Speech delivered at the launch of University of Kent Cartoon Centre’s Cartoon Hub website at New Zealand House, May 2002 / by Rich Hobbs

Well, it’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here, and I’m most

obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here. That said, there might not

be an immediately obvious connection between the art of the political cartoon

and the opening lines of the final track on Pink Floyd’s second album, A

Saucerful of Secrets, which I’ve just quoted to you. Still, let’s see if we can

run with it. That last track was the only song on the album written by Syd

Barrett, the founding genius of Pink Floyd who, shortly after he wrote it had a

massive mental breakdown, a bit like poor old Gillray. Unlike Gillray, it was

too much acid which led to Syd’s irreversible collapse into schizophrenia, but

that’s beside the point at the moment. Let’s stick with the schizophrenia bit,

and remember, for a moment, the title of Syd’s first solo album, "The Madcap

Laughs". Like every other cartoonist, the question I’m most frequently asked

is "where do you get your ideas from?" I used to answer, sarcastically, that I

got them from ingesting vast pharmocopia of hallucinogenic drugs, but I had

to stop saying this because too many people believed me. So much for irony.

Nonetheless, I still occasionally encounter profoundly stupid people who

clearly possess no mind worthy of expansion who look at my work and say

"Hey, you’re so weird you must be on acid!"

Well, again, no, but still bearing Syd Barrett in mind it places us rather neatly

in the dark, shadowland occupied by the newspaper cartoonist. We are, we

know, the court jesters, the holy fools of newspapers, the madcaps capering

around saying the unsayable but allowed to say it because we are

institutionally mad. A mark of that madness, of the role of "Ye Madde

Designer", to quote the title of David Low’s 1935 book on cartoon and

caricature, is that what we do is so very different from everything else that

newspapers do.

In point of fact, although all newspaper editor clearly recognise a cartoon and

the role it plays in the topography of newspaper design, the way a cartoon acts

as an oasis - of insanity, you might say, or greater sanity - in the arid deserts of

text, many don’t actually understand what cartoons are at all. The most

frequent mistakes editors make are that a cartoon is basically an illustration

and should have no words, and that a cartoonist is the merest of mechanicals

who has to be guided and controlled with a firm editorial hand to stop the poor

halfwit soiling himself in public all over the leader page. In fact, a cartoon

should have exactly the number of words it requires, be that none, two or three

in a title, 250 in the case of some Low cartoons, 1000 or more in the case of

some Gillray prints, in those vast wobbling zeppelins of text, or more than

anyone could reasonably read in a lifetime, in my case on one of my more

prolix days. The confusion on the poor editor’s part arises rom the fact that

most writers can’t quite cope with a group of people who can draw and write,

as every decent cartoonist must be able to do. That’s why some editors seek to

control their cartoonist far more rigidly than they’d ever seek to control, or

even guide, their textual columnists.

But it goes with the territory. For while a cartoon by, say, Steve Bell or Peter

Brookes or Nick Garland addresses a particular issue more precisely, more

pertinently, more accurately and more speedily, for the reader, than the

columns by Hugo Young or Lord Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson upon which

they squat like gargoyles, what those cartoonists do is not quite decent. While,

in the hierarchy of newspapers, it’s sherry glasses full of gravitas for the

textual columnists up at the Big House, I always tend to get the feeling that the

cartoonists will be lucky to get a glass of mackeson and a pork pie down in the

servants hall. In a way that’s as it should be. I think cartoonists should be

semi-detached and not quite decent. But it’s worth while speculating on why

editors should come to the same conclusion, albeit from a different starting


I’d suggest it’s because what we do is, quite simply, so savage that it borders

on the incomprehensible. But by savage I don’t cruel or scatalogical, but

primitive and elemental. And not just because it’s primitive voodoo, seeking

to inflict harm at a distance with a sharp instrument. The political cartoon, as

it’s developed (even though it hasn’t, in fact, developed much since Gillray

defined our basic schtick 200 years ago) encapsulates within itself two of the

more primitive aspects of human behaviour: humour and art. Let’s just look at

art first. While one way of looking at humankind’s use of art - or artifice - is

as a way of controlling the world, of catalysing the observed universe through

the filter of a human sensibility, the particular kind of art which cartoonists

produce - of taking recognisable individuals and then transforming them into

something recognisable but clearly and deliberately different, and thus

transformed, making their twisted representations act out demeaning or

abusive narratives of the artist’s devising - belongs, if you think about it, more

in the realm of shamanism and sympathetic magic than journalism. By rights

editors should reach for the garlic and make the sign of the evil eye when

dealing with cartoonists, but instead too many of them find it easier to bung us

on a table behind the coffee machine, pretend we’re semi-literate monkeys to

be told precisely what to do or, if they’re feeling generous and we’re lucky,

permitted to be licenced madmen free to say and draw what we want. The

chimerical nature of our product, with its collision or, perhaps more correctly,

dialectic between text and image points to its inherent schizophrenia, which

brings us back to Syd. Although, of course, he is mad, while most of us, by

and large, are not.

Politicians - the usual victims of the dark magic - tend to get the point better,

but usually enter into a self-deluding symbiosis with us, their tormentors.

They pretend they don’t mind, in the face of which we do our best to pretend

that we still matter. However mad that may be - the cliche of cliches is how

the cartoonist operates his sympathetic magic to destroy the politicians, and

they respond by buying the original and saluting the cartoonist for the simple

act of noticing them at all - it’s probably best, all round, that things are

maintained on this basis in order that we might all keep our sanity.

However, to return to those lines from "Jugland Blues" - it’s awfully

considerate of your to think of me here, and I most obliged to you for making

it clear that I’m not here. I’ve taken this as my text today, if you like, so I can

amplify specifically on what’s taking place here today. It allows me a way into

discussing the dynamic between cartoonists and the Academy, to report back,

so to speak, from the petrie dish.

Of course it’s terribly flattering to find oneself in the position of being

observed and analysed from the ivory towers of Academe. I sometimes

wonder where it gets anyone, however. To take a case in point, about a month

and a half ago I was invited to a plenary talk (and that particular adjective is

just for starters) at Birmingham University on a comic book I did a few years

ago in which I transformed T.S.Eliot’s "The Waste Land" into a

Chandleresque film noir. Now this bloody book, which took me 18 months to

produce, and which nearly drove me mad in the process, although not, at the

time, selling well, has had a curious academic half life. Thus the plenary talk

at Birmingham. Alas, no one has yet succeeded in coralling enough wild

horses to drag me, by train, to Birmingham on a Sunday evening in late

March, but I was sent a synopsis of the talk, which concluded thusly: "The

present paper interrogates Rowson’s parody for what it reveals both about the

process of narrativization and about the traffic between elite and popular

genres in the modernist period and since. The talk ... will reflect not only on

the readerly (re)construction but also on the poetics of the graphic novel, the

epistemology of detection and the heuristic uses of parody."

Some years earlier a young woman at the University of Genoa, clearly

labouring under the influence of Professor Eco, wrote her PhD thesis on my

version of "The Waste Land". She wrote to me often, as I suppose PhD

students do when their subject is still alive and in a position to write the thesis

for them. That said, one question kept recurring. Could I please tell her rom

which work of criticism did I get the idea for turning T.S.Eliot’s poem into a

detective thriller? In fact, I got the idea sitting on the lavatory when I suddenly

connected - this is what cartoonists do, connecting nothing with everything -

the scene in Howard Hawks’ film of "The Big Sleep" when the DA’s office is

dredging a car out of the Bay containing the corpse of Philip Marlowe’s

client’s chauffeur with Part 4 of The Waste Land, "Death by Water", so

"Phlebus the Phoenician, a fortnight dead" became, in my mind’s eye, a

meticulously copied drawing of the scene from the movie with the tag lines "It

was Phlebus the Phoenician - He’s been dead a fortnight." Just to take this

further for a moment, I was particular attracted to this scene because of the

circumstances of its filming. Apparently Humphrey Bogart asked Hawks what

the relevance of the dead chauffeur was to the rest of plot. Hawks, unsure,

asked the scriptwriters who, equally in the dark, phoned Chandler to ask him.

He replied that he’d forgotten. I liked that, I liked the author being too bloody

slippery or forgetful to be of any help at all. Anyway, I told the young Italian

woman, several times but each time honestly, that the way I got the idea for

the book was that I’d made it up. This, however, wouldn’t do. She simply

couldn’t accept an answer which denied her the 27 pages of bibliographical

notes and cross-references that, I must assume, make it work for the examiners

of PhD theses.

Despite my uncooperativeness, her thesis duly appeared. I have a copy. It’s in

Italian and I don’t understand a word of it. Still, she got her doctorate, so good

luck to her. It don’t, for the record, understand half the words of the synopsis

from Birmingham either, and I’m not trying to be deliberately obscurantist

here, despite a tendency among certain cartoonists to play up the faux-naif

simple soul role. Perhaps, in the two decades since I gained a very bad degree

in English Literature from Cambridge the language of academic discource has

become even more arcane and exclusive. Perhaps I wasn’t listening properly

in the first place because I was too busy drawing stupid pictures for two-bit

student rags. Or perhaps, whether it be in Italian or the secret English of the

Academy, I’m not meant to understand.

After all, these denizens of their various academies view my work - here a

particular book which, as one of its parents has kept English Departments

from their knitting for the better part of a century, appeared to be crying out

for critical exegesis - as cultural artefact, as something to be poked and

analysed and discussed and, presumably, understood. My intentions, however,

in turning Eliot’s creaking Modernist juggernaut into a pulp detective thriller

rendered, moreover, as something as tacky as a fucking comic book was to

take the piss.

The Eliot estate and its attack lawyers got the point, and descended on me like

a ton of red rocks. But in the Academy perhaps it’s not necessary to know the

author’s intentions, even when he tells you. For the good doctors in

Birmingham, my overstrained piss-taking is far less important, in terms of

learned discourse, than, I quote "de-narrativization in the process of

composition provoking re-narrativization in the process of reception",


In mitigation I should plead on my exegesists’ behalf that they were dealing

with a book, albeit a comic book which, in the good old, pre-post-Modern

days wouldn’t have merited a second glance. It gets worse when you get me

on the day job. Last week I gave a lecture in the History of Art Faculty at

Warwick University, in their series of lectures on Image and Text. I played it,

as I normally do, for laughs, although making it kosher by talking about

Hogarth and Gillray and Low and Vicky, how and why they drew what they

did. Only then did I start showing them my own work, in a knockabout

rollercoaster gig, with lots of swearing, blood, violence, cheap gags and the

other trappings of my particular oeuvre. I’m pleased to say that they laughed.

But to my horror they were also, right until the end, still taking notes. True, it

was only afterwards that I was told that the lecture was part of the syllabus,

but what on earth were they writing down that could possibly be of any use?

My contention that the Princess Diana Memorial Garden should be planted

with landmines to stop dogs shitting on the flowerbeds? The tone of green I’d

used to paint a pool of Jo Moore puke? My jovial and truly vile cartoon about

Rupert Murdoch’s prostate cancer ("You see that poor tumour over there?

He’s got Murdoch!" "It’s worse than that, the Murdoch’s malignant!"). I

honestly don’t know. Moreover, I don’t know whether I was teaching, or

being used as a teaching aid. Well, good luck to them, but likewise God help


That said, of course, what people choose to do with what I’ve done, after I’ve

done it, is really none of my business. Once it’s in the public domain I have no control over

whether it’s stuck on someone’s fridge, used to line a budgie cage, screwed up

in disgust and rage or becomes the subject, in 20,000 words, of the results of

careful "reading". All I know is that some, but by no means all, of the readers

of the paper or magazine my cartoon has appeared in will look at it for, at best,

13 seconds and then move on. They may smile, they may frown, they may

remember it, they may forget it.

Excuse me. I’m being both ungracious and ungrateful here. For a cheap hack

like me it’s both a privilege and a pleasure to be invited up onto high table,

even if it’s only so you’ll see how discreetly I dispose of my cherry stones. As

a cartoonist, obviously I’ll spit them in your eye. That’s what we do, that’s our

function, as court-jesters, as holy fools, as piss-takers. So forgive me while I

piss on your curtains, but what do you expect?