Martin Rowson: "Tyrants hate cartoons"

3rd May 2018

To celebrate the birthday of Karl Marx, indie comic book publisher Self Made Hero has teamed up with cartoon laureate Martin Rowson to bring out a graphic novel version of his famous work The Communist Manifesto.

The comic book is now an Amazon bestseller (despite Rowson telling people not to buy from the retail giant). As part of our Workers Week, The Overtake spoke to Rowson about taking the piss out of politicians, the state of satire and dental hygiene during the French Revolution.

Why The Communist Manifesto?

Self Made Hero rang me up and said, “Do you fancy doing The Communist Manifesto?” and I got it immediately in my head, which is how these things work. And also Marx is unfinished business — we go back a long way.

About eight years ago I started working on a graphic novel version of Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx but because I got my son to script-write it — he was starting out in movies at the time — I had nothing to do except draw it and I went through a classic case of Marxist alienation.

I got bored with just doing the drawings. He had written it all and normally when I do a graphic novel I make it up as I go along because it makes it more interesting that way. I don’t bother with storyboards; I just send the whole thing out. It took me about seven months to do five pages then I gave up, sent Wheen the artwork and paid back the advance. So Marx was unfinished business and I’d occasionally have this idea in my head of doing a completely silent version of Das Kapital, done like a silent movie.

You can see how easily people look at this pamphlet, which has been turned into a sacred text, by people who have got Marx wrong

Then when [Self Made Hero] asked I thought “Yes, yes, yes!” because I know what it looks like in my head. It’s this great rolling tsunami of the clash of classes, and history, and tectonic plates of capitalism and labour grinding together. And then it turns into standup comedy. That’s the way the book goes.

And you can see how easily people look at this pamphlet, which has been turned into a sacred text, by people who have got Marx wrong as far as I’m concerned. We forget that he wrote it in a weekend in Brussels at the end of January 1848 because the Communist League in London said: “We commissioned you to do this months ago, if you don’t finish it by the end of January, we’ll get somebody else to do the job.”

Bloody hell, I know that feeling. When you say most people get Marx wrong, how do you mean?

In my reading of Marx, and I first read The Communist Manifesto when I was 16 and I got it straight away, it’s a very clever, slightly dishonest mechanism for cheering us up about the inexorable rise of capitalism and the oppression of vast swathes of humanity. It says: “[Capitalism] contains the seeds of its own destruction, don’t worry we’ll be fine.”

It’s just to sort of cheer you up in the struggle which has been going on for the last five and half thousand years between people in control of the state and the people. I read the other day it wasn’t until the 1600s that the majority of humankind actually lived understates, so this is a very new thing in the concepts of being a human being. But it’s an ancient struggle between the powerful and the powerless. It’s not necessarily between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, it’s always about the person up there, who is imposing their will on you, who is trying to screw you with taxes whilst trying to force you to fight their wars and that’s been going on forever.

Will it be easier to express those quite dry economic concepts to readers in a comic form?

Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, to make it graphic. It’s a graphic novel; it’s sort of on the side of the tin. Certainly, I’ve done it in a cartoony way. There is another graphic novel version of The Communist Manifesto but they shape them all as superheroes in a Marvel-DC way, but that’s not the point. It’s got to be more cartoony than comic book. It’s not got to be like those Marxism for beginners which explain it all, I just had to take the words and see what happened when I filter those words through my consciousness and what I made up.

I rather like my depiction of the means of production, which is a monstrous automaton, which is a toilet with arms and legs and a long giraffe-like neck going up to a cash register

There are creations that I’ve come up with which I’m pretty pleased with. I rather like my depiction of the means of production, which is a monstrous automaton, which is a toilet with arms and legs and a long giraffe-like neck going up to a cash register. It just picks up an entire class of people and flushes them down the shitter basically, which of course is what happens. I hope it will make people laugh and I hope it will make clear what Marx was actually talking about.

You said that you could immediately see it in your head, were there no bits you thought “this is going to be hard to express visually”?

Marx was a hack in many ways. He was hitting deadlines and he had certain stylistic ticks. One of his favourites was a paradox. He’d say, “something is like that, but in fact, it’s like that” and he’d just riff on these going on and on and on.

I’ve cut down the text by about half but I think I’ve kept all the important stuff in

Thank god my wife retired a few years ago because she’s now doing a philosophy degree at Birkbeck and there were some phrases – I’d stare at them hours thinking “What the fuck does this mean?” (Laughs) – and she’d spend an hour explaining them to me and I’d say, “Ah yes I can do a drawing that explains that.”

I could see the overall shape of it, in my head, but I couldn’t see all the details. Of course, I’ve adapted it, I’ve cut down the text by about half but I think I’ve kept all the important stuff in.

That’s good. It’s probably fair to say that you’re pretty left wing from what I’ve read about you?

Yeah, you could say that.

Is it more difficult to satirise left-wing figures particularly if you might agree with them?

Well, no. The thing is I’m not partisan. I was a member of the communist party for about a week when I was a student and I thought “I’m not hanging around this bunch of tyrants”, but there are three kinds of politics as I see it: The politics that seeks to wield power, the politics that usurp power and the politics which seek to thwart power.

Jeremy Corbyn should have stayed firmly in the third type of politics because his destiny was to be a backbench irritant that constantly holds up a mirror to politics and say “You bastards, stop behaving like that”. He has no business being prime minister; he has no business wielding power, that’s not his historical function. He, of course, would disagree with me about that.

It’s very, very important for people like me to constantly be enabling readers to laugh at the people who think they’re in charge

I’m firmly in the camp of trying to thwart power, so it’s my job as a satirist, to say to whoever is trying to seek power “Actually your feet are clay. You’re just like the rest of us. You’re not a god. You’re not a genius, you shit. You’re gonna die. And also you have stupid ears” or whatever. It’s a caricature. Not only is that an honourable kind of politics, it is also an important one. It’s very, very important for people like me to constantly be enabling readers to laugh at the people who think they’re in charge and seek to impose their will on everybody else and that includes philosophers, economists as well as politicians and other tyrants.

I reread your strip in The Corbyn Comic this morning and was struck by the last panel, were Corbynman is trapped by Brexitite and only the Momentum-Kid can save him. It never occurred to me before that this is a criticism of his Brexit policy.

Yes, it is, absolutely. (Laughing) He gets jizzed over by an exploding something or other. I’m not a huge fan of Jeremy Corbyn because he wants to be prime minister and I don’t think anybody should be prime minister. Actually, I think a committee of wise bureaucrats is probably best. People’s personal ambition is a very dangerous thing. Boris Johnson wants to be prime minister for no other reason than he wants to be prime minister and consequentially he should be sectioned under the mental health act.

Also, there is this terrible trait on the left, this legacy of Leninism, which is to big up the leader, to have this kind of cult of personality, to say, “Comrade Stalin saved us from everything”. These are people who, in all other regards, I agree with the policies of. These are nice, good, kind people who want the best for everybody but their worship of Jeremy Corbyn, I just find baffling. Last year, I had a Twitter spat with somebody who was accusing me of being personally responsible for the existence of food banks in this country because of the way I draw Jeremy Corbyn’s hat.

That’s a bit much.

That is a bit much. Who knew I had such power? It’s ridiculous. But, if you subscribe to a politics which is so fragile it can’t have people like me going “yah-boo” from the sidelines, you need to revisit the whole thing really.

I always feel that the right are quite good a closing ranks and their satire points outwards, whereas the left has lots of infighting and tend to satirise one another.

I think that’s true. It is part of the joy of left, is the mad factionalism. People are often saying satire is a right-wing phenomenon or it’s a left-wing phenomenon, it’s neither. It is across the board. You can have left-wing cartoonists, you can have right-wing cartoonist and you can have cartoonists from the middle who are just commenting on things. I always subscribe to the idea of satire is like the American journalist H.L.Menken’s definition of journalism “to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted”, so personally I only ever punch upwards, I never kick down. I only attack people for their opinions not for what they are. I don’t attack their gender or the sexuality or ethnicity because they can’t change that for the most part, without having serious surgery, whereas their opinion, they can change on a sixpence if they saw the light.

I was thinking about cartooning and it’s quite a cruel form of satire because you always have to depict your target, and it’s almost always as some form of grotesque, it’s never a handsome, flattering caricature.

That’s right. It is pretty foul (Laughs).  But that’s part of the process. It’s a very ancient, primitive art form. I keep telling people because I think it’s really interesting — I’ve been a cartoonist for 35 years, it’s been made very clear to me in the hierarchy of newspapers that even though they say “oh yes Martin we love your work”, I am down in the servants quarters having an old pork pie and a glass of Mackeson, whilst the columnists are up there drinking sherry with cabinet ministers and the director general of the UN and things like that.

That’s because they denigrate us because they’re writers. They think writing is the ultimate thing and drawing is basically just for children. That’s an attitude that I’ve encountered over and over again, that it’s stuff for kids, like colouring in. In fact, the oldest known drawing is 40,000 years old. There is a drawing of a pig on a wall in a cave in Indonesia and language is probably 50,000 years old. We draw in the same way that we speak, we do both of these things so we can re-narrativise reality, so we can replay the same notes by telling stories, this is through pictures as well. Writing is five and half thousand years old and is a by-product of accountancy.

There is a very good reason why you see theocratic and political tyrants hate drawing

Drawing is laden with all this stuff through millennia of millennia and one of the things it does is encompass sympathetic magic. I’ve encountered this so often. When I’ve actually drawn people in life, I shape-shift them slightly through caricature, by exaggerating things and it’s as if I’ve taken their souls. I somehow end up having control over them. And that’s part of the purpose of a political cartoon, it’s to denigrate the person just through the fact of drawing them.

There is a very good reason why you see theocratic and political tyrants hate drawing. They hate cartoons, they hate caricatures. Hitler didn’t have to get the Gestapo to draw up a death list of British cartoonists who would have been shot on sight had the Nazis invaded Britain, but he did because he felt threatened by the fact that someone was taking control away from him just by depicting his image.

There are friends of mine who are currently about to stand trial in Malaysia for the way they draw the Malaysian President. There is the Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart who has just been sentenced to three years and nine months in prison for the way he draws Erdogan, he’s been accused of being behind the coup and all this sort of thing. All the time there are these great, powerful, godlike politicians who are so insecure they can’t have people like me doing stupid drawings of them.

I’ve written comics occasionally and I’m always in envy of artists because illustration isn’t trapped by language barriers. Particularly with cartooning, everyone can understand what the message is supposed to be.

That’s the thing, whilst I was doing The Communist Manifesto I was thinking, “I think this might bring this book back to life again”. That wasn’t necessarily why I was doing it, I was doing because Self Made Hero has a history of adaptations of great works of literature, it’s what they do and it was a challenge I thought it would be quite nice to do. Who knows what’s going to happen.

Talking about cartoonist going on trial, that’s not likely to happen to you but given how polarised politics has become, are you afraid of any backlash?

If you go to the Guardian website, where my article is, they’ve got comments underneath and the last time I counted them there were 700, of which about half say, “When are you going to do Mein Kamp?”, which is just equating Marx with tyranny. There are certainly people out there who are going to hate this. I’m waiting for the Marxist backlash because there are going to be a lot of Marxists who hate this as well.

One of the first gigs I had as a cartoonist was a series I sold to The New Statesman in 1982 which is called Scenes from the Lives of Great Socialist which was a series of really stupid and contrived puns based around the tenets of socialism. It was Bakunin and Proudhon having tea in Tunbridge Wells and Bakunin says, “This is disgusting, it isn’t proper tea at all,” and Proudhon says, “Yes but all proper-tea is theft” and so on.

When that came out as a book, it ran for a year and Collets, which was a left-wing bookstore on Charing Cross Road had complaints from people saying “you shouldn’t be stocking this” because it was mocking the holy texts of the prophets.

There’s always been a humourless leftism out there. It’s not just the left; it’s any political group that think things are far too serious to laugh about, whilst I believe in Orwell’s idea that every joke is a tiny revolution.

I read a few years ago an article about French dentistry in the 18 century, as you do, and apparently the quality of French dentistry nosedives after the French Revolution because it was considered wholly inappropriate to smile or laugh. People never showed their teeth in public because everything was far too serious “Why are you laughing?” People were guillotined for laughing. “Why are you joking about the terrible misery of the people?” Whereas I think the reason why we have laughter is because of the terrible misery of the people, we’re all bloody miserable we may as well have a laugh as well.

I’ll ask you one last question before a let you go. Like my first, it pretty boring and been asked of so many comedians and satirists. Is satire harder now with Trump and Brexit and Theresa May?

It is forever the case that satire is sat scratching its balls in bed — unfortunately, satire is probably a male construct so it has balls but not very big ones — while reality has gone five times around the world and is pissing in satire’s slippers. Satire is always been one-upped by reality.

The death of satire has been announced way too early. Tom Lehrer, the great comic songwriter quit when Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize. Satire could never create that and they said the same after the death of Diana, the same after 9/11. But we’ll always need satire because we have these people that we have to laugh at otherwise we’d go mad with existentialist terror at the idea that Theresa May is in charge of our destiny.

Trump and Boris Johnson are very, very similar in many ways. Both of them are narcissists

In the case of Trump and the resurgence of the genuinely Nazi right who are now playing an interesting gambit, which actually Hitler did as well. “Oh, it’s just a joke, what’s your problem? Oh, we’re just having a laugh,” though I don’t remember anyone using the Can’t You Take a Joke defence at the Nuremberg tribunals. But that’s essentially what they’re doing.

Trump and Boris Johnson are very, very similar in many ways. Both of them are narcissists, both of them are very needy and dependant on the good opinions of other people and they want to be thought of as being good. They are sort of like vampires who need the admiration of people around them. You’d think that their skin would be a couple of inches thick but it is microns thin. They both behave in the way they do because they get the joke in first because they want people to laugh with them rather than at them.

You’re a sodding pest Boris, fuck off

I used to a lot of stuff for a political PR company in London and had an exhibition and Boris Johnson coming to the opening but didn’t show up. And you knew he didn’t turn up because he can’t bear the idea of having to be in proximity to stuff taking the piss out of him if he hadn’t set the agenda, if he hadn’t said [doing a very passable Bojo impression] “Oh aren’t I funny, aren’t I lovely? Lovely, lovely, lovely, harrumph.”

Actually no you’re a sodding pest Boris, fuck off. And it’s the same with Trump. Believe me, a man who wakes up on a Sunday morning and the first thing he does is to tweet about how bad the impression of him was on Saturday Night Live is not a man who is impervious to satire. That is a man who has cried himself to sleep.

Self Made Hero’s The Communist Manifesto and The Corbyn Comic are both available from all good local comic stores and online capitalist pigs.

3rd May 2018