Simone Lia and Stephen Collins are cartoonists
We talked to comics creators Simone Lia and Stephen Collins about their double lives as cartoonists. Lia is the creator of They Didn't Teach THIS in Worm School! and Collins is the brains behind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. They have weekly cartoons in The Observer and The Guardian, respectively.
Josh Franks: How do you decide the subject matter for your cartoons?
Simone Lia: I have a weekly cartoon in The Observer and the subject matter that I’m most interested drawing in is an exploration of what makes us human. These things are everyday concerns, relationships with others, and ourselves. The concerns that I’m talking about are mostly trivial matters, sometimes these are relatable, sometimes not. What I hope for in making the work is stumbling across or revealing a human truth.
Stephen Collins: The Guardian comics require a subject and an idea to be thought of in a very short amount of time - so that means a lot of sifting the news and what's 'in the air', so to speak. Then there's a lot of other boxes to tick: it has to be funny, be visually appealing or at least drawable, it has to have the right tone, it has to fit the space, it should preferably have some sort of point or weight to it as well as just humour... and of course it has to not be something I or someone else have done before. I also can't do certain things because I have a week's lead time before publication so news gets old by the time it's printed. Or, say, if I drew the Queen, she could die, so doing the Queen is a gamble these days... So all this is before I've even started writing it!
JF: Do you consider your comics to be inherently political? If so, is there a message in mind from the outset?
SL: Not at all. If it ever is political, it’s quite by chance; my focus is on the 'being human’ element. I don’t ever have a pre-planned message that I want to communicate. That approach might work for other people but if I ever try it, everything becomes contrived and unsatisfying. With cartoons and especially longer form work, part of the enjoyment is discovering what will be revealed through the creative writing/drawing process and that is often very different to pre-planned ideas and messages.
SC: I’m of the camp that thinks everything’s political to some extent, so yes. And yes, there is sometimes a specific point I have in mind. The trick is getting it across in a funny way without appearing hectoring or pompous.
JF: What are the challenges in creating cartoons? Do you worry about offending people?
SL: I think that the thing we get offended at is a truth revealed about ourselves. I don’t worry about causing offence but I wonder how palatable some of my ideas will be. My latest cartoon is not something trivial; it’s all about death and how we view it in a Western society. My prediction is that this cartoon won’t be that popular with readers.
SC: On the rare occasions when somebody’s offended, it’s usually because they are the sort of person I wanted to offend, so no. But generally most humour exists in peoples’ echo chambers these days, so it rarely reaches the people it’s meant to dig at anyway. Ho hum.
JF: How much are you allowed to show of your own political views? Have you ever had something sent back as too risqué?
SC: I’m lucky in that I work for the Guardian which is broadly my own political bias anyway, so no, I don’t get stuff sent back for being off-message. I certainly wouldn’t get it sent back for being risqué, the Guardian are pretty liberal and I’m not exactly drawing stuff which is wildly controversial anyway.
SL: For my cartoon and other work I don’t go there in a direct way with any political views. With longer-form written work I have weaved characters and storylines into the plot that are based on political persons and events. The characters are in no way recognisable and in story form they come across as being ridiculous and infantile. Interestingly, the parts of the storyline in my new book where I have done this have been sent back to me for re-writes; the notes given were that one particular character was just too mean and cruel.
I wouldn’t blatantly draw an individual or a group of people in a satirical way -- it can be quite tough not making fun of people. Any weakness or flaw that another person has, I’m sure that, unfortunately, I might have something of in myself. I’d rather make fun of myself rather than pointing the finger at others no matter how awful I think they might be.
JF: What are the main differences between working as a cartoonist for a news outlet and working on your own projects?
SC: Deadlines, of course, and you have to justify it being in the paper. It has to have either a news peg or at least a reason for being in that particular section of that particular newspaper. It should chime with that specific readership, for instance. So it’s about audience awareness rather than pure self expression.
SL: With a news outlet you need to keep coming up with new, ideally quite relevant (no matter how tenuous or vague that is) ideas every week to make commentary. Those ideas somehow need to be neatly rounded up and concluded in the contained space, whereas, with personal projects, a single idea can develop over a much longer period of time and that doesn’t always need to be concluded or resolved.
JF: The current political climate has made for excellent cartoon fodder. Do you see the situation changing at all, or will President Trump be at the mercy of cartoonists for the next four years?
SC: Yes, of course - but he unwittingly parodies himself so much I wonder where to go with it sometimes. He seems beyond satire. But it’s been fantastic to see how upset he is by Saturday Night Live’s sketches lately. Satire clearly is hurting him, so that can only be worth carrying on with.
SL: I’m sure that President Trump will be at the mercy of cartoonists for many years to come. Political satire has always been a thing and at the moment it really is fodder with the material writing itself for artists.
JF: Being a cartoonist has become a controversial and even dangerous profession in the last few years. What makes cartoons and cartoonists so important?
SL: A cartoon, especially a simplified single- or two/three-panel comic can communicate an idea succinctly in an instant. The brain processes image and text much more quickly than reading an article, and this kind of communication in the age of social media is ripe for sharing like-minded ideas. A cartoonist can voice the concerns and angers of a much wider audience and bring about a sense of solidarity and conviction amongst people.
SC: It’s a good question. I don’t feel important as such; it’s hardly brain surgery. But I can appreciate the abstract importance of laughing at say, Donald Trump. It’s a vague sort of value; satire is like wallpaper nowadays, so it doesn’t have the effect it had in the 1960s. But if it went away tomorrow, it’s plausible that someone like Trump would become much more powerful because they would be taken more seriously.
Maybe that’s a bad thing, though. He’s pretty powerful now, and we’ve been taking the piss out of him for two years. Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing at him, but acting instead. You can probably tell I’m not wholly sold on the idea of satire as a powerful thing. All those post-Hebdo 'pens as guns’ cartoons seemed embarrassingly naive to me.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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