Why comics and cartoonists love, love, love N.L. politics
Mary Walsh and Kevin Tobin share thoughts about finding the funny in unfunny times
An election held in the dead of winter — and amidst a global pandemic that has come back locally with a roar — isn't great fodder for comedy.
We were on the edge to begin with. Small businesses have struggled to keep their doors open, flight routes out of Newfoundland and Labrador keep disappearing, and the looming shadow of the debt that Newfoundlanders owe on Muskrat Falls has nearly blocked out the sun.
When we toss in candidates going door-to-door and contending with icy sidewalks, freezing temperatures and the distressing confirmation that community spread of COVID-19 is here, well, there's precious little to laugh about this election season.
Or … is there?
Usually, vote-casting creates a perfect storm for parody and satire. Politicians, desperate for our votes, do more radio shows, stick their photographs on buses and vans, and look for every opportunity to get their name out there — even positioning themselves as the possible butt of jokes.
This election, however, has been relatively satire-free, which is surprising as it's a tool with two purposes.
The first is to help people feel less stressed, depressed and anxious about the current political reality. Political satire as catharsis, if you like.
The second is the jester speaking truth to the king, or the jester speaking truth to the people. Political satire as a weapon, one as old (at least) as Shakespeare.
Swing a sword for satire
Mary Walsh believes that it's a tough time to be a political satirist. Often enough, the news headlines turn out to be beyond imagination.
"There are folks who believe Democrats run a satanic pizza parlor in Washington, then there is the global pandemic, and finally you have to contend with folks who've made an art form out of being offended easily," she said. "I think satirists have lost heart."
Walsh was a founding member of the blisteringly hilarious CODCO group, and created and for years starred in the still-running This Hour Has 22 Minutes. She was awarded the Order of Canada (2000), the Governor General's Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award (2012), and the Canadian Screen Awards Earl Grey Award, one of the academy's highest honours (2019).
Her ball-busting, sword-swinging alter-ego Marg Delahunty is famous for ambushing and then skewering politicians on both coasts.
"When I'm Marg, I'm riddled with anxiety because her whole schtick is ambushing politicians and you don't get a do-over. You're there with a small crew and you're trying to surprise someone and if it doesn't go well, you don't get to ask, 'Can we try that again?'"
'Who owns the fool?'
As Marg, Mary Walsh has surprised everyone from Preston Manning to Rob Ford. Reactions to these ambushes differ wildly, but there was one politician who could always be counted on to take the joke well. "You never worried with Jean Chrétien. He was so at home with himself, so steady. He could roll with punches and match wits."
Walsh has often felt concerned for the role satire plays in election outcomes.
"Maybe we were naive, but when we started This Hour Has 22 Minutes, we believed we could make a difference. We thought we could effect change." She sighed, "We took the federal Liberals to task for years, and then of course the Harper government came into power.
"I couldn't help but wonder if we had played a role in that. At the start of it all, we'd be ambushing politicians. By the time we left, politicians would call and ask to be ambushed. You start to wonder, 'Who owns the fool?'"
'Elections are usually easy'
Kevin Tobin officially began drawing editorial comics in 1987 for the Telegram newspaper in St. John's, which means he's drawn satirical political comics through a dozen provincial election cycles.
"Elections are usually easy. There are lots of ideas floating around," said Tobin.
"It's the summer where you have to reach. Things are closed, politicians are on vacation. If I'm stuck in the summer and the idea isn't there, I'll spend more time on the illustration."
Tobin says he works in the British style of editorial comics. "American editorial artists tend to be more influenced by comic strips, whereas the British style is more about caricature and punchline. I also prefer stark illustrations in black and white and I like to use as few words as I can. I'm inspired by sketch and parody — things like Monty Python."
Tobin doesn't explain the joke to readers. "I feel that explaining the premise is a waste of space. I start each comic by assuming that readers are informed enough about the issues to understand the jokes."
Generally, politicians have been good sports about Tobin's illustrations. "I have an entire book of Danny Williams editorial comics and he was gracious enough to come to the book signing. You have to remember that Danny was a bit of a rock star, so the line at Chapters that day could only be compared to liquor store lineups in the days leading up to the start of the pandemic."
Tobin mentions that Danny seemed put out by one comic in particular. "He mentioned that he didn't mind the comic himself, but his staffers had been offended on his behalf regarding a comic I had drawn with Danny and Moammar Gadhafi sat at a table for a meeting of the Little Dictator's Club."
Generally, Tobin doesn't spend too much time worrying about being nice when creating his illustrations. "As I've gotten older I do try to think a bit harder about avoiding meanness in my work. That said, if you have a big nose, well, you have a big nose."
Who is easier to draw?
Currently, Tobin is taking a lot of joy in drawing Ches Crosbie.
"He's a dream to draw. He has a small chin and sort of sour cat expression. His father was one of my favourites, too, with the big jowls. It's harder to draw Andrew Furey. Allison Coffin is easy, you go with the big hair and the big smile."
Heave it outta ya, Che’s b’y. <a href="https://twitter.com/StJohnsTelegram?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@StJohnsTelegram</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/ChesCrosbie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ChesCrosbie</a> <a href="https://t.co/IyQLmgqVuS">pic.twitter.com/IyQLmgqVuS</a>—@KevinTobin58
Tobin creates three cartoons a week for SaltWire and his goal for these cartoons isn't necessarily to make someone laugh. "A chuckle or a laugh is great, but the goal for me is to make someone pause … just linger a little longer on the page."
A little thin-skinned, maybe? <a href="https://twitter.com/StJohnsTelegram?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@StJohnsTelegram</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/PremierofNL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PremierofNL</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/election2021?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#election2021</a> <a href="https://t.co/lQn6LGIE71">pic.twitter.com/lQn6LGIE71</a>—@KevinTobin58
A close look at editorial comics from Newfoundland yields certain trends. Plenty of comics published in the 1990s could be printed today.
In fact, one of Tobin's comics from 1996 shows politicians making cuts to everything, but spending frantically when an election was called, an action that mirrors the spending announcements and news releases that the Liberals made just before this current election call.
"There are patterns because while the faces of politics change, the game stays the same. It is a little depressing."
As for Walsh, there's one main target she'd still like Marg to meet.
"I think Marg needs to ambush Dame Greene," said Walsh, referring to Moya Greene, the St. John's-born retired executive who is chairing the premier's economic recovery team for Furey.
"This is the woman who privatized the Royal Mail and historically, it's never been good for Newfoundland when the dames and earls start showing up. Lord Amulree showed up in the '30s, and we lost the right to self-governance, so I'd like Marg to meet this dame."