POST WAR AUSTRALIA - EMILE MERCIER
|Did you get it?
Australians are divided between those whose lives have been brightened by the cartoons of Emile Mercier and those who are yet to receive his benediction. The whimsy we now associate with Michael Leunig was present in Mercier’s recurrent figure of a bearded professor on his penny-farthing, or in the one-off of the patient who roller-skates into a surgery announcing “Good morning, doctor – I’ve come to see you about my begonias!” which are sprouting from his ears and nose. He thumbed his nose at wowserdom with billboards announcing that “Larkin and Ferkin will fix your faucets”.
glory days were in the 1950s when afternoon papers syndicated his work,
and eleven annual selections were published. He set a standard in
drawing which merits him a place in our Art Galleries as well as in
popular memory. This year marks the centenary of his birth in New
Caledonia, and the twentieth anniversary of his death from Parkinson’s
disease in Sydney.
in Australia after the First World War, Mercier attended Julian
Ashton’s Art School where he did a little painting, but his talent was
for black-and-white. The stereotypical Mercier cartoon looks as scruffy
as the back-street life that was his inspiration. Yet he could be as
crisp as his contemporary at the Sydney
Morning Herald, George Molnar. For example, a rotund matron stands
in front of a flat-roofed angular house having decided: “it’s just
sold his first cartoon to Smith’s
Weekly in February 1923, using the tired formula in which a
householder asks of a burglar in front of an open safe: “What are you
doing there?” The burglar replies: “Struth, yer not blind are yer?’
After that triumph, Mercier sold nothing for six months, surviving on
odd translating jobs. He freelanced with mounting success for the next
twenty-five years. As with many funnymen, Mercier made heavy weather of
explaining how to be humourous, which, he concluded, takes “years, and
years and years”. It did for him.
joked about money in ways which underlined its importance. He defined a
good cartoon as one that inspires its viewer to write “to your editor
demanding the artist be forthwith given a bonus, a 100% rise in salary,
and a seat on the board. That is my idea of a good joke”.
respect for his fees did not extend to his editors. Mercier increased
the size or number of whatever vexed his bosses. Garbage cans
overflowing with fish bones offended the Managing-Director of the Herald
and Weekly Times, Keith Murdoch, whose fear of infection was so great
that he installed a personal lavatory which he kept under lock and key.
Adding insult to the injury that Smith’s Claude McKay felt at the “X” that marked the spot
beneath the perpendicular tails of Mercier’s cats, the cartoonist
covered one rear view with a venetian blind.
1933 letter to the aptly named Frivolity
gave the flavour of Mercier’s approach to editors:
Although I hate to say it myself, you have before your eye the product of one of the most humorous brains in the Commonwealth. To show you how good it is, I have taken the liberty to increase the proposed Xmas issue to 64 pages, just so’s everything’ll match in a big way.
Still, as times are bad (especially meal times, as they say at our boarding house) I am prepared to sign this potential winner over to you for the sum you named the other day – to wit = £2.2.0 – The “wit” is thrown in.
Once more, congratulating you upon your shrewd choice of as capable an artist as I am, I remain, yours for fun, Emile Mercier
Xmas cover showed Santa, with a Kookaburra perched on his cap, speeding
down a snow slope on the back of a giant kangaroo using its feet as
skis. The gathering momentum and mounting delight by all three creatures
spread to the viewer.
though Mercier’s metier was the visual, not the verbal, his captions
could be as astute as his drawings. A jockey left at the starting post
inquires “Now?” Before the 1960s, editors obliged cartoonists to
label everyone and everything in sight. A few of Mercier’s drawings
went uncaptioned, relying on visual contrasts, or the incorporation of
his jest within the image. For instance, a man, with his hatchet-faced
wife on his arm, walks past a poster offering to trade in old
refrigerators. Another depicted aged pensioners playing bowls with the
name of their club –“Young” - around their panamas.
claimed that his finest hour was during the Second World War, which was
true in terms of financial success. As well as supplying illustrations
to the ABC Weekly and Smith’s Weekly, he earned up to £20 a week for comic books which
boomed after an import ban on US ones in May 1941. Mercier was aware of
the US styles of cartooning, such as in the New
Yorker, noting even before US troops arrived in 1942 that the Yankee
term “gag” was replacing “joke”.
Ryan observed in his 1979 survey of Australian comics, Panel
by panel, that “Australia had no tradition of adventure strip
artists, the majority had been schooled in the humourous approach”. Of
no one was that truer than Mercier who spoofed US super-heroes with
Supa-dupa man for Superman, or Mudrake, Lophar and Princess Narka. A
Mercier invention was “Wocko the Beaut”, in Jackie Howe singlet,
bathers and a bowler hat. Mercier’s first wife, Flora, collaborated on
colourful alphabet primers and children’s books. These publications
attracted letters from kids, who Mercier answered with a thumbnail
miraculous happened when the Sydney Sun
newspaper put Mercier on salary in 1949. The Sun was a tabloid with a circulation to match its broad-sheet
rivals. Although the afternoon papers were racy, they attracted a family
readership in the days before television. Mercier’s style was
unmistakable. Graphic artist Martin Sharp recalls “a real world
populated with a cast of his own”, loaded with “wonderful detail”
so that “every face was an original, close to a very funny Dobell”.
series was utterly urban, with no sign of the outback or the bush. In
the “Foreword” to one of Mercier’s annual selections, Gravy
Pie (1952), the poet Kenneth Slessor recognised that Mercier’s
“background is mostly the Sydney of one who has lived in it for many
years and loves it deeply – the Sydney of little backyards, of
terrace-houses with perspective of identical chimney pots and balconies
with cast-iron grilles, of doorsteps shiny with blacklead, of blistered
brick walls, geraniums in rusty tins, gas-boxes on the front veranda,
dogs with whiskery noses in pursuit of smells, and cats always at the
ends of lanes with fishes’ backbones”. Mercier had no liking for
panoramas, eschewing the iconic Bridge and Bondi.
also reflected that the “notion of putting a joke to bed on a spring
mattress is one that belongs peculiarly and significantly to Emile
Mercier – The springs which so often appear below his drawings are
symbols of the kind of humour which takes a sober truth and sets it
rocking and wobbling on a crazy pedestal”. That stage set was also
useful for inserting snide comments on the main event.
emendations made Mercier “the master of the multiplying joke”, as a Sun journalist observed. “Look at some of his drawings and the
dominant gag rattles your funny bone. Look again – and again, and you
see a series of situations, each a perfect cameo of fun”. Hence,
television sets came with canvas awnings or louvres. A list of seedlings
included “Double hydrophobias”. “Yak” was repeated as a pattern
on women’s dresses.
the gallery of people and places that Mercier created for the Sun, we can time travel to the 1950s when nothing distressed homo
suburbiensis more than crooked jockeys, radio jingles, stodgy food,
nagging wives and parking inspectors.
map of Australia in Mercier’s cartoon schoolroom identified
racecourses – Randwick and Flemington – in place of the State
capitals. A trainer reminds the jockey that “the sun is due to set at
4.57”. A rider explains to the stewards that his battery is to power
the wipers on his goggles. Mercier’s Boschian landscape of a racetrack
entitled “Gloomy Saturday” makes it difficult to believe that he was
not a punter.
spread of commercialisation throughout everyday life is evident when one
Mercier kid explains to another: “Father’s Day is just like
Mother’s Day – only you don’t have to spend so much money”.
Radio advertisements interrupt Beethoven sonatas before Beethoven
interrupts a commercial. Notices in shop windows call on passer-bys to
“Give socks”, “Give Jewelry” and “Give books”, but the Bank
has Santa advising “Give Money”, as a diminutive and furtive
Mercier-like figure is about to deface its door.
it was Mercier’s treatment of Australian eating habits that made him
incisive and memorable. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who
you are”, he quoted the gastronome Brillat-Savarin. Mercier clarified
his view of who his fellow Australians were in the menu he depicted on
Green island, off Cairns, offering three British meat dishes, but not a
fillet of fish.
his baker father, the French cartoonist knew the gulf between a baguette and the white Australian loaf which could be grey, and
enriched with lengths of string or metal washers. Its blandness drove
European immigrants to distraction and provoked more official reports
than any other product. One Mercier woman explains to her neighbour:
“I can always tell when my bread is properly cooked by donging the
baker on the head with it – if it knocks him out it it isn’t, and if
it doesn’t, it is!”. Elsewhere, the baker struck back at a quartet
of complaining customers: “Why, our bread’s strong, sturdy, and
tough! It’s no food for sissies, believe me!’
meat nor bread perplexed Mercier’s Gallic taste buds as much as did
the Australian addiction to gravy. Where was the bearnaise or bechamel?
At the cafés that provided another of Mercier’s regular venues, the
“Especiale” would be either “Gravy in aspic” or “Fried
Gravy”. Mercier plastered his streets with warnings “Post No
Gravy”, so much more metaphysical than “Eternity”.
1950, Mercier marketed sets of hand-painted and signed “Gravy
Glasses”, and was proud of his Honorary Degree (failed) from the Societas
Oxometricalis at the University of Sydney. He titled one of his
annual selections “Sauce or Mustard?”, when sauce meant tomato or
Worcestershire, and Keen’s mustard was served dry from its tin.
Despite his bewilderment at the culinary wasteland, he endorsed
Falstaff’s “gravy, gravy, gravy” in rebuttal of the accusation of
a want of “gravity”. Pleasure took precedence over profundity.
world of Mercier was predominantly that of men - men fishing, men
boxing, men playing golf. The husbands in Mercier’s cartoons were in
tune with Lennie Lower’s 1930 novel, Here’s
Luck, where they are hen-pecked, far from heroic Anzacs. Their wives
gossiped over fences or were crazed by hats. On furs, he sided with the
rabbits and foxes. Women, nonetheless, could be other than matronly. A
cleaner in the Art Gallery drapes herself around a Classical male nude
and sings” Lemme go, Lemme go, Luvver”. Another asks the commissionaire
at the Ideal Homes Exhibition “Any husbands?” A shop assistant tells
a customer slumped beneath the counter after fighting her way through a
department store sale: ‘I thought you were wonderful”.
exercised Mercier’s imagination as much as it did the regulators’.
He designed a three-wheeler, caravans with garages, and a sedan sporting
more gadgets than a hardware store. But it was the problem of parking
that amused him most. The vision of a policeman telling a driver
“I’ll give you another ten minutes. I don’t want to discourage you
from coming into town altogether” would have struck his readers as
being as likely as their winning consecutive first prizes in the opera
house lottery. “Parking is such sweet sorrow” mused another officer
of the law.
was never afraid to be literary, as with his inclusion of
“Munchausen” on the shelves of a tax agent. He assumed either that
his audience knew of that nobleman’s reputation as a fabulist, or that
they would accept “Munchausen” as another Mercier concoction, in
keeping with his regulars, C. M. Fwyp and Sir Joshua Shrdlu.
from providing a visual record of the post-war decades, Mercier’s oeuvre supplies a treasury of slang and idiom. A racehorse is a
“beaut, a trimmer, a snodger” when it wins, but a ‘hairy goat”
when it loses. “Australia is the only country in the world”, Mercier
noted, “where you can call a dark horse a fair cow, and be
understood”. His ear for accents is evident in “This is the Air Beer
Sear, and heah is the neorz”.
social and cultural comments mocked the avant-garde,
or what Slessor disparaged “the latest maggot of the human brain”,
meaning, contemporary furniture and abstract art. In this, Mercier
encouraged the relaxed and comfortable to cultivate their prejudices
along with their roses.
His sympathies nonetheless were with the underdog whom he saw as the tax-payer, the shopper, the punter and the motorist. On occasion, a poignancy broke through the insouciance to portray a child sitting in the gutter, engulfed by bricks and bitumen, reading to a younger sibling: “Came the spring with all its splendour, all its birds and all its blossoms, all its flowers, and leaves, and grasses”.
Contempt for public
servants and the income tax suited the anti-socialist mood. Files dating
back to a Royal Commission into the 1808 Rum Rebellion and the
settlement of claims for King Bennelong lined a government office. Mercier inserted “(old and crusty)” between Emile and Mercier when
signing a cartoon that showed two drunks in a ditch with one protesting
“…and who pays for all them strikes, disputes, and the government
wasting of money? … Us!”
recycled cliches about politicians, with candidates promising anything
and everything. To an empty legislature, one parliamentarian declaimed
“without fear of contradiction”. From the back of a truck, a
candidate quoted Chaucer to a forlorn family of Aborigines. In these
attitudes, he was in tune with the cynicism of Sydney bohemia. “People
are what interest me”, he explained. “That’s why I don’t do
political cartoons. Politicians aren’t people. They try to be but no
one believes them”.
never played party politics by illustrating that day’s editorial.
Instead, as Slessor perceived, his eccentric perspective provided “the
LATE FINAL EXTRA of black and white. Yet because they are founded on the
constants of human life and not on its crotchets, they do not die in the
morning as the evening papers do. It is not an escape from the world,
but a return to the world, a beatific and dog-like rolling in its scents