Steve Bell gets the 25th anniversary off to a rip-roaring start

The Cartoon Archive’s 25th anniversary programme begins with a highly-charged presentation by highly-acclaimed and equally controversial British cartoonist Steve Bell. He will be addressing the topic Abusing Power in a Post-Truth World at the National Library at 5.30pm on Thursday 9 March 2017.

Cartoon by Steve Bell of John Major
Bell drew PM John Major “as a crap Superman”, wearing his underpants over his trousers – and it became an enduring image.
Cartoon by Steve Bell of post-Brexit UK government front bench
Bell’s post-Brexit UK government front bench with Theresa May and Boris Johnson on either side of a moribund Britain.

“Image is all-important in politics, and image making especially so,” says Steve Bell. “Politicians are supposed to create their own images, yet very often exploit negative and derogatory imagery in order to get noticed.”

Hitler, according to Bell, deliberately borrowed Charlie Chaplin’s moustache, Margaret Thatcher played up to the image of the ‘Iron Lady’ wearing ‘Churchill’s Trousers’ and Donald Trump, he says, is quite prepared to take dangerous medication in order to promote the luxuriant growth of his own hair.

“It seems like you couldn’t make this stuff up, but cartoonists grapple with this sort of thing each and every day,” Bell says. “Does visually ripping the piss out of those in power actually help them, or is it one of the very few effective ways of getting to the truth of what they are really about?”

As Steve Bell puts it: “Obviously, we’re not supposed to be here to help the bastards, but there is inevitably a degree of complicity in devoting so much attention to any politician’s appearance. Also there is nothing worse than synthetic outrage. How do you steer a course between political analysis, political engagement and having a laugh?”

It is hoped – even expected – that the audience will be enlightened and highly amused by Steve Bell’s talk and cartoon show on 9 March.

As seating is limited, those interested in attending should register as soon as possible.

Please RSVP to events@natlib.govt.nz with ‘Steve Bell’ in the subject line.

Cartooning in the tradition of Low and Gibbard

At an age when many people are giving up the daily grind, Steve Bell is producing editorial cartoons and strips that amuse, stimulate and antagonise vast numbers of Guardian readers in Britain and around the world.

Long-established as one of Britain’s leading cartoonists, Bell – born in London in 1951 – is visiting New Zealand for the first time in March.

The work of several artists, most particularly Ronald Searle, inspired him to study art at Teeside College of Art in Middlesbrough and then art and film at Leeds University. An unhappy period teaching art followed; as a ‘hater’ of authority, he was no good at enforcing it.

He began by producing posters for the university film society and contributed a cartoon strip to a new alternative paper in Birmingham. His first paying work was a short-lived strip in a comic. In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, Bell began drawing a political fantasy strip called ‘Maggie’s Farm’ for London’s Time Out magazine. It was highly successful and later transferred to City Limits magazine. The next year he drew the ‘Lord God Almighty’ strip for The Leveller magazine.

Bell was becoming better known and, with a family and mortgage, he approached the Guardian for work. At the second attempt he was hired, in 1981, to draw a daily British strip to accompany Gary Trudeau’s ‘Doonesbury’. His ‘If’ strip is now a Guardian institution. Initially he mailed batches of six strips from his Brighton home, or sent them by train. Later, by faxing them, he could work on a strip up to the evening before publication. There was minimal interference from the paper.

In 1990, Steve Bell began working alongside New Zealander Les Gibbard, the Guardian’s long-time editorial and political cartoonist, and took over from him in 1994.

As the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent puts it: “Bell describes himself as ‘a socialistic anarchist and a libertarian’, and, though he rarely goes to the Guardian’s offices in London, still regards himself as a journalist. He sees cartooning as ‘an attacking medium’. ‘It’s not very good for saying positive things. You don’t attack someone you agree with.’”

His profile on the British Cartoon Archive’s website also says: “Cartooning is hard work, Bell argues, for ‘taking the piss is a business that demands considerable application’. As he told one interviewer in 2001, it isn’t ‘an exalted art form’: ‘It’s lonely, low, scurrilous and rude. It’s supposed to be.’ It is, he admitted in 2009, ‘a very solitary pursuit’: ‘You spend a great deal of time on your own, hunched over a drawing board, trying to think up jokes, trying to make yourself laugh’.”

By that time he was producing eight cartoons a week for the Guardian, an output which demanded four full days a week drawing at his home in Brighton and a fifth doing paperwork. As he admitted, it was ‘a horrendous amount of work, but...addictive.’ Bell was now scanning his finished cartoons and emailing the images to the paper, without any editorial intervention.

What other cartoonists say

“Bell is without doubt the finest political cartoonist working in this country .... It’s not just that he’s almost unique among his peers occupying the leader pages of the nationals in coming from the Left, but also that he steadfastly pursues a personal political agenda often at variance with the editorials he rubs shoulders with. This is just what Low and Vicky used to do for Beaverbrook .... Steve Bell can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of his predecessors.”

Martin Rowson, 1994

“He creates a consistent parallel world – it is like ours, but full of strange creatures that can be machines or beasts or clouds and yet be politicians at the same time. And his work is always suffused with wild, even frightening, humour.”

Nicholas Garland, 2005