Drawing the News: The Daily Mirror and the News Cartoon
The use of cartoons in the Daily Mirror began in 1903 when William Kerridge Haselden, an aspiring cartoonist, had an idea. Working as an insurance clerk during the dawn of the Edwardian era, he had his sights set on a different career. Having been impressed with the recently re-branded Daily Illustrated Mirror - a title it used for a mere three months - and thinking that they may be interested in using some of the cartoons he was drawing in his spare time, he approached newspaper and publishing magnate Alfred Harmsworth. Harmsworth immediately saw the benefit of including a regular cartoonist and offered him a full-time position. Although Haselden’s idea was not an original one it had a unique selling point: instead of providing a weekly comment on topical subjects, as magazines such as Punch had been doing for over half a century, he would produce a political illustration for each issue. The daily newspaper cartoon was born.
Even though Haselden’s work moved quite quickly from politics to a gentler social commentary, we can see in an early example that his work contained some of the features that many of today’s cartoons still possess. As a rule Haselden’s cartoons did not have captions but were accompanied by a commentary. A typical example of this early phase was the cartoon from 3 June 1904. Haselden’s drawing shows an MP addressing the House of Commons with just two other MPs present. The caption reads: ‘Our cartoonist’s idea of how the House of Commons discusses the national estimates and agrees to the expenditure of vast sums of taxpayers’ money. In the meantime the dining and smoking rooms are crowded’. The caption is far from concise and in this way it is reminiscent of Punch cartoons from the Victorian era. However, what is more significant is the composition of the drawing. While there is plenty of traditional crosshatching to denote shade, the bottom half of the image makes great use of white space, something that was anathema to Victorian cartoonists, with the notable exception of the caricaturist Phil May. However, by the latter years of the century’s first decade, Haselden’s cartoons had developed from a single panel to the same space being divided into multiple panels. Often credited as the inventor of the British strip cartoon in 1904, Haselden’s daily cartoons developed a regular cast of characters - one of the staple ingredients of a strip - by far the most popular of whom were Big and Little Willie, based on the German Emperor and his Crown Prince son. As the First World War began, Haselden combined the split panel format with topical satire, creating a hybrid format that allowed him to amalgamate the entertainment element the paper wanted with hard-hitting satire, such as the New Year’s Day strip from 1915 in which Big Willie and his son wake depressed because they have unfulfilled resolutions from the previous year and create a fresh set including killing ‘larger numbers of non-combatants’ and attacking ‘more unfortified towns’. While technically a strip cartoon, the topicality of Haselden’s work can be seen as a bridge between work produced at the turn of the century and the first generation of daily newspapers cartoonists such as Philip Zec.
Zec could be said to be one of the Mirror’s most famous - and on at least one notable occasion infamous - cartoonists. Joining the paper just three years after its 1936 re-launch, Zec found himself in a reinvigorated newspaper with the minimum of editorial interference. Indeed, chairman Guy Bartholomew told his new cartoonist, ‘If you’ve the nerve to draw it, I’ve got the nerve to publish it.’
This nerve was severely tested following the 6 March 1942 publication of a cartoon showing a sailor adrift in the ocean, clinging onto debris from what we assume was a torpedoed ship. The caption reads: ‘The price of petrol has been increased by one penny: Official’. Zec’s intention had been to illustrate the price sailors were paying to bring fuel to Britain. However, this is not how Winston Churchill and his government interpreted the cartoon. Herbert Morrison, the war coalition Home Secretary, was furious, seeing the cartoon as an attack on oil barons, who it seemed to him were being portrayed as profiteering from the increased price. Referring to the Nazi propaganda minister, he declared it was worthy of ‘Goebbels at his best’. Churchill was so convinced that the cartoon would negatively affect the morale of both merchant seamen and the wider public that he summoned the editor and director of the Daily Mirror to Westminster and told him that the paper could be under threat of closure if it continued to publish such work. Although the paper strongly protested that the cartoon had been misunderstood, Churchill, who had seemingly forgotten the past three years of Zec’s strongly anti-Hitler cartoons, ordered MI5 to investigate the cartoonist. They reported back that there was no evidence of subversive activities and that the cartoonist was, in fact, Jewish.
It may have been that Churchill was more upset with the paper’s perceived anti-Tory stance, something he would come to rue at the end of the Second World War when a general election was called. In June 1945 the Mirror launched the ‘Vote For Him’ campaign in which wives and girlfriends of troops who would be unable to vote were asked to vote on the men’s behalf. On polling day, the Mirror took the unprecedented step of republishing a cartoon that had originally appeared on VE Day. Taking up two thirds of the front page, Zec’s cartoon showed a battle veteran holding out a wreath of peace with the caption: ‘Don’t lose it again.’ It was a cartoon that has been seen to have influenced the outcome of what was arguably the biggest election shock of the century in which Churchill was defeated and Labour came to power.
Over the coming decades the Daily Mirror’s popularity continued to increase. Stanley Franklin drew the Mirror’s political/news cartoon throughout the golden age of the 1960s when the Mirror’s circulation topped five million copies a day. His work combined hard news and politics with elements of the pocket cartoon’s more society-based humour, demonstrating how these cartoons were not just trivial entertainment but in fact acted as a very appealing commentary on a shared politics, mirroring the paper’s popular content. Franklin was just as happy using pop culture references as he was dealing with high politics, such as in a 1965 cartoon dealing with the special clinic of experts that was opening to deal with teenagers’ problems in which a frustrated law consultant says, ‘The next one that asks how to date Sandie Shaw gets this straight on his hooter!’[i] It is a revealing example of how the Mirror so successfully combined news and politics with the burgeoning popular culture, a feat that was particularly evident in its use of cartoons as they are able to combine to great affect two seemingly divergent elements to create something that symbolises the merging of these two worlds and reflects what was increasingly evident in society itself. This can also be seen in the page layout choices that help define the Mirror’s stance. The cartoon is surrounded by a commentary by the then foreign editor about Harold Wilson’s plan to reduce the British army’s presence on the Rhine; a story about the American president willingness to consult NATO leaders before launching a nuclear attack, and alleged health-free risks of marijuana cigarettes. Newspaper cartoons, and especially those in the Mirror, sought to combine all these layers of both topic and attitude to create cartoons that were both entertaining and opinionated.
Entertaining the Millions: The Comic Strips
Of course, the Daily Mirror’s long history of cartoons has not been limited to politics and news. The paper was probably the first to fully embrace and understand the importance of the visual to what is, by definition, a largely text-based medium. The strip cartoon featured heavily in its pages. By 1948, the first Audit Bureau of Circulation report since the beginning of the war showed 12 per cent of its pages were taken up with comic strips. In comparison with the 17 per cent of readers who looked to its news coverage, between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of the Mirror’s readers looked at the comic strip Jane during the day.[ii] This was a cartoon that put the strip into comic strip: the eponymous heroine began as a homespun character, but soon developed a risqué persona and spent most of the war in various levels of undress. Jane was particularly popular with the armed forces and its regular appearance in the Daily Mirror was considered a morale booster for the troops, to the extent that the first British armoured vehicle to go ashore on D-Day was festooned with a large representation of Jane. The strip can be seen to encapsulate the Mirror’s embrace of the popular, such as when, to mark the cessation of hostilities in Europe, the VE Day strip features a scene in which she finally loses all of her clothes.
Along with strips such as Garth, Popeye, and Belinda, Jane was one of eight or more strips that the Daily Mirror carried every day. This understanding of the importance of humour combined with adventure and excitement can be seen to be at the heart of the newspaper’s drive to appeal to working men and, increasingly, working women. Indeed, it could certainly be argued that it was during the Second World War that the Daily Mirror cemented its credentials not just as the forces’ favourite, but as the personification of the voice of ordinary people. It did this through its editorial direction, its call for a change in government, and its combination of the sensational with advances in page layout; but possibly more important than all these was the way in which it embraced the visual to enhance its appeal, something which it was to build upon over the coming decades.
Andy Capp: Mirroring the Readers?
Having looked at the entertaining visuals that added to the discourse of the ‘troops’ paper’ such as Jane, we now move forward to look at the domestic life of the 1950s and 1960s as mirrored in the introduction of one of the cartoon strips that could arguably be considered most in line with the paper’s audience. Drawn and written by Reg Smythe, Andy Capp was set in a northern working-class world that would have been recognisable to many of the paper’s readers. It was extremely popular, producing over fifty collections. Despite this, the strip has been the subject of criticism, particularly with regards to its portrayal of domestic violence. Especially in the early strips Andy’s wife, Flo, is often the victim of her husband’s drunken temper. Smythe argued that this was an accurate reflection of working-class life, especially in the north-east of England in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, as the strip developed the violence decreased and later it was transposed so that Andy became the victim of Flo’s anger. Some critics continue to criticise the strip for what they see as normalising domestic abuse,[iii] but this one issue does not seem to have affected the strip’s popularity. Indeed, Andy Capp changed with the times, including the decision to have Andy lose his ubiquitous cigarette in the early 1980s. Despite these controversies, Andy Capp continued to be one of the Mirror’s most popular features having led to a stage musical, a television series with James Bolan in the title role, and even a computer game. The strip still appears in the Daily Mirror today, as does another strip which launched in the late 1950s.
This strip, The Perishers, was a family strip featuring almost no adults, something it shared with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. While never having the cultural impact of Andy Capp, or for that matter the controversy, The Perishers ran from 1959 until 2006. Reprints are currently featured in the Daily Mirror, along with Garth, a strip that the Mirror was publishing during the Second World War.
Something all these strips could be said to have in common is nostalgia: Andy Capp for a working class England that has, for better or for worse, been subsumed into an Americanised world of shopping malls and fast food outlets; The Perishers for an idealised version of childhood that concentrates on children, not parents; and Garth with its historic settings and good versus evil moral simplicity. However, what is particularly interesting is that it is possible to argue that this escapism is what has made them so successful over the years. In this way they are reflecting a perceived demand of their readers, placed as they are today sharing a page with the horoscopes, a symbiotic wish fulfilment in which the harsh realities of the news pages can be momentarily forgotten. Indeed, today three of the four cartoon strips published in the Daily Mirror consist of two re-runs and a new artist’s continuation.
By the mid-1970s, with the Mirror firmly established as the dominant popular newspaper in the country, its masthead proudly declared it ‘Europe’s Biggest Daily Sale’. It had achieved this by no short measure because of its understanding of the importance of the visual in a newspaper and particularly its use of cartoons. If we take a random day, ten years on from our last sample, we are immediately struck by the number of cartoons featured. On Tuesday 3 June 1975 the paper featured a Mike Molloy pocket cartoon about the Bay City Rollers on page 4 (Molloy would become editor that year); Keith Waite’s single panel news cartoon about the European Economic Community (above an advert for the Vote No to the Common Market campaign) on page 5; the two-panel strip Little Joe on page 7; a revamped Little Eustace pocket cartoon on page 9; no less than six gag cartoons on page 10; Andy Capp on page 13; Ed McLachlan’s topical pocket cartoon on page 15; The Perishers strip on page 16; three strips (The Fosdyke Saga, Garth, and The Larks) on page 24; and a sports cartoon on page 31. That is 17 cartoons in one issue, equating to just over one cartoon per two pages.
What is particularly interesting is the range of subjects covered by the cartoons in this one issue. Topical subjects include the upcoming European referendum, politician Tony Benn, the lack of public presence of the Leader of the Opposition, and - somewhat predictably - the English weather, something that illustrates the fact that despite having all but perfected the idea of popular entertainment in the press, the Daily Mirror still engaged with serious political and topical issues, often through the eyes of its cartoonists. In other words, during its peak years the paper understood that cartoons can provide a link between entertainment and comment, building on tabloids’ history of humour and irreverence by embedding the cartoons within the layout of the paper. Instead of the rather staid format of placing editorial cartoons within their own box, thereby separating them physically from the surrounding text of the newspaper, the Mirror’s cartoons are often placed within a column, which gives the impression of a symbiotic relationship with the copy. This constructs a form of editorial identity that remains based in the paper’s working-class roots by demonstrating a level of inclusivity that lies at the heart of its commitment to the visual.
The Visual Gold Standard
Not only did the Daily Mirror set the gold standard for the cartoon as part of its editorial identity, and in the comic strips as an entertainment form in its own right, from its first days the visual had not only been a powerful marketing tool for the paper, but integral in popularising not just journalistic discourse, but the discourse of politics, class and gender.
It may be a much neglected academic area of study, but for readers of the paper it was something that they intrinsically understood early and was part of the definitional aspect of the Daily Mirror.
Right from the early days of printing, there had been an innate understanding that to be popular you had to utilise the image. We can see this in examples dating from the sixteenth century when even religious tracts had woodcuts to engage the interest of those who could not read. The Daily Mirror echoed this tradition by demonstrating an innate understanding that the visual continued to be a very important part of popular media, leading to the Mirror being the most celebrated exponent of this in twentieth-century culture.
James Whitworth, ‘The Daily Mirror and Cartoons', Mirror Historical Archive 1903-2000, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.
[i] Daily Mirror, June 1 1965, 9
[ii] Cudlipp, H. Publish and Be Damned: the Astonishing story of the Daily Mirror. Brighton, 1953, 69.
[iii] See, for example, Wallace, Rachel. ‘“She’s Punch Drunk!!” Humor, Domestic Violence, and the British Working Class in Andy Capp Cartoons, 1957-65’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 51.1 (2018).