Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox considers whether she might be addicted to the news. Initially she thinks not. But after a minute or two reflection, she says,“Yeh, I am a news junkie.”
Every morning, Cathy, the award-winning cartoonist with Fairfax, wakes up listening to ABC radio news. After coffee, she takes her miniature schnauzer Tilly for a walk around her leafy neighbourhood on Sydney’s lower north shore. While Tilly sniffs her way along the pathways, Cathy mulls over the news she heard earlier.
She makes notes of ideas for cartoons on her mobile phone. Many of those notes turn into inspired, insightful narratives that give a nuanced, unexpected interpretation of the news of the day contained in a small box.
Cathy Wilcox grew up and went to school on the upper north shore where her parents still live. She says she started drawing before she knew what she was doing. “When I was about two, I found a bobby pin and scratched a little face on a bedhead. It’s still there. I tended to make the best of what I could scrounge. My sister, who is six years older, had all the art supplies.”
Cathy says she drew on anything. She honed her skills in the margins of school textbooks — always an eye out for squarish blank spaces. Eventually her stockbroker father started bringing home paper and note pads for her, anything one supposes to save the furniture and the walls.
She says her mother was good at drawing and would describe things by sketching on paper. “I was always interested. I always did art at school and liked drawing people. I used to try hard to make my drawings better.”
Not surprisingly, she was attracted to books with lots of illustrations and at one stage particularly fancied the drawings by Eileen Soper (The Famous Five) and George Brook (The Secret Seven) in the Enid Blyton books.
She also liked the comics in the weekendnewspapers. She says her father rst prompted herinterest by reading the comics to her before she could read. Soon she liked to look at the pictures.
“I liked looking at Peanuts, thinking about how it was drawn. I wasn’t much of a reader as a child; we were shamefully unliterary,” she says.
Although she had no thoughts of what career she might pursue, much less art, she decided at the last minute to apply to enrol at the Sydney College of the Arts. She says she had a facility for writing and thought she might take up journalism. However, shewas really focused on ne art studies, “something that involved drawing but would engage my brain”. She discovered visual communication and undertook the degree that included graphic design, industrial design, interior design, photography, film, video, and typography.
After she graduated in 1985, Cathy travelled to Paris because, she says, she had studied French at school and had heard much about French cartoonists. She also chose France because she wanted it to be harder than going to London, as many of her friends and acquaintances had done. “I was,” she says,“ridiculously over-con dent.” She enrolled in a (third-year) literature course and found her French was not as advanced as it should have been. She struggled with the subject but it got her immersed in the French language and culture.
She started knocking on doors of French newspapers and magazines in Paris, hoping for cartoon and illustration work. She describes it as “a fermentation period in the cultural petri dish of Paris”. But she kept hearing the refrain, “Tell her she’s dreaming”, and while she almost got work on Le Monde’s education supplement, it fell through as winter descended. At the end of 1987, she came home.
Once back in Sydney, she started the old routine of approaching magazines and newspapers, especially the section editors at Fairfax. Journalist and feature writer Michael Visontay, then editing the TV guide, gave her a few illustration jobs and by 1989, Alan Kennedy and later Philip Clark, section editors of the daily Stay In Touch column, an amusing and satirical take on the news of the day, started giving her regular cartoon-like illustration jobs.
Alan Kennedy says it was her quirky sense of humour that suited the column. “She can be ironic and subtle; she is well read and picked up immediately what was needed for that day’s column and her illos are hilarious,” he says.
“I loved it,” Cathy adds. “It was a matter of one message in a square. It was like a gymnasium for cartoon thinking. I used to do two or three cartoons a day; I could be as lateral as I liked.”
She describes it as a golden era that saw the emerging work of great cartoonists and illustrators like Matthew Martin and Reg Lynch. “They really played around with the format in a way that loosened it up and made it fun.”
Nowadays she continues to cock a “sceptical eyebrow and poke her inky nib” at pretty much any subject you care to name. She regularly draws socio- political cartoons for Fairfax. She won the 2013 Walkley for Best Cartoon for her Sydney Morning Herald illustration “Kevin cleans up”. The cartoon depicted the fallout of the Labor leadership contest,speci cally the overarching Rudd/Gillard tension.
She has received several Stanley Awards organised by the Australian Cartoonists Association, a Walkley Award in 2009 and the National Museum of Australia’s Political Cartooning award. Cathy has also published two collections of cartoons, Throw Away Lines and The Bad Guys are Winning, and drawn for many other publications including children’s books such as the I Am Jack series, the Ella Kazoo series, and Enzo the Wonder (which she also wrote) – she has twice won the Australian Children’s Book Council of Australia’s ‘Picture Book of the Year’ award.
She says she has two stages in her development of a cartoon. “One might think there is a formula but I try tode ne what is not the cliché, thinking all the time of an‘this is like that’ analogy.”
With her Trump ‘fake news’ cartoon, she fastened on Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes with its message of a made up notion that people have been induced into believing is real.
“I get a jolt of satisfaction when it works,” she says, adding that her use of the Twitter logo to cover his genitals suggested Trump’s onanistic, that is self- congratulatory and self-absorbed, approach.
She seeks as many narrative layers as possible. When working on her recent cartoon published at the height of the Barnaby Joyce furore, entitle Barnaby does the laundry, she says she was looking for the grey area in the continuing news saga of Joyce’s private life, much of it prompted by Joyce himself.
She says she extended the notion of ‘hanging out one’s dirty laundry’ to the idea of ‘hanging them out to dry’, referring to the people in Joyce’s life whose privacy had been violated. Plus there was the issue of possible misuse of public funds.
Peter Fray, former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and now Professor of Journalism Professional Practice at the University of Technology, Sydney, has been a keen observer of Cathy’s work for over 20 years. He says it has been wonderful to see how she has grown and matured as a cartoonist.
“She has gotten a bit tougher, darker but has maintained her wry and amusing take on the world and tells a great joke. She has great observational skills; her people come off the page,” he says. “I have great admiration of her longevity, her sense of like, her sense of humour. Long may she reign.”
Academics Robert Phiddian and Haydon Manning, of Flinders University, who describe themselves as cartoon scholars, see cartoonists as providing both comic commentary on politicians and darker and more serious satire. “Their capacity to tell truth to power, demonstrate that the kings and queens of political life have no clothes, and to entertain the public remains undiminished. While this particular mode of satirical representation may be in retreat before the forces of digital media, graphic satire is not going to die while it has such t meat to feed on,” they say in a piece for The Conversation.
Read Cathy Wilcox's Article: When Cartoonist's are in the line of fire, presented as part of the Free Voices address on the 2017 Day of The Imprisoned Writer.