When Harry Potter creator JK Rowling is tweeting about you to her 14 million followers, you’ve either done something really great or something a tad more controversial...
Throughout his storied career, Walkley award-winning political cartoonist Mark Knight (and his tiny illustrated buddy, the pig-dog-cow) has sparked healthy debate with his ‘equal opportunity’ cartooning. As his wonderfully witty illustrations cut through the clutter surrounding an issue; whether that be yet another instance of political hypocrisy or providing supportive messages to child cancer patients via his character, Leuk the Duck.
Similar to many youngsters handy with a pencil, Mark’s first illustrations were of, “family, caricaturing relatives, and things young boys love to draw: cars, aeroplanes, etc.”.
At school in Sydney, Mark was constantly doing art, drawing for the school magazine and events. He was the ‘go-to kid’ whenever the teachers required a drawing.
Mark explains that his parents provided great encouragement early on. His father, Reg, would draw images for him to copy, and it was his mum, Jan, who in 1978 took his drawings to the Sydney Morning Herald. From the strength of that folio, the SMH offered Mark a cadetship in the Art Department in 1980.
They say that ‘fortune favours the brave’, but maybe it just benefits those who don’t indulge in an early beer.
“One of my first cartoons published was on the front page of the SMH."
“I was a young cadet… all the senior artists and cartoonists had gone to the pub. A young editor came over… and asked if anyone could draw a cartoon for a story that had just broken. I was the only one there, so my big break was a small cartoon about former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen’s wife, Flo, becoming a senator in Canberra in 1981.
“Looking back, it was a pretty basic piece of work in concept and execution compared to my work now. I applaud the editor for giving a young person a go… and for all the older artists in getting on the beers! That young editor was Eric Beecher, who a few years later became the editor of the Melbourne Herald (which became the Herald Sun in 1990) and who was responsible for offering me the Melbourne job.”
Mark moved to Melbourne in 1987 and shortly afterwards, he went for a horse ride with a trail riding business in Tonimbuk, West Gippsland. Mark says, “I couldn’t believe that such a naturally beautiful and remote wilderness could be so close to a major city”.
“I made friends in the area, agisted horses there and rode all through the Bunyip State Park. In 2005, my wife Soph and I decided to make the tree change and we bought a small property there”.
A typical day for Mark begins by working on the farm, with exercise or other projects, before he heads into his home studio to read and listen to the news.
“Before Covid-19, I’d go into the Herald Sun office, Southbank, once or twice a week. I talk with the editor to get an idea of what they’re chasing. I decide on a topic and what I want to say. I start drawing at about 4 pm, finishing at 7 pm. Sometimes, a breaking story will force you to change your mind and then it’s a race against deadline. Deadlines are helpful in making you come to a decision. The equation would be something like idea Cartoon = ______ X drawing deadline.
Then I send my cartoon to the editor for approval. Occasionally, you get a knockback on legal grounds, taste or sensitivity with a particular issue.”
"Most cartoonists are considered left-wing"
Pragmatically, Mark explains that, “By nature, in our two-party political system, political cartoons will only please 50% of the audience. The political divide between left and right, and all the offshoots in between, has never been more evident. Media companies have biases that colour their coverage, as do a lot of cartoonists.
“Most cartoonists are considered left-wing, attacking the powerful and privileged who are justified targets. I could never deny myself [only] half the available material and, therefore, have drawn cartoons about all sides of politics. Equal opportunity I call it!”
Followers of Mark’s work will be aware that he’s courted controversy on a handful of occasions. Far from unexpected for a political cartoonist.
“I once drew a cartoon about the conservative Pope John Paul II. It received a howl of protests from the church hierarchy. Melbourne Archbishop Little wanted me and the editor (a Catholic) sacked!
“I was horrified, but my editor-in-chief said to me, ‘It’s okay, no one wants a boring cartoonist!’”
“In the past, people would threaten not to buy the paper or write letters in furious disgust. Now, in the Internet age, they can just get online and spew their bile. Maybe it’s cathartic?”
Mark continues, sharing the story of being subject to vitriolic attacks from across the globe after the release of his cartoon about Serena Williams and her outburst at the 2018 US Open.
“I was on Twitter and Facebook but after [that] cartoon, I closed my accounts. People seem to unleash all sorts of hatred and threats on social media.
“During the ‘Serena Storm’ the cartoon was published in Australia and there was no reaction. Not one call to our reader feedback line. The next day, I put the cartoon on my Twitter and Facebook, as I normally did, and America picked it up. It went viral.
“These days, America is a racially charged powder keg and to be seen to be criticising a black icon was labelled as racism. I think I was called a misogynist as well!
“It was fascinating to watch the cartoon go viral around the world — quicker than any pandemic — demonstrating the power of social media. It started debates about racism, free speech, satire, caricature and civil rights. Journalists interviewed me for days. I did television and newspapers, attempting to explain myself rationally. Death threats, wellwishers, support and criticism flowed in. Celebrities, wanting to virtue signal to all their followers, joined the pile-on too. JK Rowling even had a crack! It went on for about 10 days then the caravan moved on. Quite an experience!
“I have some understanding of how young people can become immersed in this digital world and suffer great depression when things are said by others about them or they think they don’t measure up to perceived online standards. I was lucky, I just turned social media off.”
Mark now has a small following on Instagram.
“FunniIy, I still believe in the right to have an opinion, criticise and debate. But it was hurtful to be called a racist by some, [especially] after my support for so many racial justice causes over the years.”
Returning to his creative process, Mark reveals that he’s about to experiment with an iPad and the Procreate software, but that he prefers to draw on paper — using an ink-dipped nib to render his cartoons. He scans the cartoon into his Mac and colours it in Photoshop. For caricature commissions, he uses watercolours. Mark loves to draw; his love of the art form has him hooked.
"You have to keep feeding your imagination"
While they happen all the time, Mark sees mental blocks like a roadblock: there’s always another way. Needing fresh eyes, Mark will pick up his guitar or head for a run. “Coffee is good for clearing the head too”, says Mark.
“You have to keep feeding your imagination. A recent month-long trip to Italy was a great inspiration… It refocused my draughtsmanship, as I drew from real life. We caught up with all those great artworks and cities: Rome, Florence, Naples, the Amalfi coast, and ancient Matera. I returned with renewed creative vigour.”
That vigour for illustration is part of the reason why, after the passing of the cartoonist WEG (Bill Green) in 2008, Mark got the call up to draw the AFL Grand Final poster artwork. These highly sought-after posters have become an integral part of the Grand Final celebrations, and Mark finds it an honour to work on them. All the money earned from poster sales goes to the Royal Children’s Hospital.
"When there are big stories, the adrenaline rush when you bring those two things together and get a drawing right is intoxicating"
In continuing to chat about youngsters, Mark’s advice to young artists is to constantly draw and explore different methods, mediums and techniques until you find your own style. Encouraged as a student to carry a sketch diary, Mark has done so ever since.
He also believes that young artists should seek out and observe other artists, learning all they can from them. You should look at artwork in the flesh and establish a site for your work on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest and display your work. Put yourself out there!
In a closing reflection on his work, Mark explains that he likes the daily challenge of being an editorial cartoonist, formulating ideas and communicating those thoughts through the drawn image.
“When there are big stories, the adrenaline rush when you bring those two things together and get a drawing right is intoxicating.”