Book Reviews: Cheerfulness Seems Out Of Caricature, Or Drawing The Line Somewhere

December 20, 2014



Jerm: Comedy Club                                                                   6

Zapiro: It’s Code Red                                                                 6.5

Stephen Francis & Rico: Send In The Clowns                         6

Zapiro & Mike Wills: Democrazy                                             7.5


Remember when cartoons were funny? Neither do South Africa’s leading satirists, who more than ever are compelled to reflect the quirks and murky truths of South African politics and society with a polished mirror rather than viewing goings on with those joke shop glasses that have eyeballs dangling from them on springs.

This has a two-pronged effect for readers: the material produced is quite often less entertaining than it used to be, but the insight of the cartoonists – and their talent for expressing it visually – is more important than ever.

This year’s crop of annuals from the trio at the top of the game locally – Zapiro, Stephen Francis & Rico (two guys; one creation in Madam & Eve) and Jerm – don’t make for happy reading.

Jerm’s Comedy Club, the cover for which features a sketch of Jacob Zuma getting laughed at while protesting that he hasn’t even told a joke yet, is the loosest option in terms of theme, with Jeremy Nell skipping all over the place in topic and idea terms. This lack of focus can be frustrating, but Jerm’s artistic talent, influenced by a number of classic cartoons (Wile E Coyote makes a few guest appearances), remains an arresting facet of his offering, so a one-off visual comment might be what sticks with you long after you’ve explored other major news events of the year.

Conversely, Zapiro’s It’s Code Red is carefully planned out, structured in such a way that it provides a narrative for the year that was. Again, there’s not much cause for cheer, as the newsmakers of the year – Zuma, Julius Malema, Thuli Madonsela, Oscar Pistorius and a cast of inept or corrupt lesser “stars” based in Parliament or at one of SA’s ailing parastatals – are shown (because it’s the reality) getting away with murder, literally and figuratively. It’s a depressing read, frankly, but an important one in that it helps readers maintain perspective and, or so cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro must fervently hope, make informed decisions about the subjects examined.

The title for the Madam & Eve collection says it all: Send In The Clowns indeed. Writer Stephen Francis and cartoonist Rico Schacherl have to continue a narrative using characters created over two decades ago while including current affairs in their storyline, which enables them to dull the sharpest edgest of their satire (though their tendency to do so is decreasing as the topics become more deserving of sanction). The characters allow the inclusion of more benign themes than Jerm and Zapiro generally tackle, but again – through no fault of the creators – this 2014 title often evokes more of a grimace than a smile.

The other major cartoon annual released this year has a little more to offer, because it looks at proceedings from a wider angle. Democrazy is a retrospective of the 20 years since SA’s first democratic elections as recorded by Zapiro, with added text by Mike Wills. It’s an excellent overview of the period in terms of politics and the general mood of the country, thick with pathos, leavened by the occasional laugh.

On the one hand, it’s as worrying as the single-year retrospectives discussed above, but it has one great strength the others don’t – and can’t – have. It shows that ridiculous, needlessly destructive behaviour is not new (that’s not the good bit), thereby helping readers who are still upright, making money, owning property and all the rest to extrapolate – finally – the unsaid positive behind the exhausting emotional slog that all of the work reviewed here, taken together, is.

The positive? That readers affected by the figures and themes satirised have survived such nonsense two or three times already and continued, somehow, to thrive. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be such hard work. In this world, accountability by cartoon is still a necessary, useful concept.