It’s the truth behind the picture

2014-09-12 00:00

AS someone who makes his living poking fun at the follies and misfortunes of others, I have always shied away from the idea of producing a comic strip, mainly because I know how notoriously difficult they can be to sustain.

With a political cartoon, it is slightly different. Instead of having to keep conjuring up new humorous situations out of your imagination, I find myself in the more fortunate position where I don’t have to search too far afield for my ideas.

This is because the daily subject matter is usually dished up for me on a plate by the politicians themselves. All I have to then do is fill in the gaps.

In short, my job is made easier by the fact that my cartoons are immediately struck from the flow of events (put together, in chronological order, political cartoons can become a good way of learning history, but that is a subject for another column).

And while the comic-strip cartoonists usually have to invent their characters, the cast of players I have at my disposal come ready-packaged and are, sometimes unfortunately, all too real.

This is not to say that political cartooning does not have its own unique set of challenges.

It is undoubtedly true, for example, that it is sometimes difficult to send up politicians when they are doing it so much better themselves.

How do you parody someone who has already become a parody of himself or herself?

One only has to watch the wonderfully comic contortions our president gets himself into as he tries to explain away (or, rather, avoid having to explain) the Nkandla upgrades, or his role in the Guptagate saga, or why it is not in the public interest to release information which would supposedly clear his name, to get the point I am trying to make here.

Or witness Julius Malema and his merry band of malcontents taking on the Speaker of the House and turning our Legislature into the South African equivalent of The Mad (Red) Hatter’s Tea Party.

There are other difficulties the political cartoonist has to face.

Unlike the comic-strip cartoonist or gag cartoonist, a political cartoonist often has to deal with subjects that are in themselves not at all funny.

Usually, out of cowardice, I steer clear of these, but there are times when there is no way of escaping them.

An obvious recent example of this is the death of Nelson Mandela.

While I would happily consign some of the world’s worst despots and tyrants to the comic equivalent of the flames of hell, to attempt to satirise or make fun of the passing of such an icon would not only have been highly inappropriate and tasteless, it would have been incredibly mean-spirited as well.

With tragic events, like the Marikana massacre on the other hand, you can use the satirical approach not to make fun of the situation, but to highlight the unnecessary cruelty of such events, and how badly they have been handled.

The real purpose of these cartoons is to provoke thoughtful and passionate debate.

In other words, you select the kind of humour, satire and comment that best fits the situation.

It is not always easy to decide what the most appropriate way to go forward is, or where to draw the line.

It is, of course, possible to be both funny and serious at the same time.

Indeed, the most telling satire usually achieves its effect because the reader is laughing, not just at the humour of the cartoonist, but at the perceived truth behind the picture.

What the satirist does, in effect, is hold a mirror up to society, and then says to his or her audience: “Do you see something strange in all of this?”

If the answer is “yes”, it means you have succeeded in getting your message across.

Needless to say, there are no completely fixed rules in all of this.

Sometimes the best cartoons have nothing to say about the world at all, and can’t be bothered with devastating social or political comment.

Instead, they go for the quick, unexpected joke that makes you laugh and leaves you feeling just that much better about life.

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist.

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