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”.

Mercier’s 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.

Settling 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 not me!”

Mercier 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.

Mercier 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”.

This 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.

A 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

His 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.

Even 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.

Mercier 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”.

John 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 sketch.

The 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”.

The Sun 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.

Slessor 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.

These 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.

Through 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.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

From 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!’

Neither 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”.

In 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.

The 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”.

Motoring 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.

Mercier 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.

Apart 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”.

Mercier’s 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!”

Mercier 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”.

Mercier 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 and savours”.