What’s So Funnyby Sean O'Toole / 04.02.2011
For much of the past decade Andy Mason, better known as N.D. Mazin and Pooh in the local comix underground, has been working on a book. A serious book. Nominally. Titled What’s So Funny, Andy’s book offers an assiduously researched history of cartooning in South Africa. There are various reasons his book took so long: surfing, indecisive editors, a move from Durban to Cape Town, other stuff. As it turns out, the delay was useful, allowing Andy, head of the Comic Art Unit at the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts at Stellenbosch University, to include Zapiro’s controversial Rape of Justice cartoon.
Mahala: Instead of talking about your long white hair, I want to ask you about your star turn in Bitterkomix 15. Joe Dog (aka Anton Kannemeyer) portrays you as someone who talks a lot. How did it feel to be the subject of a caricature?
Well, I do talk a lot, especially about comix, when I get the chance, which is not very often, since there aren’t that many people interested enough to listen for longer than two minutes. Anton talks a lot too, by the way, when he gets going. As far as cartoonists being the subject of caricatures is concerned, I think it should be compulsory. Who watches the Watchmen?
Your new book is a history of political illustration and cartooning in SA. Who for you were some of the big discoveries from the past? The names we no longer remember or speak about.
The discovery of George Cruikshank’s cannibal ogres from 1819 — the prototypical South African racial caricatures — blew me away. It took me months to work out how I felt about them. William Schroder’s weekly comic magazine The Knobkerrie, published in the mid-1880s, which I found a couple of original copies of, is one of my favourites because it shows how vibrant the small publishing scene in Cape Town was in those days. I love Len Sak, the creator of Jojo, an old white Jewish guy who was South Africa’s most popular black cartoonist for half a century. I also love Richard Smith’s early stuff, ultra cross-hatchy and stylish; Derek Bauer was (and still is) incredible. Working with the Bitterkomix artists, with the Madam & Eve crew, with Zapiro, have all been great opportunities (and big learning curves). These guys are all real pros. And then there’s Joe Daly. A top French comic artist told me at a festival in France last year that as far as he’s concerned, Joe Daly is the best comic artist in the world.
Joe Daly – Scrublands.
What do you personally think of Joe Daly’s work?
I love Joe’s stuff. I just wish more people knew about it here in South Africa, especially young wired geeky guys who smoke too much weed and watch slacker movies. Joe’s books are 100% tailor-made for this audience. But what makes them unusual is their South African origin. It also raises the more general issue of origins in a globalised world. What does it matter that Joe Daly produces hilarious slacker fables from a room in Mowbray, since his entire sensibility is cradled in a cultural cocoon that’s more Californian than anything else? The titles of his books with their Bob Dylan references, his strip-malls and suburban landscapes, with the odd bit of local fauna thrown in as a kind of post-facto context marker, all speak of a hybridisation of culture that is very interesting, and very Cape Town. For those who haven’t yet seen Dungeon Quest, I entreat you to seek out this book, and the sequels that follow. These are very funny books, if you like that kind of thing.
Let’s talk about the historical character of Hoggenheimer. What do we as a contemporary audience learn out of his story?
Hoggenheimer, invented circa 1910 by Daniel Boonzaier, has been with us ever since. He began as an anti-Semitic stereotype, grew into a generic stereotype for racial capitalism, has strong links to various international versions, such as the Weimar caricatures of George Grosz, and was reincarnated by William Kentridge as Soho Ekstein, the protagonist in his early films. He even appears in my own work as Y.T. Sharke, CEO of Toxacorp. What to learn from him? That pure greed rules the world and all the touchy-feely stuff pales by comparison when it comes to the naked exercise of power. We’re all going down the tubes while Hoggenheimer laughs!
D.C. Boonzaier’s cartoon featuring Hoggenheimer, left.
Objectively described, what is the purpose and function of a political illustration or cartoon?
“Objectively described”? As far as history is concerned, there’s no such thing as objectivity. There are approved stories and interpretations, a kind of group subjectivity, ranged around centres of power. And there are oppositional stories that challenge these. All cartooning, one way or another, is linked to a particular centre or nexus of power. Where power is contested, as in South Africa, cartoons play an important role in crystallising and giving visual or metaphorical shape to the most important areas of contestation. Check out Just for Kicks!, the latest compilation of the year’s best political cartoons (edited by John Curtis and myself) to see this process in action. The cartoonists have targeted all the key areas of contestation and given them symbolic shape.
Talking about the now, is Zapiro’s Rape of Justice cartoon really that scandalous when placed in a historical context? Have there not been other similarly contested cartoons in the past?
I’ve given this cartoon so much thought, read so much about it, heard so many opinions about it, and I still haven’t got to the bottom of it. It’s not so much that it’s scandalous. It’s way deeper than that. It strikes to the core of our predicament. And there are valid arguments on both sides. The issues of representation aren’t going to go away. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, look at Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993). A cartoon this powerful ceases to be the expression of an individual voice, if it ever was in the first place. It burrows down to the pit where these things are slugged out by archetypal figures wielding clubs, up to their knees in gore — like Conrad Botes’s cartoon versions of Goya’s Disasters of War.
At your Cape Town book launch you and Zapiro spoke about the small number of black cartoonists. How is this changing?
Not fast enough. Especially in the field of political cartooning. The fact that the majority of political cartoonists are still white creates a huge credibility gap. A lot more needs to be done to remedy the situation. It’s definitely the biggest challenge facing South African cartooning at the moment.
How has cartooning evolved, formally and conceptually, as print media moves increasingly online?
There is so much happening online that unless you are seriously wired and digitally socially networked (which I’m not), it’s hard to keep track of what the hell’s going on. Take Moray Rhoda’s latest effort, Velocity, for example. Moray spent a lot of his own money a few years ago organising and publishing Cape Town based alternative comic anthologies such as Helix and Clockworx, featuring local artists like Daniel Hugo and Jesca Marisa. Then it all went pear-shaped and he went underground to lick his wounds. Now he’s back with Velocity, a very well organised South Africa/Australia digital comic collaboration. What’s great about this project is that it’s no longer about the finished product, but the entire process of comic making, as participants put their work in progress up on a group blog. What’s not great about it is how little originality there is on show — most of the stuff looks like it’s recycled from something else. It’s wonderful that the online environment provides so many opportunities for upcoming artist and writers to get their stuff out there; however, it’s really sad that most of it is so derivative. Maybe it’s because the South African guys want to get published internationally, but I don’t think I need to point out that local artists who have attracted the most international interest are the ones whose work has its own visual vernacular (to steal a phrase from Anton Kannemeyer). A South African visual vernacular – our own visual Antwoord, if you like – is what we need, online and on paper, if we want anyone to notice us.