflate the healthy debunking of powerful figures with pointless savagery. Satire has been replaced by frothing, scatological disfigurement. A caricaturist spots a notable physical feature belonging to a figure in the public eye, and exaggerates it to comic effect. Today’s cartoonists have all the comedy value of sulphuric acid thrown into someone’s face.
The Best of Britain’s Political Cartoons 2013 is a new collection of the national newspapers’ output: Chris Riddell in the Observer, Brighty in the Sun, Peter Brookes in the Times, Dave Brown in the Independent, Mac in the Daily Mail, and the rest. The dust-jacket blurb suggests the collection is ‘hilarious’. Let’s see. There is a picture of Ed Miliband with big teeth dressed as Superman. And some of him portrayed as a character from the Hobbit. There is Iain Duncan Smith as Nosferatu. There is David Cameron with a condom on his head. Here is Len McCluskey as a mafia godfather. There is a journalist with his head up his backside. I do not think 2013 is a vintage year for political cartoons.
The collection’s editor is Tim Benson, a genuine aficionado of the political cartoon. He runs a cartoon cafe in Eastbourne, of all places. When I was there, they were displaying a collection of Soviet cartoons from the postwar era. Each one was accompanied by detailed notes explaining the historical circumstance. It was an intelligent exhibition, incongruously placed a couple of doors down from some god-awful seaside special at the Royal Hippodrome. Benson has an expert knowledge of the political cartoon, stretching back to Gilray and Hogarth. Surely even he would struggle to view a crude picture of Michael Gove with an egg on his face under the banner ‘Twat’ as a standing in some great British satirical tradition? Even in its most grotesque forms – for example, Spitting Image – satire should embody political insight and wit. Few of the examples on offer here contain much of either.
Paul Richards is author of Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto
The Best of Britain’s Political Cartoons 2013
Tim Benson (Ed)
Scribe | 192pp | £12.99
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