Pro­fes­sional Heck­ler: The Life and Art of Dun­can Macpher­son Terry Mosher

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by James Bax­ter

Pro­fes­sional Heck­ler: The Life and Art of Dun­can Macpher­son. Mon­treal and Kingston: McGil­lQueens Univer­sity Press, 2020

Dun­can Macpher­son was not just one of the great­est po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ists in Cana­dian his­tory. He might have been one of the best and most in­no­va­tive to ever to pick up the mock­ing pen.

His ge­nius is slowly re­vealed, of­ten in­ad­ver­tently in his own words, in a new bi­og­ra­phy Pro­fes­sional Heck­ler: The Life and Art of Dun­can Macpher­son, writ­ten by an­other bril­liant Cana­dian car­toon­ist, Terry Mosher, bet­ter known to Mon­treal Gazette read­ers, among oth­ers, as Ais­lin.

“Draw­ing was as nat­u­ral to me as breath­ing,” Macpher­son once wrote of his abil­ity to draw quickly and well. On

Wan­other oc­ca­sion, when asked about his pen­chant for find­ing hu­mour in the mun­dane, Macpher­son said: “I taught my­self how to see.”

Through cheerful anec­dotes and a deft re­count­ing of the events of the era, Mosher takes read­ers on the jour­ney dur­ing which Macpher­son cre­ated many of the most iconic po­lit­i­cal cartoons from what was the hey­day of Cana­dian jour­nal­ism.

From his days draw­ing planes to teach RCAF pi­lots to spot the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Messer­schmitt and a Spit­fire in the Sec­ond World War to his skew­er­ing car­i­ca­tures of stodgy Cana­dian politi­cos from the late 1950s un­til his death in 1993 at 69, the ge­nius of Macpher­son’s snark and metic­u­lous use of de­tail is ev­i­dent in the hun­dreds of sketches and fin­ished cartoons that Mosher has cu­rated.

hat makes Pro­fes­sional Heck­ler so en­gag­ing is the sense that it is writ­ten by no less a tal­ent. It’s as if Mario Lemieux were re­count­ing the life story of Wayne Gret­zky. With sim­i­lar tal­ents and de­mons, and both prod­ucts of the same high school art pro­gram in Toronto, Mosher brings a blend of rev­er­ence, grat­i­tude, envy and un­der­stand­ing of “Dunc’s” ca­reer and of­ten-mer­cu­rial life that only some­one with five decades in the car­toon­ing trenches could. The two were some­times col­leagues, some­times ri­vals. They were both high-func­tion­ing alcoholics, and while Mosher even­tu­ally chose the path to re­cov­ery, Macpher­son never saw the need.

Of­ten in spite of him­self, Macpher­son be­came one of the most in­no­va­tive and sub­ver­sive of Cana­dian artists. Rec­og­nized as a ge­nius by author and Toronto Star editor Pierre Ber­ton, Macpher­son was given the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate some of the most mem­o­rable sym­bols of po­lit­i­cal his­tory. He of­ten placed his be­spec­ta­cled and bedrag­gled John Q. Pub­lic at the cen­tre of his art, giv­ing his read­ers a di­rect at­tach­ment to what they were see­ing. He rarely drew Lib­eral prime min­is­ter Lester Pearson with­out his “scan­dal al­ba­tross” fol­low­ing closely on his heels. His cartoons of Pierre Trudeau also be­trayed an in­ner con­flict that many Cana­di­ans shared over the prime min­is­ter’s panache and in­tel­lect jux­ta­posed with his breath­tak­ing ar­ro­gance.

While car­toon­ing be­came his day job, Mosher makes it clear that it would be an in­jus­tice to dis­miss Macpher­son as sim­ply that. In de­tail­ing Macpher­son’s time work­ing in Toronto’s famed Stu­dio Build­ing, where he rubbed shoul­ders with many of the greats in­clud­ing many re­main­ing mem­bers of the Group of Seven, Mosher makes clear that Macpher­son was a sin­gu­larly tal­ented artist and had he cho­sen a dif­fer­ent path, he might well have been re­garded as one of Canada’s best ever. One ex­am­ple of Macpher­son’s skills as an artist that served him well in car­toon­ing was his re­mark­able abil­ity to draw the backs of peo­ple’s heads and have them be im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able, which gave those cartoons an im­mer­sive feel.

While his bread and but­ter was Cana­dian pol­i­tics, Macpher­son had a broad fas­ci­na­tion with in­ter­na­tional affairs. He made mul­ti­ple trips to Cuba, China and Rus­sia and was able to de­pict them in won­der­ful draw­ings that hu­man­ized those caught in the mid­dle of su­per­power strug­gles. Scarred by what he and his friends had wit­nessed in the Sec­ond World War, his cartoons of con­flict grew darker as Korea led to Viet­nam, to the Mid­dle East and even­tu­ally to the Gulf War at the very end of his life.

From the book’s fore­word by John Hon­derich, the for­mer editor and pub­lisher of the Toronto Star, through to its last pages, what is re­vealed is that there was far more to Dun­can Macpher­son than what was printed on to­mor­row’s fish wrap­per. He was

a bril­liant and skilled artist, as adept with a brush as a pen. He was also a chameleon, ca­pa­ble of quickly adapt­ing to new po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness sit­u­a­tions. At a time when most sought life­long jobs with one com­pany, Macpher­son was among the first to re­al­ize he could make more money (and have more fun) as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor.

Of course, no Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal icon took more of the brunt of Macpher­son’s lam­poon­ing than for­mer prime min­is­ter John Diefen­baker, whose sag­ging jowls, buck teeth and wild eyes proved ir­re­sistible. From the mo­ment Diefen­baker scrapped the Avro Ar­row, his pop­u­lar­ity be­gan to wane. But many point to Macpher­son’s most fa­mous and ir­rev­er­ent car­toon de­pict­ing Dief as a cal­lous Marie An­toinette as the shove that be­gan the pop­ulist’s slide into po­lit­i­cal ig­nominy.

While some thought Macpher­son’s car­i­ca­tures of politi­cians bor­dered on cruel, he (usu­ally) re­spect­fully dis­agreed. He said he aimed his hu­mour to be “dev­as­tat­ing with­out wound­ing” those in his crosshairs. And, for the most part, his aim was true. The same could be said of Mosher’s book. It is both a light­hearted visual romp through Cana­dian his­tory and a nu­anced, hon­est look at the life of a deeply com­pli­cated and gifted artist.

James Bax­ter, founder and for­mer Editor of iPol­i­tics, is a life­long afi­cionado of Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ing.

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