Chris Slane by Diana Wichtel
The Listener's esteemed political cartoonist.
The writing was on the wall for Chris Slane's original career choice when he handed in an essay entitled "The Role of Cartoons in Town Planning". Slane has gone on to become something of a cartooning cottage industry. His eclectic output over two decades has included award-winning political cartoons, the crazy 1989 television puppet series Space Knights and a street cred-enhancing invitation to illustrate a story for Dark Horse's Star Wars Tales comic series. Slane's graphic novel, Maui: Legends of the Outcast, has been hailed as "a deceptively sophisticated little number". As he toils over things like Don Brash's wobbly bits and the foreshore and seabed issue from the seabed's point of view, the Listener pops into the studio under his house for tea and brownies.
Do people tell you to get a grown-up job? It's always the first question people want to know. Is it a real job? Can you make a living? How poor are you going to be? I guess I started out living reasonably simply, but I managed to live in London for two years doing cartoons. I've never had a proper job.
Is it an isolated life? It could be. You're beavering away in your attic. That's why it's quite good to share an office. But you do need to hide yourself away to think of ideas. In a crowded office, staring off into space is considered slacking.
So that's how you get your ideas? I've heard it described as "directed daydreaming", which is quite good.
On a scale from gentle to Vlad the Impaler, how would you rate your political cartoons? I'm probably on the vicious side. I take it further from the reality than some. Portrait cartoonists like [Murray] Webb have a huge degree of realism. There's a caricature underneath, but there's all this beautiful painting on top. When I draw a politician for the first time, it starts real and gets further and further out. I want to reduce them down to more of a logo or a cipher.
Your Don Brash is pretty far out. I emphasise the wobbly bits, the great Deputy Dawg droop that he's got on the upper lip and eyebrows springing up to here. He seems to have about three lids, doesn't he? Once I've got to the stage where I really enjoy drawing them, I find excuses to put them into the cartoons. Helen Clark and Don Brash are now my favourites.
They say people start to look like their dogs. Does the same apply to their caricatures? You often find something essential in someone's face and it grows more so over the years. They start to look like your work.
Scary. Do you get much feedback from the, um, victims? No. If you get too many requests for purchases, it means you've been too flattering.
Cartoonist Peter Bromhead has said just making a cartoon look like a politician flatters them. That's a good excuse for making a quick drawing. People enjoy the act of recognition. It's about simplifying reality, taking out the essential elements and reproducing them. I think that's in all art something we recognise that we're hard-wired to appreciate. Spotting the tiger's face in the bushes.
Political cartoonists often seem like angry people. I think some are, but I'm not. I do sympathise a bit with politicians. They're human. But I don't think that's an excuse not to be satirised. Their human foibles are there to see and I'll be unfair to them all equally.
A week is a long time in politics. How do you choose what to do? It's tricky. You've got to think what will still be relevant when it's printed. If there's something big in the week, it's easy. Apart from 9/11. It was terrible to have to do a cartoon on that. It was right on deadline day.
That must feel like a huge responsibility. Yeah, when there's a tragedy, you either go all soppy or try to find someone to attack or criticise over it. It's going to cause offence if it's too out there. It's not going to be funny, that's for sure.
What did you come up with? It was a picture of the old Statue of Liberty. There was smoke in the background. That was about it. The horror.
Political cartooning is seen as something of a dark art. It's much easier to be negative than positive when it comes to cartoons. If you want to be positive about something, you find the negative of that and be critical of it. Otherwise you come across as a missionary and humour goes out the window.
How do you work computer or the traditional way? Both.
You do other things, too. I do storyboarding for ad agencies. Occasionally, I do modelling work 3-D cartoons, basically. I made the Germy Jims.
The what? You know, Germy Jims that hang under the toilet rim? I made those and puppeteered them. And the actual Toilet Duck itself. It gets me out.
Anything you'd really like to do? I'd like to do more comics. I've got some ideas going. It's horribly labour-intensive. My spot cartoons [see the Listener's Letters pages] have been syndicated in the US. There's a website over there, politicalcartoons.com, that takes your cartoons and resells them. It's American dollars.
Do you know where they go? You can look them up. One went to a women's erotic-writing magazine.
Yikes. You've gone global. Exporting cartoons on the Internet, yeah.
It's a good living. My father [former Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane] used to say I looked like a student all the time. He's given up saying that now.
NZLISTENER September 17-23 2005 Vol 200 No 3410
From Maui to Darth Maul
Chris Slane’s comic adventures in Aotearoa have transported him to a galaxy far, far away...
Eight years ago the Godwit Press published Maui: Legends of the Outcast, a graphic novel by Chris Slane and Robert Sullivan. Slane was a political cartoonist who’d been designing puppets for TV. Sullivan was a poet of Ngapuhi/ Irish ancestry. Together their work proved a hit, winning accolades from as far away as the United States. The Comics Journal described the Maui book as a ‘gift from the gods’, finding it "difficult to believe that a book this elegant, bold and mature could simply materialize out of nowhere." Of course, it didn’t. Maui’s sophistication and elegance had much to do with Slane’s fluid artwork and keen sense of narrative imagery, developed over many years in the trade.
Slane had been introduced to cartooning at primary school when it was Carl Barks’ Disney artwork and the War Picture Library series that first got him hooked. "Going to a school friend’s house there was a cellar literally full of classic British war comics," Slane recalls. " My friend eventually got bored but I spent hours in there looking at the great detailed art."
Later, he showed up at Auckland University’s Craccum offices, filling the gaps in the copy with drawings on deadline night for then-editor Louise Chunn. After finishing a degree in Town Planning, Slane wrote and drew a cartoon book for Auckland Regional Council landscape architects which apparently sealed his fate once and for all. He dropped town planning and took up a career as a cartoonist. Slane has since won several Qantas awards for his cartoons and is currently editorial cartoonist for the NZ Listener. But the Maui book is his most sustained piece of comic artwork to date."At the time of working on Maui, I was reading Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave Mckean, Jaques Tardi, George Pratt, and I found Mike Mignola’s graphic style very compelling," Slane says.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time that the Maui character had been rendered as a comic hero. In the 1970s Dick Frizzel had been commissioned to do a series of Maui stories in comic form for the School Journals and Slane took the opportunity to look up the local pop art painter to see that he wasn’t repeating something that had already been done before. "Dick invited me to his studio and showed me his original boards for his Maui - fantastic draughtsmanship! He had been greatly impressed by the Marvel school of dynamic figure drawing," Slane recalls. "Frizzel approached Maui as a kind of Maori superman, whereas Robert and I wanted to emphasize Maui’s role as the outsider - a damaged spirit who returns in an human form to plague the society which rejected him. We wanted to get away from the view of the legends as simply fairy stories for children with a Maori flavour. Our reading of the symbolism pushed us in a darker and hopefully more dramatic direction."
New Zealand publishing requirements for the Maui book demanded a glossy hard-cover format suitable for bookshops and local libraries rather than the traditional paper-bound format of most American comics. This gave the finished production a classy European feel and flavour. "I greatly admired those European graphic albums," says Slane, whose luscious designs took full advantage of the book’s quality production values.
Eight years on, Maui is still selling overseas. Last year Slane did a deal with Steve Malley of Antipodes Publishing to distribute it in the United States. This was followed by an invitation to illustrate a story for Dark Horse’s Star Wars Tales series. "Lucas Films approved me after seeing the Maui book," Slane says. American writer, Christian Read scripted the story ('Nameless' in Star Wars Tales #10, 2001) which built upon the Darth Maul character originally devised for the Phantom Menace film. Slane set about to use what he’d learned on the Maui project to help bring the Star Wars universe to life.
More than any other cartoon work he’d done before, the Star Wars comic won the approval and respect of Slane's children. The job also posed some new and interesting challenges for the artist. "At first, the emphasis for me was just getting an existing character right from all angles, angles you never see in the film, while giving him my own twist," Slane says. "Next, I wanted to emphasise the uneasy predator-threat feeling you get looking at the movie Darth Maul - the camouflaged tiger stalking you in the jungle. In his case it must have been a red-coloured jungle planet, I imagine. In the background I added elements of an alien-kiwi bush as scenery."
Colours were rendered in the States by Guillia Brusco and Matt Hollingsworth, from one of the studios that colours Mike Mingola’s Hellboy, a key influence upon the look and feel of Slane's original Maui comic. You can see some of these pages on www.slane.co.nz or visit the New Zealand cartoonists website on www.nzcartoons.co.nz where Slane and other local editorial cartoonists showcase their portfolios, sell originals and help raise the general profile of the art form. May the force be with them.
By Tim Bollinger for Pavement magazine
Hung, quartered and drawn. The Listener's poltical cartoonist attends a conference of his peers. Article By Chris Slane
The stench of softness and genteelism wafts through your newspaper, your political cartoons are just a cheap form of sucking flattery, but no offence!
Pithy comments from the Nosferatu-like presence of Peter Bromhead and others livened up a series of free-ranging workshops at the first ever conference of editorial cartoonists in Wellington last month, hosted by the cartoon archive of the National Library in Wellington.
The mystery of why so few women were present was not solved by the gathering of mainly blokes. The suggestion that perhaps women didn’t possess that gene led to a blatantly sexist discussion of other missing genes, such as the infamous “video timer-setting” gene. Perhaps they just don’t have the time to waste, or is it sensitivity to caricatures? Ruth Richardson, offended by one cartoonist’s wide depiction, once issued an invitation to examine her pecks, close up.
Former prime ministers and newspaper editors were also fair game for the poison pens drawn up before them. Dominion assistant editor Frank Stefanski was pack-mauled for his paper’s free-market approach to cartoonists. Like old-time seagulling on the wharves, a flock of freelence cartoonists must send a cartoon in the hope of being published that day.
There has often been a sudued tension between cartoonists and editors but rarely does it boil over in the same way as in the case of one Australian cartoonist who, exasperated by constant editorial criticism, stamped into his editor's office and slammed a newly won cartoon trophy down on desk. " I don't give a stuff what packet of cereal you get your prizes out of- you're still no bloody good!' snapped the editor. The heavy bronze just missed his head.
Editors are not necessarily the best judge of whether a cartoon is funny, admitted Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis. In the long years of Minhinnick's reign at the Herald there was simply no divergence between the views of the editor and the cartoonist. The two roles need to be separate, Ellis believes, to allow original voices to be heard. A good working relationship between editor and cartoonist seems to be the key factor in determining how much creative freedom a cartoonist enjoys.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer outlined the "wonderful byzantine compexity " of New Zealand's defamation laws. Cartoonists enjoy a greater freedom than writers in attacking politicians he believes, because the cartoon is more obviously comment. Our juries have been loathe to reward politicians for taking cartoonists to court. Has he ever sued for defamation himself? Only to preserve the reputation of the Prime Ministers office -of course.
That's what they all say, Jim Bolger once revealed a similar attitude about Garrick Tremain, saying "Doesn't he know if he attacks me he attacks the country?"
Perhaps our best potential cartoonists such as Alan Moir are lured across the ditch by big bikkies. (Junior cartoonists start on $50'000pa while top Australian editorial cartoonists can earn as much as A$250-300,000pa.- more than their editors.) The Bulletin magazine was at it's ciculation peak in the days when it published more than 60 cartoons per issue, from 25-30 cartoonists. Cut the numbers back and watch circulations drop, noted cartoonist Lindsay Foyle. The body representing cartoonists, the Black and White Artists Club is moving away from awards piss-ups getting more proactive- from running cartoon workshops in provincial schools and conferences.
For cartoons to develop, editors must positively encourage cartoonists, but cartoonists to should also think outside the square:- business pages need cartoons too, syndicate yourselves, and in the words of Black and White Artists Club president, Rod Emmerson:" get in the faces of editors and journos." Not just the in the faces of politicians. Judging from this forum, our cartoonists may have begun to do just that.
Bolger, after looking at the great number of cartoons had at the expense of politicians: " shouldn't people like you be paying us?"
"Oh, but we are, Mr Bolger," replied Mrs Tremain.
The hands that rock the boat
Manipulating our politicians on TV'S Tonight show.
by Gilbert Wong NZ LISTENER, SEPTEMBER 6,1986
D AVID LANGE has a peculiarly fixed gleam to his eye as he speaks: "Well, well. I'm just relaxing after a very hectic day trying to sweep a $2 billion deficit under Roger Douglas's carpet."
There's something not quite right with the Prime Minister. His stare is a little too manic, his five o'clock shadow has reached 10 o'clock. And he's only about a metre tall. This Lange is a puppet - not in the CIA sense of the word, but for real as taping begins for the political satire sequence on the Tonight show. Earlier the Prime Minister was in pieces, literally - torso in a battered old Aulsebrooks biscuit carton, head in a black cardboard coffin sized for an infant - but now he's almost ready to address the nation. His gaze is positively acrylic, his face latex rubber.
Puppeteers Chris Slane, Bill Paynter and Malcolm Walker have spent half an hour grooming the Prime Minister and scattering junk food cartons artfully on his prop podium. Manipulating Lange isn't easy. It's a two-person job. This morning Paynter is the main operator, right hand inside the Lange puppet's mouth, left flapping the puppet's left hand, while Slane hunches down operating the right.
Beside them and also crouched behind the podium, Malcolm Walker waits to prompt them as the script dictates. Nestled in front of them is a video monitor on which they check that Lange is doing what he's supposed to. It is exhausting work under the bright, hot television lights and as Slane says, "We don't do a lot of juggling." The aim is satire but getting it on air is a serious and hectic business.
On Monday, the three wrote the script with the help of two others, Phil Parker and Stephen Stratford. On Tuesday the script was couriered to Wellington for mimic Danny Faye to do a voice tape. On Wednesday the puppeteers practised their moves, and this morning it's Thursday and time to lip-synch the puppets to the tape for screening on air at l0pm tonight.
As Faye's version of the Prime Minister plays over the studio sound system, Paynter's own lips mouth the monologue, while his right hand, in Lange's mouth, moves like a demented duck.
Sometimes Faye gives a word an unexpected inflection or stumbles over a phrase: Paynter groans and modifies the movements he has practised. The two-minute sequence will take more than two hours to finish.
For the technicians in TVNZ's Hobson Street studio, the puppetry is a novel experience. Normally unfazed by the machinations of television and inured to the flash of celebrity, they pause to watch these manic puppeteers.
The group calls itself Hands Up and the puppets are a sideline for them all. Walker is an architect and cartoonist, Paynter an illustrator for the New Zealand Herald and Slane is a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. It is Slane who models the heads and who pooled the talents of his friends for this economy-sized Spitting Image.
"I guess we are doing a similar thing to Spitting Image," says Slane. "But I started work on puppets before the programme reached New Zealand." That was back in 1984. Slane had been working as a cartoonist, but wanted a more realistic three-dimensional outlet for his work. He went to the library and discovered latex rubber. Or, more precisely, read up on how to model it.
His first effort was Muldoon as an economic wizard. Slane produced posters of the politician as necromancer but the snap election undermined his topicality. With the success of Spitting Image, Slane approached Eye Witness News with the idea of adding political commentary via puppets. After a few trial runs Eye Witness News decided news and satire was not a good mixture. However Tonight producer Andrew Shaw took up the idea and Hands Up were given a fortnightly slot, alternating initially with Warren Mayne.
As with Spitting Image the puppets let the Hands Up team get away with a lot more than if live actors were used. When McLay was deposed, the puppeteers had their Bolger puppet waving a decapitated McLay head. A brutal scene compared to the civilised chat and cabaret acts typically seen on the show.
"It's the same reason political cartoonists get away with blatant comment which might get a newspaper sued if written down in black and white. People recognise a cartoon serves a satirical purpose, but few people will take a cartoon really seriously even if it depicts serious events," says Slane. Even so TVNZ lawyers vet the scripts before they go to air and one of the group, Stratford, is a journalist with an ear for what might be slanderous. "So far, we've lost things more on the grounds of taste," says Slane. He won't be drawn on what was cut.
Slane takes heart from the fact that the vitriolic Spitting Image has never been sued successfully. The only time it was taken to court, it was not the puppets that were at issue, but rather a photo montage of a prominent politician's head atop a nude which was flashed onto the screen.
"The Spitting Image people feel that you actually can't get sued as the puppets are not real people, so nobody could take them literally -but that's a technical point," Slane adds.
As far as comparisons go, Hands Up feel that Spitting Image is more a vehicle for writers. "I've heard that the writers actually get annoyed because people are distracted by the life-like puppets and don't pay attention to the dialogue," Slane says. "What we are, though, is cartoonists. Our sense of humour is mainly visual and that's been a problem. We have a tendency to fill the sequence with visual jokes. But now we realise that most people aren't going to pick them up over the brief time the puppets are on air and the jokes will only clutter the set and obscure the points we're trying to make."
The important difference is that Hands Up is indigenous and its targets local. As yet the group has not heard from the politicians they are sandbagging, but producer Andrew Shaw seems happy to let them continue despite the special demands made on time and people. The group tries to keep their material relevant to their audience, and the restrictions of time and what a puppet can do mean the sketches are kept simple and direct. "We just get together and pick one or two things that have happened and try to put a lateral twist to them that's going to hit home to the person in the street," says Slane.
"We feel that too often political commentators possess too precise a knowledge, their information is at a level removed from what most people see as important."
Hands Up see numbers as an essential part of their operation. "We reckon the problem with comedy scriptwriting here is that not enough people are involved and consequently not enough is edited out. Look at The Two Ronnies or Monty Python -they had huge teams of writers," says Slane. Huge teams of writers might be their ideal, but the limited Hands Up budget is their reality. Slane is not sure the work would be worth it if money were the only consideration, but it isn't. With three of the group cartoonists, they value the chance to see their characters move and live on screen.
"That's the major satisfaction for any cartoonist normally restricted to two dimensions in strip cartoons."
As budget and time permit, Hands Up will extend its cast of characters: Roger Douglas was a recent candidate for the rubber treatment and Slane is now constructing his first full-scale Muldoon puppet. Expanding the cast list will depend to some extent on getting people to do the voices, but as Slane says, "Give us the budget and we could do anything.''
NORTH SOUTH MAGAZINE CONTRBUTORS BIO
Town planning and cartoons don't have an obvious association but Chris Slane managed to combine the two in a paper he wrote as part of his degree called "The Role Of Cartoons In Town Planning". He says it was to the mutual benefit of him and the town planning profession that he went straight into working as a cartoonist. The Auckland-based cartoonist's career began to take shape while he was studying town planning and making illustrations for Craccum, the Auckland University student magazine. Since graduating, Slane has had "no real jobs" and has worked as a freelance cartoonist, contributing to a number of publications over the last two decades, such as the Listener, Metro and AA magazines. A benefit of working in a small market like New Zealand he believes is it creates the need to develop a range of styles. For Slane this has included his well-known political cartoons, a graphic novel called Maui:Legends Of The Outcast, and puppet making for the television series of the early 1990s called Space Knights. He has won the Qantas Cartoonist Of The Year award three times and twice won the Qantas Editorial Graphics Artist Award.
Random House Profile:
Chris Slane has made fun of politicians, battled space knights and scared small children into thinking their bottoms might be bitten on the toilet.
This should indicate that Chris’s career is a bit out of the ordinary. It is. Chris Slane is one of New Zealand’s most prolific and long running cartoonists.
With more than 20 years experience in his profession, he says his client list is in the thousands. He’s produced regular and one-off work for newspapers and magazines such as the NZ Listener, Metro, The Herald, Farmer’s Weekly and worked with corporate clients including Ogilvy NZ Ltd, Yamaha, Southern Cross, Instant Kiwi, 2Degrees and many more.
It started way back in his Uni days while he was studying towards a Bachelor of Town Planning degree, because, he says, “my parents were keen I had a qualification to fall back on”.
Behind the scenes, his alter ego was drawing cartoons for the University of Auckland’s student magazine, Craccum. Like many graduates, he headed to England on his OE and whilst there managed to squeeze in freelance cartooning jobs with organisations like the Brandt Commission.
The real work started when Chris got back in 1982 and took the plunge into full time freelance cartooning. He has not looked back.
“I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist,” he says, “but at that time, fulltime positions at all the newspapers were taken, and everyone knew the incumbents would basically stay there until they died.”
“I looked at the wider opportunities, picked up a contract with the Auckland Regional Council (ARC) and built my business up from there.”
Chris says that towards the end of the eighties and into the nineties there was a tremendous wave of new magazines starting up, which led to huge opportunities for freelance cartoonists and illustrators.
It was then too that newspapers moved away from in-house cartoonists and towards freelancing that part of their business out another opportunity that Chris was quick to take advantage of.
“I also built my portfolio up with commercial work through advertising agencies, who were always interested in illustrators for their storyboards.”
It was through his advertising work that Chris took a fascinating step sideways into the wonderful world of model making and puppetry initially for TV commercials and then for a 22-episode children’s series called, Space Knights.
“The work was some of the most interesting and challenging that I’ve ever done,” says Chris. “How many people can claim to have recreated New Zealand’s “Germy-Jims under the rim” - without teeth - after a wave of complaints from mothers whose kids were scared of what was lurking under their toilet seats!”
Chris was also responsible for the Toilet Duck himself, as well as a Chef cat head and a Mutant Ninja Turtle for other TV ads. Then the Space Knights opportunity came up with TVNZ.
“At the time TVNZ were interested in developing a political puppetry show along similar lines to the English show Spitting Image,” says Chris. “They knew that I’d been extending my cartooning into 3D caricatures of politicians and after their idea for a similar NZ-based political show fell through, I was asked to come on board as Chief Puppeteer for a new kids puppet show.”
Chris says he had six weeks to make eight puppets for Space Knights, develop flow charts for project managing the job and manage the team of puppet makers. It was a pressured time but one that left him with strong project management skills he used on other jobs like Maui Legends of the Outcast, a graphic novel he worked on with poet Robert Sullivan.
Another interesting sideline that Chris has developed over the many years is an international business in selling privacy cartoons.
“My father was the first New Zealand Privacy Commissioner and I did a few cartoons for him at the time he was in office,” Chris says, “However, I’ve discovered it’s a boom business overseas and my cartoons are selling to multinationals like Microsoft, Shell Corporation, Telstra Australia - who all have to deal with privacy laws, especially when they are moving into new markets such as the EEC.”
Over the 20-plus years that Chris has been in business he’s noticed that while some things stay the same, other aspects of the profession have moved on.
“Much of my work is still completely freehand using watercolour and inks like the cartoons for the NZ Listener. But now that computers are affordable [they used to cost $15,000 rather than $2,000 - $3,000] cartoonists can use subtle tones of colour and pencil, and it reproduces well with the higher quality scanners and graphic programmes that are available.”
He still gets asked the perennial question “How can you make a living at that?” but says he’s never had a problem finding work.
“I was lucky to get started in a time of enormous change for New Zealand media, so I’ve never needed a formal qualification in art or journalism,” he says. “And in my profession, you are still judged by your portfolio. What counts is your experience and talent, rather than your qualifications.”
Select Bibliography more
"Nice Day For A War- Adventures Of A Kiwi Soldier In World War One" RRP: $29.99 | HARPERCOLLINS |Non-standard Paperback | 96pp colour | ISBN13: 978186950901
"Billy T James Real Hard Case Book" 48 pp BW Beckett Publishing (1986) ISBN 908676-13-1
Art By Chris Slane ( 25,000 copies? )
"Billy T James Real Hard Case Book #2" 48 pp BW Beckett Publishing 1987 ISBN 908676-28-X
Art By Chris Slane ( 25,000 copies? )
Sheep Thrills Godwit Press (1989) ISBN 1-86954-004-2 ( 5000 copies )
Maui: Legends of the Outcast. 48 pp Colour Godwit Publishing, ( Random House )
New Zealand © 1996 ISBN: 0 908877 97 8
"Let me through, I have a morbid curiosity" ( SB NZ$14.95 24 pages B&W )
ISBN 0-473-05472-8 (1998 1000 copies self-published)
"Blokes, Jokes and Sheds" Random House NZ. 2009
Softback, A5, 80 pages. NZ$24.99 RRP
Winner NZPost Children's Book of the Year Award 2012, Children's Non-Fiction Award 2012, , LIANZA Non Fiction Award Elsie Locke Medal Winner 2012, for 'Nice Day For A War' with Matt Elliott
Canon Cartoonist Of The Year, 2010. Qantas Cartoonist of the Year, 1986, 1988. Qantas Editorial Graphic Artist 1990, 1994.