Chris Riddell on satire in the internet age of Trump and Brexit: “We’re very fortunate to have so much material to work with”
Chris Riddell drew me while I interviewed him, so I’m going to draw him here. The man in this wooden-panelled room looks satisfied in his chair, sitting stout and composed, tucked closely to a table laden with sketchbooks. His grey hair is clipped short and he wears a bristly beard, wrapped around a wide smile and tucked beneath a birdlike gaze. His shoulders are slack under his blue jacket, and his hands are at ease – ready to drift with half-thought habit towards an empty page.
I’m talking to Riddell because of a talk he’s giving with Apple as part of The Big Draw festival, inspiring people into illustration and giving the tech company’s iPad a plug in the process. The former children’s laureate is calm, wears a golden Blue Peter badge, and says my name more than once. He tells me I can look through his sketchbooks “as long as I’m not a trained psychologist”.
Inside these books there are pages and pages of people’s faces, drawn with intricate coils and thatched lines. You’ll recognise the style instantly, if you’ve ever seen his work as a children’s author in the Ottoline or Goth Girl series, or as a political cartoonist in the pages of The Observer.
“Oddly, I don’t see a huge difference in the tools I use when I’m illustrating a story for children,” he tells me, explaining his approach to satire.
(Above: ‘The picturebook world of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions – Chris Riddell on the US president’s continuing Russian woes’, Credit: The Observer)
“At its core, the great power of children’s books is their ability to create an empathic response in the reader. That’s something you need when you want to engage people in an argument; engage them with an idea or a proposition.”
As we speak in the well-varnished room, hidden in the guts of Apple’s Regent Street shop, Riddell pulls up a picture of Theresa May in a bin. Only her legs are visible, the limp mantra “Brexit means Brexit” floating up from the metal dump.
“The key thing with the political cartoons is that they need to convey what I think effectively,” he tells me. “I’m not interested in ambiguity. I’m not particularly interested – with a political cartoon – in nuance. What I want to do is make a clear statement on what I feel about the issue I’m depicting. To do that, the tools of a children’s book illustrator are quite useful. Metaphor and anthropomorphism and lettering and composition are all things that can really be useful when you’re trying to get a message across.”
Glace between Riddell’s fairy tales and political commentary and you’ll indeed see a similar array of fantastic vistas populated by monsters and anthropomorphic beasts. The main difference is bears in The Observer tend to be labelled with words such as “Election Scandal”, and the monsters tend to be orange-faced ghouls with names like the “President of the United States”.
“I think we’re very fortunate to have so much material to work with,” Riddell says. “At the same time, as human beings, we’re very unfortunate.”
“I think there’s increasing political engagement”
Is there a risk of having too much material? With each day’s news sometimes seeming like an increasingly deranged caricature, is there a danger of being overloaded by fodder for satire; becoming sodden, weighed down by it?
“I would say that is a danger if one became depoliticised, or apathetic,” says Riddell. “I think we’re seeing, a little bit like the beginning of the 60s, a fault-line in political attitudes. It’s a generational shift. I think there’s increasing political engagement rather than the opposite. There’s positivity out there as well as big problems.”
“In this day and age it is absurd”
I ask Riddell about a recent article by the BBC, calling out the gender imbalance in UK newspaper cartoon desks. That piece points to the fact that, out of close to 180 cartoons featured in last year’s edition of Britain’s Best Political Cartoons, not one was drawn by a woman. Is this “boys’ club” of political cartoons something he is aware of?
“You can quote me on this: I think in this day and age it is absurd,” he says.
“I can think of three of my contemporaries who are women. My career has spanned a good 25 years. One is the great Posy Simmonds, who is one of our great cartoonists. There’s Ros Asquith, who has worked at the Guardian for many years doing great work, and a third would be Nicola Jennings, who is a fine caricaturist. It’s absurd that I can only think of three.”
He goes on to say that in his children’s book work, the gender split is relatively equal. The print media world of newspapers – with its very small number of in-house staff – is particularly narrow in a way that other illustration jobs, or indeed non-print platforms, aren’t. “I talk to lots of students as I do various things, and I hope that it will change. I think certainly going online there are many women cartoonists who are self-publishing their work, and getting it out there under their own aegis.”
(Above: From Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse)
If Riddell suggests online publishing has the scope to undermine the traditional gateways for publication, he’s also adamant that political cartoonists of all types – whether they’re posting in a newspaper or on Twitter, have drawn in a sketchpad or a tablet – are all trying to get to the same place. “They’re fundamentally different tools that are leading to the same outcome, which is, for me, exciting visual commentary.”
For his talk, Riddell is drawing on an iPad – although he’s most at home with a sketchbook. He says that working with a tech-heavy toolset speeds up the process, making it easy to switch between mechanical pencils and charcoal without a trip to the art-supply stall. But there’s value in slowness, he adds. A tactile, craft-based approach can be seen a novelty at a time where images can be sent across the globe in less than the time it takes to draw an eyebrow.
“I’m in this very strange position now where I get excited designers coming up to me because I’ve sent in real artwork for them to design around. They say: we never get real artwork, we always get digital. And they get very excited. I feel I’m so old fashioned, so unfashionable, that I’ve become fashionable again.”