Embracing clichés and dirty water, Morten Morland thinks cartoons can thrive in our digital age

Future News 85 

The UK’s favourite Norwegian political cartoonist has a response as bold as his drawings to the naysayers who claim the medium doesn’t work online. “That’s b*****ks,” Morten Morland told FN. “I think it fairs really well... it’s the most social media-friendly format. It is the most scrollable media, where you come upon it, you get it and you’re gone again.” 

A regular in The Times, Sunday Times and The Spectator, Morland can’t be accused of being a Luddite. From the very start of his career, kicking off at The Times in 2002, he has embraced innovation and even taught himself animation as the internet loomed large over the news media industry. 

“I just thought if I’m going to have any longevity here, I’m going to have to really develop it now,” Morland said. Initially, the venture wasn’t financially or editorially viable because a 10 to 20 second gag could take him a week to produce. Morland “practiced and practiced” until he got the process down.

He credits The Times’ editors for sticking with it and allowing him to learn on the job since his early animations were, in his own words, “very poor”. Morland can now produce two-minute-long shorts in a day and a half using 2D animation software Toon Boom Harmony. “That makes it possible to do it financially and you can actually respond to a story,” the freelancer said. 

For his cartoons, meanwhile, Morland sticks to more traditional methods by using dip pen and ink at his home studio.

“There are more cartoonists that have moved onto iPads,” he said. “But I really like the stabby feeling of the paper and it’s a bit more visceral, especially if you’re a bit angry, whereas the iPad is too smooth.”

Photoshop is used to correct errors, rather than Tipp-Ex, but his method is effectively indistinguishable from the early cartoonists. 

The method, however, is a “really long” process, starting off in the morning with Morland digesting newspapers, newslists and social media to “get a feeling” of the big stories. “You have to think ahead,” he stressed since the cartoon will be printed the next day. Morland typically has a conversation around one in the afternoon with his editors, who would have received his “really scribbly” roughs by then. 

Once a preferred sketch is selected, the work starts proper for Morland, who tries to finish between half-past five and six o-clock in the evening. There are expectations of course and the last-minute drama of the Brexit campaign, parliamentary deadlock and negotiations with the EU saw Morland ditching cartoons in lieu of events and scribbling into the night. 

Of that period former Prime Minister Theresa May was a favourite for Morland to sketch. “If you wanted to, you could just draw the [faux leopard skin] shoe and everyone would know it was her,” he said. Boris Johnson is fun but  “almost too clowny”, while Donald Trump started off dull and eventually became a “shouty shape”. The new incumbent of the White House poses a fresh challenge for Morland. 

“It’s a race to find a shorthand for him,” he said. “The great thing about politicians like Trump is that they are symbols. [Joe] Biden is incredibly hard to draw, even the American cartoonists who have drawn him for longer really struggle with him. It won’t take long to find that symbol and then you can build around it. I’m getting there, but he’s quite bland and he’s quite featureless.” 

Morland expects that his drawings of the new US President will change once he learns more about his characteristics. “They do develop very much over the first year in office,” he said. And as for attempting to avoid inevitable clichés in his work, Morland does no such thing. He instead embraces them and tries to deploy them ironically. 

“The problem is that every year you do the same stories – the Budget, A-level results and the Queen’s Speech, by way of example – it’s sometimes hard with those,” he said.

“If you can make a twist on the cliché, it kind of works better by getting the message across quicker. When I think that I’ve been very clever, people just don’t get it. They expect to get the reference immediately. If it’s too obscure, they flick the page and move on.” 

Morland, who fell into the trade after studying journalism in Norway and graphic design at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design (now the University for the Creative Arts), with a view to becoming a newspaper designer, also rejects the idea that cartoonists should always be funny. 

“That’s not the point – you should use humour often to get a point across and the essence of a story,” he said, describing himself as “very dull”. For Morland a political cartoonist has to have a mix of traits, including an interest in the news, the ability to draw likeness and a will to tell stories in an interesting way. 

“It’s a very specialised form of journalism,” he explained. “The problem for new, younger cartoonists is making it a job. If it’s just on social media, you’re not going to be paid for it and if you’re going to be any good at it as you need to have a chance of doing it full-time.” 

Morland, however, has been able to turn his passion into a living and continues to scribble away in his back garden, taking inspiration from the art and graphic design worlds on colour and composition.

Another recent innovation is using dirty water from his pen jar as a background wash, creating a “very atmospheric” scene. His mantra? Keep it simple. “If you have too many colours, it detracts from what you are trying to say.”

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