I dropped out of final year Law at Melbourne University in 1969 because I was terrified of getting a proper job. I just wanted to sit and read the newspaper all day, so I decided to be a cartoonist. My first break came when a small national paper, the Nation Review, paid me $5 for a scratchy cartoon about a barely recognisable prime minister dressed as a lion tamer. Soon I was earning a living as a freelancer doing cartoons for various papers. I branched out into making animated political cartoons for the ABC with my 16mm Bolex and homemade animation stand. One day I wandered into The Age with an obscure cartoon about Malcolm Fraser as King Leah dividing up his kingdom amongst State premiers. Fortuitously, I was directed to a section editor called Geoff Barker, who liked literature, and liked the cartoon, printed it and said “come back next Friday with another”. Which I did. One day in 1976 the Financial Review offered me a job doing daily cartoons, until a few months later The Age, with Les Carlyon as Editor, unexpectedly recruited me back. I worked at The Age for the next seventeen years. I was really the junior player in a famous stable of cartoonists that included Ron Tandberg, Michael Leunig, John Spooner, Bruce Petty, Les Tanner, and Arthur Horner. The Age, managed by the open-minded and congenial Ranald Macdonald believed that cartoons sell papers.
One of my early cartoons created a big hoohar. Gough and Margaret Whitlam were in China, when a big earthquake struck the town. My cartoon showed them cuddled up in bed, with Margaret asking Gough “Did the earth move for you too dear?” Talkback went ape and many people wrote to the editor, saying they would cancel their subscriptions because the cartoon was in such poor taste. Whitlam announced he liked the cartoon, and later would refer to the whole incident as if it somehow reflected favourably on his potency.
In 1979, I went to live in Italy for a year with my wife and three small children. I wanted to get a broader education, especially about art, and do lots of drawing to improve my eye and my illustrative skills. We rented an small cold ancient stone apartment right under the shadow of the wall of the Castello di Bracciano just north of Rome. This was our base to travel around the county studying Italian art, architecture, scenery, food and wine. I filled countless sketchbooks with drawings of markets, buildings, Italian scenes, leopard-skinned bikini clad women on the beach at Lake Bracciano, and yahoos in the street and cafes. We came back to Australia in 1980, smarter and poorer.
I got my job back at The Age and inspired by Italian art and the famous French cartoonist Honore Daumier, I started doing caricature sculpture to enhance my drawing skills. Next thing I was making caricature puppets, recruited by the innovative and energetic ABC producer Ian Carrol. But the programs that used the puppets collapsed, so I pitched a different idea – a five minute filler program – to the ABC. I was refered to a brilliant producer called Kris Noble. He contrived a structure where the program could be made outside the ABC and I created my own film studio which from 1987-1992 produced the Rubbery Figures television programs which I sold as a package to the ABC and later Steve Vizard’s Channel 7 program Fast Forward. In 1994 a one-man show of my work was put on in an empty hallway of the National Gallery of Victoria, thanks to the imaginative entrepreneurship of gallery director James Mollison. It was called The Rubbery Years, and was later taken up by the National Museum and toured all around Australia. (For more about this, click on Sculpture in the menu).
In 1994 I joined The Australian, drawing for the letters page. These days, I draw weekly for Business, Media and page one, and fill in when Kudelka and Bill Leak go on holidays.