Cartoonists have a licence for mischief

Catholic Herald's cover this week (cartoon by Christian Adams)

Recently a certain politician became editor of the London Evening Standard. A fan of cartoons – despite some unflattering portrayals of him over the years – George Osborne reintroduced the political cartoon to the paper.

The Standard has a long and distinguished history of cartoonists: Vicky, Low and Jak; all masters of the trade and extremely big acts to follow. I was offered the job and, though it was daunting, I accepted.

I started just as the general election was announced. It was great timing, with every day stuffed with political news to feast on. I am an equal opportunities offender, and in a sort of apolitical way I will poke fun at anyone who I think deserves it, regardless of political party. My first cartoon for the Standard was headlined “London landmarks”. I drew Ukip stuffed into a red telephone box, the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron as the London Eye, unsure if he was going left or right, Jeremy Corbyn in a bus reversing to the 1970s and Theresa May as Big Ben, chiming her mantra “Bong! Strong and Stable! Bong! Strong and Stable!”

Being an evening (or, more accurately, afternoon) paper, the Standard goes to print at 11 o’clock in the morning. This is great for a cartoonist. Rather than drawing the day before, as you do for a daily, I can be right up to the minute. I can draw a red-hot topical cartoon at eight in the morning and it will be on the newsstands by midday.

This was tested to the extreme on day three of my new job. The Duke of Edinburgh announced that he was retiring. The statement was made at 10am. The editor came over to me and asked how long I needed to draw a cartoon on the subject. I asked how long I could have.

“Half an hour,” he said.

I said: “No way. Not possible. Apart from anything else, I’d have to think of an idea first …”

He came back a minute later. “How long do you need?”

I said I could possibly do it in 45 minutes. He replied: “Go for it!”

I quickly thought of an idea – Prince Philip in his black cab, turning off the taxi light for the night – and got to work, hands sweating. I was finished by 10:56. Deadline in four minutes …

There was just one problem: the ink wasn’t dry. As I was frantically flapping the paper around, someone in the features department said they had a hairdryer. So after blow-drying my cartoon, it was scanned and sent with a minute to spare. It was on the streets an hour later.

Thankfully, most days aren’t so hectic. I read all the papers and news websites first thing, writing down key words or phrases that jump out, and registering any bold images of the day that I might incorporate into a cartoon. After mulling, I rough up two, maybe three ideas. These I present to the editor.

Usually all goes well and he picks one. Then it’s to the drawing board. I ink the outlines of the cartoon with an old-fashioned dip-nib and Indian ink. Then I scan this (after it’s dried!), and it ends up in Photoshop, a computer program for artists and designers. Using a “magic pen” I can colour in the picture, with amazingly realistic brush tools. Most people can’t tell it’s coloured digitally. It’s then simply emailed to the relevant people, and I leave the technical feat of putting it into the paper to others.

People ask whether I ever feel constrained by the political stance of the publications I work for. Do I have to toe their line? The answer, luckily, is no. One of the advantages of a cartoon is that it can deal with politics in a way that the printed word cannot. The written word is clear, unambiguous and usually reflects the politics of the publication. That’s why one buys, for example, the Guardian rather than the Telegraph (or vice versa). You agree broadly with their columnists’ opinions.

A cartoon is different. As an image, it is usually irreverent and jokey. You can get away with far more under the cloak of a cheeky drawing than with bare, honest words. I think too that editors give cartoonists free rein to throw in a sense of mischief to the boiling pot of opinion. I can’t remember a time when I have been told what to draw. Maybe a pointer in a certain direction, but not a dictation.

The biggest advantage of cartoons over words is, in the end, the ability to caricature. I find Theresa May a joy to draw (though more conservative – and no doubt Conservative – readers think I am too harsh on her). Corbyn has a wonderful wonky tooth sticking out from his beard that I exaggerate. And then there’s Trump: the gift that keeps on giving.

There have been political cartoons in the Standard for a hundred years. The responsibility is great, but I hope I can carry on the tradition with a playful sense of satire that my forebears made great.

Christian Adams is the political cartoonist for the London Evening Standard and his cartoons regularly feature on Catholic Herald covers