Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the average Michael Leunig cartoon generally nets a max of about four or five. The cartoonist is well beloved for the way his art asks important questions like “What if a man with a large nose looked at a flower?” or “What if a man with a large nose was friends with a duck?“, most of it primarily centred around the quite accurate observation that being alive sucks a lot.
His usual work could largely be described as ‘harmless with occasional veins of child-like charm’, but he seems to have taken a bit of a weird turn of late. Despite the thoroughly whimsical nature of his work, he’s never shied away from tackling the big issues, with results I would rate firmly as ‘mixed’.
Pictured: Satire. I Believe. (Picture: Leunig)
Obviously, it’s not unusual for political (being generous here) cartoonists to express an opinion, but he’s definitely chosen some weird hills to die on. You might, for instance, recall his brief forays into being an anti-vaxxer:
Pictured: Don’t let science get in the way of spreading disease. (Picture: Leunig)
Pictured: An interesting contention that love stops polio. (Picture: Leunig)
If those were too ambiguous for you, here’s this:
— Michael Rowland (@mjrowland68) August 18, 2015
At the time, writer Eleanor Robertson said in The Guardian that his insistence on this was part of his larger pathological belief that basically everything in the real world is too complicated and therefore bad:
Leunig’s fans love his trademark “whimsy”. He’s popular because he taps into a vein of exhaustion with aspects of the world: technology, bureaucracy, the absurdity of politics, “the demands of modern existence” […] To acknowledge that vaccination works wonders would be to concede that Big Government, Big Pharma, and various other Big Mean Nasties are part of a nuanced world that is actually worth being a part of.
To the extent that you can eke meaning out of them, this tendency also seems to explain his position on marriage equality: he doesn’t understand what’s going on and he’s not happy about it. Apparently compelled by some unearthly force to weigh in on current events even though his position is that he has no position, Leunig dropped some gems about marriage equality, like this one in October:
Michael Leunig's take on the same-sex marriage debate. pic.twitter.com/O3wyILNL5l
— The Age (@theage) October 24, 2017
Comedian Rebecca Shaw summed up the general response to the cartoon quite well:
what the fuck does this mean
— Bec Shaw (@Brocklesnitch) October 24, 2017
A generous reading of this is that everyone else has an opinion on whether gay people deserve equality in Australian society, while he’s here busy being morose and disoriented. Some pretty compelling stuff. His follow up in November was an equally introspective expression of his sense of feeling left out:
Michael Leunig today – a very unique perspective. pic.twitter.com/AKLdjp7AVA
— The Age (@theage) November 25, 2017
A “very unique” perspective indeed. Understandably, after having ten days to think about the ‘yes’ result, Leunig’s big take away from the country’s queer community celebrating together about the removal of one of the last big pieces of discrimination was that he doesn’t get to celebrate as well?
While navel-gazing isn’t exactly uncharacteristic for Leunig (he has not looked elsewhere since some time in the 1990s), deciding to suck the air out of the room after an almost universally joyous moment in Australia seems like an odd decision.
This string of baffling takes nearly reaches a crescendo with this dubiously described cartoon from the weekend about Prince Harry‘s engagement to Meghan Markle:
Michael Leunig's take on Prince Harry's impending marriage to Meghan Markle. Very funny. pic.twitter.com/EM7A9m8LxB
— The Age (@theage) December 2, 2017
A charitable reading of this is that it is absolute nonsense and utterly pointless but, as with a lot of these, if you try reading any sort of meaning into them, they only become much, much worse. An argument could be made that it is some cartoon version of the ‘slippery slope’ argument, that his use of “love is love” here is a subtle suggestion that if homosexual relationships are acceptable, then all manner of other things are too (including getting gravy on your pants?). But, then again, he might have just strung silly words together because he has literally no opinion but still feels the need to draw about it.
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, taking a brief break from being the worst person alive, very concisely summed up a question on a lot of people’s lips, namely: ‘Why are they publishing this?’
How did the Age come to run this Michael Leunig cartoon? A fear of not getting some joke it didn’t understand? A contractual obligation? Fear of upsetting this strange man?
I fear it might be the latter. He also took issue with the Age’s assertion that it was “very funny“, adding “Funny? I sense hatred and spite, but humour?” Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I guess.
Today Leunig managed to make the final stretch from ‘ridiculous and possibly offensive’ to ‘actually offensive’, opting to use his formidable satirical skill to weigh in on the spate of revelations about sexual assault and harassment in the media:
Michael Leunig today: the big squeeze on avocados. pic.twitter.com/bX4srnqGhc
— The Age (@theage) December 5, 2017
Even before examining his approach to the issue, the biggest question here is: why would he think he needs to do a whimsical cartoon about sexual assault? If the tenor of your work is sad-looking people dreaming about flowers, there is probably not a lot of insight you are going to bring to the table about an issue as horrifying as this.
The approach itself is weird at best and gross at worst. Categorising the woman giving the directive as shrew-like and authoritarian and the man as sad and perturbed seems to have an implication that the rules are harsh and unfairly imposed, but that’s the problem with Leunig: his cartoons are either dumb and meaningless or they are less dumb than they seem and just kind of awful.
For the record, don’t squeeze avocados to check for ripeness, press lightly near the top so you don’t bruise the whole thing.Image: The Age / Leunig