After decades spent researching and writing about New Zealand cartoons, Ian F Grant has come to a few conclusions. One, not surprisingly, is that the best cartoons have a real bite. Grant says Sir Gordon Minhinnick’s most creative period, in 50 years as cartoonist for the New Zealand Herald, was when the first Labour Government was in power between 1935 and 1949. Minhinnick was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. “He loathed Labour,” Grant recalls. As a result, his cartoons during those years were often imbued with real venom.
Another conclusion, perhaps equally unsurprising, is that larger-than-life politicians bring out the best in cartoonists. The examples Grant gives are Richard Seddon in the late 19th century and Sir Robert Muldoon in the 1970s and 80s – both formidable, polarising figures, and both tailor-made for caricaturing. Seddon was a favourite subject of the prolific cartoonist William “Blo” Blomfield, editor of the Auckland-based Observer and a stylist whose work, according to Grant, had a looseness of line and a vitality that links him directly to today’s leading cartoonists.
Seventy years later, Muldoon’s menacing mien and combative personality inspired some of the best work of cartoonists such as Peter Bromhead, Tom Scott – then with the Listener – and Bob Brockie. Grant admits he feels sorry for today’s cartoonists. Centrist policies and nice-guy party leaders don’t inspire the cutting-edge satire that flourished under Muldoon a generation ago.
The Masterton author, historian and publisher (he calls himself Ian F Grant to distinguish himself from the other Ian Grant, who writes books about parenting) knows what he’s talking about, having written the definitive book on New Zealand cartooning – The Unauthorised Version – and founded the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
Grant never set out to become an authority on cartoons. It was the result of a conversation in Eketahuna, of all places, at the launch – which Grant helped organise – of Gordon McLauchlan’s landmark 1976 book, The Passionless People. McLauchlan’s publisher, Cassell, had produced a book of Australian cartoons and proposed that McLauchlan put together a similar book here. But the Auckland writer demurred, suggesting instead that Grant do it.
It seemed to make sense. Grant had studied history and politics, edited student publications at Victoria University and worked as creative director for a major advertising agency. He had a long-standing interest in newspapers and as a founding director of the company that published the National Business Review had, with Reg Birchfield, hired an acquaintance, Bob Brockie, as the paper’s cartoonist. (Brockie had a subversive, left-wing style that Grant thought would get under the skin of NBR’s readers, which it did. Nearly four decades later, Brockie is still with the paper.)
A MAMMOTH UNDERTAKING
What Grant didn’t realise when he took on the cartoon assignment was that it was virgin territory. Despite New Zealand’s rich cartooning heritage, no one had ever thought to archive any material. “All the Alexander Turnbull Library had was a small assortment of cartoons collected haphazardly, most of them donations to the library.”
What followed was a mammoth undertaking. Grant would haul bound volumes of old newspapers up a spiral staircase from the basement of the Parliamentary Library, then hold them open with one hand while microfilming cartoons with the other. Over time he acquired “hundreds and hundreds” of images that he fleshed out by researching the cartoonists and the characters and events they depicted.
Promoted as the Book of the Month, The Unauthorised Version was published in 1980 and sold over 20,000 copies. It was, in a sense, an alternative history of New Zealand, illuminating issues and public figures through a lens previously overlooked by scholars. One of the factors that motivates Grant is his belief that cartoons are a neglected historical resource, reflecting popular attitudes and public opinion in a way not captured by official documents or records.
The inspiration for the Cartoon Archive coincided with the publication of a revised edition of his book in 1987. “By this time I had come to the conclusion, not entirely unaffected by the boxes of cartoons under every bed in our house, that New Zealand should have a cartoon archive and that the work of our cartoonists, past and present, deserved to be archived and cherished.”
Grant found ready support from then Internal Affairs Minister Michael Bassett – “being a historian, the idea immediately appealed to him” – and Jim Traue, chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Eventually launched by the then-Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, in 1992, the archive – based in the Turnbull – now holds 50,000 cartoons dating back to the 1860s.
As well as providing a valuable resource for researchers, the archive publishes books, stages exhibitions and organises lecture tours. Although it has been wholly controlled by the Turnbull since 2005, Grant chairs a “guardians” group that promotes the archive’s exhibitions and publishing activity. “If you become the expert on anything in this country, it becomes hard to get away from it,” he says with an air of resignation.
Grant identifies three golden eras of New Zealand cartooning, all involving dominant political figures or periods of intense political activity. The first covered Seddon’s Liberal Party Government of the 1890s, whose social reforms led the world. The second coincided with the first Labour Government – another period of momentous change – and the third encompassed the turbulent Muldoon era. Grant notes that cartoons sometimes revealed a darker side of the national psyche. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they reflected widely held racist attitudes toward minorities such as Chinese and Jews.
Ironically, the work of some of New Zealand’s most celebrated cartoonists has rarely been seen here because they made their names overseas. Dunedin-born Sir David Low was one of the most fêted cartoonists of the 20th century. Although his political inclinations were strongly to the left, he was hired by conservative press baron Max Aitken – later Lord Beaverbrook – to rattle the cages of London Evening Standard readers. His mordant depictions of Adolf Hitler so enraged the Nazi dictator that Low was included in the infamous Black Book compiled by the SS, listing the people to be immediately arrested if the German invasion of Britain succeeded.
Later came former Minhinnick protégé Les Gibbard, political cartoonist at the Guardian for 25 years, and Neville Colvin, formerly of Wellington’s Evening Post, who drew nearly 2000 Modesty Blaise comic strips as well as creating cartoons for several London dailies. At one point there were four New Zealand cartoonists working in Fleet Street.
Closer to home, New Zealander Alan Moir has been editorial cartoonist for the Sydney Morning Herald since 1984 and has been named Australia’s cartoonist of the year six times. But Grant worries the flow of emerging talent has slowed. Part of the reason is that cartoonists tend to stay in the job for decades, meaning there are few openings for newcomers. Other factors include the general decline in newspapers and the digital revolution, which has steered talented young drawers toward graphic novels rather than traditional cartoons.
Yet, as he points out, cartoons remain a defining point of difference for newspapers and magazines – a view shared by Listener editor Pamela Stirling. It was as a result of a conversation between Grant and Stirling at this year’s Canon Media Awards, where Grant was honoured with an outstanding achievement award, that the Cartoon Archive has launched its latest initiative: in collaboration with the Listener, it’s sponsoring a competition for emerging cartoonists that will run from January to March.
It’s all about creating what might be called, in business parlance, a succession plan. Most leading cartoonists are now in their sixties or seventies. In 2001, when the archive organised a cartoonists’ convention, Grant recalls they were showing their age, even if they hadn’t lost their fire. The time has come, then, for the next generation of Blomfields, Lows, Minhinnicks and Scotts to step forward.