How did First Dog come to work for Guardian Australia?
Kath Viner [who was Guardian Australia editor] begged me. She wouldn’t leave me alone about it, wore me down over months, followed me around wearing a “First Dog on the Moon for the Guardian” sandwich board all the while honking a bicycle horn. It was either go work at the Guardian or my neighbours were going to call the police. I never wanted to be a cartoonist but who am I to deny the world these adorable badly drawn cartoons with far too many words? It is my burden. Anyway, despite everything, Kath turned out to be harmless, and I thought to myself “how bad can it actually be at the Guardian?” (we all know how that ended) and then, after all that, here she is running the place and nobody was more surprised than me.
Are the rumours true – were you really the first cartoonist on the moon? How was that?
First Dog on the Moon was originally intended to be the name of a huge uncaring international multimedia conglomerate which included (among other things) an ambitious and unfeasibly expensive space programme committed to launching the first cartoonist into space. Nothing came of it, but we liked the name so we are still using it.
What have your career highlights been so far? What do you most enjoy cartooning about? And who is your favourite recurring character?
Career highlights: getting a full-time paid job as a cartoonist is pretty much the high point, as it is almost impossible to do, like winning the lottery. If you want to be a cartoonist, you have to wait for a position to open up and there are a lot of wizened cartoonists hobbling about, let me tell you – they seem to hang around forever. Lovely people of course. Cartooning used to pay well but they don’t do that any more either. I have also won a few awards which I pretended I didn’t care about until I won them.
I most enjoy cartooning about Australia’s ridiculous native animals. Possums, bandicoots, potoroos and that’s just the hoppy ones. There are so many: I love them all. They’ll all be gone soon, of course, like the rest of us, but in the meantime they are jolly good fun.
My favourite recurring character is Ian the Climate Denialist Potato. Very easy to work with – he is an excellent vehicle for satire and he is a potato, so it is funny before you have even started. He is a senator now, just recently appointed minister for pandemics.
What about the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge are cartoons about depressing and sad things. Cartoons about Nazis and the impact of climate change are always hard, as are cartoons about loss and death and cruelty – these are the tough cartoons to do. And that is just the Trump administration! ahahahaha! No seriously – I have a lot of feelings when I do the cartoons so it can be hard work. But it is not a real job so it’s OK. My editor, Bridie, also wanted me to say how critical her input is to my practice as an artist but I said no, I must not tell fibs in the Guardian.
How do you come up with all your ideas? And then how do you turn them into cartoons?
Unfortunately l get most of my ideas from reading the news on the internet – or else I go outside and wander around and talk to the chickens or the sheep. I do cartoons about stuff that I think is important or interesting and usually enough other people agree with me that I am able to get away with it. It’s an absolute hoot!
I turn these ideas into cartoons by asking myself questions like: what if it was a pineapple doing this, what would it do at this point? If you asked the wallaby what it thought about that, what would it say? What if we did things differently? What if we didn’t do all the stuff we are doing to the oceans? Climate change, how bad is it really? (Really bad.) How can we dismantle capitalism? Why haven’t we dismantled capitalism? When are we dismantling capitalism?
Which journalists/columnists/cartoonists/marsupials do you particularly admire?
Kate Beaton is my all-time favourite cartoonist, also Lynda Barry, and my favourite American commentator is Mr Jim Newell, currently at Slate. There are others.
Do you hear much feedback from readers?
I get a lot of comments on the Guardian cartoons, which is lovely (I am told they are some of the nicer Guardo comment threads, so that is marvellous). I’m unfortunately on Twitter and there is a Facebook page, so there are plenty of opportunities to talk to people and I do. I still have those days when I am convinced the cartoons are awful and I am a fraud, but then I will draw a cartoon that makes me laugh and laugh or I will get an email from someone saying that a cartoon was important to them for some reason and then it is all OK.
Why do you think your work resonates so much with readers?
I think it is the feelings. I have feelings about things and I draw a dog or a pineapple having those feelings and people read them and go YES – THAT IS HOW I ALSO FEEL ABOUT THIS THING JUST LIKE THAT PINEAPPLE. It is funny because making it a dog or a pineapple actually works better than drawing people, who I have to say are overrated. Creatures and objects and general anthropomorphic carrying-on are marvellous for switching off many preconceived notions.
Any further observations?
I want us all to be kind – life is hard even when it isn’t, which isn’t very often. I try to be kind all the time unless someone deserves mockery and then I try to make it funny. To be completely honest I also want revenge – REVENGE – for what is being done to the planet and downtrodden folk, but that is a dark place to work from so I try to avoid it. No revenge, only kindness. I mean it. No I’m serious.
As told to Sophie Zeldin-O’Neill