The Funny Pages


Everybody knows what a cartoon is. It does not matter if it is a cartoon in a newspaper, magazine, a website, a comic in a comic book or even an e-book. We have all read them, we have all laughed at them and we have all enjoyed them. They are as much a part of the media as the crossword, astrology, sport, news or even Rupert Murdoch.

But while we can all tell stories about where Rupert Murdoch came from, cartoons are a bigger problem. Cartoons do not have a starting point. There is no first cartoon. Nobody invented them. They have just been evolving since people worked out they could make other people laugh by producing a drawing. Our first attempts at writing were drawings and, as we all know, some drawings are cartoons.

However life for cartoonists is not funny. Drawing cartoons is bloody hard work and ideas do not just popup whenever a cartoonist sits down. Even when they do "popup" cartoonists are stuck with the problem of finding somewhere to stick their efforts in the hope someone laughs and someone pays. There has always been a better than average chance of finding success making people laugh than finding it with being paid.

Successful cartooning and writing can often be achieved in a garret. Successful publishing can also come out of a garret — but is best attempted with an opulent bank account. Not that garret publishing is not possible, it is, but if you want to make some kind of fortune in publishing it is best to start with a big one and whittle it down.
The old joke about cartoonists, editors and publishers is that if you show someone a drawing and they laugh, they could become a cartoonist. If they try to stifle a giggle, they could become an editor. If they just stare at it, they must be a publisher.

Very cruel. In fact, publishers do have a sense of humour — but cartoons are not usually found in the books they read, ledgers. Big publishers have money, commitments and editors to satisfy. Small publishers are much the same — but without the money. Editors try not to laugh about money but manage a giggle or two at cartoons.

Independent and brave, fits the small publisher mould. Unfortunately — unless a fairy godmother flies by sprinkling gold dust into their bank account — it too will soon become like the parrot in the Monty Python skit, deceased. Not the first publication in this country to become deceased — and probably not the last.

There have been some glorious independent failures in Australian publishing that may have eventually found success had they started with more money.

A very early failure was The Australian, founded by W.C. Wentworth and Robert Wardell; it lasted from 1824 till 1848. Henry Parkes, who was almost as well known to bailiffs as he was to voters, published The Empire from 1850 till 1858. C.J. Dennis was editor of The Critic (1897-1924) in 1904, before working on The Gadfly in 1906 till it folded in 1909. The staff scattered all over Australia looking for work and money.

One of the earliest publications in Australia to run comics, the Comic Australian, started in 1911 but it struggled to find a way of making profits and disappeared in 1913. The Cartoon had the same lack-of-profits problem and only lasted a year, vanishing in 1916. Like many publications before and since it ran cartoons from overseas as well as a few from Australia.

Down the track, OZ was all Australian and had Richard Neville and Martin Sharp guiding its success between 1963 and 1973. At one time it looked like it might have been able to become an international and financial success as well as an intellectual one but alas, it was not to be. Nation Review started its struggle in 1970 with George Munster at the helm. Poor decision-making by non-editorial ledger reading personnel killed it in 1981. It is best remembered because Michael Leunig drew cartoons for it.

Matilda, of course, made its mark back in the mid 1980s and probably more money for people seen in legal wigs than it did for its contributors. If only the legal profession got paid journalists rates, or better still if only publishers could afford to pay contributors legal profession rates.

Money is not the be all and end all of publishing — as not every underfunded publication goes under. There was not a lot of money around when Melbourne Punch was first published in 1855. It was great for cartoonists because it actually paid money to lots of us. It struggled on as an independent publication for 69 years before it was taken over by a big publisher with a big bank account who promised a big future for it. And then it died in 1926 after just two years. Preserving the big bank balance became more fashionable than preserving the magazine.

Independent publisher Rupert Murdoch rescued the struggling Adelaide afternoon newspaper The News and turned the company into one of the biggest international publishing empires in the world. It is a great story; independent publisher makes good — but there is not much independence left now.

The Bulletin was one of the big success stories for Australian independent publishing. Two journalists who struggled to pay for the ink to print the first edition started it in 1880. How they found the money to keep it afloat and themselves out of debtors’ prison is a story that will one day make a great TV series. Somehow The Bulletin did make money — and it paid plenty of poets, writers and cartoonists. It made lots of Australians laugh too — but not Frank Packer. When he took over the magazine in 1960, it cost him lots of money to keep afloat. Some of that money went into cartoonists’ pockets and by the time it was making money again, lots of cartoonists were too. When the magazine dropped most of the cartoons, a bit over 20 years ago, the magazine stopped making money — and the ledger readers stopped laughing.

By far the biggest story in independent publishing in Australia is the Australian Women’s Weekly. That little success story was started in 1933 and involved Robert Clyde Packer and his little boy Douglas Frank Hewson Packer. While far from broke, they used a little of their own money and lots of other peoples’ when they founded the magazine.

That struggling women’s newspaper became a revolution in Australian publishing and provided the foundation of the Packer family’s billions. It kept their empire afloat for decades. It was nothing like the glossy gossip magazine that has the same name today. It was a tabloid-sized newspaper written in Australia and read by Australians of both sexes. It has been struggling to find its old magic since it turned 50, and is now seen as a bit of a tart. But when it was really, really successful, it published cartoons and kept cartoonists and writers well fed in lots of garrets.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.