Cartoonist with bite, Dinah Priestley

Murdoch: The Cartoons of Sharon Murdoch
Sharon Murdoch (with commentary by Melinda Johnston)
Potton and Burton, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947503239

Anne Tolley crouches watchfully inside a beneficiary’s uterus, high heels digging into the soft pink flesh, her two fists blocking the fallopian tubes. The cartoon is startling, funny and elegant. Labelled “Reproductive Politics”, it illustrates the Health Minister’s remark that she wanted to find ways to stop “at risk” beneficiaries having more children. I used to believe that most of us women do not have the bite to be successful editorial cartoonists. But I was wrong. The editorial cartoons of Sharon Murdoch have plenty of bite and anger, which she manages to combine with elegance and subtlety. In seven years, Murdoch has gone from being the cartoonist of her popular crossword cat Munro to being represented as editorial cartoonist in major New Zealand papers, notably the Press, Dominion Post, Waikato Times and Sunday Star Times.

Murdoch is of mixed English and Ngāi Tahu descent, and her background is in graphic design. She’s spent many years working in design and illustration, and for various social justice groups and campaigns. She’s created theatre posters and worked with commercial printers. In the 1980s, she lived with partner and New Zealand Listener cartoonist Trace Hodgson, whom she still considers one of New Zealand’s best cartoonists. In 1999, as part of Volunteer Service Abroad, she worked for the Xhosa Women’s Community and Child Development Centre in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, combining with Nolundi Kupa to produce the cartoon series Mama Cebisa. And it shows. Often, her main figure is a woman. The crowds she cartoons are of mixed race and gender. She doesn’t kick vulnerable groups, and she’s skilled at summing up a complex and loaded idea in a visually simple way.

Women, of course, do have a different sense of humour from men. Both in range and subject matter, Murdoch ventures into areas that most male cartoonists don’t tackle. Although she sides with no political party, she’s often an advocate for the voiceless. She doesn’t deal in stereotypes. She’s less sceptical and more empathetic than most male cartoonists. Her “Take the TVNZ Kiwi-Meter Quiz!” shows an appealing Māori lad, battered and bandaged, one eye closed from a punch in the face. “Question,” says the caption: “Maori should not receive special treatment. Do you agree?” “Absolutely yes,” says the young man. “I’ve had about all the ‘special treatment’ I can stand.”

Murdoch’s use of colour is subtle and controlled. In “In-coming Tide”, a tidal wave of fast-paddling Māori canoeists threatens to swamp John Key, as he taps his watch and insists: “Ha! As I thought! They can’t agree” – a comment on the government suggesting partial privatisation of Mighty River Power and Murdoch’s belief that there was more resistance than Key believed. Many of Murdoch’s best cartoons involve the treatment of animals. Like the 19th-century French caricaturist, Jean-Jacques Grandville, she loves giving animals human qualities and vice versa. “Meanwhile at the World Health Organisation Tattoo Parlour” shows a thrilled pig looking at his chest tattoo of a skull and crossbones encircled by “Warning! Carcinogenic if eaten”.

But my favourite is “Animal Testing”, in which a number of nervous and bamboozled dogs and mice contemplate their exam papers and the question: “Should cosmetics be tested on animals?” A thoughtful dog queries whether this could be a trick question. The single-minded pursuit of the dairy dollar is another favourite target for Murdoch, as in the cartoon where the arse of “The Cash Cow” has fallen off, or the one where the degraded quality of New Zealand’s water is described as “lovingly strained through cows”.

Perhaps less successful than these upfront images are Murdoch’s strip cartoons, although I’m partial to one that shows a spiky little boy chomping enthusiastically on a grubby cat’s tail, a shovelful of gravel and lastly a fingerful of his own snot, before Nanny State snatches away a filled roll, saying: “No! No! No! We’ve got to check it’s safe to eat first.”

Murdoch has been a long-time union member. So, it’s not surprising that two of her best cartoons attack Labour Minister Simon Bridges for booting out the mandatory requirement for tea breaks while nonchalantly drinking his own cup of tea. An equally angry cartoon shows Tau Henare and Bridges zipping up their flies in a men’s urinal, while an exhausted cleaning lady looks on. When Henare was asked if he felt for the woman who has to clean 130 toilets a night, he replied that if she didn’t want the job she should give it to someone else. “Yes, fair’s fair, Tau!” smirks Bridges. “There’s people out there gagging to clean our toilets.” Murdoch is clever at playing with words, too. “A Couple of Old Snarlers and a Sensitive Wee Sausage” is her comment on Anne Tolley’s remarks about Metiria Turei’s taste in jackets. In “He-Man”, she sums up Putin’s ambitions as he flexes his muscles and tries on a bleeding bearskin hat that includes Ukraine as part of Russia. “Appeasing an Ancient God” illustrates the ongoing war in Syria. Puny warriors on two sides of a divide falling into the fiery maw of the insatiable god of war.

A good part of a cartoonist’s repertoire is being able to caricature accurately. And there are obviously some characters Murdoch enjoys getting her knife into. The goofy and goggling expressions of Colin Craig, for instance. Or Mistress Collins of the corrections department, snapping her black rubber gloves and eyeing Key dangerously: “Now, John, where were we?” And Key himself, as “Ickeyrus”, flying too close to the sun, as all his plumage deserts him. Key at the time of the big Auckland Convention Centre budget blowout, posing nude in front of the ever-upward-rising sky tower. John the Beneficent, like a Roman Emperor offering to buy a new flag for just $25,700,000 and give the old one to a poor homeless child to use as a blanket. Key, like a shady gangster, nervously tapping his foot and saying: “Dirty politics? Whatever. I’m relaxed about it.” During the Dirty Politics scandal, Murdoch drew “The Truth is hard to get at”, showing the Beehive as a veterinary cone preventing the public (a puzzled dog) from getting at the truth. Murdoch tweeted that the New Zealand public was being treated like a dumb old dog. And then there’s “The Trickle Down Effect: An Optical Illusion”. At her best, Murdoch is reminiscent of Daumier.

This is a well-designed and beautifully produced book. Published by Potton and Burton of Nelson and printed in China, the book won the 2016 Canon Cartoonist of the year. It features 150 full-page cartoons, includes sections on censorship, national pastimes, police, economic policy, colonial monarchists and Christchurch’s earthquake recovery. Melinda Johnston’s commentary is illuminating, funny, and full of insights about Murdoch and the art of cartooning. Johnston’s lively narrative places the cartoons within their historical context and offers an introduction to many cartoons you might never have seen before.

Dinah Priestley is a Wellington writer, artist and caricaturist for New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa.

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