Australian Financial Review cartoonist David Rowe.

Australian Financial Review cartoonist David Rowe. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

You might not think it from the way cartoonist David Rowe portrays our Prime Minister's bare legs (shocking, bulging, hairy things, like the legs of a pink tarantula) but Rowe swears he feels "affection" for all the political figures he takes such grotesque liberties with.

Rowe was announced on Friday as the 2013 Behind The Lines Cartoonist of the Year and he was at the Museum of Australian Democracy (where the Be-hind The Lines 2013 show has commenced) for a special preview.

He is a cartoonist for the Australian Financial Re-view and his award is not for one cartoon, even though his vision of a success-crazed Abbott cycling in budgie smugglers while singing a narcissistic version of The Pushbike Song is the display's poster cartoon.

Australian Financial Review cartoonist David Rowe in front of his cartoon 24 hour news cycle.

Australian Financial Review cartoonist David Rowe in front of his cartoon 24 hour news cycle. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

No, the award is for a whole 12 months of what judges considered his "consistent intelligent, insightful, thoughtful and unique" work over this crazy year in which our nation was blessed with three prime ministers.

There are several Rowe works in the display, all of them as elaborate and detailed as they are witty. They're very painterly and there's a lot going on in each of them. Some cartoons only need a glance to grab us but Rowe's need the kind of time one gives paintings in a gallery. We stood and talked beside one, Plan B, in which Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd are knights in fabulous armour, about to collide in a joust. There are skulls and bones beneath the feet of Abbott's charger. There are golden ostrich plumes in Rudd's helmet.

"I think that style actually started at The Canberra Times [where he worked in the late 1980s] because [laughing at the memory] I used to work like a draughthorse there. I'd do five or six drawings a day, little ones, filling in between [legendary cartoonist] Geoff Pryor's amazing work. So I learned to work really quickly. And I learned to love putting little detail in, things for people to notice in the background. And I think I also got some of that from old Mad magazines when they used to put in interesting things on the side."

Plan B. <em>Illustration: David Rowe </em> Click for more photos

Behind the Lines 2013

Plan B. Illustration: David Rowe

  • Plan B. <em>Illustration: David Rowe </em>
  • The spill <em>Illustration: Rod Clement </em>
  • The evolution of Tony Abbott. <em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari </em>
  • Reflection <em>Illustration:  David Rowe </em>
  • Australian Financial Review cartoonist David Rowe in front of his cartoon 24 Hour News Cycle.

Rowe (who, by the way, is a cartoonist's dream in his own right, being very tall and lampost-slender and golliwog-haired) loves to give people lots to look at in his cartoons because he's sure that people really do "pore over" and fossick in cartoons when they're given lots to look for.

His caricatures can look scathing but he says, and you can tell from his voice that he means it, that he feels "affection" for his subjects. He always felt special affection for Julia Gillard, sounding genuinely sorry that "she was always in trouble".

"But I don't think Julia Gillard actually liked many of my cartoons. I was miffed that she never actually contacted me to ask for one of my cartoons of her [although she did do this with other cartoonists]. I thought I was always quite generous to her. I used to get letters saying why don't I [make her look more awful] but even though I gave her a long nose that was just a caricature, and wasn't saying she was Pinocchio [a liar].

"But I never actually went down the road of some cartoonists who were doing physical caricatures of her with quite stumpy legs and a big bum."

But one of his masterpieces in the show, Reflection, is one you can understand Gillard not being pleased with. It has Gillard having just announced a very right-wing, xenophobic policy about stopping foreign workers taking Aussies' jobs, looking at her reflection in a fish and chip shop window and finding she's become the spitting image of that appalling fellow redhead Pauline Hanson.

Behind The Lines 2013 - The year's BEST political cartoons will be at the Museum of Australian Democracy until November 17, 2014.