Gordon Brown gave a welcome boost to one of Britain's traditional industries this week: newspaper cartooning. It emerged that he'd been on to newspapers complaining that cartoonists were drawing him "too fat". Now, the lurking fear in every cartoonist's heart is that nobody out there is taking any notice. Imagine the joy of hearing that you raised the hackles of the PM, no less.
And only a politician or an economist could fail to guess what would happen next. The London Independent printed a gleeful riposte in the form of a bloated cartoon Brown, all belly, lard and man-breasts.
Closer to home, RTÉ got complaints -- and publicity -- over Nob Nation's portrayal of the Taoiseach and Cabinet as a gang of foul-mouthed drunks. The programme, clearly influenced by Scrap Saturday, produced dialogue with aphorisms such as: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" and "They don't call us the Drinks Cabinet for nothing".
If Mr Cowen is upset by this, he's had the sense to keep quiet. But the same can't be said of his undistinguished predecessor, Charlie Haughey. In the early 1960s, rumours about Charlie's drinking and womanising were rampant. The Sunday Independent printed a cartoon showing a rowdy scene outside a Dublin nightclub. The gardaí are throwing a pack of well-heeled drunks into a wagon, when they recognise one of them -- Charlie -- and immediately grovel an apology.
Charlie sued. Unfortunately the case never came to court. It seems that a sum was paid to charity. I've drawn many cartoons about Haughey myself, but never attracted such ire. Martyn Turner, the Irish Times cartoonist, fared otherwise.
"The office told me that on one occasion at least that he said he'd agree to an interview with the newspaper as long as Dick Walsh (political correspondent) and Martyn Turner were sacked," says Turner. Charlie could have been joking of course. In any event, the editor didn't take him up on the offer.
Politicians cultivate their public image as carefully as any Hollywood actor or celebrity. Clothes are chosen for them. Public appearances are carefully stage managed. Cabals of PR people and moonlighting journalists write their speeches, and interviews are allocated to favoured commentators. They're packed off to media schools, where they learn to enunciate their lines more convincingly. Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons (Bertie the opposite, it seems).
Politicians learn to play a self-flattering role -- a caricature in reverse, if you like. The trouble with such public images is that they are impossible to sustain. Before long, the actors trip up. And it is in the gap between image and reality that satire and cartooning live.
Take Bertie Ahern, for example. In his youth, he was drawn as a sort of leprechaun in an anorak. Even after Celia Larkin converted him to the cause of good suits, he was still portrayed as a slightly impish figure. In the flesh, however, Bertie is a big man and fills out a suit imposingly. He has the body language of power down to a tee, and conveys a sense of authority. The effect is spoiled only whenever he opens his mouth.
That's why caricatures of Bertie usually give him a confused look, reflecting the chasm between his visuals and his vocals, and the contradiction between the developer suits and his working class affectations.
Brian Cowen surely has had some media training, but the dog must have eaten his homework. He comes across as the National Scowl, something for which I am very grateful. It's not just his button nose, nor his big lips. To get the essence of the man, you have to draw the hunched shoulders, as of a man in a field facing into an unmerciful gale. Which he is, of course. Even better, he wears pinstriped suits that are fun to draw, and highlight artistically the contours of An Taoiseach's expansive girth.
Enda Kenny is almost impossible to caricature, owing to his God-given facial blandness. Even the occasional change of hairstyle makes no difference. His handlers seem bent on projecting an image of gravitas, which merely adds sanctimoniousness to the mix. This was most evident in the disastrous posters Fine Gael produced for the last election. Enda looked embalmed and waxen, even as he gazed keenly at the electorate. The posters prompted a desire to punish the Photoshop eejit responsible for that unsettling image.
Eamon Gilmore, on the other hand, could do with some Photoshopping. Grey hair, glasses and a suit: that's the image, and it's a little too reminiscent of a banker or an accountant for these financial times. Pat Rabbitte, on the other hand, was always a joy to draw, if not necessarily to listen to. Once you got the Cheshire cat smirk, you had the essence of the man.
Party leaders aside, the current crop of politicians present formidable challenges for the cartoonist. They're so ordinary. I don't mean this as an insult. Really. One of the greatest compliments to a celebrity is that in real life he or she is "really down to earth". Movie actors avoid appearing larger than life. It's hardly surprising that politicians have been advised to do likewise.
With the notable exception of Éamon Ó Cuív, who does a great if unintentional impression of a dotty professor, and the chattering moustache, Willie O'Dea, they seem to cultivate a person-next-door image. For all I know, behind the unassuming facade presented by the Lenihans, Martins, Kitts, Aherns, Hanafins etc there may well be vast reservoirs of unsuspected brilliance. I wouldn't bet my house on it, though.
Meanwhile, speak up Éamon and get on the news more often. And as for the rest: would one of you at least have the decency to grow a goatee? It worked for Dick Spring, you know. (There's always Jackie Healy-Rae, of course, but the only time I ever want to draw him is when at last he loses his seat.)
I rarely meet politicians. Any time I did, I found them very likeable. If I met politicians more often, my cartoons would suffer. Like most cartoonists, I base my caricatures on the visions they try to project in the media. What cartoonists generally portray is not a realistic portrait of an individual, but a parody of the media construct and an exaggeration of any cracks forming in it.
Most cartoonists work primarily from photographs. Before the internet, that meant keeping files of newspaper and magazines cuttings. Would it be better if we drew from life, like traditional artists? Should we trail around the Dáil and party conferences with pencils and notebooks hidden in coat pockets? No! When younger and more idealistic, I once spent two miserable days at a turgid Ard Fheis. It didn't improve my drawing at all, so I've kept away from such events ever since.
Dáil TV has changed the game, anyway. Not only is it available on RTÉ, you can get clips on many websites. It gives a good sense of politicians in action and turns up unexpected delights, mainly the expressions of honest stupefaction that TDs wear when they think the cameras aren't on them. The down side is that it's stiff competition for the caricaturist.
The internet is changing the game in other ways, too. In the US, some cartoonists are doing webtoons incorporating limited animation. So far, the results have been mixed, but as newspaper people get up to speed with the principles of animation and the software needed, those cartoons will improve. The best examples to date include the work of Mark Fiore (www.markfiore.com) and Ann Telnaes (www.anntelnaes.com). Their sites are well worth a visit.
This could spell further grief for sensitive souls like Gordon Brown. In the future, not only will he be drawn "too fat", but his fat will be animated, wobbling and weaving just like the world economy.