PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT
What does being a cartoonist mean?
Cartoonists have a wacky place in the general scheme of things. We’re part interpreters and we’re part directors. We takes threads and snippets and debates from everywhere, absorbing the general discourse like a sponge and then reimagining it and reinterpreting it in funny and new ways.
You have a growing stack of cartoon anthologies. What is involved in the process of transforming a bunch of cartoons into a book?
A lot more than people would realise. For every cartoon that I do we have newspaper articles cut out (because I get a lot of actual newspapers, as well as scouring the net) that relate to the subject. If it’s a cartoon that pulls more than one issue together then there’s two or even sometimes three related sets of information. This is kept on file because you can forget some of the specifics that made something work really well at the time, and when you’re putting any kind of compendium together you need a few of those phrases or pieces of information that are not exactly what’s in the cartoon but set the scene for exactly why the cartoon works well in context. I write the captions, editing them down and down.
Over the years I’ve increasingly been changing the chronology slightly of the cartoons so that I tell the story as well as possible.
When you pick up the 18 annuals that I’ve done it feels like you can actually can get not only some entertainment but also an idiosyncratic history of events over the last 20 years.
You’ve just released Democrazy, a book of cartoons commemorating South Africa’s 20-year democratic journey. Why is it important for your cartoons to be in book form?
My very first influence — when I was three or four years old — was Giles [the UK cartoonist]. The earliest ones my parents had were from the ’50s. We used to get them at Christmastime every year — and I loved them. Even before I understood the issues, I loved getting a sense of something happening day by day or week by week, and I particularly loved the covers. I started thinking about becoming a cartoonist when I was eight or nine. By that stage I was hugely interested and influenced by Tintin, and also Peanuts. At 10, I started picking up the David Marais cartoons from the Cape Times and also his books, which I still have. So, all of that influenced me hugely — and I thought that one day if I do become a cartoonist it would be incredible to produce books.
I do believe that cartoons have a second life in other forms — especially now with the internet — and then they have a third life in books: they become a historical thing. In 2008 I produced, The Mandela Files, my first big anthology with a lot of text; I wrote 100,000 words. I started seeing how nice it was to work in a thematic way, and not just chronologically.
Describe your workspace.
If I wanted to hide my untidiness, I would have had to mess up my genuine way of working in the middle of doing a cartoon. Luckily, I’ve just redone the whole book and bench storage system [stools with shelving on wheels]. I’m in the process of re-designing my equipment storage so that it will become a neater affair. I’m a pretty wild, untidy worker for someone who produces pristine artwork.
The old arc lamp is from my father. He was helluva supportive of me becoming a cartoonist, even when I chucked in years of studying architecture to try and change to cartooning.
My ancient drawing mechanism was custom built into a light box. It’s a fantastic piece of equipment with funny levers — they look like truck gears — that make it go up and down. It’s much easier working at an angle than working flat.
I’ve got other strange old pieces of equipment, like an electric eraser which can take off India ink from Bristol board.
My photo-stat machine is a huge tool: I draw little drawings and if I like them, I slightly reduce things, stick them on again, blow them up, put them on my light box and start working with images that are starting to work.
What’s your most productive time of day?
There’s productive and there’s productive. There’s the ideas part and I think if I do get my head screwed on and get all my juices flowing and things outrage me — which is a good driving force for a cartoonist — then the morning’s good for that. But then I’m often busy refining and getting references and so on, so I actually do end up drawing furiously in the afternoon. A brilliant day for me is when I get both processes going in the first part of the day, but that’s unusual.
What do you do when you’re stuck or not feeling creative?
I don’t have any magic answers. For me the best thing to do then is to rely on left-brain, methodical programatic ways of doing things, and hope that the right-brain creative explosion will kick in when I least expect it. I will write down subjects, words, link them, and do mind maps. I’ll try and unblock myself by at least doing a journeyman effort which will be passable and then quite often when I get up to do something else — sometimes it is the shower, or if I go to the gym — I get that extra spark that changes things.
What’s the thing you dislike the most?
I think overall what drives a cartoonist is moral outrage, and what we dislike and try and expose the most is hypocrisy.
You became cartoonist for the Mail & Guardian in 1994, the Sunday Times in 1998 and The Times in 2009. What is your proudest achievement?
Something I set out quite deliberately to do was to communicate to South Africans of all sorts of backgrounds and outlooks. I wanted to speak to people across all those demographics and look for things that would work – and look for ways of speaking. That search for those mechanisms and sometimes the successful resolution of that has been the most rewarding thing for me.
What are you afraid of?