Interview with Cartoonist
Kathy Arlyn Sokol
British cartoonist and illustrator Martin Honeysett, whose work has appeared
in numerous magazines (including Punch, and Private Eye),
newspapers and books, is at present a visiting cartoonist in Kyoto Seika
University’s Faculty of Manga, Department of Cartoon Art —
as featured in the article “Cartoons for Peace: the Art of Satire,”
by Ken Rodgers, in KJ #65.
Martin was interviewed last year by longtime KJ contributing editor Kathy
According to your official website, you were born under a
turnip bush, I believe, rejected by the other turnips and found a short
while later by some parents. What is it about your personality…
MH: You've done some research for this. You're not just a pretty face.
What was it about you that the turnips….(laughter)
….that made my parents find me? (laughter)
….that the turnips found so reprehensible? (laughter)
I don't know. I mean, all babies are pretty ugly and I must have been
uglier than most, I think. Maybe…
Well, I was wondering in fact…
….being a cartoonist that somehow you are a natural-born outsider
in a sense; that you sensed from the very beginning that you are different
Well, I think that's….no, I don't think so. I mean, you may become
an outsider, not through choice but through circumstance; through maybe
just shy or whatever reason. I certainly started cartooning because I
found it difficult to lug a portfolio to agencies and to editors whereas
cartooning was easy. You just sent stuff in the post. But I don't think
we’re natural outsiders, no.
But you don't think that being able to observe humanity's infirmities,
shall we say…
Sure, we look at stuff from the outside and quite usually we look at stuff
from the top of the fence. We're quite fence-sitters because we are able
to do that. We have the luxury of being able to make comments on different
situations from one viewpoint or the other. But I don't think we're born
So, the only reason that you became a cartoonist is because carrying
a portfolio was too heavy? (laughter)
No, it was because I couldn't afford the portfolio. (laughter) No, I'd
always enjoyed drawing. I went to art school briefly but didn't really
think that was for me and I traveled around for a few years continuing
to draw just for my own pleasure. And I've always enjoyed doodling, doing
sort of "cartoony" sort of drawings. And so I thought I would
just try it and it seemed to work. I managed to sell a few to start with
which is a great encouragement and just carried on from there.
Well, when you…before you actually sold your first piece, what
in 1969, you had traveled to Canada and New Zealand….
….and to all of these exciting places….(laughter)
But you worked as a lumberjack and you worked as a bus driver, so
you had all of these opportunities to kind of mix with the "common
man" (laughter)…did this help to develop your artistic vision
and what to draw about, what to comment on?
No, as a common man myself I just felt comfortable (laughter) with fellow
common men. But I always enjoyed the sort of seedier side of humanity
in a nice way. You know, people who had to struggle to exist and how they
managed to do it with humor and strength of character. I mean, that was
an element that always appealed to me. And I just always wanted to be
a bus driver (laughter), so that was an ambition that I was able to fulfill
fairly easily. But having achieved it I realized that I didn't want to
be a bus driver all my life.
When you sold that first piece and you were on your way…how
did you decide that this is it; this is a good career to put together
social commentary and consciousness with artistic vision?
Well, I mean, I just didn't think of it in any terms whatsoever. It was
just the fact that when you are working in sort of what you might say
are menial jobs you have fairly narrow horizons. And this suddenly was
an opening into another world so to speak. Plus that one drawing paid
for a week's wages doing laboring work, so that was exciting, too. It
was just the realization that perhaps there was another way to earn a
living with something that you enjoy doing which is great. And I have
always been really thankful and grateful that I've been able to earn my
living doing something I enjoy so much.
Jules Feiffer once said that "outside of basic intelligence there
is nothing more important to a good cartoonist than ill will." (laughter)
Is this something that you feel is an important characteristic to be able
to…a little bit of spite helps to create powerful cartooning?
Absolutely. A little bit of venom; a little bit of anger. Yes, most certainly,
I think. I've always enjoyed the darker, the blacker humor. That's just
a personal thing, but definitely you need a bit of anger and a bit of
Some people have referred to your work as macabre.
Yeah, well, as I say I enjoy sort of black humor, so maybe it's a little
macabre, but life is macabre, isn't it, often.
Yeah, I think so.
So, where do you get your ideas? What are you looking at?
I'm just looking at normal situations and I just make my comment on normal
situations that people experience and see around them.
When you sit down to draw a cartoon, do you have a particular audience
Well, sometimes you are working for a particular market and you maybe
have to adapt what you are doing or what you are thinking to suit, or
what you think might suit that market but I think the best way is to do
what you find funny or incisive or whatever and then afterwards sift through
it and maybe if that isn't suitable for a particular magazine, send what
you might think is suitable, if you understand me.
You've done a lot of books for children, you've done a lot of books
for adults. Is there a different mindset that you have when you are working
for a child's books as opposed to a book for an adult?
Well, only in terms of the subject matter. I mean, you wouldn't be doing
sort of drawings about rape and incest for a children's book. Well you
might do them but they probably wouldn't be published. So obviously you
adjust your work to suit the market.
Do you have a preferred audience? Do you feel more comfortable writing
for children than adults?
No, my preferred audience is whoever will look at my work and enjoy it.
Or at least use it.
Do you have a formula of some sort that you have relied on over the
years that works for you?
I wouldn't say there is a formula as such but there are certain sort of
tricks that you might use, or shortcuts, to arrive at an idea once you
are on the path of having chosen a subject; to get the point where you've
got ideas about that particular subject. I mean, shortcuts being you might
look at some old work and copy that. (laughter) Or take someone else's
work and copy that. (laughter)
You are teaching at Seika University as a visiting professor at probably
one of the only universities in the world that teaches….
It is as far as I know…it is the only one that teaches single-panel
So what kind of advice do you give your students about how to connect
with the muse, so to speak?
Well, I can't connect them to the muse. They have to have a little bit
of muse there to start with but when they come to me with ideas usually
they are not thought through enough; they have the idea in their head
and they can explain it to me, sometimes at great length, but obviously
having to explain it doesn't make it work as an instant visual cartoon,
message, or whatever. So, I then have to go over it with them to try and
make them see how they can put this idea down on paper in a way that will
be instantly recognizable; the idea will be appreciated by whoever looks
at the drawing. So, that's how I'm finding my work with the students is
Is it really possible to teach cartooning?
Yes, you can teach techniques and to some extent you can teach how to
develop ideas but I think initially the person has to have that sort of
talent for humor and humorous ideas. I mean, some people can write it,
others can draw it.
Is that something that you've found these kids know instinctively
Most of the kids seem to be interested in cartoons in one form or another
because they see a lot on the media…animation and comic books. And
everybody has at least a little bit of humor in them, I like to think.
So, most of them have some sort of idea that they can produce given a
little bit of encouragement. I'm not saying that they are great ideas
but there is something there that they can work on.
But how do you feel about actually trying to sit down and work with
students…As you said, you help them with technique but what else
is there to….
I don't for a minute believe that all the students that do this course
are going to go on to become cartoonists in the same way that all the
students that go to art schools throughout the world become artists. It's
a nice way to spend your university years and it gives you an insight
into different aspects of culture and humanity, and if you are going to
be involved in any way in design or illustration or whatever, it will
be a useful qualification.
But you were saying that cartooning as an art form has declined in
Britain. But I just recently read that there are more political cartoonists
employed in Britain today than ever before.
I wouldn't say there were more than ever before….But yeah, you're
right. Political cartooning is thriving in Britain. The area of cartooning
that I am involved in — social commentary, freelance, single gag
markets that have shrunk over the last few years. So, there isn't the
same amount of work that there used to be for people like me.
You also have written for, or drawn for, publications like Punch,
which unfortunately is defunct at the moment. But Punch lasted
for what, 150 years, in Britain and then when it tried to get over to
the States, it failed miserably. And there is something very, very, very
distinctive about British humor and I know that this is a long, philosophical
discussion perhaps, but can you kind of give your thoughts on why British
humor is so different from let's say American humor or French humor?
The main difference with the English humor is its sense of irony. We can
be quite sarcastic which other people might think is offensive but in
fact it's done with good intentions. We have a strong tradition of satire
which again can be quite strong at times, even vitriolic maybe politically.
But it is the sense of irony that we have that's maybe….the Americans
have it in a different way, I think. That's the main difference, I think
How translatable do you think that your cartoons are in Japan, for
Some are not translatable at all because they rely on subject matter that
relates to England and the English character. There is a sort of area
of cartooning which is promoted by Seika in their international festival
that they have every two years which is purely visual, mostly visual,
humor without captions which can be appreciated by people all over the
world. Those are the sort of cartoons that can be appreciated by people
everywhere. As soon as I show them work that I am doing to send back to
England and I have to explain it and they can maybe eventually see what
I am trying to say but by that time the joke has just fallen flat. And
similarly when I look at a cartoon in a Japanese newspaper and they have
to explain it to me, I can eventually see what the thinking is behind
the cartoon but the humor, if there was any there, is gone.
For you personally do you sit down to draw your cartoons just to be
humorous or are you hoping to sway the viewer?
I don't hope or expect to sway the viewer at all but I do like if it's
possible to inject some sort of social or political comment into my work
even if it is only very slightly and not maybe apparent to the average
reader. I like it to have a little bit of edge if possible.
If someone were to find your cartoons…if you put them in a time
capsule and in the future somebody opened up this capsule and saw your
work, do you think that they would understand what you were trying to
say or are your cartoons specific to the present day? Are they more universal
in theme or are they more particular to today?
I think they're pretty particular to the day, I would think.
Well, when you look back on your work from 1969, let's say, today,
do you think that your pieces still have relevance?
Yeah, I do think that some of them were quite funny. I'm often surprised
at how much better they were then than they are now. (laughter)
Well, that's another question. What happens to the good work? Is there
like a hall of fame of cartoons or something? How does this work get preserved?
Well, mostly it doesn't and maybe that's the way it should be. But, I
mean, obviously some of it is preserved in books and annuals. And in England
there is a group that has set up a thing called the Cartoon Arts Trust
which tries to preserve some of the work that has been around and gone
before and some of what is being produced now which I think is important.
Cartoons are quite interesting social documents, you know, as you said
of the period. People often look at old Punch cartoons as a means
of research into the period that they were produced in, either for visual
reference — costume or whatever — or for social reference.
Today we have the internet, and a lot of cartoon publication on the
internet. I was just wondering how do you feel about that? How has it
impacted the art? In what ways have things changed or perhaps evolved
because of it?
From the stuff that I've seen on the internet, it's very simply drawn
and often, to my mind, maybe crude. That doesn't necessarily mean that
it is no good. It's probably going to be the way things go. I don't really
know. It's an area again which I haven't taken that much sort of interest
in. I much prefer to look at a printed page rather than something on a
screen. But it a new development; it's another tool and we have to adapt
to use the tools that are available.
With dwindling newspaper circulation and things like that, do you
foresee that the computer and the mouse will replace pen and ink?
Well, I hope not. One of the things that I like about working at Seika
is that they are great traditionalists. And all of the first-year students
have to learn how to draw with an old-fashioned dip pen and ink which
is a great discipline for artistic development, and they produce some
really great drawings. They go out and sit in the park and the zoo and
they just draw straight from life with a dip pen and they do produce some
really good stuff. Sorry, but I hate to think that the tradition of drawing
would be lost. I think that would be a great shame and I don't think it
will happen. I don't think that the internet will ever replace that completely.
Is there a kind of schism between the traditionalists and the "tekkies"?
There is between some of the older generation and the younger. I personally
am not interested in drawing with a graphics tablet or whatever. I mean,
I use a computer to send stuff by e-mail which is good; it is convenient.
But, I just enjoy the process of drawing on paper and then I just scan
it in and send it.
Who do you look up to in the world of cartooning?
Well, there's a political cartoonist in England called Steve Bell who
I admire very much. But in my field, there are many cartoonists I've looked
up to in the past and still do — I mean, English, French, American,
there are quite a few that I like.
What is it about their work that you look at?
It's a combination of their drawing style technique and their ideas and
Can you give us an example of one…why this guy in particular?
MH: Well, I like the work of the English cartoonist, Ralph Steadman, who
does some really powerful graphic illustrations. I've recently been looking
again at the French cartoonist, Senpe, who does very simple, sort of day-to-day
situation but in a very humorous way. He just makes me laugh. I've always
admired the American Steinberg for his work which is completely unique.
I think very much Steinberg was an artist. I've sort of got ambivalent
views about this thing about cartoon being art, but I think some cartoon
is art. Most of it is just journalism, not to see journalism in too high
a light. (laughter)
Why isn't cartooning art? Why isn't it all art?
Well, it's difficult, isn't it, because how do you define art anyway?
I mean, a lot of cartoons are just churned out for the marketplace. They
are very commercial and I think art has to have something a little bit
more going for it than to be just stuff that is churned out for the commercial
Are your cartoons art?
No, I wouldn't really say so, no. It would be nice to think they were,
but I am one of these cynical Englishmen who sort of scoffs at the idea
of cartoons of being worthy of being art, anyway. But I do think that
there are some people who produce cartoons as art.
And the others you consider to be journalism. What does that mean?
It's not journalism, it's a form of journalism. It's stuff produced for
newspapers and magazines. It's the same way that writers produce stuff
for newspapers and magazines, often done to a brief and to a deadline.
It's a similar sort of thing.
So, do you prefer to do the books? Is this something that makes you
feel more artistic in your endeavor?
There again it depends upon the book. Some books you have to work to a
fairly tight brief and you have to churn stuff out to fit the brief and
the deadline. So, it depends.
Well, what about your children's books?
The children's books I've done, yes, they’ve been fairly creative
but you're allowed that often with children's books.
You're allowed to be creative?
Well, you're allowed a bit more creative freedom. But often you can't
just do what you want to do. Very rarely. Because you're working for editors
and publishers and they always rightly or wrongly have some idea of what
they want and expect. Often, it's nice if you can surprise them with something
different and a good editor will encourage you to do that but many times
you are restricted. You know that you can't do some things and you do
what you think they expect.
Do you ever get any kind of response from the people who look at your
Yes, I do, quite often, yeah. People often write in and ask if they can
have the original, buy the original of a cartoon. And I will get letters
from people who have seen a book that I've done and saying how much they
liked it which is great. I mean, it's really nice to get any sort of feedback.
Complimentary feedback is obviously even better.
Kathy Arlyn Sokol is a longterm contributor to Kyoto Journal,
with a special and ongoing interest in Kashmir (see KJ
Martin Honeysett's website is here.
Kyoto Seika's Dept. of Cartoon Art is here
(in English) and here
See also Kyoto Seika University's International