THE YEAR IN PICTURES ( and words)
Greg Bruce talks to New Zealand’s top cartoonists about how they viewed the world in 2018
Ican’t now remember whether I first encountered the work of Giselle Clarkson on the only-recently-released-but-alreadyquasi-iconic Kiwi tea towel “Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand” or through the Twitter account of best-selling literary purveyor of Scottish beefcake, Diana Gabaldon.
Clarkson’s path to this not-insignificant level of fame started at art school in Canterbury where she went with the aim of becoming a painter but ended up majoring in photography. After graduation, she worked in shops, woolsheds and forestry, spent time measuring pine trees and figured she would eventually become a ranger.
Then, one day while unemployed, she started watching the Olympics.
She says: “Team sports I don’t really get because you don’t know all the rules and there’s all this strategy and stuff that I just don’t understand. But if you see someone running really, really fast or jumping really, really high, there’s this sense of, ‘Wow, I really could not do that’ — that’s really so impressive.
“I found myself watching all day and, by the third or fourth day or something, I was like: ‘I have to do something. I have to feel productive somehow.’ So I started drawing fish, just for fun. Then I started getting really carried away with that and turning it into this whole chart of fish. But I didn’t do anything with that for a while. That was just sort of there until ages later when friends were like, ‘You should sell that.’
“But in a really roundabout way, it was probably at that time I joined Twitter.”
This is an extremely relevant career origin story, because it speaks so clearly to Clarkson’s off-kilter thinking, and to her aesthetic and her approach to comics, which her fellow cartoonist Sarah Laing describes as, “So funny and sly.”
It was on Twitter that Clarkson eventually got her first serious public attention. On Geoff Robinson’s last day hosting RNZ’s Morning
Report in 2014, he chose the kokako as the bird call, and because she was bored she drew it and put it on Twitter, where someone running RNZ’s social media saw it and retweeted it.
“So five people saw it,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Wow! This is amazing!’ And I just made a decision then to draw the bird call every day for a month.”
At the end of that month she had gathered about 300 Twitter followers and had drawn the attention of the editor of Forest and Bird’s children’s magazine, which got her her first commission. From there, her career took off. In December 2016, for a book called
Annual 2, she produced the work “Common Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand”, which on first glance was a traditional entry in the longstanding genre of “taxonomies of relatively boring things for annuals” but in its details reveals itself to be a subversive, funny, sly take, full of clever Latinate descriptions and cute, friendly drawings. In its new tea towel version it threatens to be one of this year’s best budget Christmas presents.
In August this year, she produced a superbly condensed comic version of an academic paper on the tawaki, an extremely rare penguin that swims an unnecessarily long way to find its food. It was this comic that caused famous mega-selling author Gabaldon to tweet a link, with associated comment: “That. is. BRILLIANT!!!”
Clarkson says: “The reason I like the comic format is that you can get a lot of information into a couple of pages but you can actually skip out all the connective stuff. You can put things in bubbles and string them together with pictures and little arrows. You can connect the information in a way that doesn’t have to be so wordy and then a lot of what you’re saying and a lot of the humour can go in with the pictures.
“So it becomes this really digestible thing. You can get the gist of what’s going on with a glance, but actually you pick up an entire 26-page paper in one tweet, basically, because it’s got four images in it.”
Climate change is pretty much always on my mind. Of course it isn’t a new issue in 2018 but every year the need for the world to act against it becomes increasingly desperate, now more than ever. The likelihood of environmental catastrophe is inextricably linked to the big decisions I make now.