By Ben Kooyman
In my early teens I was, like most Australians in their early teens, largely apathetic about the country’s political past and only moderately invested in its political present. But my father owned a paperback copy of 1980’s A Decade of Pickering, a book collecting the complete 1970s work of cartoonist Larry Pickering, which I fell head over heels for and devoured over the course of a week, in the process building a working knowledge of local politics spanning from John Gorton’s tenure as Prime Minister to the twilight of Malcolm Fraser’s reign. While Pickering’s work has courted controversy and become increasingly reactionary in recent years, there’s no shaking the intelligence and skill and wit of much of his output…
If I was bereft of context for my own country’s politics back then, I’m at an even greater loss today when it comes to those of New Zealand. However, Australian comics readers now have a handy primer for what’s been going on politically with our neighbours across the Tasman Sea, in the form of Murdoch: The Political Cartoons of Sharon Murdoch, a selection of key newspaper cartoons by the titular New Zealand-based political cartoonist. Sharon Murdoch is a relatively new kid on the block but her output has been impressive, and as commentator Melinda Johnston notes, Murdoch was well-equipped for the gig following a lifetime of social activism and a career in graphic design, both of which are evident in her work.
The collection comprising Murdoch: The Political Cartoons of Sharon Murdoch is not chronological, but rather organised into different sections according to themes, topical issues, major and/or ongoing news stories, and key figures and events which have been skewered by the artist. As suggested above, Murdoch’s strong sense of social justice and empathy shine through in her treatment of certain topics, whilst elsewhere she tears into offending subjects and parties with satirical and artistic relish. Meanwhile, her graphic design genealogy is also evident in many of her compositions and effective uses of colour. Another noteworthy quality of Murdoch’s work highlighted by editor and commentator Melinda Johnston is her frequent use of multiple panels ala comic strips. Johnston’s commentary throughout is insightful and illuminating, contextualising Murdoch’s work and charting the artist’s development and preoccupations.
In an era in which parody and satire have been somewhat turned on their heads and left dumbfounded by the preposterousness of modern politics – a situation crystallised in the ascent and rule of Donald Trump, whose own excesses do the work of political cartoonists for them – the work of political cartoonists like Murdoch remains valuable, and finds added resonance and urgency when built on a foundation of anger and empathy, as is much of Murdoch’s output.
Murdoch: The Political Cartoons of Sharon Murdoch is out now and available via Potton & Burton.