Ten years of David Pope: the struggles of a daily cartoonist
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Ten years of David Pope: the struggles of a daily cartoonist

By Sally Pryor

Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope.

Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

David Pope was about to go to bed when he got a news alert on his phone. It was January 7, 2015, and the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, were under attack by an Islamic terrorist group. Pope turned on the television and watched, horrified, as the news unfolded that 12 people had been killed, and 11 others injured. Five of those killed were cartoonists.

“I was watching it and reading Twitter, along with other cartoonists - were all watching at the same time,” he says.

“I thought I had actually met one of these cartoonists at a festival in France, who was shot, so it was particularly dreadful.”

Feeling helpless, he sketched out a quick, spontaneous cartoon that seemed to speak to the moment - a terrorist with a smoking gun, standing over the body of a dead cartoonist, saying, “He drew first”.

David Pope's Charlie Hebdo cartoon, that resonated around the world on January 8, 2015.

David Pope's Charlie Hebdo cartoon, that resonated around the world on January 8, 2015. Credit:David Pope

He tweeted it out, adding his own words to the flurry of commentary and commiseration. Then he went to bed.

The next morning, he couldn’t access the mentions in his Twitter feed, because there were too many. Millions of people had seen his drawing, and many more had re-tweeted it. Pretty much every newspaper in the northern hemisphere reproduced it, and interview requests were pouring in.

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The thing was, though, there was nothing much more that needed to be said. The cartoon had been spontaneous and quick, quite unlike the process that goes into his daily cartoon for The Canberra Times, which is often labour-intensive and painstakingly plotted out. And he didn’t want to wade into the machinations of the magazine under attack. Charlie Hebdo was known for its provocative satire that didn’t always translate well beyond France’s borders, while Pope’s cartoon had managed to transcend all kinds of boundaries and nationalities and speak to everyone.

In the event, then foreign minister Julie Bishop presented the staff of Charlie Hebdo with a signed, framed copy of the cartoon on a visit to Paris later that year. Pope, meanwhile, has long reconciled himself to the fact none of his cartoons will ever have that kind of reach again.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop with the David Pope's cartoon 'He drew first' at the temporary offices of Charlie Hebdo. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop with the David Pope's cartoon 'He drew first' at the temporary offices of Charlie Hebdo. Credit:ANTOINE GYORI

And that’s just part of the life of a cartoonist for a daily newspaper. Pope has been at it for 10 years now, having taken over after the retirement of Geoff Pryor, who drew for the paper for 30 years.

Until then, Pope had always drawn, but had never seriously considered full-time cartooning. He had applied, been accepted to and then turned down a place at art school at Sydney University.

“I think at that time I was just getting more into political ideas, so art school didn't seem very connected to that. I used to just draw little cartoons for activist organisations,” he says.

“I did a lot of part-time work, stopped and started my uni studies and eventually went back for five years, to study politics and economics.”

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He knew, when The Canberra Times offered him the job, he had big shoes to fill; Pryor had built up a loyal following among both his readers, and the politicians he regularly pilloried, for three decades.

As it turned out, the news was at a crossroads when Pope took over in 2008. Social media was rapidly taking hold of mass reading habits, and the news cycle was switching to the 24/7 model we take for granted today.

David Pope chats with former Canberra Times cartoonist Geoff Pryor.

David Pope chats with former Canberra Times cartoonist Geoff Pryor.Credit:Melissa Adams

“Obviously the world's always constantly moving, but somehow it's easy to feel like you're in a bit of a washing machine with the news, because it comes at you in so many different ways,” he says.

“You're connected with it so directly now, through your phones and through social media. And I still haven't worked out how to manage that.”

In the past 10 years, The Canberra Times has transformed from a newspaper to a media platform, and Pope has adapted along with it. But in many ways, Twitter and ISIS and constant leadership spills notwithstanding, the job of a daily cartoonist hasn’t changed. Like Pryor, Pope still has the challenge of producing a daily cartoon, which means sifting through the news of the day, picking an issue, deciding on an approach, and making it happen on the page.

Just don’t try and tell him that the daily smorgasbord of political shenanigans to which we’ve become accustomed must make his job easier - it almost never does.

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“On a daily basis, there's this tension between the political news stories of the day, and having some fun with the personalities in that, and the idea that it represents something deeper,” he says.

“You don't want to be just the clown that's part of the circus. And then you realise the great privilege you have to actually get printed by the paper every day, and there's people working here, putting the paper together, printing it, distributing it, you have this privileged space, so what about the stories that aren't front-page news?

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''I've always felt like the role of the cartoonist is to be inside and outside of the thing. It's a weird position that you want to be connecting and relating to the stories that the team is putting together and finding, but you also want to be a voice that's outside it a bit as well, and questioning social priorities that aren't getting a look-in.”

The key, he says, is to work out early on what kind of cartoon the end result will be. From a simple visual gag, to a complicated, multi-panel statement, Pope has always liked to mix up his daily offerings.

“Cartoons work because they operate at a sub-rational level, that's their power,” he says.

“Their power is in the visual image, so sometimes you just want to harness that and leave the words out because even if you put a lot of words in, it's those images that will stay with people.”

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He points out, here, with some residual sense of amazement, that one of his most popular cartoons is still the front page image he created on the day of an NRL elimination final between the Canberra Raiders and the Cronulla Sharks in 2012. The image, of a viking riding a shark like a surfboard, was hardly subtle, but people still stop him in the street about it, and tell him that the day of the final (the Raiders won) was one of the best days of their lives.

David Pope's front page image for The Canberra Times' September 10, 2012 edition.

David Pope's front page image for The Canberra Times' September 10, 2012 edition.Credit:The Canberra Times

Conversely, when it comes to federal politics, the intrigue and tomfoolery has been a constant, endless gift these past 10 years, but Pope has always wanted to delve deeper than just a poke at the first dish of the day.

“You don't want to get into just drawing leadership struggles as these little personal ambition stories,” he says.

“It's almost that horse race journalism stuff, who's up and who's down. Who's being stalked by a potential rival and who isn't. What does it reflect, and how can you portray the deeper political changes that are occurring?”

From straight-out gags to deep reflections, from simple, arresting images to complicated visual metaphors, the challenge is often to choose one and see it through until the work’s done.

“There's a number of things you're trying to hold together at the same time, and they're all in tension with each other, and you resolve that tension each day in a different direction and you're never happy with it because you think oh god, no one's going to know this story, that's old now, we've moved onto this,” he says.

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More often than not, Pope is troubled by what’s going on, particularly when it comes to news about the environment or social inequality. It can be hard to find the right way to comment on what’s happening, and keep the tone right.

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“Cartoons are a bit of a blunt instrument. We talk about a picture being worth a thousand words, but there's plenty of time where a thousand words beats a picture, hands down,” he says.

He remembers one of Pryor’s works, from 1997, filed for the Sunday paper the day after the implosion of the Canberra Hospital, during which one of the spectators, 11-year-old Katie Bender, was struck and killed by flying debris.

“He just wanted to acknowledge how everyone felt. So he had this incredibly sombre, wordless piece that was just a piece of rubble on a picnic rug,” he says.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for Sunday, July 14, 1997.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for Sunday, July 14, 1997.Credit:Geoff Pryor

“That's another way of doing the daily cartoon - just acknowledging. It's not necessarily having a big point to make, but acknowledging emotionally where things are at.

“The genre is very flexible, it can be just a gag, it can be a sombre reflection, it can be something that's trying to tell a deeper story.”

In many ways, it’s an irony that Pope’s best-known cartoon will be one that took the least reflection, and the least time to create - that was an immediate reaction to an awful, unfolding crisis. But it does show both the power of an image, and the ways in which a work can transcend global boundaries, in a way they didn’t in Pryor’s day. That was just a decade ago, but the world has changed irrevocably.

Pope's favourite cartoons

Rental tax credit (March 4, 2004)

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 4, 2004.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 4, 2004.Credit:David Pope

My first daily cartoon, on housing policy. Housing affordability remains a serious problem, but 10 years on the TVs are too flat to provide a box you could rent.

This cartoon was drawn in colour but for an editorial page that was printed in black and white. It was some time in that first week that my editor discovered I was drawing the cartoons in colour, and added the editorial page to the growing list of colour-printed pages.

Insulating the economy 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for February 4, 2009.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for February 4, 2009.Credit:David Pope

Kevin Rudd heeded Treasury's advice to "go early, go hard, go households", announcing a $52 billion stimulus package to counter the threat of recession from the global financial crisis.

Napoleon's retreat

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 26, 2009.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 26, 2009.Credit:David Pope

Utegate (or "the Ozcar Affair") saw the Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull lay siege to the government with allegations of improper dealings with a Queensland car dealer. A key email seized upon as evidence was proved to be a forgery, and Turnbull's approval rating tanked as he beat a retreat.

This early caricature of Turnbull stands up much better than many others I drew of him at the time. It usually takes some time for a caricature to establish itself, for the features to roam around their bobbleheads until they settle into what feels like the right proportions. These days, of course, you don't have the luxury of time in finding a new prime ministerial character.

White flag 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 25, 2010.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 25, 2010.Credit:David Pope

Labor sought a temporary ceasefire with the mining industry over the introduction of a mining tax. New Prime Minister Julia Gillard watered it down. Prime Minister Tony Abbott would later repeal it.

Individual political egos make for some spectacular cartoon soap operas, but the challenge is to portray the party divisions and vested interests that lie behind or drive those political rivalries.

The canary in the coal-mining country 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for November 24, 2010.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for November 24, 2010.Credit:David Pope

Frank Fenner was a distinguished Australian biologist and ecologist who oversaw the eradication of smallpox.

Cartoonists cop a bit of shoulder-shrugging from time to time for cloying or hackneyed obituary cartoons. If cartoons are at their best when taking the piss, they may be the wrong tool for the job when you want to actually say something nice or acknowledge a lifetime contribution to society.

The Forced Adoption Inquiry

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 1, 2012.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 1, 2012. Credit:David Pope

"All she wanted was for her son to know she loved him and had not given him away". These simple, powerful words were from the report of the Forced Adoption Inquiry.

Sometimes all you want to do with a cartoon is give such words another platform. The illustration tries to hold a tension between a gentle comic abstraction - the delivery stork - and a shard of reality, the crying baby.

Surfing the shark 

The Canberra Times front page illustration for September 10, 2012.

The Canberra Times front page illustration for September 10, 2012.Credit:David Pope

This front-page illustration was for a Canberra Raiders home semi-final in the NRL. I honestly don't know what the paper was going to do to top it if the Raiders went on to make the grand final (they didn't, despite winning the day), but I suspect it would've involved soaking a lot of newsprint in chlorophyll.

On the grid 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for August 1, 2013.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for August 1, 2013.Credit:David Pope

The 11th-hour rebadging operation when Kevin Rudd took back the prime ministership from Julia Gillard, shortly before the 2013 election.

Et tu, Brute? 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 28, 2014.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 28, 2014.Credit:David Pope

Prime Minister Tony Abbott reinstated knights and dames into the Australian honours system and was eventually laughed out of the top job.

The Light Dirigible Languid Transit System

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for July 16, 2014.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for July 16, 2014.Credit:David Pope

It seems like a dream now, but Canberra was once home to the Skywhale, a hot air balloon designed by artist Patricia Piccinini for Canberra's centenary. It featured in a number of cartoons over the next year or so, sometimes as a metaphor, sometimes as a protagonist, until it left town on a world tour and was never sighted in our skies again.

Malcolm Fraser 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 21, 2015.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for March 21, 2015.Credit:David Pope

The death of former PM Malcolm Fraser.

I remember an old Geoff Pryor cartoon that likened Fraser's impassive features to an Easter Island statue. That seemed a good starting point for sketching out how Fraser's politics had weathered over time.

The freedom to draw 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 5, 2015.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for June 5, 2015.Credit:David Pope

The story of a young Iranian artist jailed for "insulting MPs through painting". A global campaign involving cartoonists from around the world was rewarded with news of her early release.

This might have appeared to some readers as a bit out of left field. We are used to seeing the daily cartoon comment on the headline news of the day, where the reader already has knowledge of the context for the cartoon to bounce off. Trying to tell a story in a small cartoon panel is fraught.

Global challenges

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for January 16, 2017.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for January 16, 2017.Credit:David Pope

It is hard to see how we'll solve either problem without addressing the other.

Marriage equality passes into law

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for December 8, 2017.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for December 8, 2017.Credit:David Pope

Nearly 62 per cent of Australians voted ‘yes’ in a drawn-out national postal survey, floated by conservatives as their last great hope for delay, but ultimately exposing their minority position. Three weeks later, Parliament finally reversed the Howard-era ban on same-sex marriage.

I had the Sydney 78ers in mind when I drew this cartoon. Their protest for gay rights, the first Mardi Gras, when homosexuality was still a crime in NSW, “ended in violence, mass arrests and public shaming at the hands of the police, government and media” (SMH).

The shirt, however, says ’75, as that year marked the beginning of decriminalisation in Australia (thanks to Don Dunstan and gay rights campaigners in South Australia).

Lake Burley Griffin 50 

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for October 18, 2014.

The Canberra Times editorial cartoon for October 18, 2014.Credit:David Pope

A map drawn to mark the 50th anniversary of Lake Burley Griffin.

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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